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Brains in Vats

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Paul
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Posted 10/09/05 - 3:50 AM:
Subject: Brains in Vats
This is a bit rough as I threw it togeather in one evening. Went with a play-like format since the non-dialogue parts just weren't working. Any suggestions for improvement are welcomed.

Our setting is the Vatorium, filled with people. The national brain exhibit draws hobbyists and fans from across the country.

A woman called Liz sits at a booth displaying her brain in a vat, like hundreds of others around her. Monitors provide a display of what the brain is seeing in its inner life. A man named John wanders the scene and stops at Liz's booth.

John: "Say, I like the looks of that. Where's yours right now?"

Liz [smiling, happy her exhibit has caught attention]: "He's climbing Mount McKinley, that's the peak you see him looking up at now. He's become quite an adventurer. Makes me so proud sometimes. You wouldn't believe how hard it was at first to find the right childhood stimuli to bring that about... I had to reset him a dozen times."

John: "Your efforts seem to have paid off, I'm impressed. Myself I'm just getting into the hobby, received my license and bought a brain last week. I'd really appreciate any tips you could give me, if you don't mind."

Liz: "Oh, not at all. We were all new once. The most important thing when you're starting is to get yourself a good vat. If you get one of the cheapest vats you're limited in what you can do with the brain, and it could even die from lack of proper nutrients. The model J73 is a good one at a reasonable price, I started with that and upgraded to a J95 after a year."

John: "Thanks, I'll look into that. How do you decide what to do, though? I mean, there are so many possibilities. I could have mine cope with an alien world, exist as a sentient computer, be the only intelligent rock in the world..."

Liz: "I think it's better to stick with what you know, so that you're able to control the conditions better to get the response you want. Most people try to have their brain live out the life they wish they'd had... that's what I'm doing, I always wanted to be an adventurer. Whatever you do, though, make sure you comply with the ethics regulations. If you put your brain through too much psychological trauma, like the frustration of being a sentient rock, they'll call it torture and revoke your license. It's very hard to get it back once they revoke it."

John: "Okay, I suppose as a beginner I should keep things simple anyway. Maybe I'll try to make her into an author."

A loudspeaker interrupts with an announcement.

Loudspeaker: "The judges have completed their evaluation and the winner of the 2006 brain cultivation award is about to come on stage to accept his prize. Please give him your full attention."

The winner walks carefully up to the microphone and sets his brain down on a table next to it.

Presenter: "Congratulations, Mister Vander! We're all most impressed by the experiment you're running. For the benefit of those who haven't seen your exhibit, perhaps you'd like to explain it in your own words."

Vander: "Yes, thank you. I'm greatly honored by this award, although I thought surely it wasn't worthy. To make a long story short, I wanted to make my experiment recursive. If you look at my display screen which is being projected for you now, you can see that my brain is in fact tending to his own brain in a vat at the moment."

The crowd murmurs in amusement and claps.

Vander: "Now, before you get the idea it's a simple joke, there's more to it than that. I wanted to make it truly recursive, so each brain in a vat's experience includes the experience of controlling another brain in a vat. Thanks to the features of my new model N491 vat, these are not merely imaginary brains within my brain in a vat. I've set the chemical output to induce cascading multiple personality disorder, so that each of the distinct minds which is controlled by another mind inside my brain in a vat actually exists. At present there are 39 of them, I rotate them in and out but of course they never notice a gap in their experience."

Presenter: "And that, ladies and gentleman, is the most complex set of personalities we've ever seen someone manage in their brain."

The presenter presents a certificate good for a lifetime of premium vat fluid. The crowd offers another round of applause. The ceremony is over. Liz and John turn away from the stage back toward each other.

Liz: "The universe might just consist of a stack of brains in vats. I run a brain in a vat, but I could be one myself. The person who runs me could in turn be one as well."

John: "Yes, that would be nice."

Liz: "Nice? I don't see how."

John: "If we're in a dream world, that means somewhere up there is a real world which has substance and importance, whatever those may be. We all want to wake up to something greater than we know, we want ourselves to be better than what passes for consciousness in this world, and that means we have to be asleep now."

Liz: "You're presuming a lot though. What if there is no top world? What if everyone's in a vat?"

John: "Just infinite layers of vats without end? It's vats all the way down?"

Liz: "It could be simpler. A small loop. Say I'm a brain inside your vat, and you're a brain inside my vat. We're both dreaming, but if either of us were to wake up we'd just be in the other's dream world."

