Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What would you do?

Imagine one evening you meet a stranger at a bar. You exchange the usual social pleasantries and begin to establish a rapport, until the stranger gets a strange gleam in his (or her -- take your pick) eye, says, "You know....", and starts to spin a yarn of the most cockamamie conspiracy theory you have ever heard. Elvis being alive and responsible for the assassination of JFK would sound downright plausible compared to the fantastic ridiculousness of the story you are being told. You sigh inwardly to yourself about having wasted yet another evening hanging out with a person who turns out to be a wacko. Until at one point the stranger says, "And here's the evidence that this is all true," and sketches out an experiment that you could do that would falsify the theory. "OK, let's try it," you say. And off you go...

And then you wake up. It was all a dream. You breathe a sigh of relief, get up, take a shower...

But for some reason you can't get this crazy conspiracy theory out of your mind. Of course it can't be true (can it?). No, of course it can't. But the more you think about the more you realize that, yeah, it could be true, and that you really have to do this experiment to convince yourself that you haven't lost your grip. So you do.

And the result is exactly what the stranger in your dream predicted it would be.

You are, naturally, surprised, but your worldview has not yet been shaken to its foundation. After all, you have not proved that the conspiracy theory is correct, you have merely failed to disprove it. There are any number of other plausible explanations for why the experiment turned out the way it did. But the fact that it turned out this way doesn't help you sleep any better at night.

So you do what any good Scientist would: you repeat the experiment. And you get the same result. You design other experiments to test the theory, and every single one fails to disprove it.

Now, normally this would be the basis of a great scientific discovery. But the problem is that this is a conspiracy. It turns out that the world really is out to get you. You really are surrounded by aliens and pod people. (Of course, they have human DNA. But their thought processes are utterly different from yours. But they all put on this act to make them appear as if they were Just Like You. Mostly.)

You pinch and slap yourself to make sure that you aren't in the middle of a nested dream. Nope. You're awake. This is as real as it gets. Everything you thought was true about the world is wrong. And you can prove it. Reliably. Repeatedly. But only to yourself because, well, everyone else in the world (as far as you can tell) is an alien. You have somehow taken the blue pill, but instead of waking up outside the Matrix you find that what you thought was the real world is the Matrix. But there is no higher level reality that you can escape to. This is it.

What do you do? You can't talk to anyone about it because, well, everyone is an alien, and their reaction to your describing what is going on will be exactly the same as your reaction was to the stranger in your dream: They will think you're nuts. They will shun you. If you make to much noise about it they will put you in the padded room.

Maybe you are nuts? How would you know? Every experiment you do indicates that you are sane. You remember what life was like before, so you can still play the game. You are socially functional. You have a wife and a cat and a nice house in the burbs. You go to work. You pay the bills. If there were someone else out there who had come to the same realization to which you had come, they would never know that you were not an alien. And conversely, you reason, you would never know that they were not an alien. So there might be others out there like you. But you can't find them.

Unless... you manage to find a way to penetrate their dreams. That is the one way that you might be able to communicate what you have learned without risking ostracism and isolation. But that, of course, is impossible.

Isn't it?


Dennis Gorelik said...

And the actionable bottom line is ... ?

Ron said...

I wish I knew.

Unknown said...

this one wins the prize for lacking a point. lol.

in the beginning i thought its some real story at a bar. Then it turns into some classic philosophy scenario of detecting reality.

but then i thought there's some punch line...

Danston said...

Maybe you've found another way to to find others without risking ostracism. Write a blog post which could be taken as a fanciful, philosophical musing in the form of fiction by anyone who would reject you if they knew you actually believed it but would serve as a signal to anyone who had come to the same realization.

Either way, I found this post to be an interesting read. It makes me curious as to what the conspiracy theory could be, even if it's just a macguffin.

Jared said...

