(Part 3 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")
...The Lady Sensory said, in an unsteady voice, "My lords, a third ship has jumped into this system. Not Babyeater, not human."
The holo showed a triangle marked with three glowing dots, the human ship and the Babyeater ship and the newcomers. Then the holo zoomed in, to show -
- the most grotesque spaceship that Akon had ever seen, like a blob festooned with tentacles festooned with acne festooned with small hairs. Slowly, the tentacles of the ship waved, as if in a gentle breeze; and the acne on the tentacles pulsated, as if preparing to burst. It was a fractal of ugliness, disgusting at every level of self-similarity.
"Do the aliens have deflectors up?" said Akon.
"My lord," said Lady Sensory, "they don't have any shields raised. The nova ashes' radiation doesn't seem to bother them. Whatever material their ship is made from, it's just taking the beating."
A silence fell around the table.
"All right," said the Lord Programmer, "that's impressive."
The Lady Sensory jerked, like someone had just slapped her. "We - we just got a signal from them in human-standard format, content encoding marked as Modern English text, followed by a holo -"
"What?" said Akon. "We haven't transmitted anything to them, how could they possibly -"
"Um," said the Ship's Engineer. "What if these aliens really do have, um, 'big angelic powers'?"
"No," said the Ship's Confessor. His hood tilted slightly, as if in wry humor. "It is only history repeating itself."
"History repeating itself?" said the Master of Fandom. "You mean that the ship is from an alternate Everett branch of Earth, or that they somehow independently developed ship-to-ship communication protocols exactly similar to our -"
"No, you dolt," said the Lord Programmer, "he means that the Babyeaters sent the new aliens a massive data dump, just like they sent us. Only this time, the Babyeater data dump included all the data that we sent the Babyeaters. Then the new aliens ran an automatic translation program, like the one we used."
"You gave it away," said the Confessor. There was a slight laugh in his voice. "You should have let them figure it out on their own. One so rarely encounters the apparently supernatural, these days."
Akon shook his head, "Confessor, we don't have time for - never mind. Sensory, show the text message."
The Lady Sensory twitched a finger and -
WE ARE SO GLAD TO MEET YOU!
THIS IS THE SHIP "PLAY GAMES FOR LOTS OF FUN"
(OPERATED BY CHARGED PARTICLE FINANCIAL FIRMS)
WE LOVE YOU AND WE WANT YOU TO BE SUPER HAPPY.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE SEX?
Slowly, elaborately, Akon's head dropped to the table with a dull thud. "Why couldn't we have been alone in the universe?"
"No, wait," said the Xenopsychologist, "this makes sense."
The Master of Fandom nodded. "Seems quite straightforward."
"Do enlighten," came a muffled tone from where Akon's head rested on the table.
The Xenopsychologist shrugged. "Evolutionarily speaking, reproduction is probably the single best guess for an activity that an evolved intelligence would find pleasurable. When you look at it from that perspective, my lords, my lady, their message makes perfect sense - it's a universal friendly greeting, like the Pioneer engraving."
Akon didn't raise his head. "I wonder what these aliens do," he said through his shielding arms, "molest kittens?"
"My lord..." said the Ship's Confessor. Gentle the tone, but the meaning was very clear.
Akon sighed and straightened up. "You said their message included a holo, right? Let's see it."
The main screen turned on.
There was a moment of silence, and then a strange liquid sound as, in unison, everyone around the table gasped in shock, even the Ship's Confessor.
For a time after that, no one spoke. They were just... watching.
"Wow," said the Lady Sensory finally. "That's actually... kind of... hot."
Akon tore his eyes away from the writhing human female form, the writhing human male form, and the writhing alien tentacles. "But..." Akon said. "But why is she pregnant?"
"A better question," said the Lord Programmer, "would be, why are the two of them reciting multiplication tables?" He glanced around. "What, none of you can read lips?"
"Um..." said the Xenopsychologist. "Okay, I've got to admit, I can't even begin to imagine why -"
Then there was a uniform "Ewww..." from around the room.
"Oh, dear," said the Xenopsychologist. "Oh, dear, I don't think they understood that part at all."
Akon made a cutting gesture, and the holo switched off.
"Someone should view the rest of it," said the Ship's Confessor. "It might contain important information."
Akon flipped a hand. "I don't think we'll run short of volunteers to watch disgusting alien pornography. Just post it to the ship's 4chan, and check after a few hours to see if anything was modded up to +5 Insightful."
"These aliens," said the Master of Fandom slowly, "composed that pornography within... seconds, it must have been. We couldn't have done that automatically, could we?"
The Lord Programmer frowned. "No. I don't, um, think so. From a corpus of alien pornography, automatically generate a holo they would find interesting? Um. It's not a problem that I think anyone's tried to solve yet, and they sure didn't get it perfect the first time, but... no."
"How large an angelic power does that imply?"
The Lord Programmer traded glances with the Master. "Big," the Lord Programmer said finally. "Maybe even epic."
"Or they think on a much faster timescale," said the Confessor softly. "There is no law of the universe that their neurons must run at 100Hz."
"My lords," said the Lady Sensory, "we're getting another message; holo with sound, this time. It's marked as a real-time communication, my lords."
