Worlding Raga 7: Worlds of Worlds

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Worlding Raga

In his last installment, World to Live, Ian offered a kitchen-sink short story (with interleaved commentary) that took on the challenge of going beyond imagining a specific world to imagining a proper world-of-worlds called New Nature. The story itself is simple: the narrator simply wakes up and takes his two dogs for a walk. But New Nature is a complex enough environment that a great deal of phenomenology can be projected onto this modest narrative canvas.

Ian’s story got me thinking about one of my favorite modeling dichotomies: Eulerian versus Lagrangian microstate models of fluid flow, and how it might apply to modeling a complex world-of-worlds.

Two Ways of Being and Doing

The difference between Eulerian and Lagrangian perspectives is like the difference between fishing from the bank of a river, versus fishing from a boat that’s drifting along with the current. Both strategies might net you some fish, but the former has more of a spectator quality to it, while the latter has a quality of active agency to it. Watching the world versus flowing with it.

In one approach you watch a particular void (or “cell”) as different bits of reality flow through it over time, such as the red squares above. In the other approach, you follow a particular patch of reality as it moves through different voids, and morphs over time, such as the green squares above. When things are going well — laminar flow conditions — both work about equally well. When things are getting messy — turbulent flow conditions — neither works particularly well.

If you want a slightly more technical idea of the difference, imagine a grid of cells, like a chessboard, with the fluid represented by chess pieces. Eulerian models are like watching a particular square of the chess board and logging the sequence of empty and occupied-by-some-piece states. Lagrangian models are like tagging along behind a particular piece, as it moves through different cells. Slice-of-life impressionism versus through-line perspective narrative scaffolding. In this metaphor, you as an agent can identify either with a piece or with a square of the chessboard.

For a more complex example, which I used in my post on the Euler-Lagrange distinction a few years ago:

Narrative thinkers tend to process by following a flow of causation, by keeping an evolving model of it going in their heads. Situationist thinkers focus on the logic of the events flowing through a particular static block of space and time: the one they happen to inhabit at the moment. It’s like following a case as it winds its way through the police investigation, different courts, judges and juries, versus sitting in a courtroom all day and watching slices of different cases each evolve through a chapter locally.

When a flow is well-behaved it almost doesn’t matter which approach you use (either because it is laminar as illustrated above, or because it is so random, useful principles like ergodicity apply). You’ll get similar results either way. But when a flow is turbulent, the two approaches get complex in different ways. If you use an Eulerian approach, you’ll do better around transient spatial structures like vortices, but get an unstable mess elsewhere. If you use a Lagrangian approach, you’ll be fine for short periods, but at some point you’ll have to start book-keeping “forks” as the flow divides and merges around obstacles, forming dissipative structures like vortices. Stock localism versus flow localism.

You have to mix and match the two approaches to retain your sanity at all (Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway does that well), but with complexity, there is no single, guaranteed satisfying way of looking at things. That’s because a world-of-worlds is a qualitatively more complex category than a single world.

The best you can do is try and switch between ways of inhabiting your life periodically, acting as what Samo Burja calls a live player, and hope the sum is greater than the parts; that the chapters add up to a novel.

If you play as a live player in a complex world-of-worlds, there’s a chance you might get lucky. You might manage to switch among various ways of being and doing that leads to a kind of charmed existence and a response to the world that Ian calls enchantment.

The Calculus of Enchantment

A live player switching microstate perspectives, sometimes going with the flow, sometimes watching the flow, experiences reality as an emergent condition that has an “annoying artificial aliveness” to it, and requires a hallucinatory world-creating response to inhabit, which Ian calls enchantment.

What does it mean to live in enchantment? Here’s Ian’s description:

Enchantment is a state of attraction to New Nature that you do not fully understand, but where you’re ready to hallucinate its overwhelming chaos as overwhelming interestingness. To live in a state of enchantment is to bargain with New Nature for potentialities that can enliven your worlds, knowing it might cost you a deep belief or a reshuffling of agency in the process.

A culture of Worlding — overflowing with annoying artificial aliveness — is the maturing response to a New Nature too strange and too interesting to ever be classically domesticated. Such a culture doesn’t reduce the distance separating you from domestication. It feeds the distance as a feature of aliveness itself, and drags up habitability in the process. Such a culture sets the stage for the light of enchantment to keep burning more often in more people.

Ian imagines New Nature as a world of worlds where to live at all is to live in a state of enchantment in a condition of “annoying aliveness” via a pattern of exercise of agency that can be called “hallucinatory”.

So far, so good.

