Thinking Meat?

If other intelligent life DID find us on this small blue-green planet, what would they think? After I posted the Morning Links about our material and deterministic minds, a friend sent me a link to this charming short story: “Sentient Meat“.

So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.

They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.

That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.

I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in this sector and they’re made out of meat.

My favorite part comes a bit later:

So… what does the thinking?

You’re not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat.

Thinking meat??? You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat???

Yes, thinking meat ! Conscious meat ! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal ! Are you getting the picture?

Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.

Of course, in a sense we ARE machines, just biological machines. As T-Rex described it in Dinosaur Comics, each of us is a “machine that turns FOOD into IDEAS!”

(slightly shrunk, click here for the full-size, less-fuzzy comic)

Teaching the scientific method, with magic

(Written for 3 Quarks Daily)

If you wanted to teach people about science, you probably wouldn’t set out to write a fantasy novel. But the exceptional Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality – an ongoing series of online “fan fiction” by Eliezer Yudkowsky – borrows J.K. Rowling’s world and uses it as a vessel for a sophisticated guide to scientific thinking, while simultaneously crafting a far cleverer and more imaginative story than the original.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality isn’t primarily interested in teaching readers the “what” of science, even though it is liberally sprinkled with interesting facts about genetics, game theory, quantum mechanics, and psychology, among other things. Instead, as the title suggests, it’s about the “how” of science, conceived of not in the narrow sense of research in a laboratory, but in the broader sense of the process of figuring out how anything in the world works.

Like his counterpart in the original series, this Harry Potter is a seemingly ordinary British boy who is thrust into the magic world at the age of eleven. But unlike the mistreated waif of the original series, this Harry has grown up with caring, intellectual parents who bought him all the books he wanted and encouraged his analytic instincts. So when he finds himself plunged into a new, magical world, he immediately starts using that training to find the answers to a host of new questions that confront him: Who can I trust? Why are some people able to do magic and others not? Is there an afterlife? What are ghosts? And how does magic actually work?

Magic may not operate by the logic we’re used to in our world, Harry reasons, but it must operate by some logic. His attempts to methodically figure out what that is are some of the most intellectually enjoyable parts of the series. For example, it appears that you can cause a target to levitate by uttering the magic phrase “Wingardium Leviosa.” But what’s doing the actual work: the sounds made by the spellcaster’s mouth, or the concept in the spellcaster’s head?

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is an elegant time travel story by one of my all-time favorite science fiction writers, Ted Chiang. I think it’s really hard to write an internally consistent time travel story (i.e., one in which you can’t change your future) which also (1) is surprising, and (2) doesn’t feel contrived. The problem with most such stories is that you know ahead of time what the destination has to be, so all of the events which inexorably push things towards that destination often feel contrived, like you can see that the author made them happen for the purposes of the narrative. Which is a deathblow to fiction. By contrast, the events in Chiang’s stories don’t feel forced, even as they preserve temporal consistency.

I also appreciate that it lacks the moralizing tone that a lot of time travel stories have. In so many stories, there’s this distasteful undercurrent of, “You were arrogant enough to think you could escape your fate? Well, joke’s on you. You’re just as screwed as you were before (or worse).” Chiang’s stories don’t punish the characters for experimenting with time.

And the nested story structure is lovely — a nice nod to Scheherazade and the Thousand and One Nights.

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