Akon swallowed, and his fingers automatically straightened the hood of his formal sweater. Would the aliens be able to tell if his clothes were sloppy? He was suddenly very aware that he hadn't checked his lipstick in three hours. But it wouldn't do to keep the visitors waiting... "All right. Open a channel to them, transmitting only myself."
The holo that appeared did nothing to assuage his insecurities. The man that appeared was perfectly dressed, utterly perfectly dressed, in business casual more intimidating than any formality: crushing superiority without the appearance of effort. The face was the same way, overwhelmingly handsome without the excuse of makeup; the fashionable slit vest exposed pectoral muscles that seemed optimally sculpted without the bulk that comes of exercise -
"Superstimulus!" exclaimed the Ship's Confessor, a sharp warning.
Akon blinked, shrugging off the fog. Of course the aliens couldn't possibly really look like that. A holo, only an overoptimized holo. That was a lesson everyone (every human?) learned before puberty, not to let reality seem diminished by fiction. As the proverb went, It's bad enough comparing yourself to Isaac Newton without comparing yourself to Kimball Kinnison.
"Greetings in the name of humanity," said Akon. "I am Lord Anamaferus Akon, Conference Chair of the Giant Science Vessel Impossible Possible World. We -" come in peace didn't seem appropriate with a Babyeater war under discussion, and many other polite pleasantries, like pleased to meet you, suddenly seemed too much like promises and lies, "- didn't quite understand your last message."
"Our apologies," said the perfect figure on screen. "You may call me Big Fucking Edward; as for our species..." The figure tilted a head in thought. "This translation program is not fully stable; even if I said our proper species-name, who knows how it would come out. I would not wish my kind to forever bear an unaesthetic nickname on account of a translation error."
Akon nodded. "I understand, Big Fucking Edward."
"Your true language is a format inconceivable to us," said the perfect holo. "But we do apologize for any untranslatable 1 you may have experienced on account of our welcome transmission; it was automatically generated, before any of us had a chance to apprehend your sexuality. We do apologize, I say; but who would ever have thought that a species would evolve to find reproduction a painful experience? For us, childbirth is the greatest pleasure we know; to be prolonged, not hurried."
"Oh," said the Lady Sensory in a tone of sudden enlightenment, "that's why the tentacles were pushing the baby back into -"
Out of sight of the visual frame, Akon gestured with his hand for Sensory to shut up. Akon leaned forward. "The visual you're currently sending us is, of course, not real. What do you actually look like? - if the request does not offend."
The perfect false man furrowed a brow, puzzled. "I don't understand. You would not be able to apprehend any communicative cues."
"I would still like to see," Akon said. "I am not sure how to explain it, except that - truth matters to us."
The too-beautiful man vanished, and in his place -
Mad brilliant colors, insane hues that for a moment defeated his vision. Then his mind saw shapes, but not meaning. In utter silence, huge blobs writhed around supporting bars. Extrusions protruded fluidly and interpenetrated -
Writhing, twisting, shuddering, pulsating -
And then the false man reappeared.
Akon fought to keep his face from showing distress, but a prickling of sweat appeared on his forehead. There'd been something jarring about the blobs, even the stable background behind them. Like looking at an optical illusion designed by sadists.
And - those were the aliens, or so they claimed -
"I have a question," said the false man. "I apologize if it causes any distress, but I must know if what our scientists say is correct. Has your kind really evolved separate information-processing mechanisms for deoxyribose nucleic acid versus electrochemical transmission of synaptic spikes?"
Akon blinked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw figures trading cautious glances around the table. Akon wasn't sure where this question was leading, but, given that the aliens had already understood enough to ask, it probably wasn't safe to lie...
"I don't really understand the question's purpose," Akon said. "Our genes are made of deoxyribose nucleic acid. Our brains are made of neurons that transmit impulses through electrical and chemical -"
The fake man's head collapsed to his hands, and he began to bawl like a baby.
Akon's hand signed Help! out of the frame. But the Xenopsychologist shrugged cluelessly.
This was not going well.
The fake man suddenly unfolded his head from his hands. His cheeks were depicted as streaked with tears, but the face itself had stopped crying. "To wait so long," the voice said in a tone of absolute tragedy. "To wait so long, and come so far, only to discover that nowhere among the stars is any trace of love."
"Love?" Akon repeated. "Caring for someone else? Wanting to protect them, to be with them? If that translated correctly, then 'love' is a very important thing to us."
"But!" cried the figure in agony, at a volume that made Akon jump. "But when you have sex, you do not untranslatable 2! A fake, a fake, these are only imitation words -"
"What is 'untranslatable 2'?" Akon said; and then, as the figure once again collapsed in inconsolable weeping, wished he hadn't.
"They asked if our neurons and DNA were separate," said the Ship's Engineer. "So maybe they have only one system. Um... in retrospect, that actually seems like the obvious way for evolution to do it. If you're going to have one kind of information storage for genes, why have an entirely different system for brains? So -"
"They share each other's thoughts when they have sex," the Master of Fandom completed. "Now there's an old dream. And they would develop emotions around that, whole patterns of feeling we don't have ourselves... Huh. I guess we do lack their analogue of love."