I also found the post interesting and I wondered if it was more of an allegory for a life-altering experience you had (specifically new knowledge gained) or if there really was some conspiracy theory that has rocked you to the core: like money being just a widely believed delusion (a truism), 9/11 being setup by Dick Cheney (I have no idea, just sounds crazy but hey maybe the facts back it up), or even Noam Chomsky's anarchist views being sickeningly compelling -- see this interesting former-programmer/blogger's reaction:

"It’s taken me two years to write about this experience [reading Chomsky], not without reason. One terrifying side effect of learning the world isn’t the way you think is that it leaves you all alone. And when you try to describe your new worldview to people, it either comes out sounding unsurprising (“yeah, sure, everyone knows the media’s got problems”) or like pure lunacy and people slowly back away."

Your post reminded me of AaronSW's reaction, so I dug up the link for you to read (it's a short blog post).

If you care to explain more about the details I hope some of your readers (myself included) would be interested in listening -- if you think it can be communicated. Perhaps like a religious conversion, you 'had to be there', although people still try to communicate those experiences anyway.

Ron said...

> If you care to explain more about the details I hope some of your readers (myself included) would be interested in listening -- if you think it can be communicated. Perhaps like a religious conversion, you 'had to be there', although people still try to communicate those experiences anyway.

Thanks, that's good to know.

There are two things going on. The first is that in pursuing some of these ideas I've been developing about religion-as-a-drug I've reached some very startling conclusions, some of which seem very much like conspiracy theories, but they all seem to hold up to rational scrutiny. In this regard I can really identify with AaronSW's post.

The second thing going on is that some of the interactions I've been having with people on (apparently) unrelated matters have taken some very surreal and troubling turns. I don't think there's any connection between these two things, but the timing sure seems weird.

It's hard to talk about either of these things because in the former case I will sound like a crackpot and in the latter like I'm wallowing in self pity. Which is why the Great Conspiracy seems to be a pretty good metaphor for my life right now, even though I don't really think there is a Great Conspiracy. But sometimes it can sure seem like it.

I'm going to keep trying to figure out effective ways to communicate all this stuff, but it might take a while.

Justin said...

Thanks for this post. Really, this is how most (all?) scientific discovery works. As you know, though, it's very difficult to control all the variables that conceivably could affect the outcomes in a non-lab environment.

That said, please continue to share your theories. Your religion-as-a-drug post was my favorite post of yours yet!

Dennis Gorelik said...

What kind of help/feedback do you expect from your readers regarding that post?

Ron said...

"Expect"? None. Hope for? That's a different question. I was hoping someone would come up with an answer. Yes, I realize that it's a Kobyashi Maru scenario. But even Kobyashi Maru had an answer if you thought far enough outside the box. Failing that, even just clicking on the "Read it" box in the reactions widget (assuming none of the other choices seem appropriate) is actually very helpful. I'm trying to figure out how to communicate some pretty crazy ideas without coming across like a wack job, and just knowing that someone read it and didn't think it was "bogus" is useful information. And of course it's always nice to know that I'm not just pissing in the wind.

Alan Crowe said...

Just come out and say it. I'll go first. Here I explain that I don't exist.

Ron said...

Alan, that is a terrific essay. Thanks for the pointer.

But I've known for a long time that I don't exist. The problem is that I cannot shake the illusion that I do in fact exist, despite the fact that I am actually convinced that I don't. Pursuing this line of inquiry leads to some conclusions that are pretty bizarre even by the usual standards of philosophy and quantum mechanics.

I came up with this Koan a while back to try to explain my (non-)religious beliefs to more traditionally religious people: I spoke to God and told him I don't believe in Him. God replied and said that I was right.

Becoming truly convinced of one's own non-existence is a pretty freakin' weird thing to have happen to one's (non-existent) self. But that is nothing compared to what's been happening to me lately.

Jared said...

> bizarre even by the usual standards of philosophy

By this do you mean even the more concrete (formal/mathematical) results of philosophy like Gödel's incompleteness theorem or the more conventional results of self-referential paradoxes? (I trust you are familiar with GEB? Even if Hofstadter's arguments are couched in metaphor, he (and others) have since dug deeper.)

Ron said...

Yes, I'm intimately familiar with GEB. I haven't read the followup though. It too seems to have landed with a thud, so I guess I'm in good company :-) (Hofstadter laments that GEB was widely misunderstood, so maybe I'm in good company there too.)