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Chapter 9

A portion of the star-filled sky, including a rich section of the central Milky Way, seen by Na and his companions after leaving the solar system

Nocturnal Reflections

          Though still the brightest gem in the sky, Suol was fading toward anonymity as the trio raced outward through the tenuous cloud of icy cometary debris in the peripheral reaches of their native planetary system, toward an ambiguous future. The distance from their old lives and home swelled inexorably with each passing noc. Who could know if they would ever return? While Ulixis chose to sleep and dream secret fantasies, Na and Nemo shifted into enhanced temporal mode to pass the vacant time in conversation.
          "Why were the octos so slow to recognize that the reys are an intelligent species?"
          Nemo responded without hesitation, as if he had rehearsed his answer. "The odds seemed so small for even a single intelligent life form to evolve on our home planet. That two might independently evolve at virtually the same time was unthinkable."
          "Yet viroids are known to pass genetic information between distinct species. Couldn't this explain a coevolution of octan and rey intelligence?"
          "In principle, though it still seems too far fetched to me. And how do you explain the nearly simultaneous emergence of intelligence – as it were – among simions on Aerth?"
          "I find it somehow comforting to know that there are still so many puzzles, so many mysteries."
          "That reminds me, Na. How are you doing with your project?"
          Na had decided to prepare a treatise comparing the philosophies and religions of octos and reys. Since there was still scant formal documentation of rey beliefs, and Na was a rare expert on the subject, it was a natural undertaking. Nemo would review and edit the work, to make its format more academic. The final product would then be transmitted back to Jopitar. "I was hoping to discuss with you octan views concerning animal consciousness. The literature is pretty perplexing."
          "There was so much confusion historically. Our ancestors first believed that both animate and inanimate objects possessed their own unique conscious spirits, so animal awareness was nothing special. With the scientific revolution, consciousness of inanimate things became superfluous, but then animal consciousness became an enigma. It was attributed to all sorts of bizarre things – a small organ in the brain stem, a threshold level of brain complexity."
          "But inanimate processes certainly occur that are every bit as complex as a thinking brain."
          "That did not stop philosophers from trying to define an appropriate type of complexity. Logicians finally demonstrated that the very concept of content without awareness is meaningless; that every meaningful aspect of every meaningful thing, whether a star or an octan being, must partake in some sort of consciousness."
          "I understand that Fleegello once said, 'If the inanimate universe has no consciousness, why am I not unconscious as well? If the world is just an automaton, why am I not an automaton too?' "
          "Indeed. Yet we know individually that we are not automatons."
          "Then the ancients were right? Inanimate objects are inhabited by spirits?"
          "Not exactly; our ancestors believed that every distinct object – a favorite pruning tool, a totem pugroote – had its own, separate consciousness. Our current paradigm holds that the entire physical panuniverse collectively shares a single, coherent awareness."
          "This is a bit like rey beliefs. While reys speak as if the clouds, the rain, the wind are individually alive, their awareness is unified in a supreme Mother/Father/Other Spirit."
          "And the purported origin of this Being?" A touch of sarcasm tainted Nemo's question.
          "You know that reys don't normally worry about such things. The essence of Maddee is shrouded in Holy Mystery, to be experienced and not analyzed. I appreciate that most octos aren't content with this attitude." An inactive comet swept by in frigid silence 70 bevurets away. Its faint glimmer in Suol's anemic light barely registered in Na's awareness. "The set of all consistent abstract relationships – that's what octos believe to be the content of the physical universe, isn't it? Where is our purpose in this? Are we all just accidents in an impersonal cosmic rhyme?"
          "What is so terrible about that? Is it not ultimately more empowering to grasp a humbling truth than to believe in a self-aggrandizing lie?"
          "Yet isn't the physical universe supposed to be only a subset of a still larger conscious field? One that recognizes all consistent truth, including the physical generation of unique animal consciousness, with all our dreams and nightmares, joy and pain?"
          Nemo would have nodded agreement, if he could. "The octo Dama; the philosopher's Consistency Ideo Field. The timeless omniscient One, with myriad faces. Now the nurturing Mother, then the demanding Father, so often an impersonal It fulfilling a cold but irrepressible abstract will."
          "This is not unlike the rey vision of Maddee. Yet Dama seems to me much more abstract and impersonal than Maddee."
          "I must admit, there have been times when the standard concept of Dama was too impersonal even for me. I would then fall back to the ancient name Alleh, referring to a more personal vision of a masculine monotheistic God, from an earlier era. I find that this name can have more emotional resonance, though its use has long been out of favor among most octos. It is most commonly used in the more traditional hives."
          "I too sometimes revert to the ancient, explicitly female name for our universal spirit – Mallah. Reys use this name sparingly." Na peered at the frozen pattern of remote and aloof stars that threatened to entomb them. He felt a disturbing tug back to the familiar safety and intimate purpose of a rey tribe, or even an octan hive. "You acknowledge Dama, yet still maintain that every aspect of animal behavior can be completely described by purely physical processes?"
          "Octos distinguish between content that is actively responsible for its ongoing existence, and content that is generated by and dependent on an underlying stratum, most notably Dama. We refer to the former as endogenous, and—"
          "Yes, while animals and synons have exogenous consciousness, and are known as ectobeings. I know all that. Still, if the atoms of the body and brain of an exogenous creature share such an intimate, holistic consciousness with the entire universe, how can a separate, unique consciousness be generated at all?"
          "Are you familiar with ambiguous profiles? My favorite can be seen as either a white vase against a black background, or two opposing black octan profiles against a white background. Is either interpretation any more correct than the other?"
          Na responded with suspicious hesitation. "Of course not. Both are equally valid."
          "Just so, a physical brain can embody bounded content not inherent in its purely physical aspects, even while its behavior can be described solely in terms of physical processes. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. The new content field must have its own awareness, or it would not exist in any meaningful sense."
          "What about free will? If I am completely determined by physical processes outside my unique awareness, am I then just deluded into believing that I control my own destiny?"
          "Think of the ambiguous profiles again. Many aspects of your behavior can be alternatively explained in terms of conscious psychological processes, a unique will. While the description is not as complete as the physical one, it is just as valid where it works. You then have an effective free will, to the limited extent that your conscious will matches your personal experience."