"Probably," said the Xenopsychologist quietly, "sex was their only way of speaking to each other from the beginning. From before the dawn of their intelligence. It really does make a lot of sense, evolutionarily. If you're injecting packets of information anyway -"
"Wait a minute," said the Lady Sensory, "then how are they talking to us?"
"Of course," said the Lord Programmer in a tone of sudden enlightenment. "Humanity has always used new communications technologies for pornography. 'The Internet is for porn' - but with them, it must have been the other way around."
Akon blinked. His mind suddenly pictured the blobs, and the tentacles connecting them to each other -
Somewhere on that ship is a blob making love to an avatar that's supposed to represent me. Maybe a whole Command Orgy.
I've just been cyber-raped. No, I'm being cyber-raped right now.
And the aliens had crossed who knew how much space, searching for who knew how long, yearning to speak / make love to other minds - only to find -
The fake man suddenly jerked upright and screamed at a volume that whited-out the speakers in the Command Conference. Everyone jumped; the Master of Fandom let out a small shriek.
What did I do what did I do what did I do -
And then the holo vanished.
Akon gasped for breath and slumped over in his chair. Adrenaline was still running riot through his system, but he felt utterly exhausted. He wanted to release his shape and melt into a puddle, a blob like the wrong shapes he'd seen on screen - no, not like that.
"My lord," the Ship's Confessor said softly. He was now standing alongside, a gentle hand on Akon's shoulder. "My lord, are you all right?"
"Not really," Akon said. His voice, he was proud to note, was only slighly wobbly. "It's too hard, speaking to aliens. They don't think like you do, and you don't know what you're doing wrong."
"I wonder," the Master of Fandom said with artificial lightness, "if they'll call it 'xenofatigue' and forbid anyone to talk to an alien for longer than five minutes."
Akon just nodded.
"We're getting another signal," the Lady Sensory said hesitantly. "Holo with sound, another real-time communication."
"Akon, you don't have to -" said the Master of Fandom.
Akon jerked himself upright, straightened his clothes. "I do have to," he said. "They're aliens, there's no knowing what a delay might... Just put it through."
The first thing the holo showed, in elegant Modern English script, was the message:
The Lady 3rd Kiritsugu
temporary co-chair of the Gameplayer
Language Translator version 3
Cultural Translator version 2
The screen hovered just long enough to be read, then dissipated -
Revealing a pale white lady.
The translator's depiction of the Lady 3rd Kiritsugu was all white and black and grey; not the colorlessness of a greyscale image, but a colored image of a world with little color in it. Skin the color of the palest human skin that could still be called attractive; not snow white, but pale. White hair; blouse and bracelets and long dress all in coordinated shades of grey. That woman could have been called pretty, but there was none of the overstimulating beauty of the fake man who had been shown before.
Her face was styled in the emotion that humans named "serene".
"I and my sisters have now taken command of this vessel," said the pale Lady.
Akon blinked. A mutiny aboard their ship?
And it was back to the alien incomprehensibility, the knife-edged decisions and unpredictable reactions and the deadly fear of screwing up.
"I am sorry if my words offend," Akon said carefully, "but there is something I wish to know."
The Lady 3rd made a slicing gesture with one hand. "You cannot offend me." Her face showed mild insult at the suggestion.
"What has happened aboard your ship, just now?"
The Lady 3rd replied, "The crew are disabled by emotional distress. They have exceeded the bounds of their obligations, and are returning to the ship's Pleasuring Center for reward. In such a situation I and my two sisters, the kiritsugu of this vessel, assume command."
Did I do that? "I did not intend for my words to cause you psychological harm."
"You are not responsible," the Lady 3rd said. "It was the other ones."
"The Babyeaters?" Akon said without thinking.
"Babyeaters," the Lady 3rd repeated. "If that is the name you have given to the third alien species present at this star system, then yes. The crew, apprehending the nature of the Babyeaters' existence, was incapacitated by their share of the children's suffering."
"I see," Akon said. He felt an odd twitch of shame for humanity, that his own kind could learn of the Babyeaters, and continue functioning with only tears.
The Lady 3rd's gaze grew sharp. "What are your intentions regarding the Babyeaters?"
"We haven't decided," Akon said. "We were just discussing it when you arrived, actually."
"What is your current most preferred alternative?" the Lady 3rd instantly fired back.
Akon helplessly shrugged, palms out. "We were just starting the discussion. All the alternatives suggested seemed unacceptable."
"Which seemed least unacceptable? What is your current best candidate?"
Akon shook his head. "We haven't designated any."
The Lady 3rd's face grew stern, with a hint of puzzlement. "You are withholding the information. Why? Do you think it will cast you in an unfavorable light? Then I must take that expectation into account. Further, you must expect me to take that expectation into account, and so you imply that you expect me to underestimate its severity, even after taking this line of reasoning into account."
"Excuse me," the Ship's Confessor said. His tone was mild, but with a hint of urgency. "I believe I should enter this conversation right now."
Akon's hand signed agreement to the Lady Sensory.
At once the Lady 3rd's eyes shifted to where the Confessor stood beside Akon.
