Friday, January 2, 2015

A Reaction to Peter Watts' "Echopraxia"

Peter Watts’ Echopraxia is a side-sequel to his previous hard sf horror novel Blindsight. Daniel Bruks, a biologist in the Eastern Oregonian desert, gets stuck in the middle of a war between a fugitive vampire and a cult of rewired post-humans called Bicamerals, ultimately kidnapped by them as they head towards the sun. The goal of post-human and vampire alike is to investigate a possible alien intelligence gaining strength there, to determine if it poses a threat, or offers a weapon for the two sides as they struggle for advantage. Bruks' goal is simple survival.

Reading Watts is a simultaneously bracing and discouraging experience. Bracing because his depiction of the future and the oddities who inhabit it continue to get better and better, his plots more complicated and more involving, his characters less like sock-puppets for his ideas and more like actual human beings (or whatevers).

Discouraging because Watts uses his considerable gifts, artistic and academic, in the service of a singularly depressing set of ideas gaining percolating up from fields as diverse as physics, neurology, and nihilistic philosophy. Echopraxia suggests that the future belongs to predatory intellects, forces far more powerful than man, incapable of truly being understood by human beings.

I’ve noticed a mixed reaction to the novel mainly centered on the opacity of the characters’ actions. In particular, the hard sf vampire Valerie seems to be almost unbelievably over-powered compared to the other characters, even outwitting finally the hive-mind bicamerals. And in regards to the hive-mind, the overall reaction seems to be that we don’t get a real sense of what they do, other than a few sort of beyond future tech exploits. Personally I’m not sure, given the constraints of what Watts is describing that much can be done, dramatically speaking, with the inexplicable and near omnipotent Bicamerals than was done. When your plot includes walking and talking deux ex machina, you keep them off stage as much as possible.

Besides, one senses Watts is far more interested in his vampires anyway. Not so much for the science, which he more or less described completely in Blindsight’s afterward, but for the deeper questions of causality.

The power of the vampire is the ability to perfectly mirror the minds of sentient beings without being encumbered by such low utility cognitive processes like empathy and creativity. With a vampire it is all calculation and reaction. And Watts suggests that being so keyed into the chain of cause and effect allows a vampire to use even small gestures to program the humans around her. Social engineering raised to the level of symphonic manipulation.

It is through Valerie’s sustained and involved machinations that Watts’ true target emerges: free will. Personally after being lead step-by-step through the logic behind the essential pointlessness of cognitive self-awareness in Blindsight, the idea that deluded beings such as we might not have a say in our own actions is a much smaller conceptiual leap. I don’t think Watts sees it like this. His starting place is to point out free will seems so important to us is because we have evolved to cling firmly to that notion.

A deconstruction of consciousness and free will has been bubbling gradually to the surface of the pop culture for some time. "True Detective’s" Rust Cole, by voicing Thomas Ligotti's nihilism, pointed to this cage. The same actor, Matthew McConaughey gave the rationalist’s viewpoint in Christopher Nolan’s "Interstellar," memorably describing love as a biologic imperative.

The best and clearest exploration of that idea I’ve read this year comes from Watts, however. I say best because I feel as though with Watts, we get a true accounting for the ramifications of saying that consciousness is an illusion, and that free will a reflection of an individual’s imperfect understanding of the world. I say clearest because Watts seems to relish revealing the underpinnings of his speculation through copious (perhaps exhausting) footnotes and author notes. Much more so than I can do here, Watts illustrates the theoretical underpinnings of this brand of neuroscience. I personally enjoy these sections immensely because I feel as though the science and ideas Watts distills in his narrative would be rather difficult to shoehorn into his narrative, and somewhat independent of it.

Watts embraces an intensely atheistic moralism, almost a fundamentalism of a certain type of gimlet-eyed realism. He is not immune from gee-whiz technology's allure, but he is also somehow dismissive of the whole endeavor. Ultimately, he suggests the ability of mankind to affect positively or negatively the world around us is on the wane, perhaps to the advantage of the universe as a whole.
An underlying question that Watts seeks to explore in this novel and perhaps elaborate upon in a future work, is the notion of faith or God within the context of pure rationalism. Again, this seems like a strange step backwards. If consciousness is an illusion, free will a joke, why would God be any different? The difference is that Watts, expressing a pure mechanistic view of the universe, with every action the result of a previous event, runs into a prime-mover question. What caused all of this to be? Run the clock backward and you can, theoretically, trace all trajectories and explosions to the one moment where the universe sprang to fiery life. But what about before?

Watts isn’t really throwing himself into the “wand shaking, weird hat” (paraphrasing Watts) side of the faith/science divide and for that matter, neither am I. What he is doing is expressing the consequences of developing that degree of skepticism. In that back of Echopraxia Watts describes the emerging field of digital physics, which seeks to resolve the mysteries of the natural world by postulating all physical phenomena are the result of some kind of underlying calculation. This could be a literal "the-cosmos-is-a-computer,” or some variety of the holographic universe theory, or even the newest favorite of listicles from Buzzfeed to Slate: that the universe is actually a simulation created far in the future. The problem of such notions is that they pull farther away from the predictive power of classical science. Whether you imagine the universe as the result of some infinitely long mathematical function or the procedurally generated reality of the Matrix, you are left in an uncomfortable bind. If the universe is artificial, how can we say we know anything about it? What if the reason stars around distant galaxies don’t behave like we expect them to isn’t because of dark matter or dark energy but just because the constants of the universe are written different over there. That the universe is context-specific.

I disturbing thought, almost as disturbing as Watts final point which is, even when shown the truth behind consciousness and free will, the average baseline (Watts’ term, not mine) clings ever more vigorously to whatever logic-proof system assures them of their own ability to make choices. At most, convinced of a lack of personal agency, a person might act in an amoral fashion for a time before returning to familiar ethical patterns.

Update: A few stylistic changes to improve clarity.
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