Meinong’s Jungle

As published in Mission at Tenth magazine in California

There was a cloud on the ground and a man walked through it. Saul Ptarmigan was his name, and as he strode through the fog-shrouded city streets, his eyes were focused intently on their gutters. For he was a nervous man, and generally preferred to be looking down instead of up, to avoid the unsettling sensation that the towering metropolis skyscrapers always gave him: the feeling that he was drowning in a glistening sea of giant needles. He had known far too many needles already, and since every street in his life had long since blurred into pathless monotony, paying attention to where he was going seemed superfluous. Besides, the GPS in his inner ear was already relaying every step and twist of the route to the corporation he was on his way to visit. It was called Entelechy Enterprises, and the jingle of its recent promotion was skipping incessantly through his mind:

When you’re on Zworkyin Avenue and you wanna lose a screw,

When it’s time to say you’re through but you’d rather not be rude,

When even your disguises no longer fit your crises,

Take the shyness of your whyness to Entelechy Enterprises…

He arrived at the building and entered a cavernous waiting room. A flash went off as the wall to his right took his picture, and a piece of paper was printed out under an LCD panel that read: “Please wait for your number to be called.” He moved through a long aisle of reclining figures and sat down in an empty chair.

“Good evening,” said the chair.

“Evening,” muttered Saul.

“Would you like to take advantage of our chemically induced time reduction service? It’s the latest thing in waiting rooms across the country…”

“No.”

“Would you like to hear an excerpt from the newest blockbuster nonfiction bestseller, ‘The Complete History of the Future’, developed by our nation’s most elite statisticians?”

“No, thank you.”

“Would you like to sample a selection from our “If You’ve Thought It Up, We’ve Already Shot The Video” film archives? Have you had any dreams recently that you’d like to see the movie of?”

“No. Shut yourself down.”

The chair slumped.

As soon as Saul had deactivated his seat, he realized that there was no music to listen to and no pictures to look at in the waiting room. So his mind curled up around a copy of the works of Baruch Spinoza that he had recently downloaded into his right temporal lobe, and he started thinking about God.

“Now, if God is an infinite being, as he must be by definition, then he can have no fixed point of reference and no direction in his action. And therefore we couldn’t have been created with a goal in mind, because God cannot have goals, for that would imply that there was something that existed which God did not already possess. So God, by his very nature, must be both directionless and purposeless. That is, unless the state of things being the way they are was itself the goal, the end in and of itself, which would make the system a self-terminating circuit of arbitrary meaning. Thus, being arbitrary, the system seems to be necessarily meaningless…”

After nearly an hour of such meditations, Saul’s number was finally called. He stood up wearily and plodded to the reception window, where an acrondroplastic robot passed him a slip of paper with a room number and told him in a tinny voice that a company representative was awaiting him on the 88th floor. He walked over to an elevator, fed in the paper, and punched the appropriate button.

When the door opened, he stepped into a long hallway lined with doors. He moved down the corridor until he came to the large oak door stenciled with the number 888. Feeding the paper into the door handle, he heard a click and watched the portal slide open. Inside was a large white-walled room, empty but for a single desk in the center, and a man sitting behind it. The sales representative was a tall clean-cut blonde man in a long lab coat. He smiled broadly and stood up to extend his hand.

“I’m Dr. Proch,” he said, “and I’ll be your stasis pathologist.”

“Saul,” the other man introduced himself laconically.

“Let’s walk,” said the doctor, and he started walking his new customer in a circular path around the big empty room. “Do you know very much about our work?”

“Not much,” Saul responded. “I just saw the commercial and thought I would drop by for the free consultation you’re advertising. It sounds like you really specialize in helping people like me.”

“Alright, then let me quickly explain a little about what we do. Here at Entelechy Enterprises we study stasis pathology: the pathology of apathy-inducing systems present in patterns of human interest.”

“When you’re on Zworkyin Avenue and you wanna lose a screw…” Saul hummed. “What’s a Zworkyin anyway?”

“Vladimir Zworkyin? He was the scientist who developed the cathode ray tube for the television set,” the doctor explained. “And Cathy, the cartoon cathode ray tube that sings and dances on our commercial, is our company mascot.”

“Oh, is that what that is?” Saul exclaimed. “I thought it was just some kind of sparkly carrot.”

The doctor nodded and gave a slight grimace in grudging acknowledgement of the tackiness of the character. “But never mind about Cathy,” he said. “Back to the matter at hand. Do you happen to know what referred pain is, Saul?”

“I… I’m not sure…” started the visitor, surprised by the unexpected question. He vaguely remembered having heard the term somewhere before.

“Referred pain is pain that one feels in a part of the body distant from the actual injury,” explained the doctor, “a front for a deeper seated problem that you aren’t aware of. Here at Entelechy Enterprises we believe that human perception is a referred reaction.”