"Human beings," said the Ship's Confessor, "cannot designate a 'current best candidate' without psychological consequences. Human rationalists learn to discuss an issue as thoroughly as possible before suggesting any solutions. For humans, solutions are sticky in a way that would require detailed cognitive science to explain. We would not be able to search freely through the solution space, but would be helplessly attracted toward the 'current best' point, once we named it. Also, any endorsement whatever of a solution that has negative moral features, will cause a human to feel shame - and 'best candidate' would feel like an endorsement. To avoid feeling that shame, humans must avoid saying which of two bad alternatives is better than the other."
Ouch, thought Akon, I never realized how embarrassing that sounds until I heard it explained to an alien.
Apparently the alien was having similar thoughts. "So you cannot even tell me which of several alternatives currently seems best, without your minds breaking down? That sounds quite implausible," the Lady 3rd said doubtfully, "for a species capable of building a spaceship."
There was a hint of laughter in the Confessor's voice. "We try to overcome our biases."
The Lady 3rd's gaze grew more intense. "Are you the true decisionmaker of this vessel?"
"I am not," the Confessor said flatly. "I am a Confessor - a human master rationalist; we are sworn to refrain from leadership."
"This meeting will determine the future of all three species," said the Lady 3rd. "If you have superior competence, you should assume control."
Akon's brows furrowed slightly. Somehow he'd never thought about it in those terms.
The Confessor shook his head. "There are reasons beyond my profession why I must not lead. I am too old."
Akon put the thought on hold, and looked back at the Lady 3rd. She had said that all the crew were incapacitated, except her and her two sisters who took charge. And she had asked the Confessor if he held true command.
"Are you," Akon asked, "the equivalent of a Confessor for your own kind?"
"Almost certainly not," replied the Lady 3rd, and -
"Almost certainly not," the Confessor said, almost in the same breath.
There was an eerie kind of unison about it.
"I am kiritsugu," said the Lady 3rd. "In the early days of my species there were those who refrained from happiness in order to achieve perfect skill in helping others, using untranslatable 3 to suppress their emotions and acting only on their abstract knowledge of goals. These were forcibly returned to normality by massive untranslatable 4. But I descend from their thought-lineage and in emergency invoke the shadow of their untranslatable 5."
"I am a Confessor," said the Ship's Confessor, "the descendant of those in humanity's past who most highly valued truth, who sought systematic methods for finding truth. But Bayes's Theorem will not be different from one place to another; the laws in their purely mathematical form will be the same, just as any sufficiently advanced species will discover the same periodic table of elements."
"And being universals," said the Lady 3rd, "they bear no distinguishing evidence of their origin. So you should understand, Lord Akon, that a kiritsugu's purpose is not like that of a Confessor, even if we exploit the same laws."
"But we are similar enough to each other," the Confessor concluded, "to see each other as distorted mirror images. Heretics, you might say. She is the ultimate sin forbidden to a Confessor - the exercise of command."
"As you are flawed on my own terms," the Lady 3rd concluded, "one who refuses to help."
Everyone else at the Conference table was staring at the alien holo, and at the Confessor, in something approaching outright horror.
The Lady 3rd shifted her gaze back to Akon. Though it was only a movement of the eyes, there was something of a definite force about the motion, as if the translator was indicating that it stood for something much stronger. Her voice was given a demanding, compelling quality: "What alternatives did your kind generate for dealing with the Babyeaters? Enumerate them to me."
Wipe out their species, keep them in prison forever on suicide watch, ignore them and let the children suffer.
Akon hesitated. An odd premonition of warning prickled at him. Why does she need this information?
"If you do not give me the information," the Lady 3rd said, "I will take into account the fact that you do not wish me to know it."
The proverb went through his mind, The most important part of any secret is the fact that the secret exists.
"All right," Akon said. "We found unacceptable the alternative of leaving the Babyeaters be. We found unacceptable the alternative of exterminating them. We wish to respect their choices and their nature as a species, but their children, who do not share that choice, are unwilling victims; this is unacceptable to us. We desire to keep the children alive but we do not know what to do with them once they become adult and start wanting to eat their own babies. Those were all the alternatives we had gotten as far as generating, at the very moment your ship arrived."
"That is all?" demanded the Lady 3rd. "That is the sum of all your thought? Is this one of the circumstances under which your species sends signals that differ against internal belief, such as 'joking' or 'politeness'?"
"No," said Akon. "I mean, yes. Yes, that's as far as we got. No, we're not joking."
"You should understand," the Confessor said, "that this crew, also, experienced a certain distress, interfering with our normal function, on comprehending the Babyeaters. We are still experiencing it."
And you acted to restore order, thought Akon, though not the same way as a kiritsugu...
"I see," the Lady 3rd said.
She fell silent. There were long seconds during which she sat motionless.
Then, "Why have you not yet disabled the Babyeater ship? Your craft possesses the capability of doing so, and you must realize that your purpose now opposes theirs."
"Because," Akon said, "they did not disable our ship."
The Lady 3rd nodded. "You are symmetrists, then."
Again the silence.
Then the holo blurred, and in that blur appeared the words:
Cultural Translator version 3.
The blur resolved itself back into that pale woman; almost the same as before, except that the serenity of her came through with more force.
The Lady 3rd drew herself erect, and took on a look of ritual, as though she were about to recite a composed poem.
"I now speak," the Lady 3rd, "on behalf of my species, to yours."
