The mind is a camera obscura constantly trying to render an image of reality on the back wall of consciousness through the pinhole of awareness, its aperture narrowed by our selective attention, honed on our hopes and fears. In consequence, the projection we see inside the dark chamber is not raw reality but our hopes and fears magnified — a rendering not of the world as it is but as we are: frightened, confused, hopeful creatures trying to make sense of the mystery that enfolds us, the mystery that we are.
This reality-warping begins as the frights and fantasies of childhood, and evolves into the necessary illusions without which our lives would be unlivable. It permeates everything from our mythologies to our mathematics.
In the Dark (public library) by poet Kate Hoefler and artist Corinna Luyken brings that touching fundament of human nature to life with great levity and sweetness, radiating a reminder that if we are willing to walk through the darkness not with fear but with curiosity, we are saved by wonder.
Two girls venture cautiously into the dark forest, convinced that witches dwell there. Shadows fly across the sky that seem to confirm their conviction and deepen their fear.
But page by poetic page, as they keep walking and keep looking, they come to see that the shadows are not witches but “a wood full of birds.”
The birds, they realize, are kites flown from the hands of kindly strangers — people who have waded into the darkness to make their own light, the light of community and connection, the light of wonder.
“From Boole, with his Laws of Thought in the 1850s, to the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence at the present day,” Oliver Sacks wrote as he reckoned with consciousness, AI, and our search for meaning thirty years before chatGPT, “there has been a persistent notion that one may have an intelligence or a language based on pure logic, without anything so messy as ‘meaning’ being involved.”
That this can never be the case, he observed, is “a neurological learning as well as a spiritual learning.”
I regard this learning as the haunting recognition that our technology — like our literature, like love, like life itself — is just a story we tell ourselves about who we are and how the world works.
Benjamín Labatut takes up the immense and enduring questions of the limits of logic and the tension between meaning-making and reality in his novel The MANIAC (public library), routed in the real life and legacy of the visionary mathematician and artificial intelligence pioneer John von Neumann (December 28, 1903–February 8, 1957), who originated the field of game theory, paved the way for the mathematical framework of quantum mechanics, anticipated the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, and became a founding father of digital computing, his mind the hungry ghost in the machine of our everyday lives.
The mathematical universe is built much like the pyramids of the ancient pharaohs. Each theorem rests on a deeper and more elementary substrate. But what supports the bottom of the pyramid? Is there anything solid to be found there, or does it all float on the void, like an abandoned spiderweb blowing in the morning wind, already unraveling at the edges, held together merely by frail and thinning strands of thought, custom, and belief?… Mathematicians… keep working on faith or delve down to the very heart of mathematics to try to find the cornerstones that upheld the entire structure. But uncovering foundations is always dangerous, for who can tell what lies in wait among the fault lines in the logic of our universe, what creatures sleep and dream amid the tangle of roots from which human knowledge grows?
Something very small, so tiny and insignificant as to be almost invisible in its origin, can nonetheless open up a new and radiant perspective, because through it a higher order of being is trying to express itself. These unlikely happenings could be hidden all around us, lying in wait on the border of our awareness, or floating quietly amid the sea of information that we drown in, each one bearing the potential to bloom and irradiate violently, prying apart the floorboards of this world to show us what lies beneath.
The earliest seeds of artificial intelligence, Labatut intimates throughout the novel, were precisely such a small, potent lever of prying open a hidden world — a world both wondrous and menacing, mirroring back to us our highest potential and our greatest follies. A century and a half after the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler presaged the rise of a new kingdom of life in our machines, Labatut ventriloquizes Von Neumann as a character in a novel animated by the realities of the past century of technology. The words he gives this prophet-pioneer are the words of our history and of our future:
At its lower levels, complexity is probably degenerative, so every automaton would only be able to produce less complicated ones; but there is a certain level beyond which the phenomenon could become explosive, with unimaginable consequences; in other words, where each machine could produce offspring of higher and higher potentialities.
If my automata were allowed to evolve freely in the unbounded matrix of an ever-expanding digital cosmos… they could take on unimaginable forms, recapitulating the stages of biological evolution at an inconceivably faster pace than things of flesh and blood. By crossbreeding and pollinating, they would eventually surpass us in number, and perhaps, one day, reach a point where they could become rivals to our own intelligence. Their progress, at first, would be slow and silent. But then they would spawn and burst into our lives like so many hungry locusts, fighting for their rightful place in the world, carving their own path toward the future.
Von Neumann died in an era when the entirety of computer memory in the world amounted to a handful of kilobytes, yet his life had already seeded the digital universe and all its anxious silicon tendrils reaching for the substrate of consciousness. Nearly a century after Alan Turing envisioned machine sentience as he wondered whether a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream, Labatut channels Von Neumann’s parting vision for what it would take for AI to cusp on consciousness:
Before he became unresponsive and refused to speak even to his family or friends, von Neumann was asked what it would take for a computer, or some other mechanical entity, to begin to think and behave like a human being.
