As translated by Edith Grossman, Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera begins:
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
An unhealthy longing. Unidirectional affection is often based on an illusion, with the besotted failing to see the whole complex, contradictory, living person in front of them.
Infatuation can feel overwhelming: the scent of bitter almonds, which about 40% of us can’t detect (early in my research career, a lab director counseled that “You should find some and check, you’ll be safer if you know whether or not you can smell it”) is cyanide, an agent of suicide. A release from the emotions that a person momentarily believes they cannot live with.
Throughout high school and college – bumbling through social situations as an undiagnosed, awkward, empathetic autistic person – I was prone to unrequited love. I could recognize when a classmate was intelligent, friendly, and fun; I understood less about the scaffolding of mutual care that might allow for reciprocal love to grow.
And so I grew adept at expressing unrequited affection: heartfelt handwritten letters; delivering home-cooked meals; offering compassion and care when a person I dreamed about sick; making fumbling offers to hold hands during an evening we spent jaunting about together.
It wasn’t love, exactly, which between adults needs both trust and the accumulation of shared memories to grow, but it was something. An imagined swirl of possibility that helped me feel hopeful about the future. In Love and the Time of Cholera, a character maintains his unrequited love for fifty-three years before finally building a reciprocal relationship:
Then [the captain] looked at Florentino Ariza, his invincible power, his intrepid love, and he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.
Unrequited love is unhealthy, and it surrounds us. The world depends on our desire to care, our willingness to occasionally sacrifice our own interests for the benefit of others.
Every consciousness, whether human or animal, loves differently. When we love animals, we love creatures whose conception of love we’ll never fully understand. We love creatures whose love for us will always be different from our love for them.
But isn’t this, you might wonder, the state of loving other people as well? Aren’t we always flinging our desire at the opacity of another person, and receiving care we cannot fully comprehend?
A friend recently contacted me in the middle of the night: he and his spouse just had their first child, and – surprise, surprise! – they weren’t sleeping.
“Right now,” my friend told me, “he’s quiet if he’s nursing, or if we’re walking around with him in the carrier, but other than that, he’ll wake up and yell.”
I tried to think of what cheerful advice I could possibly give. “Sometimes I’d put my kids in the carrier,” I said, “then bounce on an exercise ball while I watched TV, to trick them into thinking we were walking.”
“Hey!” shouted my six-year-old, who was drawing cartoon monsters at my feet. “You tricked us!”
“Yup,” I told her, “and you’ll be glad to know how I did it, in case you’re ever trying to soothe a baby.”
For most of human evolution, most people’s lives were intimately entwined with their whole community. New parents would have watched other people raise children. But in recent years, upper and middle class Americans have segregated themselves by age. After leaving college, many rarely spend time around babies until having their own. And then, wham! After only a few months preparation, there’s a hungry, helpless, needy being who needs care.
Those first few weeks – which hazily become the first few months – are particularly punishing because very young babies can express contentment or angst, but not appreciation. New parents upend everything about their lives to provide for these tiny creatures, and they’re given so little back. In the beginning there are no smiles, no giggles or coos – just a few moments’ absence of yelling.
Upon reflection – thinking about the handwritten letters that my spouse and I have penned in journals for our children, interspersed with bits of their art that we’ve taped to the pages; all the excessively bland meals I’ve cooked; the doting cuddles and care when their stuffy noses made it hard for them to breathe; my continued insistence that we hold hands when crossing busy streets – I realized that unrequited love was perhaps my major preparation.
“I guess it was nice,” I told my friend, “that after all those years, I finally had a relationship where unrequited love was considered healthy.”
Luckily for me, my friend was sleep deprived enough to laugh.
beginning of Genesis, God said, Let there be light: and there was
In her magisterial new novel The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie continues with this simple premise: a god is an entity whose words are true.
might say, “The sky is green.” Well,
personally I remember it being blue, but I am not a god. Within the world of The Raven Tower,
after the god announces that the sky is green, the sky will become
green. If the god is sufficiently
powerful, that is. If the god is too
weak, then the sky will stay blue, which means the statement is not true, which
means that the thing who said “The sky is green” is not a god. It was a god, sure, but now it’s dead.
