The Problems of Being Self Determining

[I am putting this at the encouragement of Bryan Bishop, to whom I mentioned this story to at the 2010 H+ Summit about both Transhumanism and Citizen Science. This is a fable I wrote about thirty years ago, when I was seventeen at SUNY Stony Brook, for the core course of the interdisciplinary Federated Learning Community on Human Nature created by the late Prof. Patrick Hill. Thanks, Pat! I had not realized at the time what a wonderful and rare learning community you had created, which encouraged creativity. There is additional commentary on this story that I wrote then, which I may put up later. I cleaned up some typos, and made some formatting changes at the end (expanding out some text that was implied). It is along the common theme of "be careful what you wish for", especially if you are a Transhumanist. :-)]

The Problems of Being Self Determining

Once Upon A Time, in a land far, far away, lived a very powerful wizard. He was famous throughout that land. And since he was a very kind and gentle man, he would often help people with their problems. He cured little children of illness, eased the pains of the old, and he helped the flocks and fields of that land to prosper. His fame and tales of his great power spread far and wide.

One day, a mean black knight rode up to the wizard's home (which was a small cottage that overlooked a beach.) The knight leaped off his horse and strode into the wizard's home unannounced - which was not a very mannerly thing to do. But this knight was not a very chivalrous knight - and he thirsted for great power.

The wizard was working in his workshop when he heard the clatter of the knight's armor. He was working on a powerful and dangerous spell. He did not want to be disturbed lest the spell get out of hand in a moment of his inattention and ravage the countryside.

The knight burst into the workshop. He drew his sword and pointed it at the wizard's neck and said "Old man," (for the wizard had a long gray beard, though his face was smooth and his eyes bright.) The knight said. "Old man I want you to make me the most powerful knight in the world - lest I kill you with this shining sword."

Now the wizard was not a wizard to be trifled with. He could summon bears and dragons. He could change himself into water and disappear. He was also one of the best swordsmen in the land. But the knight knew none of this.

However, at this moment, since the wizard's attention was so engaged, he could do none of these, and still control the spell. The wizard just stood in front of his workbench, mixing chemicals and chanting charms, seemingly (at least to the knight) ignoring the intruder.

The knight, being a very vain man, would not stand for this! He swung his sword and cleft the wizard in two. At that moment there was a clap of thunder and a demon appeared in the room. He was a fiery eyed demon, and he had red skin and horns in the back of his head. The demon said, "Who calls me from the pit?"

The knight was at this moment quite afraid, yet his pride would not let him say so. The knight said in a strained voice, "I do. I want to be the most powerful knight in the world."

The demon laughed. He said, "Little man, that is very easy. Here, take this book." And the demon tossed the knight a book, the a bottle of the blackest ink, and a quill pen.

With a demonic chortle, the demon said, "You are whatever is written in the book." The demon then vanished in a puff of foul smelling black smoke.

The knight cautiously peeked inside the book and saw -- himself. He read the color of his eyes, his hair, his skin; he read about his strength and bodily proportions; he read of his likes, his dislikes, his desires, and his ambitions; he read about his intelligence, but he was too ignorant to understand all of what it said.

"I wonder..." said the knight. He dipped his quill pen into the ink bottle and crossed out 'brown' for his hair color and wrote in 'blond.' Lo and behold, his hair was now

blond. "This is wonderful!" he exclaimed. He changed the color of his eyes from brown to blue. He wrote that his hair would remain as long as it was now and would not get in his eyes. He wrote that his finger and toe nails wouldn't get any longer -- he had never liked to clip them. Since he liked to drink, he wrote in the book that it took at least 50 gallons of ale to get him drunk. "Now," he thought, "I can outdrink any man a11ve. He changed other parts. of his body to suit his fancy and whim. He got rid of the weaknesses he felt he had. He wrote that he didn't cry anymore; that he had no weakness for a woman's tears; that his heart would belong to no one but himself. He got rid of the squeamishness he sometimes felt at the sight of blood. He removed any trace of cowardice. He got rid of his ability to feel pain. What a warrior he would make now!

Through the book he could have ultimate power. He wrote that his strength was increased ten-fold. He suddenly felt very light. He could bend his sword in his hand. He could leap twenty feet across the room. He even could stand on his left pinky finger. "There is not a knight in the world as powerful as I!" he bellowed.

He strode out of the wizard's cottage and lept onto his sleek black horse. Unfortunately he had lept with so much force that he broke the poor beast's back. "No matter," he thought, "for I am very strong." He found he could run very fast and very far because of his strength - though his coordination lacked a bit because he was not used to such great power.