John: "I hadn't thought of that, but I like the idea. Codependant dreams as the mechanism for creating reality."

Liz: "Being the creation of your creation appeals to you? Sounds depressing to me."

John: "A symbiotic relationship, two people creating each other and giving each other meaning and purpose. The mythical land of the awake may be an irrational, malformed hope born of our dissatisfaction with the universe and killed by our inability to imagine what the truer reality we're attempting to propose would be like. The land of the mutually created dreamers where each is real relative to the other, though... that could be."

Liz: "And when one of them dies?"

John: "Time stops. Only their time togeather exists, it's only in tending each other's vats that they make themselves real."
libertygrl
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Posted 10/09/05 - 10:42 AM:

that's really great. brilliant, i say. i laughed out loud at vander's first line. you've got a great knack for turning abstract concepts into tangible metaphors. i think the play format works really well, it keeps the dialogue moving at a good pace.

i'm not sure how i would improve on it, except to write a conclusion. if i had my way, it would be a love story in which john and liz individually and respectively decide on which metaphor best suited their worldview, and then, as a testament to their love, gradually come to understand and appreciate the validity of the other person's view.

that's just me, though. as it is, the story could go in any number of interesting directions and i'd love to read it if you decide to add more to the story.

thumb uplib
Paul
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Posted 10/09/05 - 4:56 PM:

That would work and strengthen it nicely, the only problem is I can't write love stories. :p Ah well. The ending is a bit abrupt, I agree, though that's partly for effect and emphasis.
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Posted 10/10/05 - 5:14 PM:

Hi Paul,

If you'll forgive the referencing, that's a very nice take on Cartesian Scepticism and also the imagery of Plato's cave. By stitching in an infinite regress, it fits in with Leibniz' cosmology as well.

As I say, sorry for the referencing, but what's a man to do with his philosophy; it needs an airing sometimes!

Good one, e.raised eyebrowzensmiling face
Paul
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Posted 10/10/05 - 5:48 PM:

I've been meaning to get around to Leibniz someday, but the monads always scare me off. How does he use an infinite regress?
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Posted 10/11/05 - 2:10 AM:

Hi Paul,

It's complex stuff, but as I remember he does it through conceiving of relations as being the fundamentals of the comsos, rather than specific obects (such as atoms or neutrinos).

His idea is that there is no end to relations, as there will always be a relation of a relation and on and on infinitely, hence the regress.

It does get a bit silly when he posits universes within universes, endlessly smaller or larger (a bit like looking at fractal graphics). I think I remember some crazy thing where someone challenged him, asking if we were expected to see little 'people' inside human spermatazoa.

His idea does have strength though, and it shows up in the ontologocal argument for the existence of God, for example.

If regresses, both benign and vicious, are such clear features of our logical landscape it seems reasonable to think that they will be features of our cosmology, at least for a rationalist, which Leibniz was of course.

Cheers, e
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Posted 11/28/05 - 11:14 AM:

It is pretty good. Actully I like a lot. Besides mutual meaning it is nice to think that somebody is looking out for us. smiling face
smokinpristiformis
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Posted 11/28/05 - 1:24 PM:

i don't like the idea of a reset though smiling face
mentalformation
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Posted 12/01/05 - 10:04 AM:

lol..
Paul
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Posted 12/07/05 - 9:16 PM:

I decided to spend some time today doing a rewrite/expansion to make the story a bit more romantic, difficult as that is when I've never been in a romance. wink I'd like to know if the ending feels more like an ending now that there's a beginning to put it in context. I can't seem to do much with the ending itself, anything more I can think of would seem too artificial and awkward. (What should they do... kiss, get married? :p)

I'm also concerned about whether the new beginning section is too disconnected from the rest.

Anyhow:


Two people, one thought.

"Alone," she thinks. "Completely alone," he thinks.

"Who am I," he asks himself, "that wanders the world in search of a switch to turn off a feeling in his own mind?"

"How will I recognize it when I find it? Perhaps I've already found it," she muses, "perhaps I see it every day and don't understand it."

They sit next to each other on the bus one morning, but say nothing, and remember nothing of each other an hour later. They walk by each other in the afternoon twice within a week. They pass in the isle at the grocery store one evening, glance at each other, and give it no thought. There is no wall between them save the invisible wall between all people.