And so the deities learn to be very cautious with their language, enumerating cases and provisions with the precision of a contemporary lawyer drafting contractual agreements (like the many “individual arbitration” agreements that you’ve no doubt assented to, which allow corporations to strip away your legal rights as a citizen of this country. But, hey, I’m not trying to judge – I have signed those lousy documents, too. It’s difficult to navigate the modern world without stumbling across them).
careless sentence could doom a god.
But if a god were sufficiently powerful, it could say anything, trusting that its words would reshape the fabric of the universe. And so the gods yearn to become stronger — for their own safety in addition to all the other reasons that people seek power.
In The Raven Tower, the only way for gods to gain strength is through human faith. When a human prays or conducts a ritual sacrifice, a deity grows stronger. But human attention is finite (which is true in our own world, too, as demonstrated so painfully by our attention-sapping telephones and our attention-monopolizing president).
And so, like pre-monopoly corporations vying for market share, the gods battle. By conquering vast kingdoms, a dominant god could receive the prayers of more people, allowing it to grow even stronger … and so be able to speak more freely, inured from the risk that it will not have enough power to make its statements true.
haven’t yet read The Raven Tower, you should. The theological underpinnings are brilliant,
the characters compelling, and the plot so craftily constructed that both my
spouse and I stayed awake much, much too late while reading it.
Raven Tower, only human faith feeds gods.
The rest of the natural world is both treated with reverence – after all,
that bird, or rock, or snake might be a god – and yet also objectified. There is little difference between a bird and
a rock, either of which might provide a fitting receptacle for a god but
neither of which can consciously pray to empower a god.
our own world hosts several species that communicate in ways that resemble
human language, in The Raven Tower the boundary between human and
non-human is absolute. Within The
Raven Tower, this distinction feels totally sensible – after all, that
entire world was conjured through Ann Leckie’s assiduous use of human language.
people mistakenly believe that they are living in that fantasy world.
In the recent philosophical treatise Thinking and Being, for example, Irad Kimhi attempts to describe what is special about thought, particularly thoughts expressed in a metaphorical language like English, German, or Greek. (Kimhi neglects mathematical languages, which is at times unfortunate. I’ve written previously about how hard it is to translate certain concepts from mathematics into metaphorical languages like we speak with, and Kimhi fills many pages attempting to precisely articulate the concept of “compliments” from set theory, which you could probably understand within moments by glancing at a Wikipedia page.)
does use English assiduously, but I’m dubious that a metaphorical language was
the optimal tool for the task he set himself.
And his approach was further undermined by flawed assumptions. Kimhi begins with a “Law of Contradiction,”
in which he asserts, following Aristotle, that it is impossible for a thing
simultaneously to be and not to be, and that no one can simultaneously
believe a thing to be and not to be.
these assumptions seemed reasonable during the time of Aristotle, but we now
know that they are false.
research findings in quantum mechanics have shown that it is possible
for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be.
An electron can have both up spin and down spin at the same moment, even
though these two spin states are mutually exclusive (the states are “absolute
compliments” in the terminology of set theory).
This seemingly contradictory state of both being and not being is what
allows quantum computing to solve certain types of problems much faster than
a rebuttal for the psychological formulation, we have the case of free
will. Our brains, which generate
consciousness, are composed of ordinary matter.
Ordinary matter evolves through time according to a set of known,
predictable rules. If the matter
composing your brain was non-destructively scanned at sufficient resolution,
your future behavior could be predicted.