A chill ran down Akon's spine. This is too much, this is all too large for me -
"Humankind!" the Lady 3rd said, as though addressing someone by name. "Humankind, you prefer the absence of pain to its presence. When my own kind attained to technology, we eliminated the causes of suffering among ourselves. Bodily pain, embarrassment, and romantic conflicts are no longer permitted to exist. Humankind, you prefer the presence of pleasure to its absence. We have devoted ourselves to the intensity of pleasure, of sex and childbirth and untranslatable 2. Humankind, you prefer truth to lies. By our nature we do not communicate statements disbelieved, as you do with humor, modesty, and fiction; we have even learned to refrain from withholding information, though we possess that capability. Humankind, you prefer peace to violence. Our society is without crime and without war. Through symmetric sharing and untranslatable 4, we share our joys and are pleasured together. Our name for ourselves is not expressible in your language. But to you, humankind, we now name ourselves after the highest values we share: we are the Maximum Fun-Fun Ultra Super Happy People."
There were muffled choking sounds from the human Conference table.
"Um," Akon said intelligently. "Um... good for you?"
"Humankind! Humankind, you did not likewise repair yourselves when you attained to technology. We are still unsure if it is somehow a mistake, if you did not think it through, or if your will is truly so different from ours. For whatever reason, you currently permit the existence of suffering which our species has eliminated. Bodily pain, embarrassment, and romantic troubles are still known among you. Your existence, therefore, is shared by us as pain. Will you, humankind, by your symmetry, remedy this?"
An electric current of shock and alarm ran through the Conference. The Lord Pilot glanced significantly at the Ship's Engineer, and the Engineer just as significantly shook his head. There was nothing they could do against the alien vessel; and their own shields would scarcely help, if they were attacked.
Akon drew in a ragged breath. He was suddenly distracted, almost to the point of his brain melting, by a sense of futures twisting around these moments: the fate of star systems, the destiny of all humanity being warped and twisted and shaped.
So to you, then, it is humanity that molests kittens.
He should have foreseen this possibility, after the experience of the Babyeaters. If the Babyeaters' existence was morally unacceptable to humanity, then the next alien species might be intolerable as well - or they might find humanity's existence a horror of unspeakable cruelty. That was the other side of the coin, even if a human might find it harder to think of it.
Funny. It doesn't seem that bad from in here...
"But -" Akon said, and only then became aware that he was speaking.
"'But'?" said the Lady 3rd. "Is that your whole reply, humankind?" There was a look on her face of something like frustration, even sheer astonishment.
He hadn't planned out this reply in any detail, but -
"You say that you feel our existence as pain," Akon said, "sharing sympathy with our own suffering. So you, also, believe that under some circumstances pain is preferable to pleasure. If you did not hurt when others hurt - would you not feel that you were... less the sort of person you wanted to be? It is the same with us -"
But the Lady 3rd was shaking her head. "You confuse a high conditional likelihood from your hypothesis to the evidence with a high posterior probability of the hypothesis given the evidence," she said, as if that were all one short phrase in her own language. "Humankind, we possess a generalized faculty to feel what others feel. That is the simple, compact relation. We did not think to complicate that faculty to exclude pain. We did not then assign dense probability that other sentient species would traverse the stars, and be encountered by us, and yet fail to have repaired themselves. Should we encounter some future species in circumstances that do not permit its repair, we will modify our empathic faculty to exclude sympathy with pain, and substitute an urge to meliorate pain."
"But -" Akon said.
Dammit, I'm talking again.
"But we chose this; this is what we want."
"That matters less to our values than to yours," replied the Lady 3rd. "But even you, humankind, should see that it is moot. We are still trying to untangle the twisting references of emotion by which humans might prefer pleasure to pain, and yet endorse complex theories that uphold pain over pleasure. But we have already determined that your children, humankind, do not share the grounding of these philosophies. When they incur pain they do not contemplate its meaning, they only call for it to stop. In their simplicity -"
They're a lot like our own children, really.
"- they somewhat resemble the earlier life stages of our own kind."
There was a electric quality now about that pale woman, a terrible intensity. "And you should understand, humankind, that when a child anywhere suffers pain and calls for it to stop, then we will answer that call if it requires sixty-five thousand five hundred and thirty-six ships."
"We believe, humankind, that you can understand our viewpoint. Have you options to offer us?"
I'm waiting for the super happy people to bust out Unlimited Blade Works, any time now.
The distinction between kiritsugu and Confessor is quite interesting. It hadn't quite occurred to me that there could be distinct branches of rationalism. That's to say, I knew that two rational agents could disagree about something -- that's a consequence of Bayes -- but it hadn't quite occurred to me that the space of rational agents was quite that large.
I imagine you've covered some of this in your work on metaethics; I should probably dig that up.
Apparently the Super Happy race have adopted knuth arrow notation more broadly than we have.
I'd be surprised at humans not making child birth non-painful when we have the technology, we do the best we can at the moment (epidurals etc). Although I mainly suspect we will build artificial wombs as well, although that may require mucking about with female biochemistry so you can convince them that they are pregnant when they are not, so that they bond properly with the newborns. Pregnancy is not fun, from what I can tell.
Pain is a signal that something might be going wrong in the evolutionary game, that you might be causing yourself permanent damage or might need other people to help you. If you get rid of the evolutionary game, then you can get rid of pain.
