Interlude with the Confessor (4/8)

by Eliezer Yudkowsky11 min read2nd Feb 200995 comments


Personal Blog

(Part 4 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

The two of them were alone now, in the Conference Chair's Privilege, the huge private room of luxury more suited to a planet than to space.  The Privilege was tiled wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with a most excellent holo of the space surrounding them: the distant stars, the system's sun, the fleeing nova ashes, and the glowing ember of the dwarf star that had siphoned off hydrogen from the main sun until its surface had briefly ignited in a nova flash.  It was like falling through the void.

Akon sat on the edge of the four-poster bed in the center of the room, resting his head in his hands.  Weariness dulled him at the moment when he most needed his wits; it was always like that in crisis, but this was unusually bad.  Under the circumstances, he didn't dare snort a hit of caffeine - it might reorder his priorities.  Humanity had yet to discover the drug that was pure energy, that would improve your thinking without the slightest touch on your emotions and values.

"I don't know what to think," Akon said.

The Ship's Confessor was standing stately nearby, in full robes and hood of silver.  From beneath the hood came the formal response:  "What seems to be confusing you, my friend?"

"Did we go wrong?" Akon said.  No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't keep the despair out of his voice.  "Did humanity go down the wrong path?"

The Confessor was silent a long time.

Akon waited.  This was why he couldn't have talked about the question with anyone else.  Only a Confessor would actually think before answering, if asked a question like that.

"I've often wondered that myself," the Confessor finally said, surprising Akon.  "There were so many choices, so many branchings in human history - what are the odds we got them all right?"

The hood turned away, angling in the direction of the Superhappy ship - though it was too far away to be visible, everyone on board the Impossible Possible World knew where it was.  "There are parts of your question I can't help you with, my lord.  Of all people on this ship, I might be most poorly suited to answer...  But you do understand, my lord, don't you, that neither the Babyeaters nor the Superhappies are evidence that we went wrong?  If you weren't worried before, you shouldn't be any more worried now.  The Babyeaters strive to do the baby-eating thing to do, the Superhappies output the Super Happy thing to do.  None of that tells us anything about the right thing to do.  They are not asking the same question we are - no matter what word of their language the translator links to our 'should'.  If you're confused at all about that, my lord, I might be able to clear it up."

"I know the theory," Akon said.  Exhaustion in his voice.  "They made me study metaethics when I was a little kid, sixteen years old and still in the children's world.  Just so that I would never be tempted to think that God or ontologically basic moral facts or whatever had the right to override my own scruples."  Akon slumped a little further.  "And somehow - none of that really makes a difference when you're looking at the Lady 3rd, and wondering why, when there's a ten-year-old with a broken finger in front of you, screaming and crying, we humans only partially numb the area."

The Confessor's hood turned back to look at Akon.  "You do realize that your brain is literally hardwired to generate error signals when it sees other human-shaped objects stating a different opinion from yourself.  You do realize that, my lord?"

"I know," Akon said.  "That, too, we are taught.  Unfortunately, I am also just now realizing that I've only been going along with society all my life, and that I never thought the matter through for myself, until now."

A sigh came from that hood.  "Well... would you prefer a life entirely free of pain and sorrow, having sex all day long?"

"Not... really," Akon said.

The shoulders of the robe shrugged.  "You have judged.  What else is there?"

Akon stared straight at that anonymizing robe, the hood containing a holo of dark mist, a shadow that always obscured the face inside.  The voice was also anonymized - altered slightly, not in any obtrusive way, but you wouldn't know your own Confessor to hear him speak.  Akon had no idea who the Confessor might be, outside that robe.  There were rumors of Confessors who had somehow arranged to be seen in the company of their own secret identity...

Akon drew a breath.  "You said that you, of all people, could not say whether humanity had gone down the wrong path.  The simple fact of being a Confessor should have no bearing on that; rationalists are also human.  And you told the Lady 3rd that you were too old to make decisions for your species.  Just how old are you... honorable ancestor?"

There was a silence.

It didn't last long.

As though the decision had already been foreseen, premade and preplanned, the Confessor's hands moved easily upward and drew back the hood - revealing an unblended face, strangely colored skin and shockingly distinctive features.  A face out of forgotten history, which could only have come from a time before the genetic mixing of the 21st century, untouched by DNA insertion or diaspora.

