Four Electric Ladies ... Contents
Copyright Ben Goertzel 1996 -- All Rights Reserved
My name is Vic. Victor Tymanski. It's not much of a name; I have to admit that. I always wanted a more interesting one. Zoltan Stargarden, I used to call myself, back in my early youth. Zoltan, Lord of the Unknown!
But that was a long time ago. I've well accepted my boring name, by now.
I was born in Ougadougou, the capital of Upper Volta. Very exotic, eh? My parents are American. I'm a dual citizen. My father worked in Upper Volta for five years, doing environmental research. I haven't been back there since I was a toddler. I don't remember much. Running naked in the jungle with tiny little Africans. Their uncircumcised penises bobbing up and down like crazy snakes. I have a few photographs.
After leaving Africa, I lived in California from age five and a half to age nine. Surrounded by hippies, children of hippies, assorted deviants and flower children. I stuck out anyway. All I wanted to do was sit around and daydream. My best friend, a gypsy, taught me how to play football. His mother kept him out of school when the planets were configured wrong.
Then we moved to Long Island, to the All-American suburbs, way past the outskirts of New York. No long haired guys, no brightly colored clothing, no one walking down the street smoking joints. Everyone so awfully normal and dull. I went to school in my beloved pink peace headband and looked like a freak. Hung out with retarded kids, slow kids, disturbed kids, kids with criminal tendencies. I was taught how to shoplift, how to drink and smoke dope.
But really, flirtations with the bad crowd notwithstanding, I was always pretty much a nerd. I always had my nose in a book, or else I was just sitting there thinking. I didn't have many friends. Tough kids used to hassle me, until they got tired of my bored nonresistance. I was a peculiar bird.
I never had a girlfriend until I left high school. Girls, young women, mystified me. An entirely different species from women over thirty. Sometimes girls seemed normal, just biological beings, going about their routines like every other animal, human or otherwise. Sometimes they seemed odious, perenially concerned with stupid, trivial things like makeup and clothes; judging me harshly on the basis of qualities that had nothing to do with me. And sometimes they seemed incomparably charming -- airy, magical beings. Doorways to another world.
Their breasts, their legs, their faces glowed with a kind of warm sorcery. I didn't understand why. I still don't, really. It's not the kind of thing you can understand. It goes beyond the mind, into the species.
I'm not going to try to impress you with how strange I was as a child, or how precocious. In most ways I was just like every other kid. In my early youth, I liked to read, and ride my bike, and play with LEGO blocks and toy soldiers and erector sets. I played tag and kickball; and I was a halfback on the local soccer team. My earliest vivid memory is watching Neil Armstrong moonwalk on TV; and from that point on, like millions of other kids, I wanted desperately to be an astronaut.
The most unusual thing about me was my intensely pensive nature. I was an inveterate daydreamer; and I also spent a lot of time in more concentrated, focused thought. I just really loved thinking things over. For example, every child learns the song "Row, Row, Row Your Boat": Row, row, row your boat Gently down the stream Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily Life is but a dream But, silly schmuck that I was, I sat there pondering the lyrics, taking them seriously. Maybe, I decided, life really was a dream. What would that mean? What were the difference between life and dreaming, actually? A longer persistence of focus in real life -- but this was a quantitative difference, not qualitative. A greater ability to reflect -- but then, in a lucid dream, I could reflect quite clearly. I turned the issues over and over. This commonplace child's song made an incredibly strong impression on me.
"Why," I would ask myself, "should you continue to row the boat, even if your life is just a dream? Why not just lay back and take it easy, if you're just going to wake up any minute? Is the song trying to tell me that rowing will make you merrier than just lying there?" I seriously thought about walking away from school in the middle of the day, when it got too deadly boring. Why not? I tried to wish myself away, wish myself up onto the roof as I might do during a lucid dream.
