In defense of USS Callister

Black Mirror’s episodes, with the exception of Metalhead I guess, are centered around exploring the human nature in light of such or such technological change. It’s sci-fi at its finest, and is usually very insightful, and extremely well thought of and documented.

And yet, USS Callister surprises us this season with utter bullshit about transferring consciousness through DNA sample or wanky hollywood-esque nonsensical overly dramatic rescue plans.

actually me during the episode

It’s pretty simple to figure out what happened: the writing staff had a funny idea and they rolled with it. But I’m here to argue that there is something we can salvage from that train-wreck, and it’s about our relationship to media.

The whole of the episode is centered around Daly, a disturbed man who takes out his frustrations in a VR game. The drama part is because the NPCs of the game are conscious people and he tyrannizes them into submission when they break the suspension of disbelief of the game (which is ironically enough what all the inconsistencies do about the episode).

The real point, which the episode misses by a landslide, is “what happens when our playthings are conscious?”. Let’s shelves all the DNA bullshit and people replication here for a second. IA is getting more and more complex, NPCs in games are getting more and more rich, and we still have no idea where the line to consciousness is.

Serial Experiments Lain wallpaper

The show surely wanted drama. Nobody would have batted an eye if some dumb kid kept butchering zombies or nazis in their favorite call of or battlefield or whatever. This is even echoed in the episode by the cute ending encounter with Gamer691 which appears trivial in comparison. Yet there comes a point in sophistication when these NPC toys become at least quasi-conscious. Then what happens? Can we still continue using them for their original purpose? When we create a sentient race, can we keep using them and killing them ?

This theme is also present and also missed by a landslide in the great “Hang the DJ” episode where thousands of conscious beings are genocided for the purpose of a dating app simulation without anyone in the public even batting an eye.

So what about the point of USS Callister? Daly is a monster because he did not treat the NPCs in the game as sentient beings. He seems to (reluctantly) acknowledge their agency, but represses tyrannically anything that gets in the way of his entertainment. The tragedy of this episode is that sentient beings are treated as playthings.

Well there’s a metapoint to be made, whether it was willed or not by the showrunners, in the fact that the public of the episodes mostly missed the point in the same way. The episode had to go through great length to build empathy with the NPCs of the game, sacrificing good sense to make them “clones” of approved existing humans, because who even bats an eye when a FPS NPC dies? How long before countless sentient NPCs are butchered without a thought by players all over the world?

Black Mirror has always been a cruel and bleak portrayal of the most gruesome parts of human society. Think of “White Bear” or “The Waldo Moment”. USS Callister has some of this in a somewhat brilliant meta-consideration.

The whole thing is about Daly indulging himself in brainless media consumption to fill his most animal instincts. He never seems to ponder the implications of his actions. But that’s literally what everyone is doing by enjoying this episode. Fuck reflection, hello catharsis, pandering and self-validation, and too fucking bad if a few sentient characters end up suffering for our pleasure. Daly is not “entitled straight white men”, he’s the whole entitled brainless mass that happily goes to see the latest blockbuster crap without questioning anything in the process. Sure, there is not literally any sentient NPC involved in the making of a show you watch (yet ^^), but choosing to indulge basest instincts over reflection through entertainment media is exactly what Daly does in the show.

In this optics, it works really well that this episode is as incoherent and spectacular (in the etymological “for show” sense) as your average blockbuster. It’s no coincidence that the episode centers around one of the biggest media franchises of this century (which obviously brings to mind Star Wars and Disney) and portrays a parody of AAA movies. By the showrunner’s own admission, “‘USS Callister’ is the most mainstream story [that Black Mirror has ever done.] It’s got some of the beats of a summer blockbuster… ” He even goes so far as to reference explicitely AAA productions in this interview, saying that “[The characters are] in what we call ‘JJ Land’ at the end. They go through the wormhole and end up in JJ Abrams lens-flare land.”

USS Callister shows us what happens when an individual uses entertainment to indulge brainlessly in their animalistic tendencies instead of thinking and trying to better themselves. And based on people’s relationship to mass-media these days, and to this episode in particular, it’s a frighteningly high number of us.

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EDIT (June 2018): This article was originally a dare of one of my friends to find anything interesting to say about this shitshow of an episode, but Charlie Brooker recently compared this episode to players torturing their sims, to which the press got vehemently outraged because “everybody tortures their sims”, which obviously is exactly the point. So maybe this essay isn’t such a joke after all…

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[DT2] God(el) incompleteness

This article is the second of a series of 3 about Formal Logic and Religion. Find the first one, introduction to formal logic, here.

I will now try to introduce you to what is arguably the most important result in formal logic, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and deduce a constructive proof of the existence of God.

Warning: This is going to be a very informal discussion, but there’s a plethora of better writing on the subject if you want to explore this deeper, which a quick Google Search should help you find. It’s one of the most discussed topics in mathematics.

What is it?

In the previous article, I gave you the basics to understand formal logic, by focusing on sets of beliefs containing a contradiction and see that they were all equivalent. Let’s now look at the other ones. A set of belief that does not contain or imply a contradiction is called consistent.