Accurate prediction would demonstrate that you do not have free will.
it feels impossible not to believe in the existence of free will. After all, we make decisions. I perceive myself to be choosing the words
that I type.
sincerely, simultaneously believe that humans both do and do not
have free will. And I assume that most
other scientists who have pondered this question hold the same pair of
seemingly contradictory beliefs.
of Contradiction” is not a great assumption to begin with. Kimhi also objectifies nearly all conscious
life upon our planet:
consciousness of one’s thinking must involve the identification of its
syncategorematic difference, and hence is essentially tied up with the use of
thinker is also a determinable being.
This book presents us with the task of trying to understand our being,
the being of human beings, as that of determinable thinkers.
Raven Tower is a fantasy novel. Within that world, it was reasonable that
there would be a sharp border separating humans from all other animals. There are also warring gods, magical spells,
and sacred objects like a spear that never misses or an amulet that makes
Kimhi purports to be writing about our world.
In Mama’s Last Hug, biologist Frans de Waal discusses many more instances of human thinkers brazenly touting their uniqueness. If I jabbed a sharp piece of metal through your cheek, it would hurt. But many humans claimed that this wouldn’t hurt a fish.
will bleed. And writhe. Its body will produce stress hormones. But humans claimed that the fish was not
actually in pain.
They were wrong.
consensus view is now that fish do feel pain.
may well ask why it has taken so long to reach this conclusion, but a parallel
case is even more baffling. For the
longest time, science felt the same about human babies. Infants were considered sub-human organisms
that produced “random sounds,” smiles simply as a result of “gas,” and couldn’t
scientists conducted torturous experiments on human infants with needle pricks,
hot and cold water, and head restraints, to make the point that they feel
nothing. The babies’ reactions were
considered emotion-free reflexes. As a
result, doctors routinely hurt infants (such as during circumcision or invasive
surgery) without the benefit of pain-killing anesthesia. They only gave them curare, a muscle
relaxant, which conveniently kept the infants from resisting what was being
done to them.
the 1980s did medical procedures change, when it was revealed that babies have
a full-blown pain response with grimacing and crying. Today we read about these experiments with
disbelief. One wonders if their pain
response couldn’t have been noticed earlier!
skepticism about pain applies not just to animals, therefore, but to any
organism that fails to talk. It is as if
science pays attention to feelings only if they come with an explicit verbal
statement, such as “I felt a sharp pain when you did that!” The importance we attach to language is just
ridiculous. It has given us more than a
century of agnosticism with regard to wordless pain and consciousness.
From this lecture, I also
learned that I was probably circumcised without anesthesia as a newborn. Luckily, I don’t remember this procedure, but
some people do. Chamberlain describes
several such patients, and, with my own kids, I too have been surprised by how
commonly they’ve remembered and asked about things that happened before they
had learned to talk.
didn’t subject them to any elective surgical procedures, anesthesia or no.
world, even creatures that don’t speak with metaphorical language have
Leckie does include a bridge between the world of The Raven Tower and
our own. Although language does not
re-shape reality, words can create empathy.
We validate other lives as meaningful when we listen to their stories.
narrator of The Raven Tower chooses to speak in the second person to a
character in the book, a man who was born with a body that did not match his
mind. Although human thinkers have not
always recognized this truth, he too has a story worth sharing.
I’m reasonably well-versed with small stuff. I’ve studied quantum mechanics, spent two years researching electronic structure, that sort of thing. I imagine that I’m about as comfortable as I’ll ever be with the incomprehensible probabilistic weirdness that underlies reality.
But although I helped teach introductory calculus-based physics, I’ve never learned about big things. I took no geometry in college, and most big physics, I assume, is about transferring equations into spaces that aren’t flat. The basic principle seems straightforward – you substitute variables, like if you’re trying to estimate prices in another country and keep plugging in the exchange rate – but I’ve never sat down and worked through the equations myself.
Still, some excellent pop-science books on gravity have been published recently. My favorite of these was On Gravity by A. Zee – it’s quite short, and has everything I assume you’d want from a book like this: bad humor, lucid prose, excellent pacing. Zee has clearly had a lot of practice teaching this material to beginners, and his expertise shines through.