"When you're in the midst of a dream," I would think to myself, "and you realize that you're dreaming, you never, ever go along with the logical course of the dream. Just the opposite -- you try to break up the pattern. If you're dreaming about school, and you realize it, you jump out of the window of the classroom. If you dream about flying in an airplane and you realize it, you storm the cockpit and try to take over the pilot's seat. If you're talking to a pretty girl, you try to pull up her dress. If you ever realized you were dreaming about rowing a boat you'd probably jump out of the boat and try to swim underwater like a fish. You definitely wouldn't keep on rowing."
My main desire most of the time was to disappear. I wanted to run away to an alternate reality. There was a universe, I decided, just at the center of my thumb. A miniscule universe, full of stars and planets, quasars and pulsars and black holes and supernovae, and billions of miniscule civilizations. If I concentrated hard enough, I felt, I could shrink myself down and get inside it. But it never worked.
Let's see. What else is there? I pushed myself straight through school, like a good nerd should. Also extracurricular activities. Chess club, debating team. Piano lessons every weeks. Sure, I was gifted, but I had to work too, more than I liked to admit. I got my Ph.D. in mathematical physics just before I turned 22. But that turned rotten too. When I graduated, I couldn't find a job teaching physics anywhere. Too many physicists coming over from Russia and China. No decent research positions either. All the big companies were cutting down their research budgets, putting everything into development and marketing. I had to bounce around between low-paying postdoctoral fellowships, and high-paying but dreadfully dull computer programming jobs.
My dissertation was on "Feynman Checkerboards and Algorithmic Information." It was a Theory of Everything: a unified theory of gravity, electromagnetism, and weak and strong nuclear forces, based on discrete rather than continuous mathematics. It was my Theory of Everything. I loved it. I still love it. I'm still developing it today.
Oh, come on, Vic. So many old memories. Recent, distant, or timeless. Just images, faces, voices, locations, bouncing in and out of the void. I'm not going to blurt forth any more of them. It's all a bunch of shit.
Am I supposed to trace myself back to my ancestors? To identify the undertones of my being in which these ancient, worm-eaten corpses come to life? Worse yet, am I expected to search back through my childhood, to glean the patterns of my psyche from the vague, distorted, humungous world that I perceived as an infant, from the beatings I received at school, from the precocious conversations I carried out with my father as he sat there eyes glued to the tube?
Fuck that. Fuck that a million times. Why not, in fact, trace things back even further -- all the way back before the beginning of the sun, let alone the earth, back to the birth of the universe. If, by some chance fluke, that primordial lump of pre- geometric energy had cooled down a little bit slower, then I wouldn't be here today. Perhaps the human race would never have evolved. Or, if it had, it would have come about a little later, due to a slightly different chemical composition in the sun and the earth. Perhaps we would have come out with tails like monkeys. Or trunks like elephants. Or as marsupials. Or with a third eye. At any rate, there's very little chance that, in even a slightly different concatenation of circumstances, I, Victor Luneberg, would ever have come into existence.
This is what we physicists call chaos -- the magnification of tiny causes into huge, unpredictable effects. Our universe is ruled by chaos. There is order here, to be certain, but the order is underlaid by chaos, and we are not allowed to forget this. The order is floating up on top, always precarious, always ready to shift.
In fact, if you look closely enough at the laws of physics, you'll come to the remarkable conclusion that nothing is impossible. Even in classical thermodynamics, each macroscopic configuration of atoms has a certain nonzero probability. There's a certain nonzero chance that the computer I'm typing into will semi-instantaneously transform into a bronze replica of Mao Zedong's posterior. Very unlikely, true, but not impossible. And, in fact, what isn't very unlikely? My own existence is very unlikely too -- not as unlikely as some things, to be sure, but who really wants to toy with decimals? I've had enough of toying with decimals, for the rest of my life. Everything that happens is unlikely -- but that's the paradox of probability: you're absolutely guaranteed that something unlikely is going to happen.
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