Even though Akon had been half-expecting it, he still gasped out loud.  Less than one in a million:  That was the percentage of the current human population that had been born on Earth before the invention of antiagathics or star travel, five hundred years ago.

"Congratulations on your guess," the Confessor said.  The unaltered voice was only slightly different; but it was stronger, more masculine.

"Then you were there," Akon said.  He felt almost breathless, and tried not to show it.  "You were alive - all the way back in the days of the initial biotech revolution!  That would have been when humanity first debated whether to go down the Super Happy path."

The Confessor nodded.

"Which side did you argue?"

The Confessor's face froze for a moment, and then he emitted a brief chuckle, one short laugh.  "You have entirely the wrong idea about how things were done, back then.  I suppose it's natural."

"I don't understand," Akon said.

"And there are no words that I can speak to make you understand.  It is beyond your imagining.  But you should not imagine that a violent thief whose closest approach to industry was selling uncertified hard drugs - you should not imagine, my lord, my honorable descendant, that I was ever asked to take sides."

Akon's eyes slid away from the hot gaze of the unmixed man; there was something wrong about the thread of anger still there in the memory after five hundred years.

"But time passed," the Confessor said, "time moved forward, and things changed."  The eyes were no longer focused on Akon, looking now at something far away.  "There was an old saying, to the effect that while someone with a single bee sting will pay much for a remedy, to someone with five bee stings, removing just one sting seems less attractive.  That was humanity in the ancient days.  There was so much wrong with the world that the small resources of altruism were splintered among ten thousand urgent charities, and none of it ever seemed to go anywhere.  And yet... and yet..."

"There was a threshold crossed somewhere," said the Confessor, "without a single apocalypse to mark it.  Fewer wars.  Less starvation.  Better technology.  The economy kept growing.  People had more resource to spare for charity, and the altruists had fewer and fewer causes to choose from.  They came even to me, in my time, and rescued me.  Earth cleaned itself up, and whenever something threatened to go drastically wrong again, the whole attention of the planet turned in that direction and took care of it.  Humanity finally got its act together."

The Confessor worked his jaws as if there were something stuck in his throat.  "I doubt you can even imagine, my honorable descendant, just how much of an impossible dream that once was.  But I will not call this path mistaken."

"No, I can't imagine," Akon said quietly.  "I once tried to read some of the pre-Dawn Net.  I thought I wanted to know, I really did, but I - just couldn't handle it.  I doubt anyone on this ship can handle it except you.  Honorable ancestor, shouldn't we be asking you how to deal with the Babyeaters and the Superhappies?  You are the only one here who's ever dealt with that level of emergency."

"No," said the Confessor, like an absolute order handed down from outside the universe.  "You are the world that we wanted to create.  Though I can't say we.  That is just a distortion of memory, a romantic gloss on history fading into mist.  I wasn't one of the dreamers, back then.  I was just wrapped up in my private blanket of hurt.  But if my pain meant anything, Akon, it is as part of the long price of a better world than that one.  If you look back at ancient Earth, and are horrified - then that means it was all for something, don't you see?  You are the beautiful and shining children, and this is your world, and you are the ones who must decide what to do with it now."

Akon started to speak, to demur -

The Confessor held up a hand.  "I mean it, my lord Akon.  It is not polite idealism.  We ancients can't steer.  We remember too much disaster.  We're too cautious to dare the bold path forward.  Do you know there was a time when nonconsensual sex was illegal?"

Akon wasn't sure whether to smile or grimace.  "The Prohibition, right?  During the first century pre-Net?  I expect everyone was glad to have that law taken off the books.  I can't imagine how boring your sex lives must have been up until then - flirting with a woman, teasing her, leading her on, knowing the whole time that you were perfectly safe because she couldn't take matters into her own hands if you went a little too far -"

"You need a history refresher, my Lord Administrator.  At some suitably abstract level.  What I'm trying to tell you - and this is not public knowledge - is that we nearly tried to overthrow your government."

"What?" said Akon.  "The Confessors?"