Godel proved that whatever your system of beliefthere are statements that cannot be proved by it. The proof is actually not that complex, though I never understood it until I read some kick-ass vulgarization recently: Godel proved that in any system of beliefs, you can use the basic principles to express a statement similar to “This sentence is false” that cannot be proved to be either true or false.

As a follow-up to this result, Godel also proved that you can never prove that a system is consistent with the principles of the system. The proof is a bit more subtle but revolves around the fact that if you could, you could use that proof to prove that “This sentence is false” is true, and that’s absurd.

What does it mean?

Of course, Godel was talking about math stuff. The “system of beliefs” he was talking about was mathematical axioms like [1+1=2, you can always pick a random element in an infinite set…]. So you see that the beliefs I’m talking about can be very obvious and non-arbitrary. But the arguments hold whatever the system.

These theorems have huge implications for reasoning in general. It’s a formal proof that whatever you adopt as system of beliefs, there are things you cannot prove to be either true or false, and in particular you can’t prove that your system of beliefs is not inconsistent.

I think, if nothing else, this forces you to be humble vis a vis your beliefs, no matter how obvious and indisputable they are.

“There are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Transcending the system

So any thought system has necessarily shortcomings, and furthermore you can exemplify the limits of the system using the elements of the system. I like how this idea echoes the classic trope that every system contains their own undoing.

This article by SpeculativeWeeb is a really cool take on Godel’s theorem applied to Puella Magi Madoka Magica. It highlights that Madoka essentially found this shortcoming of the system, the “this sentence is false” of her own world. She forces it to realization using her wish to Kyuubey. In a nutshell:

She wishes for all witches to vanish before they’re even born. However by doing so she becomes herself a witch, so she vanishes and can’t make that wish.

She exploited the shortcoming of the system in order to break it. The only possible resolution is to ditch this system, and a new one replaces it that manages the problematic element (a world without witches and without Madoka).

However, the new system is also bound to have a transcending element, which is what Rebellion tried to tackle with more or less success. Whatever you do, you can’t escape Godel… There’s no perfect system without transcending element.

Managing the transcendence

If any system contains their own undoing, some have certainly tried to manage this necessary shortcoming to make it foolproof.

The Matrix is an interesting example: machines first tried to build a utopia where everyone was happy, but a flawless system was bound to fail. Instead, they had to include faults in their system: they added unhappiness inside the Matrix to make it stable.

 

But of course as a system, this also had its shortcomings and had an element that could transcend it: the One. So the machines actually managed a meta-system which included the existence of a transcendental element as part of the plan, a chosen One who would have to make a dummy choice to keep the ball rolling. But hey, this is a new system, so it has to have something that can transcend it…

 

 

 

It’s not uncommon in this context to see the smartest systems try to include and manage their own undoing in such a way. There is countless examples in sci-fi, like The Giver, or Westworld. “‘the plan fucks up‘ is an element of a bigger plan” is a classic trope in fiction. Note how it builds up on meta.

But no system does it quite as well as the real world. Indeed, the genius of neo-liberalism is to plan for this element of contingency, and to include the resistance to the system as part of the system. Everything can be monetized, even anti-conformism.

You can find more information on this trail of thought all around the webs, like this brilliant video for example:

 

 

Implication for the nature of the universe

What about the implications of the second theorem to the real world? If you can’t prove a system’s consistency from within the system, does it mean that we’ll never be able to prove formally that the world is deterministic? Does it mean that we can’t prove whether or not we’re in a simulation?

Arguably, it doesn’t really matter, because the world will be the same whatever you believe. Life will still follow deterministic patterns even if you can’t prove it. But it’s an interesting echo of Hume’s experimental philosophy. He argued that just because things have always happened a certain way doesn’t mean they’ll keep happening, and there’s no reason why the world couldn’t suddenly stop. If we are in a simulation, maybe the computer will stop, or change the parameters… How would we ever see that coming? Maybe this ambiguous report of causation and correlation is the transcendent part of our reality.

Everything could suddenly crash. But it won’t. That’s just how the world is. But maybe you can’t ever prove it. That’s intriguing.

Proof of God

Interestingly enough, as it pertains to our reflection about logic and religion, Godel was very proud to have proven the existence of God mathematically. Unfortunately, it is an ontological proof and is therefore total garbage.

Ontological Argument

However, Godel did prove that whatever the system, there is inherently something that transcends it. And that this something is contained within the system. I’m willing to let this be called God, for all the chaos and confusion that it will surely bring, even if it’s just a glorified alias for the logical concept of “This sentence is false”. In fact, let’s call that God-L, because it’s fun.

We’ve proved that whatever the system, it’s by nature incomplete. This incompleteness is God-L. There is always God-L, it is absolute. Furthermore, it’s true for any thought system, so it’s also true for a system that tries to encompass this fact. If you add God-L to your system, there’s still a God-L that transcends it (as we saw in the Matrix). What we want to call God-L is in fact the union of all these God-Ls, the infinitely meta-transcendence of all systems. But it is still incomplete and transcendable… Which makes it the perfect transcendental element of a meta-meta system that tries to reason about systems, which brings me back to my fixed point of meta

God-L is the very essence of incompleteness and unexplainability in the universe. Instead of being an all powerful wishgranter, it’s by nature lacking. Maybe it’s a nice tool for your spiritual health…