Near the end of the book, Zee introduces black holes – gravity at its weirdest. Gravity becomes stronger as the distance between objects decreases – it follows an “inverse square law.”
If our moon was closer to Earth, the tides would be more extreme. To give yourself a sense of the behavior of inverse square laws, you can play with some magnets. When two magnets are far apart, it seems as though neither cares about the existence of the other, but slide them together and suddenly the force gets so strong that they’ll leap through the air to clank together.
But because each magnet takes up space, there’s a limit to how close they can get. Once you hear them clank, the attractive magnetic force is being opposed by a repulsive electrostatic force – this same repulsion gives us the illusion that our world is composed of solid objects and keeps you from falling through your chair.
Gravity is much weaker than magnetism, though. A bar magnet can have a strong magnetic field but will have an imperceptible amount of gravity. It’s too small.
A big object like our sun is different. Gravity pulls everything together toward the center. At the same time, a constant flurry of nuclear explosions pushes everything apart. These forces are balanced, so our sun has a constant size, pouring life-enabling radiation into the great void of space (of which our planet intercepts a teensy tiny bit).
But if a big object had much more mass than our sun, it might tug itself together so ardently that not even nuclear explosions could counterbalance its collapse. It would become … well, nobody knows. The ultra-dense soup of mass at the center of a black hole might be stranger than we’ve guessed. All we know for certain is that there is a boundary line inside of which the force of gravity becomes so strong that not even light could possibly escape.
Satellites work because they fall toward Earth with the same curvature as the ground below – if they were going faster, they’d spiral outward and away, and if they were going slower, they’d spiral inward and crash. The “event horizon” of a black hole is where gravity becomes so strong that even light will be tugged so hard that it’ll spiral inward. So there’s almost certainly nothing there, right at the “edge” of the black hole as we perceive it. Just the point of no return.
If your friends encounter a black hole, they’re gone. Not even Morse-code messages could escape.
(Sure, sure, there’s “Hawking radiation,” quantum weirdness that causes a black hole to shrink, but this is caused by new blips in the fabric of reality and so can’t carry information away.)
The plot of Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, revolves around a Romeo & Juliet-esque romance in the middle of intergalactic war, but most of the comic is about parenting. K read the entire series in two days, bawling several times, and then ran from the bedroom frantic to demand the next volume (unfortunately for her, Vaughan & Staples haven’t yet finished the series).
Saga is masterfully well-done, and there are many lovely metaphors for a child’s development.
For instance, the loss of a child’s beloved caretaker – babysitters, daycare workers, and teachers do great quantities of oft under-appreciated work. In Saga, the child and her first babysitter are linked through the spirit, and when the caretaker moves on, the child feels physical pain from the separation.
A hairless beast named “Lying Cat” can understand human language and denounces every untruth spoken in its present – allowing for a lovely corrective to a child’s perception that she is to blame for the traumas inflicted upon her.
Perhaps my favorite metaphor in Saga depicts the risk of falling into a black hole. Like all intergalactic travelers, they have to be careful – in Saga, a black hole is called a “timesuck” and it’s depicted as a developing baby.
My favorite scene in the film Interstellar depicts the nightmarish weirdness of relativistic time. A massive planet seems perfectly habitable, but its huge gravitational field meant that the years’ worth of “Everything’s okay!” signals had all been sent within minutes of a scout’s arrival. The planet was actually so dangerous that the scout couldn’t survive a full day, but decades would have passed on Earth before anyone understood the risk.
Gravity eats time.
So do babies. A child is born and the new parents might disappear from the world. They used to volunteer, socialize, have interests and hobbies … then, nothing.
In Philosophical Investigations (translated by G. E. M. Anscombe), Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that something strange occurs when we learn a language. As an example, he cites the problems that could arise when you point at something and describe what you see:
The definition of the number two, “That is called ‘two’ “ – pointing to two nuts – is perfectly exact. But how can two be defined like that? The person one gives the definition to doesn’t know what one wants to call “two”; he will suppose that “two” is the name given to this group of nuts!