“You mean to say… perception is a pain reaction?”

“Not necessarily pain. Just a referred reaction.”

“Interesting,” mused Saul, not understanding.

“Stasis pathology studies indicate that many psychological problems are just manifestations of underlying, unrecognized conceptions of the limits of reality. So we attempt to get our patients to analyze their subconscious ideations of the nature of impossibility. We believe that this is the key to resolving several psychotic states that are becoming prevalent in contemporary society.”

“I see.”

“Now, the development of the human species is, very basically, an asymptotic formula. That is, a formula that approaches perfection as the independent variable, in this case human development, increases.” They stopped, and Dr. Proch turned toward the wall, where a graph appeared that looked like this:

Saul stared at it. “You say it’s a graph of human development,” he said after a moment. “So what measure of development are you using?”

“Technology,” the doctor declared. “The more advanced technology becomes, the closer we as a species come to omnipotence and omniscience. Now consider this.” The graph on the wall was replaced by an equation:

H = nlog s

“This is the formula for the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all organized systems tend to become increasingly disordered over time. It was originally developed to explain the movement of heat, but it has vast implications, and has been extrapolated to apply to many different realms of scientific study. Look at this version.”

The image changed to:

 

H = -∑nl pk log pk

“This is the derivation for informational entropy,” said the doctor, “H is the amount of information acquired, and -∑nlpk is the number of selections made from among log pk, the number of symbols available for correlation at each selection. It involves some complex mathematics, but trust me that it can be derived.”

“Great.”

“This formula basically says that coherent concepts are developed from selecting and combining defined symbols, or bits of information. Do you agree with that?”

“Um, sure. Sounds good to me.”

“Now consider this, and tell me if you agree. As more and more information accumulates in our communal system, the value of each individual piece of information must necessarily become less and less subjectively important. A corollary of this is Ebbinghaus’ law, that the increase in the amount of material becoming available to be learned now far exceeds the amount of time available in a lifetime to learn it.

“Alright. I’m… sort of… following you.”

“Thus, as we come closer to the ‘perfection’ line on the graph, the individual becomes increasingly disempowered, since the limited information he possesses continually decreases in value relative to that possessed by the system as a whole.”

“Hold on, let me think about this,” said Saul, aggravated. “These are laws? Fundamental processes of nature?”

The doctor nodded gravely. “The second law is immutable. So logic indicates that the only way to remain empowered as an individual is to acquire knowledge at an increasingly rapid pace.”

“I don’t necessarily agree with that, but…”

“It follows from our discussion thus far.”

“OK.”

“Now, are you familiar with the name Meinong?” asked the doctor, after a pause.

“No, I… I don’t think I’ve ever heard it.”

“Alexius von Meinong was an Austrian philosopher. In his work, he studied and made a list of all the things that we can refer to which have no actual real existence. For example, the prime number between seven and eleven. We can refer to this idea, but it does not exist. This state of shadowy nonexistence was called Sosein by Meinong, and over time the group of Sosein entities came to be called ‘Meinong’s jungle’. He wrote at the end of the nineteenth century, and Meinong’s jungle at that time included things like ‘men who could fly,’ ‘people without physical substance,” and “weapons that could destroy entire cities.’ At the time, these were absurd flights of fancy, jungle foliage.”

“And now…”

“Now, of course, men can fly. In an airplane,” said the doctor. “And holograms, to cite another example, are representations of people without physical substance.”

“And nuclear weapons…” Saul murmured.

“Exactly. We have Sosein weapons now that Meinong never dreamed of. We can do all kinds of things previously considered impossible.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is this. The deforestation of Meinong’s jungle has left people without dreams. We have become so advanced as a species that there is practically nothing left to imagine. There is literally almost nothing we can dream up that hasn’t been dreamt before, and isn’t already at our fingertips. And this is causing a psychological crisis among our citizens. Many scientific studies have been done regarding human suicide, Saul. Do you know who is statistically most likely to commit it?”

“Who?”

“The educated, the wealthy, the attractive, and the nonreligious. The people with the most opportunities and the least restrictions in their lives. The poor, downtrodden, dogma-ridden “lower classes” of society never seem to kill themselves.”

“I’ve heard that.”

“Ever wonder why? It seems that the more freedom you have in your life, the more likely you are to fall into despair.”

“Hm…”

“‘Do you understand what I’m saying Saul? ‘When Alexander saw that there were no more worlds left to conquer, he wept.’ I mean, why do we dream? Why is it if you deprive someone of REM sleep, they immediately begin to have hallucinations? Why do we spontaneously, insistently, create impossible worlds?”

“I get the feeling you’re about to tell me,” Saul commented dryly.