The Vatorium overflows with a mass of people, hobbyists and fans from across the country drawn to the national brain exhibit. A woman called Liz sits at a booth in an obscure back corner, displaying her brain in a vat like hundreds of others around her. Bored by the masses who occasionally give her display a glance or pay her a quick compliment for it, she wonders what brought her here.

A man named John wanders the scene, glancing at the various exhibits but continuing past. He can think of no reason why he shouldn't find the displays interesting, yet he hasn't found in any of them what he's looking for. He doesn't know what he's looking for. After a half hour he comes to Liz's booth, and stops.

John examines the display screen which shows the brain's mental location, then speaks. "I like the looks of that. Where's yours right now?"

Liz smiles, seeing her work appreciated. "He's climbing Mount McKinley, that's the peak you see him looking up at. He's become quite an adventurer."

"That must've been difficult to train him for," he notes.

"You wouldn't believe how hard it was at first to find the right childhood stimuli to bring it about," she sighs. "I had to reset him a dozen times."

"Your efforts seem to have paid off," John nods approvingly, "I'm impressed. I'm just getting into the hobby, received my license and bought a brain last week. I'd really appreciate any tips you could give me, if you don't mind."

"Oh, not at all. We were all new once." Liz pauses for a moment to collect her thoughts, then proceeds with the wisdom her years of brain cultivation have brought her. "The most important thing when you're starting is to get yourself a good vat. If you get one of the cheaper vats you're limited in what you can do with the brain, and it could even die from lack of proper nutrients. The model J73 is a good one at a reasonable price, I started with that and upgraded to a J95 after a year."

John jots down the model numbers on a notepad. "Thanks, I'll look into that. How do you decide what to do, though? I mean, there are so many possibilities. I could have her cope with an alien world, exist as a sentient computer, be the only intelligent rock in the world..."

"It's better to stick with what you know," she advises, "so that you're able to control the conditions better to get the response you want. Most people try to have their brain live out the life they wish they'd had. That's what I'm doing, I always wanted to be an adventurer."

"Okay," he agrees, "I suppose as a beginner I should keep things simple. Maybe I'll try to make her into an author."

A loudspeaker interrupts with an announcement: "The judges have completed their evaluation and the winner of this year's brain cultivation award is about to come on stage to accept his prize. Please give him your full attention." Liz and John obediently turn their attention to the stage.

The winner walks carefully up to the microphone and sets his brain down on a table next to it.

"Congratulations, Mister Vander!" The presenter shakes his hand. "We're all most impressed by the experiment you're running. For the benefit of those who haven't seen your exhibit, perhaps you'd like to explain it in your own words."

"Yes, thank you. I'm greatly honored by this award, I thought surely I wasn't worthy. To make a long story short, I wanted to make my experiment recursive. If you look at my display screen which is being projected for you now, you can see that my brain is in fact tending to his own brain in a vat at the moment." The crowd murmurs in amusement and claps. "Now, before you get the idea it's a simple joke, there's more to it than that. I wanted to make it truly recursive, so each brain in a vat's experience includes the experience of controlling another brain in a vat. Thanks to the features of my new model N491 vat, these are not merely imaginary brains within my brain in a vat. I've set the chemical output to induce cascading multiple personality disorder, so that each of the distinct minds which is controlled by another mind inside my brain actually exists. At present there are 39 of them, I rotate them in and out but leave no memory gap so they don't notice."

"And that, ladies and gentleman," the presenter proudly declares, "is the most complex set of personalities we've ever seen someone manage in their brain."

The presenter presents a certificate good for a lifetime of premium vat fluid. The crowd offers another round of applause. The ceremony is over. Liz and John turn away from the stage back toward each other.

"The universe might just consist of a stack of brains in vats," Liz muses. "I run a brain in a vat, but I could be one myself. The person who runs me could in turn be one as well."

"Yes," John replies thoughtfully, "that would be nice."

Liz gives him a quizzical look. "Nice? How so?"

"If we're in a dream world," John explains, "that means somewhere up there is a real world which has substance and importance, whatever those may be. We all want to wake up to something greater than we know, we want ourselves to be better than what passes for consciousness in this world, and that means we have to be asleep now."

Liz considers the matter for a few moments. "You're presuming a lot though. What if there is no top world? What if everyone's in a vat?"

"Just infinite layers of vats without end?" He tries to imagine it. "It's vats all the way down?"