Wait. Aren't they right? I don't like that they don't terminally value sympathy (though they're pretty close), but that's beside the point. Why keep the children suffering? If there is a good reason - that humans need a painful childhood to explore, learn and develop properly, for example - shouldn't the Super Happy be conviced by that? They value other things than a big orgasm - they grow and learn - they even tried to forsake some happiness for more accurate beliefs - if, despite this, they end up preferring stupid happy superbabies to painful growth, it's likely we agree. I don't want to just tile the galaxy with happiness counters - but if collapsing into orgasmium means the Supper Happy, sign me up.
This was brilliant.
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! I've been a pretty avid follower of this blog for a long time now, but I think this is the first time I've commented. Hesitated because I always felt like I didn't have anything sufficiently wonderful or thought-provoking to say. But I can't help it now: brilliant! Waiting for the rest!
Akon forgot to mention the possibility of trying to genetically modify the Babyeaters.
So the Lady 3rd says, basically, "modifying ourselves to exclude this pain would be hard, and we don't want to do it until all other options are proved harder."
Akon, then should be able to say exactly the same thing, with equal truth, regarding the human pain that the Lady 3rd wants eliminated. She is too quick in dismissing this symmetry.
Or was Akon really trying to argue that the Lady 3rd's kind keep their sympathy-pain as a terminal value? He is described as thinking hastily on his feet, so I suppose it's plausible for him to make such a silly argument. And in that case it's plausible to the Lady 3rd to dismiss this argument as she did. But it's not plausible that Akon really thinks that humans want to hold on to their pain as a terminal value. Star Trek V notwithstanding, it's hard to imagine a human society of the kind depicted here feeling that kind of attachment to pain.
So, for this scene to be believable, Akon should very quickly realize that humans are reluctant to eliminate their pain because they don't know how to do so without interfering with other values. And that should be a reason that is immediately understandable to the Lady 3rd, because she has offered essentially the same justification for not proceeding immediately to eliminate her own sympathy-pain.
Of course, she should then offer immediately to figure out how to eliminate our pain for us if we can't do it ourselves. But it shouldn't be hard for her to see why we would be reluctant to trust her ability to do that without interfering with our other values, given what we've seen of their abilities to understand us so far. Her evident bafflement at our reluctance to modify ourselves is prima facie evidence that they do not understand us well enough that we would be willing to let them muck around with our source code.
Of course, she might still conclude that they do understand us well enough to modify us, even against our wishes. But it shouldn't be surprising to her that it would be against our wishes, at least at this stage of the encounter.
Tyrrell: The Babyeaters don't seem to exactly have genes, in the sense that we think about them. I didn't entirely understand how the information transfer/birth of the next generation works with regards to the crystal growth thing. Either way though, there would seem to be a prisoner's dilemma of sorts with regards to that. I'm not sure about this, but let's say we could do unto the Babyeaters without them being able to do unto us, with regards to altering them (even against their will) for the sake of our values. Wouldn't that sort of be a form of Prisoner's Dilemma with regards to, say, other species with different values than us and more powerful than us that could do the same to us? Wouldn't the same metarationality results hold? I'm not entirely sure about this, but..
Eliezer: "Humankind, we possess a generalized faculty to feel what others feel." Huh? Very good story, but the quoted bit is perhaps the single most puzzling thing I've seen so far in this entire sequence. If that line is meant to be interpreted as "all possible feelings", ie, really general... Then how would that work? Aren't specific types of feelings associated with specific types of cognitive hardware? How the fluff would they be able to feel all possible types of feelings that all possible types of feeling beings (that is, beings that do the sort of thing that we'd call "feeling") feel? I'm assuming stuff like "brain scan/emulate sections theirof" is not the type of tech that you're allowing in this setting, right?
(And yes, I know the MST3K mantra. As I said, this way is more fun, though! (If we're instead just being annoying, and you'd rather we wait with these nitpicks until you finish the story, well... say so.)
I'm inclined to think so, which is one reason I wasn't in favor of going to war on the Babyeaters: what if the next species who doesn't share our values is stronger than us, how would I have them deal with us? what sort of universe do we want to live in?
(Another reason being that I'm highly skeptical of victory in anything other than a bloody war of total extermination. Consider analogous situations in real life where atrocities are being committed in other countries, e.g. female circumcision in Africa; we typically don't go to war over them, and for good reason.)
Good story! It's not often you see aliens who aren't just humans in silly make up. I particularly liked the exchange between the Confessor and the Kiritsugu.
This is truly fascinating. I am grateful to receive for free what I would have paid good money for.
They seem to be limited to mapping others' experiences to their own feelings for analogous experiences. For instance, they first mapped giving birth to pleasure. Hardly epic angelic universal empathy powers.
What else is there, though? How do you define the feelings "pleasure" and "pain", distinctly from "goals sought" and "things avoided"? How do you empathize with a really alien intelligence without mapping its behavior and experiences to your own?
Alright, so we are headed for some variety of golden rule\ mutual defense treaty imposed to respect each others' values simply because there is reason to believe, if not provable, that there exists some OTHER force in the universe more powerful than the ones currently signing the treaty. This of course does not void 'friendly' attempts to modify unwanted behaviors, which added together with a 'will to power', would likely have civilizations drifting towards a common position ultimately.