"No, us.  The ones who remembered the ancient world.  Back then we still had our hands on a large share of the capital and tremendous influence in the grant committees.  When our children legalized rape, we thought that the Future had gone wrong."

Akon's mouth hung open.  "You were that prude?"

The Confessor shook his head.  "There aren't any words," the Confessor said, "there aren't any words at all, by which I ever could explain to you.  No, it wasn't prudery.  It was a memory of disaster."

"Um," Akon said.  He was trying not to smile.  "I'm trying to visualize what sort of disaster could have been caused by too much nonconsensual sex -"

"Give it up, my lord," the Confessor said.  He was finally laughing, but there was an undertone of pain to it.  "Without, shall we say, personal experience, you can't possibly imagine, and there's no point in trying."

"Well, out of curiosity - how much did you lose?"

The Confessor seemed to freeze, for a moment.  "What?"

"How much did you lose in the legislative prediction markets, betting on whatever dreadful outcome you thought would happen?"

"You really wouldn't ever understand," the Confessor said.  His smile was entirely real, now.  "But now you know, don't you?  You know, after speaking to me, that I can't ever be allowed to make decisions for humankind."

Akon hesitated.  It was odd... he did know, on some gut level.  And he couldn't have explained on any verbal level why.  Just - that hint of wrongness.

"So now you know," the Confessor repeated.  "And because we do remember so much disaster - and because it is a profession that benefits from being five hundred years old - many of us became Confessors.  Being the voice of pessimism comes easily to us, and few indeed are those among the human kind who must rationally be nudged upward...  We advise, but do not lead.  Debate, but do not decide.  We're going along for your ride, and trying not to be too shocked so that we can be almost as delighted as you.  You might find yourself in a similar situation in five hundred years... if humanity survives this week."

"Ah, yes," Akon said dryly.  "The aliens.  The current problem of discourse."

"Yes.  Have you had any thoughts on the subject?"

"Only that I really do wish that humanity had been alone in the universe."  Akon's hand suddenly formed a fist and smashed hard against the bed.  "Fuck it!  I know how the Superhappies felt when they discovered that we and the Babyeaters hadn't 'repaired ourselves'.  You understand what this implies about what the rest of the universe looks like, statistically speaking?  Even if it's just a sample of two?  I'm sure that somewhere out there are likable neighbors.  Just as somewhere out there, if we go far enough through the infinite universe, there's a person who's an exact duplicate of me down to the atomic level.  But every other species we ever actually meet is probably going to be -"  Akon drew a breath.  "It wasn't supposed to be like this, damn it!  All three of our species have empathy, we have sympathy, we have a sense of fairness - the Babyeaters even tell stories like we do, they have art.  Shouldn't that be enough?  Wasn't that supposed to be enough?  But all it does is put us into enough of the same reference frame that we can be horrible by each others' standards."

"Don't take this the wrong way," the Confessor said, "but I'm glad that we ran across the Babyeaters."

Words stuck in Akon's throat.  "What?"

A half-smile twisted up one corner of the Confessor's face.  "Because if we hadn't run across the Babyeaters, we couldn't possibly rescue the babies, now could we?  Not knowing about their existence wouldn't mean they weren't there.  The Babyeater children would still exist.  They would still die in horrible agony.  We just wouldn't be able to help them.  If we didn't know it wouldn't be our fault, our responsibility - but that's not something you're supposed to optimize for."  The Confessor paused.  "Of course I understand how you feel.  But on this vessel I am humanity's token attempt at sanity, and it is my duty to think certain strange yet logical thoughts."

"And the Superhappies?" Akon said.  "The race with superior technology that may decide to exterminate us, or keep us in prison, or take our children away?  Is there any silver lining to that?"

"The Superhappies aren't so far from us," the Confessor said.  "We could have gone down the Super Happy path.  We nearly did - you might have trouble imagining just how attractive the absence of pain can sound, under certain circumstances.  In a sense, you could say that I tried to go down that path - though I wasn't a very competent neuroengineer.  If human nature had been only slightly different, we could easily have been within that attractor.  And the Super Happy civilization is not hateful to us, whatever we are to them.  That's good news at least, for how the rest of the universe might look."  The Confessor paused.  "And..."