He took a very long time before answering, in a voice that was no louder than a whisper.
He said that it would have to grow, not be built.
He said that it would have to understand language, to read, to write, to speak.
And he said that it would have to play, like a child.
We are each born with a wilderness of possibility within us. Who we become depends on how we tend to our inner garden — what qualities of character and spirit we cultivate to come abloom, what follies we weed out, how much courage we grow to turn away from the root-rot of cynicism and toward the sunshine of life in all its forms: wonder, kindness, openhearted vulnerability.
Answering a young person’s plea for guidance in finding direction and meaning amid a “bizarre and temporary world” that seems so often at odds with the highest human values, the sage and sensitive Nick Cave offers his lens on the two most important qualities of spirit to cultivate in order to have a meaningful life.
A generation after James Baldwin observed in his superb essay on Shakespeare how “it is said that his time was easier than ours, but… no time can be easy if one is living through it,” Nick prefaces his advice with a calibration:
The world… is indeed a strange and deeply mysterious place, forever changing and remaking itself anew. But this is not a novel condition, our world hasn’t only recently become bizarre and temporary, it has been so ever since its inception, and it will continue to be such until its end — mystifying and forever in a state of flux.
He then offers his two pillars of a fulfilling life — orientations of the soul that “have a softening effect on our sometimes inflexible and isolating value systems”:
The first is humility. Humility amounts to an understanding that the world is not divided into good and bad people, but rather it is made up of all manner of individuals, each broken in their own way, each caught up in the common human struggle and each having the capacity to do both terrible and beautiful things. If we truly comprehend and acknowledge that we are all imperfect creatures, we find that we become more tolerant and accepting of others’ shortcomings and the world appears less dissonant, less isolating, less threatening.
The other quality is curiosity. If we look with curiosity at people who do not share our values, they become interesting rather than threatening. As I’ve grown older I’ve learnt that the world and the people in it are surprisingly interesting, and that the more you look and listen, the more interesting they become. Cultivating a questioning mind, of which conversation is the chief instrument, enriches our relationship with the world. Having a conversation with someone I may disagree with is, I have come to find, a great, life embracing pleasure.
“An honorable human relationship… in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love,'” Adrienne Rich wrote, “is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”
And yet if the two pillars of friendship and loving relation are truth and tenderness, as Emerson believed, something terrible and irreconcilable happens when the truth itself is untender — it becomes impossible to discern the honorable thing to do, the loving thing to do, the correct shape of loyalty. Cornered between two imperfect options, one is forced to weigh the agony of hurting a beloved soul against the agony of duplicity, that pernicious poison of trust — a cruel reminder of how much pain human beings can inflict in just trying to be good, how altogether difficult it is to be a human being in tender and trusting relation to other human beings in a world rife with paradoxes, moral ambiguities, and impossible choices.
To tell the truth despite its untenderness — “it is important to do this,” Adrienne Rich reminds us, “because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us” — is to be savaged by the unequaled soul-ache of having caused hurt while trying to do the right thing.
In the wake of it, trembling with desire for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, one longs for an apology so vast and powerful as to subsume the impossibility of the choice — an apology grand enough to allay all the vulnerabilities of being human, fallible, and famished for connection.
That longing comes alive in a consolation of a poem by Ellen Bass:
HOW TO APOLOGIZE by Ellen Bass
Cook a large fish — choose one with many bones, a skeleton
you will need skill to expose, maybe the flying
silver carp that’s invaded the Great Lakes, tumbling
the others into oblivion. If you don’t live
near a lake, you’ll have to travel.
Walking is best and shows you mean it,
but you could take a train and let yourself
be soothed by the rocking
on the rails. It’s permitted
to receive solace for whatever you did
or didn’t do, pitiful, beautiful
human. When my mother was in the hospital,
my daughter and I had to clear out the home
she wouldn’t return to. Then she recovered
and asked, incredulous, How could you have thrown out all my shoes?
So you’ll need a boat. You could rent or buy,
but, for the sake of repairing the world,
build your own. Thin strips
of Western red cedar are perfect,
but don’t cut a tree. There’ll be
a demolished barn or downed trunk
if you venture further.
And someone will have a mill.
And someone will loan you tools.
The perfume of sawdust and the curls
that fall from your plane
will sweeten the hours. Each night
we dream thirty-six billion dreams. In one night
we could dream back everything lost.
So grill the pale flesh.
Unharness yourself from your weary stories.
Then carry the oily, succulent fish to the one you hurt.
There is much to fear as a creature
caught in time, but this
is safe. You need no defense. This
is just another way to know
you are alive.