          "I know from my own experience that I am not just a mindless automaton. Still it is so difficult to understand this rationally." Na could recite the logical arguments of standard octan philosophy, but had not (yet?) fully integrated or accepted them. He decided to change the subject. "I am impressed that you were an editor for the Otkin-Utalk Project."
          "Only a junior student editor. I was responsible for a rather minor area concerning early octan views toward nature and the physical sciences, mainly dealing with the Fleegello Principia manuscript. I cannot believe my luck to have been involved when the treasure trove of fresh material was uncovered from the ice at the deep archeological dig on Moon-3." Nemo squinted open one eye to see if he could still spy that cold mote orbiting his home world. He had been flying for the past few rohs with every eye tightly cloaked. No matter how accurate the flight simulators had been, they failed to convey the full reality of space flight. His conversation with Na was a calming distraction from a state of suspended animation. Through a half-open iris, Nemo located Jopitar and her retinue of moons with a sense of relief. What would he do when there was no familiar planet port to anchor his soul? Perhaps when Jopitar faded from view, Suol would serve the purpose for a time. He noted that his star of origin had acquired a subtle reddish tinge.
          "And the stars ahead of us have grown slightly blue," injected Na. "Doppler effect?"
          "Yes. Though I must remember to shield my thoughts when I want privacy."
          "I seem to have much less trouble understanding octan physics than I do comprehending your philosophy."
          "That's not too surprising; it is much more descriptive and concrete-predictive, as opposed to interpretive and abstract-analytic."
          "In particular, why do octos insist on interpreting the probabilistic character of quantum theory in terms of parallel worlds? If I predict the probabilities of different outcomes in an experiment, and then observe only one of the possibilities, why not simply say the others did not occur? Why insist that during the experiment my world – including my own self – split into a multitude of parallel worlds, each with a different outcome in accordance with the predicted probability distribution?"
          "Mainly for the sake of sheer logical consistency. The common early interpretation of quantum physics was in fact just what you propose. Though a famous scientist of the period is supposed to have protested that "Dama does not play dice." Consistency logic – the logic that most octos strive to follow, and that we believe Dama embodies – asserts that X=X for any and all arbitrary X. Logicians demonstrated long ago that this requires that all things be completely determined. But then the narrow positivistic interpretation of quantum physics is not acceptable. The only way a quantum world can be completely deterministic is for it to branch in time, and not remain linear as in the usual classic view."
          "Here we go again! Doesn't X=X define what '=' means?"
          "Initially yes, but thereafter you are free to follow the interpretation consistently, or contradict it. This is a moral choice. " Nemo koomed inwardly. Na still had difficulty accepting this notion. "The stated assertion of consistency logic assumes that '=' has already been defined. Of course you must also consistently interpret X as an object in its entirety, to avoid the confusion some mystics promote when they argue X≠X, by comparing two different aspects of the same thing."
          "But if every thing must be completely determined, what about the initial moment of the physical world? What about Dama – or Maddee?"
          "The most basic entities are endogenous, and must explain themselves, through themselves. This is the essence of the ideobasic philosophic and religious traditions."
          "You mean, as in 'Dama is, that Dama is'?"
          "Yes. Since the only meaningful existence lies in conscious awareness, then consistency logic must exist a-priori, or it would contradict itself."
          "All right. But if our universe is continually splitting into multitudinous parallel worlds, how do you or I retain any kind of continuity of self?"
          "A self at any given moment in any particular world is the end product of a history. A memory of this history, and nothing else, gives you a sense of continuity. You cannot access the memories of your alter selves in parallel worlds, because they are not causally available to you, through the patterns of quantum physics and the physical structure of your brain. Indeed, brain design defines the nature and the limits of the parallel worlds for each creature."
          "I still feel more comfortable with the positivistic interpretation. So much of your logical argument reminds me of a debate over how many angels can dance on the end of a thistle."
          "How can you say that, when rey philosophy is so full of wild speculation?"
          "Rey philosophy is mostly metaphor. It is meant to offer guidance in life, not to be interpreted in any strict, analytic way." Na paused for a moment. "Guidance in living, and in facing death. Truly, how analytic is octan philosophy when it comes to dying?"
          This question did not outwardly faze Nemo, who responded in a matter-of-fact tone. "We choose to believe that a mortal individual can persist, as an endogenous being with its own independent time line, when the direct connection with the physical world is severed. As long as the will of the person is self-supporting, and explicitly seeks to continue. Of course no living soul knows for certain. The conclusion is a convenient application of logic, which cannot be verified, or known. Short of dying."
          "But if the physical world is continually branching into endless alternative outcomes, won't there always be at least one line along which an exogenous creature will survive from one moment to the next? No matter how diseased or decrepit a body, how disastrous an accident, won't there always be some unlikely twist by which a person might survive? A person cannot find himself in one of the more likely worlds in which he no longer exists. I only hope I don't someyad find myself funneled into a progression of less and less likely worlds in which I remain barely alive and conscious, but am otherwise incapacitated and miserable."
          Nemo cast a convoluted koom at Na. "Why do you worry about such things? Apart from disagreeing with your analysis, what could anyone ever hope to do about such an eventuality? At least take comfort that we all must face death, equally."
          Na was confounded by Nemo's self-serving response. What ever happened to the pre-eminence of Truth? "What frightens me most about death comes from a personal experience as a young organic, when I became seriously ill with a viroid infection. I will forever remember the sense of loss as the disease sucked awareness out of my very being. If death is an extrapolation to total bodily dysfunction, then it must represent a complete extinction of individual being. It is difficult on a gut emotional level to accept anything else. Perhaps a lingering fear of death is why I finally agreed to become a meton."
          "Yet you sleep regularly, and reawaken to full awareness. If your subjective personal time line can skip intervals of physical world time, why could it not split away altogether? When there is no longer anything binding it? The physical universe might not exist, yet it does exist, presumably on its own. There is no body, no external environment to sustain it."
          "Yes, I know. But it's all so confounding!"
          "I have distracted you from your project long enough. I think I will join Ulixis for a while, and clear my mind."
          Nemo drifted off, but Na wasn't yet ready to work on anything. Instead he began chanting an ancient rey ballad, of the first rey hurled from the anvil of the Mother of all thunderclouds, facing an uncertain destiny in the dry, empty sky below. Gradually Na relaxed, and entered an expanded sensory state. He absorbed the full three-dimensional swirl of stars that engulfed him, and fell dumbfounded through the floor of the night.

