Science Fiction and Temporal Experience

Consider: doesn’t learning, stimulus response, and other “circuit”-based models of the mind involve some notion of success and failure? But success and failure — doesn’t that assume an already internalized standard? Well, I don’t want to be too precise here, I think we can sense the problems with this setup, this model of learning — roughly, how can we know success or failure without some prior standard? Isn’t there some circularity involved?

So I think the usual way out of this is to assume some a priori difference between pain and pleasure. But I’m not sure how this can be applied to more complex forms of response, especially that of thinking, when pain and pleasure aren’t as obvious as, for example, playing with fire.

It occured to me, as I was sketching out this entry, that a lot of what we are about to talk about sounds like science fiction. I mean, I remember, when I was reading Asimov’s “Foundation”, what a remarkable disciple psychohistory would be. I mean, in that book, if you haven’t read it, Asimov imagined a discipline of scientifically modeling the course of civilizations. The first foundation book played well to my tastes. Let me disclose that I am currently playing a demo for a digital board game by a small developer called Cryptic Comet — one that was, in my opinion, just asking to be made. It’s called “Solium Infernum” — Latin for “throne of hell” — and you basically role play as a minor prince of hell who is trying to become the top dog in hell. The whole thing takes place on a hex grid and somewhat resembles a classical board game like Risk or something. But there are also a web of other complex rues — the character statistics might give you an idea of what sort of situations this board game is trying to evoke: Might, Prophecy, Wickedness, Charisma, Deception. So it plays heavily on the demonic tropes that we are used to. “Foundation” was sort of like that, it was a story, basically, of a minor prince — well, not demonic, but on the side of good, lawful good rather than lawful evil — who uses psychohistory — which is basically, knowledge of the rules of the game — to overcome significant obstacles towards conquest.

However, I think that “Foundation” has its shortcomings. I think it succeeds to the extent that it is able to give some sense of definite rules to the game, but then — assuming you are imaginative enough — you might just want to go ahead and try out Solium Infernum. Solium Infernum is onto something here — it is not really “competitive” I suppose, but the real purpose, like a lot of these board games, eg, Dungeons and Dragons, is simply to have a meaningful adventure. One would be fine with losing gloriously — one would actually prefer it. Like the best roguelike it tasks the player with the constuction of a narrative of decisionmaking. My most interesting roguelike experience — involving the game Brogue — involved a methodical unweaving of my best-laid plans, recounted here, if interested:

But: returning to our discussion… this notion of psychohistory is remarkable at first but then one gets the impression of how poorly thought out it is, which is not to say that the book isn’t evocative and thrilling. I mean, that psychohistory becomes a kind of deus ex machina, which means that it is a device for furthering the development of events external to it. It is a kind of gear by which demonic tropes come into play throughout the book, and these tropes, which we understand, we then respond emotionally to.

But I imagine now a different kind of science fiction which would proceed “inwards”, I mean, in the sense that it would … as I imagine I will be doing here … lay out, abstractly, the necessary preconditions. Isn’t Kant sort of like science fiction? I don’t think that there is anything brave about some imagination of a future world. Instead, I feel it has potential as … the kind of attempt to satisfy these complex conditions but without having direct access to the mechanical details.

What I mean is, that Asimov invents or coins this notion of psychohistory, which is something that is extrodinarily evocative, but then he goes on to simply use this as a kind of deus ex machina, instead of developing it “internally” — so that, on closer inspection, there are a lot of holes in this idea. How, for example, does it deal with unpredictability, with emotions, and so forth? That would be the stories that I would be interested in, I mean, stories that imagine how psychohistory would sort of defend itself under these speculative critiques, which is not to say, oddly enough, that it should be developed progressively and formally. So I think this to be the potential of science fiction: the conception of some possibility that cannot be directly percieved, but the thinkning and the defense of this possibility. This void is what we will be calling the “automatic” below.

So, as we said in the introduction, the question of the development of our mind, or of these “circuits” of experience is basically the central question here. I want to say that it is automatic, which sounds like a cop out but really just refocuses the question: ie, it’s more a matter of asking what sort of structures of experience result, rather than how they come to be formed.

The poem BoW gives a very interesting account of this problem, I believe, in the thinking of the *circuit* that we are enmeshed in when responding to “failure”. I want to emphasize that we are still in a circuit, and that we will always be concerned with circuits, ie, rather than with the peices of construction or “disruption” — that is, not so much that we are always in a system, but that we will only be considering systems, that systems are what are important. This is sort of like psychohistory: what are systems, what are these temporal circuits of experience? And yet we claim to study them. All we care to say is that the formation of such processes is “automatic” — it involves the mind — which is much like saying that we don’t much want to deal with the technical details of neurons firing and the such — we don’t know the details but it is *conceivable*. So this is kind of our “science fiction” moment.

And likewise with failure: failure is not a disruption, it is not a kind of disassembling, but I is the immediate movement to another circuit, and really a more interesting circuit. I mean, looking at Boy of Winander even summirarily, we understand how “literary” it is, since it is about some kind of encounter with the void or something, it is about a moment of intense personalism. It is a thinking of how we may learn from “nature”, if you will, but this form of learning — or rather, the tuning of our temporal circuits — differs radically from the leaning that takes place in the beginning, where the boy calls out to and receives responses from the owls across the lake. Can we make, then, the distinction between a technical learning involving a technical feedback and a learning that one undergoes without, apparently, feedback, without the pleasure principle, or something?

In the poem itself, the line of interest involves this sense of “stabilization”:

Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

So what’s interesting here is that the natural scene does pose as a kind of negativity, yet it is also someting that is organized by some logic. When we view the natural scene, in that moment of silence, it is no longer simply the absence of the voice of the owls. Nor, on the other hand, is it a strictly phenomenal or unmediated moment. But rather, though we don’t know what, something has been found, so that a “circuit” continues to occur. We manage to take something out of that scene and learn something from it.

Of course, this is, in a sense, “an error”. There is no profound “truth” being learned here — we do “find” something but by the very fact that we were able to find it means that it cannot possibly be “true”. But nonetheless it seems that the circuit is an expression of something, or, perhaps, it is something that seems to organize our world.

… I want to think about this from a mnemonic perspective, and, I want to reintroduce this notion of “fumbling” which I think we talked about earlier. Fumbling is an essential part of all temporal circuits, it is that moment when we await something, or when we function automatically. But earlier we conceived of this process linearly, I mean, fumbling as a working, automatically but from memory, towards a solution, and then the amazed arrival at that solution. Here, fumbling must be thought of as, not so much a moment of disruption, but as a —-




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