“There’s an old cliché, you’ve probably heard it, that you can only know what is truly good in life by experiencing the bad. In stasis pathology, we believe that the human psyche can only truly know what is real in life by imagining the impossible.”

Saul said nothing.

“As more and more things become possible,” continued the doctor, “the bounds of reality are strained and the stable psychology of man begins to come undone. So it becomes progressively more difficult to determine the barrier between what is real and what is imaginary. The average person of today has no way of knowing whether the news he watches is real or fabricated, whether the books he reads are fiction or history, whether the emotions he feels are genuine or manipulated. And he knows he doesn’t know. The Ebbinghaus gap between the information available in the system and the information possessed by the individual has grown too vast. Are you following me?”

“More or less.”

“Without dogmas or limitations in our lives, we tend to drift into dangerous mental entropies, all energy and will inevitably drained from the psyche. We psychologically need impossibility. We need inexplicability, mystery, romantic fantasy…”

“We do?”

“Do you know why Mars is red, Saul?”

“What, Mars?” Saul grumbled. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“The sands of the planet are made up of iron oxides. That is to say, Mars is basically just a big ball of rust. Boring isn’t it? That’s why nobody ever bothered to go there. You know, the Vikings believed that the clouds in the sky were the scattered brains of a dead god. But we know now that the clouds in the sky are just water, don’t we? Reality, when it is truly understood, begins to lose its appeal to the human consciousness.”

“Uh huh,” Saul grunted with irritation. “OK, fine. Now, you’ve talked a lot, and to be perfectly honest, I haven’t been able to follow half of what you’ve said. I came all this way for a reason. What’s the new ‘anti-stasis capitulation’ technology mentioned in your ad?”

“I’m getting to it. But first I want to summarize what we’ve talked about.”

Saul rolled his eyes in exasperation.

“From our discussion it may be said that the technological development of the species is progressively eliminating the concepts of impossibility and inexplicability, resulting in a psychological entropy state in the individual. The final stage of such a degradation is called ‘stasis capitulation’: the acceptance of disempowerment and all the dangerous tendencies that this entails. So the study of ways of combating such capitulation has come to be called ‘stasis pathology.’”

“Please,” muttered Saul, “get to the point, doctor.”

“Well, how do you counteract a formula as apparently implacable as the general equation of stasis-capitulation?” asked the company representative, as the wall before them lit up with this:

 

Saul stared at it, blinking dumbly at its confusing intricacy.

“Technological progress cannot be stopped, and the human individual cannot possibly keep pace with the human species. There is only one way to avoid the logical conclusion of this formula.”

“What’s that?”

“A variable needs to be eliminated.”

“Which variable?”

“The human individual.”

“I… I beg your pardon?” spluttered Saul, in shock.

“Because we cannot revoke technology, we must revoke humanity.” Dr. Proch snapped his fingers, and a silver ball fell from the ceiling to hover at the level of his chest. It was about the size of a baseball, and a little mechanical propeller on its underside kept it aloft. “This, my friend, is the newest line of cutting edge evolution!” beamed the doctor. “The homo lemuris model! Say hello, Karl!”

“Hello Saul,” said the ball through a microspeaker embedded in its side. The soft mechanical voice sounded like the whisper of a ghost. “Welcome to Entelechy Enterprises! Welcome to your new life!”

The doctor patted the ball. “Karl here was just like you, before the operation,” he said. “Nothing new to do, nothing novel left to experience. Isn’t that right Karl?”

“That’s certainly true doctor!” affirmed the ball enthusiastically. “Before that, I was an emotional wreck! You know how it gets, vanity and vexation of spirit and all the rest of it.”

“And now?” asked Saul, intrigued.

“Now, well… Now I just organize information,” Karl chirped cheerily.

“That’s right,” interjected the doctor, “it’s a selective MRI graft from the cerebrum onto a nest of gallium arsenide chips no bigger than the face of your watch. Via cytotoxic microiontophoresis, we eliminate the basal ganglia, amygdala, and motor centers, leaving only the brain’s cognitive processing units, which are copied onto the circuitry of a ball. Each cognitive unit is then linked to a collective of similar lemuris patients. The technology was recently developed in Japan, and Entelechy Enterprises has bought the exclusive rights to its use. The collective mind is technically called a ‘metatemporal growth system.’ It involves very complex biomathematics, which we can discuss at length if you want. But the end result is immortality and the avoidance of stasis capitulation.”

“What you’re describing, it’s a kind of suicide, isn’t it?” said Saul uncertainly. Then in a darker voice he added, “Or murder.”

Non omnis morior, Saul,” quipped the ball. “You shall not wholly die.”