I laughed aloud when I read this statement. I borrowed Philosophical Investigations a few months after the birth of our second child, and I had spent most of his first day pointing at various objects in the hospital maternity ward and saying to him, “This is red.” “This is red.”
“This is red.”
Of course, the little guy didn’t understand language yet, so he probably just thought, the warm carry-me object is babbling again.
Over time, though, this is how humans learn. Wittgenstein’s mistake here is to compress the experience of learning a language into a single interaction (philosophers have a bad habit of forgetting about the passage of time – a similar fallacy explains Zeno’s paradox). Instead of pointing only at two nuts, a parent will point to two blocks – “This is two!” and two pillows – “See the pillows? There are two!” – and so on.
As a child begins to speak, it becomes even easier to learn – the kid can ask “Is this two?”, which is an incredibly powerful tool for people sufficiently comfortable making mistakes that they can dodge confirmation bias.
(When we read the children’s story “In a Dark Dark Room,” I tried to add levity to the ending by making a silly blulululu sound to accompany the ghost, shown to the left of the door on this cover. Then our youngest began pointing to other ghost-like things and asking, “blulululu?” Is that skeleton a ghost? What about this possum?)
When people first programmed computers, they provided definitions for everything. A ghost is an object with a rounded head that has a face and looks very pale. This was a very arduous process – my definition of a ghost, for instance, is leaving out a lot of important features. A rigorous definition might require pages of text.
Now, programmers are letting computers learn the same way we do. To teach a computer about ghosts, we provide it with many pictures and say, “Each of these pictures has a ghost.” Just like a child, the computer decides for itself what features qualify something for ghost-hood.
In the beginning, this process was inscrutable. A trained algorithm could say “This is a ghost!”, but it couldn’t explain why it thought so.
From Philosophical Investigations:
And what does ‘pointing to the shape’, ‘pointing to the color’ consist in? Point to a piece of paper. – And now point to its shape – now to its color – now to its number (that sounds queer). – How did you do it? – You will say that you ‘meant’ a different thing each time you pointed. And if I ask how that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the color, the shape, etc. But I ask again: how is that done?
After this passage, Wittgenstein speculates on what might be going through a person’s head when pointing at different features of an object. A team at Google working on automated image analysis asked the same question of their algorithm, and made an output for the algorithm to show what it did when it “concentrated its attention.”
Here’s a beautiful image from a recent New York Times article about the project, “Google Researchers Are Learning How Machines Learn.” When the algorithm is specifically instructed to “point to its shape,” it generates a bizarre image of an upward-facing fish flanked by human eyes (shown bottom center, just below the purple rectangle). That is what the algorithm is thinking of when it “concentrates its attention” on the vase’s shape.
At this point, we humans could quibble. We might disagree that the fish face really represents the platonic ideal of a vase. But at least we know what the algorithm is basing its decision on.
Usually, that’s not the case. After all, it took a lot of work for Google’s team to make their algorithm spit out images showing what it was thinking about. With most self-trained neural networks, we know only its success rate – even the designers will have no idea why or how it works.
It’s possible to create images that most humans recognize as one thing, and that an image-analysis algorithm recognizes as something else. This is a rather scary opportunity for terrorism in a world of self-driving cars; street signs could be defaced in such a way that most human onlookers would find the graffiti unremarkable, but an autonomous car would interpret in a totally new way.
In the world of criminal justice, inscrutable algorithms are already used to determine where police officers should patrol. The initial hope was that this system would be less biased – except that the algorithm was trained on data that came from years of racially-motivated enforcement. Minorities are still more likely to be apprehended for equivalent infractions.
When an algorithm thinks that the shape of a vase is a fish flanked by human eyes, it’s funny. But it’s a little less comedic when an algorithm’s mistake ruins somebody’s life – if an incident is designated as a “gang-related crime”, prison sentences can be egregiously long, or send someone to solitary for long enough to cause “anxiety, depression, and hallucinations until their personality is completely destroyed.”