The aliens should be allowed to extend to human infants the invitation to leave their parents to join the alien civilization. As I understand it, this would result in every human infant leaving their parents, but that would indeed be the correct rational choice when one has the preferences that human infants have.
So every human infant would leave their parents, and it would be ethically correct to allow this. If humans want to reproduce in a way where their children don't immediately leave them, they should modify their reproduction techniques to produce children with preferences that allow such an outcome. (Or just start constructing new additions to the human race as adults to begin with, instead of producing children.)
I wonder why the confessor is "too old" to lead. Maybe very old humans do not share the CEV of younger humans?
Aleksei, children are rarely enthusiastic about the idea of leaving their parents. Why would they trust the Super Happy People?
"And you should understand, humankind, that when a child anywhere suffers pain and calls for it to stop, then we will answer that call if it requires sixty-five thousand five hundred and thirty-six ships."
How would they hear it? They did not even know about humanity until just now, much less hear the calls for help of any human child. All they have to do is not go looking for miserable children, and they will not find any, or feel their suffering.
On a related note: For whatever reason, you currently permit the existence of suffering which our species has eliminated. Bodily pain, embarrassment, and romantic troubles are still known among you. Your existence, therefore, is shared by us as pain.
What did the Super Happy People do with every previous species they have encountered?
I don't think young infants think in terms of parents and non-parents, especially if the Super Happy People make their offer before the infants have gotten accustomed to their parents.
Why do they trust their parents? How are the Super Happy People at a disadvantage?
If there is distrust to overcome, the Super Happy People would probably arrange for the infants to directly feel their intentions and feelings.
Aleksei, do you mean they would have sex with the children once and then ask them if they'd like to leave their parents and have sex every day for the rest of their lives? :-)
Anyway, it takes too long for unmodified human children to develop proper minds in order to consent to anything like this. What do you do about pain incurred at the age of a few months? A year?
I'm also bothered that nobody has mentioned non-human animals. Why should cats and chimps and dolphins have to suffer pain and romantic disappointment? The Super Happy People should modify all the higher life forms and completely reshape the ecology.
His voice, as opposed to other people's voices, I assume; i.e., the Confessor's warning was not transmitted.
Arguably unclear wording, though.
You know, they aren't the "Trade Federation", but I come out of this post with a distinctly East Asian impression of the Super Happy Fun People, which I think probably shouldn't happen for a truly alien race, since I would expect its variance from humanity to be orthogonal to ethnic and cultural differences. It may just be the names and superlatives, but I think that the shadows of Buddhism are having some of the effect. OTOH, that really might be a fairly strong universal attractor in which case I'm being unfair.
Also, it seems to me that part of the intention of the story is to put us in the middle of a situation where motivations are symmetric in both directions, but that doesn't really happen. The SHFP values and generally existence call out to humans as plausibly a more proper expression of our values than our own existence is, though we are told that physical ugliness tends to drive us away. The human values do not have the same effect on the baby eaters, thus the humans don't face a threat to their values analogous to that faced by the baby eaters.
Also, a very important question regards the nature of baby eater children. I'm not sure in what sense they can be a lot like human children but not value "good", yet if they do value "good" where in their evolution does that value come from.
michael vassar: The situation is more symmetrical than that, I think.
The babyeaters, I imagine, don't like suffering either. That is, I doubt they would inflict suffering on their children outside of the winnowing, and would likely act to prevent suffering where possible. But, while suffering is certainly bad, it would be far worse to violate the much higher moral value of eating the young--that imperative is far greater than some suffering, no matter how great, isn't it?
Humans, of course, don't like suffering. They certainly wouldn't inflict it needlessly. But eliminating a little bit of suffering isn't necessarily worth what it would take--altering ourselves, perhaps, and losing our humanity in the process. And besides, who are they to decide for us? Humanity's moral right to self-determination is far more important than some minor suffering... right?
Fun bit: the last line of the initial message is not a "Pioneer engraving," it is a translation of how they would say, "Can we talk?" The two questions would be the same to them.
I do not recall having seen anyone comment yet on having a "Master of Fandom" on the ship. It is a more fun if somewhat less dignified title than "literature professor." Is his position normally part of the support staff, somewhat like a librarian or holodeck operator who helps with staff education and entertainment while off-duty? Or do research vessels typically expect to stumble upon bodies of fiction when engaged in astrophysics?
I have arguments that may convince the Super Happy Fun People not to drug our babies happy. 1. Humans have evolved to make choices, and receive the deepest pleasure from making meaningful decisions. If everything is pleasurable, then that robs decisions of their complexity, and thus meaning. 2. Our brains can handle only so much stimulation, too much awareness given over to happiness and there's no room for anything more. This is why our descendants are shown to be reliant on computers for data storage and translation, and still argue over choices like angry monkeys once they grep the situation.
I'm with Manon, I'd take the deal. I'm assuming that there would be some bailout money to help with the freedom from pain effort. I wouldn't think that this would make Akon (my only MST3K'ing will be to publicly wince at that name) a traitor to the human race.
If it were up to me, when Akon is saying "We found unacceptable the alternative of leaving the Babyeaters be. We found unacceptable the alternative of exterminating them" I'd also have included something like "we aren't positive that our translation mechanism is free of defects."