The Confessor's voice became harder.  "And the Superhappies will rescue the Babyeater children no matter what, I think, even if humanity should fail in the task.  Considering how many Babyeater children are dying, and in what pain - that could outweigh even our own extermination.  Shut up and multiply, as the saying goes."

"Oh, come on!" Akon said, too surprised to be shocked.  "If the Superhappies hadn't shown up, we would have - well, we would have done something about the Babyeaters, once we decided what.  We wouldn't have just let the, the -"

"Holocaust," the Confessor offered.

"Good word for it.  We wouldn't have just let the Holocaust go on."

"You would be astounded, my lord, at what human beings will just let go on.  Do you realize the expenditure of capital, labor, maybe even human lives required to invade every part of the Babyeater civilization?  To trace out every part of their starline network, push our technological advantage to its limit to build faster ships that can hunt down every Babyeater ship that tries to flee?  Do you realize -"

"I'm sorry.  You are simply mistaken as a question of fact."  Boy, thought Akon, you don't often get to say that to a Confessor.  "This is not your birth era, honorable ancestor.  We are the humanity that has its shit together.  If the Superhappies had never come along, humanity would have done whatever it took to rescue the Babyeater children.  You saw the Lord Pilot, the Lady Sensory; they were ready to secede from civilization if that's what it took to get the job done.  And that, honorable ancestor, is how most people would react."

"For a moment," said the Confessor.  "In the moment of first hearing the news.  When talk was cheap.  When they hadn't yet visualized the costs.  But once they did, there would be an uneasy pause, while everyone waited to see if someone else might act first.  And faster than you imagine possible, people would adjust to that state of affairs.  It would no longer sound quite so shocking as it did at first.  Babyeater children are dying horrible, agonizing deaths in their parents' stomachs?  Deplorable, of course, but things have always been that way.  It would no longer be news.  It would all be part of the plan."

"Are you high on something?" Akon said.  It wasn't the most polite way he could have phrased it, but he couldn't help himself.

The Confessor's voice was as cold and hard as an iron sun, after the universe had burned down to embers.  "Innocent youth, when you have watched your older brother beaten almost to death before your eyes, and seen how little the police investigate - when you have watched all four of your grandparents wither away like rotten fruit and cease to exist, while you spoke not one word of protest because you thought it was normal - then you may speak to me of what human beings will tolerate."

"I don't believe we would do that," Akon said as mildly as possible.

"Then you fail as a rationalist," the Confessor said.  His unhooded head turned toward the false walls, to look out at the accurately represented stars.  "But I - I will not fail again."

"Well, you're damn right about one thing," Akon said.  He was too exhausted to be tactful.  "You can't ever be allowed to make decisions for the human species."

"I know.  Believe me, I know.  Only youth can Administrate.  That is the pact of immortality."

Akon stood up from the bed.  "Thank you, Confessor.  You have helped me."

With an easy, practiced motion, the Confessor slid the hood of his robe over his head, and the stark features vanished into shadow.  "I have?" the Confessor said, and his recloaked voice sounded strangely mild, after that earlier masculine power.  "How?"

Akon shrugged.  He didn't think he could put it into words.  It had something to do with the terrible vast sweep of Time across the centuries, and so much true change that had already happened, deeper by far than anything he had witnessed in his own lifetime; the requirement of courage to face the future, and the sacrifices that had been made for it; and that not everyone had been saved, once upon a time.

"I guess you reminded me," Akon said, "that you can't always get everything you want."

To be continued...

A reminder:  This is a work of fiction.  In real life, continuing to attempt to have sex with someone after they say 'no' and before they say 'yes', whether or not they offer forceful resistance and whether or not any visible injury occurs, is (in the USA) defined as rape and considered a federal felony.  I agree with and support that this is the correct place for society to draw the line.  Some people have worked out a safeword system in which they explicitly and verbally agree, with each other or on a signed form, that 'no' doesn't mean stop but e.g. 'red' or 'safeword' does mean stop.  I agree with and support this as carving out a safe exception whose existence does not endanger innocent bystanders.  If either of these statements come to you as a surprise then you should look stuff up.  Thank you and remember, your safeword should be at least 10 characters and contain a mixture of letters and numbers.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled reading.  Yours, the author.

Personal Blog