“No one is killing themselves here,” soothed the doctor, “and definitely no one is being murdered. The only execution that is taking place is the conscious annihilation of subjectivity. We call the operation itself metempsychosis. That is, conversion to godhood. A machine like Karl can process information infinitely faster than any human being, and the fact that the universe may or may not be meaningless will not develop a psychological crisis in Karl like it will in a person. Were such a being as an infinite god to exist, Karl would very closely approximate his psychology.”

“I see,” Saul grunted. “And how much does this service cost?”

“Well, it’s not cheap. You see, after the operation has been completed and one’s cognitive consciousness has been grafted onto a ball, a legal problem arises in that there are now two copies of the exact same individual. As you can imagine, this causes all kinds of bureaucratic monstrosities, and so it was decided at the inception of this program that the decision as to what should be done with the fleshy copy, the original, should be left up to the unclouded mind of the purely cognitive version. So, you see this light here? After the procedure, the newly imprinted ball will flash it to inform us of the decision it has made about its double. Red if the ball wants to be destroyed, and the flesh to live. Green if the flesh is to be destroyed. Without fail, the cognitive version opts for the annihilation of the original, and the renunciation of all material possessions. Thus, when each applicant for the operation signs the contract, he simultaneously waives all rights to his property and life in the material world.”

“And what does the original think of its annihilation?”

“What the original thinks is irrelevant. It is a clouded mind—and an inferior species.”

“How did you feel when you ordered them to kill your copy, Karl?” Saul asked the ball with a touch of disdain.

“Of course,” said the doctor, “Karl wouldn’t have felt anything. He doesn’t feel. And to tell you a secret, normal cognitive balls don’t talk. They can, mind you. The wiring, the circuitry is there to do so, but when you have no opinions, you don’t need to talk about them, do you? Ha ha! Nonbiotic communication is such a simple process!” He clapped a hand on the top of the hovering sphere and chuckled softly. “Actually,” he continued, leaning in conspiratorially, “Karl is just a specially designed public relations ball, and there’s no one inside him.”

“But if the balls never talk, how can you know that the people inside are happy?”

“Happiness is a moot point,” the doctor responded with a shrug.

“Huh.”

“Now, please take a moment and examine the Entelechy Enterprises contract.”

A page printed out of the wall. The doctor passed it to Saul, who skimmed through the first few lines:

“I, the undersigned, do hereby declare my desire that happiness, loneliness, and all other such states of consciousness be absent from my future life. I hereby consent to neurological copying, and waive all future property and human rights…”

“You’re reducing people to the status of a report to be filed.” said Saul, reeling from the strangeness of his situation.

“Are they something more than that?” his interlocutor replied quizzically.

“Now wait,” Saul murmured, and paused for a moment to reflect. “How do I know it’s not just a scam—that you don’t just kill people, flash a light on an empty silver ball, and take all their stuff?”

“To be honest,” Dr. Proch said with an avuncular smile, “you don’t. But you must realize that Entelechy Enterprises is a major corporation. We are in the public eye, and would not be able to get away with murder and theft on such a vast scale, would we?”

Saul eyed the man suspiciously.

“Now, what’s your story?” the doctor queried. “What was it about our organization that attracted you so much?”

“What, me?” Saul mumbled, leaning against the wall and dropping his eyes to the floor.

“Yeah. What rope have you reached the end of?”

“No, it’s not like that… There’s nothing really wrong with my life, I guess. I work as a graphic designer. I’m moderately successful. I live alone. I’m divorced… or rather, widowed. Her name was Sarah, and she killed herself with an overdose of smart drugs two years ago…”

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said.

“I came home to find her face down in an engineering encyclopedia the size of the Bible.”

“How long had you been together?”

“We’d lived together eight years common-law. And I’d known her for a while before that. Towards the end, we had grown apart and, well…”

“Any children?”

“None, thankfully.”

“I see. And since then?”

“Well, since then nothing much seems to interest me anymore. I’ve tried drugs. Amphetamines to help me focus more. Opiates to keep me from focusing. Over the past few months my apartment has started to seem more like a pharmacy than a home. But the world always comes back… and it always stays the same. I mean, it’s not that my life is especially difficult or that I am struggling to survive…”

“No,” the doctor observed, “It’s that your life isn’t difficult and that you aren’t struggling to survive.”

Saul nodded slowly, his eyes flickering up to meet the doctor’s gaze in glum acknowledgement.

“You are here because you saw no meaning left in your life,” the company representative continued. “You were… you are… on the verge of becoming a threat to yourself and to others. You came here looking for a drastic change, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, this is it. You thought we could help you and we can.”

“You can kill me too, can’t you?”

“As you said before.”

Saul considered for a moment, staring at the imposing equation that was still displayed on the wall before him. “Where do I sign?” he said finally.

The doctor took a pen out of his pocket and pointed to the bottom of the page.


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