          Nemo had decided to slip into dream mode, rather than sleep. He was a child again, in the slumber den he shared with five brothers. A ragged hole in the wall caught his attention. Probably Cidie did it. Nemie crawled inside. A nest of ents had invaded the space. Saturated with ent secretions, the entire superstructure had begun to rot. Afraid the outer wall would cave in on him, Nemie squirmed past. More ents, more nests, more decay and stench, every way he turned. How, why had his father let this happen? Finally he made it to the end of a deep, familiar closet. Nemie leaned against the secure plastelle, and sighed relief. He liked playing here, in the cool darkness. As he moved the Zon toy along the wall, he felt a slight bump. His own private trap door, still hidden there after all those jopes. Nemie gently pried it open, and entered the secret passage, pulling himself upward through a winding tunnel. He paused only a moment to peer down through narrow slats at his parents, sleeping soundly in their cramped lair below. Nemie emerged at last into an ancient, sprawling attic, filled with dusty chests and sparkling treasures. But a small port in the far wall drew him to it. Nemo peered out, into absolute blackness. Frightened, he squeezed through the hole. Falling. Falling through inky black nothing. Why couldn't he fly? He should be able to fly. This was a dream, wasn't it? After all, the moon was in the wrong place in the sky. Moon? What was a moon? Nemo stared up from a cold resting place, at a stark crescent in an icy sky.


Pure White on Black
Pure Black on White
Timeless Being

Broken by the Prism
of animal awareness
into convoluted contours,
complexity unbounded.

Now becomes a memory;
the past invents tomorrow –
time is born.

Separation is unchained.