Back in the wizard's cottage, the book lay on the floor

of the workshop. A pet mouse the wizard had kept crawled out of its hole and ran up to the book, attracted by the smell of the ink. It started to gnaw on the book.

The knight had been having fun leaping 100 feet into the air and landing on his nose. He suddenly realized. "Hey I left the book!" He ran back to the cottage. His face was a mess which he hadn't realized yet because he didn't feel the pain of the broken nose. He burst into the wizard's workshop and saw the mouse. "Hey!" he shouted and tried to slam the mouse with his fist. But the mouse was too quick and it scampered back to its hole. The knight's fist did manage to put a hole in the floor though.

He picked up the book. He took the pen in hand and wrote that he was quicker than mice. A drop of blood fell from his nose to the book, and he realized what had happened to his face. He wrote in the book that he healed immediately. Suddenly his face was whole again.

He began to think, "Hey, I can be anything. I can be as smart and powerful as the wizard was. I could even be God!" The thought sparkled in his brain. A small voice in his mind said, "blasphemy - no -- don't do it..." But he didn't listen and wrote in the book that he didn't hear such voices.

He took the book, ink, and pen outside and wrote that he could restore life to the dead. He resurrected the horse. He wrote that he could improve animals and strengthened the horse's back. He lept on and rode off towards his castle.

Then he thought, "Why ride?" He stopped and wrote that he could teleport (remembering at the last moment to add that his possessions would come along too.) He then teleported to his castle. He thought to himself, "My castle isn't big or grand enough for me." He wrote that he could build any castle any size he wished and put it anywhere. He then built the most beautiful castle in the clouds, high above his ancestral lands.

He wrote that he was immortal. He decided that eating was a waste of time and wrote that he didn't have to eat anymore. He wrote that anything he wished for would spring into existence. He then wished for the most beautiful, most charming woman to be totally devoted to him, and she materialized before him.

He thought he was surely the most powerful knight in the world now. But the book was now a liability -- he remembered the mouse. So he wrote in the book that he would now be anything he wished, and not dependent on the book. The book vanished with a whush of air that sounded vaguely like a demonic chortle (but only vaguely.)

The knight said, "I can be anything I wish. Being the most powerful knight in the world was such a petty ambition. But so is being as powerful as the wizard. I wish to be as powerful as G.."

His woman clasped her hand over his mouth and said, "No my lord, don't wish that -- please my lord!" He slapped her and she was tossed like a doll across the room and smashed into the wall. She moaned and then died. He had not realized his own strength.

[Possible endings:]

The knight wished he hadn't done that and: -- please my lord!" He slapped her and she was tossed like a doll across the room and smashed into the wall. She moaned and then died. He had not realized his own strength. The knight wished he hadn't done that and: -- please my lord!" He slapped ...

The knight sat on his throne in his castle in the sky and realized that all his ambitions were satisfied. He had no more desires. Everything he wished for came into existence. He had everything. He no longer had anything to wish for.

The knight despaired but he was immortal so he couldn't die from despair. He could just suffer and suffer and suffer...

For one moment - the briefest instant - the knight thought, "I wish I were dead." And he was. Forever.

God said, "Let the poor fool be God", abdicated, and went fishing.

The knight screamed -- as in a nightmare. It was a dream. He could do what he wished. He wished he woke up. He did. He didn't. The power wouldn't leave.

A demon chortles.

The knight wished for happiness and becomes the wizard.

The wizard comes back and helps the knight.
    The wizard comes back and takes the power away.
    The wizard comes back and is slain forever by the knight.

The mouse gnawed through the book before the knight got back. He died when his heart disappeared.
            He died when his brain disappeared.
            He died when his muscles disappeared.
            He died when his will disappeared.
            He died when his desires disappeared.

He crosses out all his desires except for the lust for power.

He crosses out all his desires, drops into a heap, dies.

He crosses out his will for power and realizes he's been such a fool and becomes the wizard.
    He crosses out his will for power and realizes he's been
such a fool and commits suicide.

He never opens up the book and leaves.

The book is burned and his immortal unchanging soul goes to heaven.
    The book is burned and his immortal unchanging soul goes to hell.
    The book is burned and his immortal unchanging soul goes to limbo.
    The book is burned and he disappears up his existence.
    The book is burned and he is reincarnated as a rabbit.

[One of my favorite movies since writing this is "Bedazzled", which has a similar theme. There are aspects of Ursula K. Le Guinn's Earthsea books here too, where Ged often talk about balance, as well as to the Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf renounces ultimate power by choosing not to put on the one ring. Other stories with related themes are "The Monkey's Paw" and "The Neverending Story". But, as the story has multiple endings, I don't really take just one stand completely on this... This is more a problem statement than a solution statement. :-)]