Perhaps matters re: human children as the Super Happies see it:
I cannot stop laughing.
No, a para-exoself of yours is engaging in totally consenting cyber-sex right now.
Loving this fic so far! It's really stretched my space of imagined possible alien minds. I attended a conference this summer called TAM 9 and several of the talks were on possible alien life, but none of them had this kind of imagination.
The best solution I could think of (and yes, I did sit and think about it for a few minutes) would be to modify the baby eaters so that the children want to be eaten and/or don't suffer their end at the hands of their parents. Haven't thought about the current conundrum yet.
I've read this several times now, and I'm still not getting what the "Eww" is about. What am I missing here?
Um, yeah, I have read that part just as many times as the rest of it. I'm still not getting how an accidental math pun causes everyone to go "Eww."
They're going "ewww" because they're watching tentacle porn. The tentacled alien is pushing the baby back inside the mother or something. (I don't see the accidental math pun.)
If that's why they're saying eww, then why did they only say "eww" many minutes after they started watching the tentacle porn, in response to the Lord Programmer pointing out that the humans in the porn are mouthing the multiplication tables?
Because they enjoyed it until the tentacles started pushing the baby back in. (I think there's a technical term for that but I don't want to know it.)
(I believe the term is "Unbirthing".)
And I'm sorry but I'm not seeing it.
They were clearly reacting to something about the implications of the depicted humans reciting multiplication tables. The Xenopsychologist says "I can't even begin to imagine why -" and then cuts off when the whole room suddenly realizes why they're reciting multiplication tables, which is apparently supposed to be both obvious and eww-worthy, but I'm drawing a blank.
What was the part "they" didn't understand, which resulted in porn in which humans recite multiplication tables while, well, multiplying, that also grossed out an entire room?
As Vaniver said, "Because they enjoyed it until the tentacles started pushing the baby back in." They did not react to the math mouthing. You are confused by the coincidental timing of the Xenopsychologist's statement and the unbirthing clip.
They're saying "ewww" at the baby being pushed back into the vagina (presumably repeatedly, and probably accompanied by other weirdness), not the multiplication tables.
are not about the multiplication tables. They are about something gross that you the reader can only guess at, but a clue is given later during the conversation with Big Fucking Edward:
I'm surprised this never got answered! Well, better late than never, I suppose.
The SuperHappies misread the saying "Be fruitful and multiply.".
Well, I actually got the "multiply" pun. That was clear enough. I'm just not getting what prompted the "Ewww..." though.
"It really does make a lot of sense, evolutionarily. If you're injecting packets of information anyway -"
On rereading, it's a little annoying to see quite so many evolutionary just-so stories. LW has made me sensitive to hindsight bias.
If you happen to have evolved a cognitive architecture that permits storing information about the state of the world in the same format as information about how to build new members of the species, transferring that information would grant an evolutionary advantage over not. The only "just so" assumption is in such a cognitive architecture having developed, but they're allowed that assumption given that the Super Happies already exist.
I think this occurred to me the first time I read the story, but I never commented at that time, but the idea of life evolving to transmit genetic and neurological information actually strikes me as pretty implausible. Storage of genetic information probably requires a highly information-dense carrier, like our DNA. And large molecules like DNA diffuse extremely slowly, so they're not much good for transmitting information at reaction speeds. I don't think biological life is likely to luck into originating with a single medium of information transmission which is both quick and has good information density.
After reading this again being directed from the specks and omelettes podcast, I actually have a few issues here. First the super happy's claim the humans are symmetrists but the humans actually aren't. The reason Akon didn't fire on the Babyeaters was the prisoners dilemma. And as for the why didn't we remove suffering? Well by the sounds of it the technology itself wasn't entirely there let alone sorting out the whole values issue involved. Plus no one thinks to mention leprosy or congenital insensitivity to pain disorder. Two things that admittedly probably don't exist in this human society. But I would think the on board master of medicine/ physiology might remember their medical history or at least the known fact that if you prevent humans from sensing physical pain they have no way of knowing then they have injured themselves and even minor injuries can become serious.
I think it should be noted that there will be at least some humans willing to convert, maybe even among the lords and ladies of the ship, and yet they could not possibly express a consent for the species. Humans in this case are severly disadvantaged on account that while the aliens are speaking with seemingly the highest authority, they're asking Collombus to speak on behalf of the whole Eurasia. Should the humans not explain that, even if it relatively weakens their bargaining position? On that note, how could the other aliens express the opinions of their whole species without communication to their home planet's government.
They're not as smart as they seem. Humans having separate data storage for physical structure vs mental layout in no way precludes sharing of both.
Not that they aren't correct, at least in general (there are a few physical mechanisms by which thought-sharing could plausibly happen under perfectly ideal circumstances, but so far as we can tell it at least doesn't occur in humans often enough to be distinguishable from noise) but they kind of jumped to conclusions there.
Especially where the archive dump would have the contradictions of scientific literature showing the very low likelihood of any significant telepathy, but then our long-term memories seem to be stored as RNA which could theoretically be transferred at least to offspring, and possibly to others... Put that together with much of the romantic literature talking about a bond closer than just the physical when "true love" is involved...
They should, at least, have recognized that they (and probably we) were horribly, horribly confused.