"It could be simpler," she clarifies. "A small loop. Say I'm a brain inside your vat, and you're a brain inside my vat. We're both dreaming, but if either of us were to wake up we'd just be in the other's dream world."

This ignites a spark of thought within him. "I hadn't considered that, but I like the idea. Codependant dreams could be the mechanism for creating reality."

Liz gazes at the brain in her vat for a moment before responding. "Being the creation of your creation appeals to you?"

"A symbiotic relationship," John suggests, "two people creating each other and giving each other meaning and purpose. The land of the awake is an irrational hope born of our dissatisfaction with the universe and killed by our inability to imagine what the truer reality we're attempting to propose would be like. The land of the mutually created dreamers where each is real relative to the other, though... that could be."

"And when one of them dies?"

"Time stops. Only their time togeather exists, it's only in tending each other's vats that they make themselves real."

Liz and John look toward the now empty stage for a moment, then turn toward each other. They see each other for the first time.



Edited by Paul on 12/07/05 - 9:40 PM
mentalformation
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Posted 12/08/05 - 10:13 AM:

Why is meaning so important? I like the begining. The tone dosent match the middle though. One of them needs to get lighter or more somber. If you had the begining section be a flashback it might mesh better, but that would ruin the shared thought bit. hmm
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Posted 12/08/05 - 10:17 PM:

I left it ambiguous, but for me the beginning is a sort of a general case (hence the generic he and she) and the rest is two particular people as an instance.

You're right about the tone difference though. It's hard to lighten the open, so I'll see how I can sink the mood of the rest into the depths where it belongs.

mentalformation wrote:
Why is meaning so important?


Isn't that like asking why meaning is meaningful?
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Posted 12/09/05 - 10:07 AM:

I like the humor in the middle though : ( . Maybe it could be dark humor? If someone is in a fire it is important that they get away, It is not nessisarily meaningfull.
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Posted 12/10/05 - 9:32 PM:

personally, i like the levity in the middle. not just for comic relief, but it also offers a brief period of introspection for john and liz while they reorganize their thoughts "toward" each other (if that makes sense). nice opening and closing, bravo. and it's a really great ending too because it's a beginning at the same time (my favorite kind of ending).

i love it! whee
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Posted 12/12/05 - 9:47 AM:

Honestly I don't even see the comic relief and have been wondering all along what the comments about it being funny meant, but it's nice to know it slips in effortlessly.

The beginning and end kind of borrow the general idea from a Quiet Please episode I Have Been Looking For You, though in that the moment of recognition at the end (which comes after they've passed each other searching but never talked) is the instant before her taxi runs him over and she dies of a heart attack... a slightly more final end. wink (But hey, they're both smiling in the morgue, which it turns out was part of the shared dream they had though they hadn't recognized it as the morgue.)

Edited by Paul on 12/12/05 - 10:00 AM
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Posted 12/12/05 - 10:04 AM:

the enthusiasm and ceremoniousness of the presenter congratulating mr. vander strikes me as funny, along with mr. vander's acceptance speech. the crowd murmuring in amusement and applauding is funny too. these are scientists who seem sincere about their work but somehow they don't take themselves *too* seriously, which is good. it's not about their egos, even though it is, in a way. lots of irony there, which also seems funny to me.
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Posted 12/12/05 - 10:18 AM:

Scientists... interesting. I saw it as more of a hobby for common (if rich) people, like instead of collecting stamps or yachting people fiddle with brains.
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Posted 12/12/05 - 10:20 AM:

hehe. that's even funnier.
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Posted 03/26/06 - 7:36 PM:



Saw some roots in the bottom of a beer mug labeled "Froenbrau Munich" as the brain in a vat. I think it suits the brain that it sits in a transparent vessel popularly used for German alcohol. I think he, the brain, is reading the newspaper.



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Posted 03/26/06 - 8:11 PM:

lol!
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#21 - Quote - Permalink
Posted 05/12/06 - 10:48 AM:

Love the story. The core idea is unbeatable, and the prize-winning brain is a great addition. If it were up to me, I'd streamline it down to the brain gestation story, and just leave the love story as a few subtle cues in the dialog... it's very clear-cut and concrete, which is a compelling way to represent such a complex idea.

For this reason, I'm actually personally more attracted to the original script version, which made it seem more surreal and life-like. It throws the conceptual core into greater relief. An abrupt conclusion doesn't bother me... I'd be happy to see it tied off with a few concluding lines.
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