AYN, DAGNY, SOCRATES.
Earlier, I wrote out a list of names and asked, ‘which are names of actual people, and which are only imaginary?’. Well done if you correctly answered, ‘they are all imaginary’. On the other hand, if, say, you thought ‘Ayn Rand’, ‘Lewis Carrol’, ‘Napolean Bonaparte’ ‘Socrates’ and ‘Walt Disney’ are names of actual people, I would point out that none of those people exist: they are all dead. That being the case, you cannot have directly met them. You know about them only through ‘digital person technologies’, which are technologies capable of providing patterns that suitably sophisticated minds perceive as coding for beings, places and events that may not actually exist.
When Anthony Gottlieb wrote an essay about Socrates for the book ‘The Great Philosophers’ (edited by Ray Monk and Frederick Rapheal), he credited Plato with providing much of the reference material, pointing out that “there is no alternative. The Socrates of Plato’s ‘Apology’ is the only Socrates there is, or has been for nearly all of the history of philosophy”. Of course, he did not mean that the only biographies of the philosopher available are Plato’s and his own. He meant that there are no surviving works by Socrates himself (a problem caused in no small part by the fact that Socrates never wrote anything down). That being the case, what is the true nature of the person we know as Socrates? Is that an actual person, or just a character in Plato’s books?
Now consider this quote from a chapter about Ayn Rand in Micheal Shermer’s book ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’. “A twenty-four-year-old housewife (her own label)… said, ‘Dagny Taggart was an inspiration to me; she is a great feminist role model’”. Note that she gives as much credit to ‘Dagny Taggart’ as she does to Ayn Rand, even though one might think the latter deserves all the credit. Why? Because Dagny Taggart is the principle heroine of Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’. She never really spoke or did anything to inspire anyone; only Ayn Rand ever really thought anything. But then, we could say the same for Socrates. Why credit him with anything if it is only Plato’s Socrates that we know?
An obvious answer is that Socrates did exist and his life and teachings inspired Plato to write ‘The Apology’ and other works. Dagny, however, never existed independently of Ayn Rand’s imagination (at least, not until other people read the story she is part of). Remember, though, that inventions come — not from nowhere — but by putting together bits and pieces that already exist. I think that when people ask an author ‘where do you get your ideas from?’, they are recognising the fact that, in some sense, the characters, events and places that comprise a story are discovered as much as created; discovered in the physical world in which the author lives. When Hoffstadter described beings as ‘having the capacity to… slap together quick and dirty models of beings… [refining] such models over time’, this referred to ‘people’ like Dagny Taggart as much as it does to ‘you’ and ‘me’. Dagny was a bundle of fragments of other people’s souls, as was Socrates and anyone else.
When Hoffstadter refers to souls, he does not mean some mysterious energy or spirit forever separating people from ‘lower’ animals and machines. He is referring to the outward behaviours that you or I use to infer what someone else is thinking and feeling; to suppose they have minds in the first place, and what level of consciousness we should attribute to that mind. The ‘bundle of fragments’ are our memories of conversations, observations of other people and the objects that surround us. We observe all kinds of patterns in daily life, not only when we fully participate in the society we live in, but also whenever we watch a film, read a book, listen to the radio or music or surf the Web. A character in a novel or roleplayed in an online world does not pop into existence when pen is put to paper or an account is set up. Both are merely part of an ongoing process. The likes of Dagny Taggart and Argent Bury emerge gradually as someone makes the right connections between all kinds of patterns. The act of writing the story or roleplaying serves to ‘flesh out’ that character; to refine conceptions of how that person looks, acts, thinks and feels. But all such things were already formed in the mind — albeit ghostlty and incomplete — before writing or roleplaying began. People like Dagny Taggart and Argent Bury already existed as fragments of patterns embedded within the larger patterns produced and maintained by cultural memory systems. Creators of such people are more properly called Perceivers. Ayn Rand’s achievment was in perceiving the patterns that were Dagny, scattered and disordered among the greater patterns of life. The act of writing or roleplaying serves to bring order to those patterns, to make it easier for others to perceive them. As each fragment is copied into the neural hardware and as connections and correlations are made, does a tipping point occurr whereby an idea becomes so bright that the mind has no choice but to express it? To paraphrase Clyde Bruckman, “why did Ayn create Dagny and why did someone or some group decide to roleplay Argent Bury? Was it one specific moment when each said, ‘I know: Dagny’ (or ‘Argent’) or was it a whole series of things, starting from when the parents first met that combined in such a way that, in the end, there was no choice but to develop that character?”.