Why is “annoyingly alive” (shades of elan vital there) the right description of this condition? Because even the smallest patch of reality isn’t an uncontested piece of consensus reality turf you can “own” in any sense. Every agent can organize every piece of reality within their subjective perspectives, and have beliefs, desires and intentions concerning it. The world of worlds is not just hallucinatory; it is a collision of highly opinionated hallucinations. If designs and perspectives can separately be opinionated, designed perspectives can be doubly opinionated.

For instance, the character of Bikey, a sentient bicycle of modest intelligence but high ambition, turns the protagonist’s walk into an eventful walk-and-ride by having opinions about everything. It is an annoyingly alive bicycle (annoying aliveness is a reliable trope for generating science-fiction comedy; Futurama is particularly full of good examples as is Hitchhiker’s Guide with its Sirius Cybernetics products).

Even something as simple as a rock can defy simple existence in a consensus reality. At one point, Bikey swerves to avoid a crescent shaped rock. The protagonist picks it up. Instantly three other agents — a novel, a hypermind, and the character’s mom (who are all wired in to the protagonist’s consciousness of course), flow their narratives around it. Fortunately, these realities harmonize, so it is possible to reconcile physical possession of the rock with all three non-rivalrous intentions/attitudes towards it. Unfortunately, a fourth salient reality, the Soul of Los Angeles, does not harmonize.

These are alignments and misalignments. Alignments are valuable, misalignments may cause your reality to fork or collide with other realities. To live in a state of enchantment is to flow from one charmed knot to the next, changing scenes, forking, flowing, and standing still at exactly the right times, maintaining just the right evolving balance among alignments and misalignments to stay maximally, annoyingly alive yourself.

(Aside: While I was writing this post, I happened to have a chat about Stewart Brand, and how he’s managed to craft a charmed life comprising a series of chapters that just happened to be the most happening scenes when he was part of them. That’s what it means to live a charmed life in a relationship of enchantment with the world.)

Paraverses and Metaverses

I’m going to call the type of world-of-worlds Ian has constructed a paraverse and distinguish it from the more familiar term, metaverse. Para as in paranormal. Para as in a world-of-worlds sensed primarily through weirdness in the liminal adjacent possible around a subjective normal, rather than from an objective, outside-the-matrix perspective.

If your normal world is the coherent reality you think (or hallucinate) you inhabit, the paraverse is that normal world plus the contaminating weirdness that is a constant peripheral presence. It is a contaminated manufactured normalcy field that is always slightly nauseous.

A paraverse is a world-of-worlds revealed via the interactions of the experiential perspectives evolving within it. The world-of-worlds thus revealed may or may not have an objective existence and structure consistent with the paraverse. Ie, there may or may not be an objectively coherent metaverse “out there” that fits the experiences that constitute the paraverse. Every metaverse induces a paraverse for the agents within it, but the existence of a paraverse being experienced by a set of interacting agents does not necessarily imply the existence of a coherent metaverse at some hidden level of abstraction. There may be nothing to form a “true” picture of behind the scenes. It might just be an accidental theme park ride with no roller-coaster designer to credit for the experience.

If that’s confusing, think of a paraverse as the viewpoints of the 3 blind men feeling the elephant. There may or may not be an actual elephant. It just might be a rope, a tree trunk, and a fan perversely arrayed in an elephant-like configuration of touch points to gaslight any blind men inclined to second guess themselves.

Or think of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. There may or may not be an actual “true” story underneath the stories of the wife, the woodcutter, the bandit, and the samurai warrior.

Or if you like philosophical parables, think of a paraverse without an underlying metaverse as a version of the allegory of Plato’s cave where the operation of popping out of the cave, noticing the fire at the mouth, and recognizing that those inside are talking about shadows, is not well-defined. It’s shadows upon shadows all the way out.

Paraverses are interesting because perceptions and experiences are the first-class citizens in the ontology. There is no higher category.

Unlike simpler world-of-worlds constructs, like a garden of forking universes constrained by some sort of legible, integral temporal logic (think time travel rules in simpler movies), or bounded quasi-worlds sufficiently separated in spacetime to only interact weakly (think space operas or monster-of-the-week narratives), Ian’s New Nature is something like an evolving interference pattern of nearly co-extensive organizations of reality.

A paraverse is maya, (and enchantment with it is the complementary concept of moh).

A paraverse is Baudrillardian simulacra.

A paraverse is a funhouse of mirrors and lenses, where even you are just a mirror or lens.

Should you believe in an underlying metaverse? That’s an optional extra.

Paraverse Complexity

In New Nature, there’s no birds-eye-view of whatever the hell is going on. Only worms-eye views from narrators who may or may not be reliable, experiencing reality through immediate sensory environments that may or may not have any materiality to them, while interacting with other agents like themselves who may or may not be inhabiting harmonized worlds.

A paraverse doesn’t so much fork down different possibility pathways in a classical sense as pass through a double slit and interfere with itself, like a turbulent flow, but with quantum characteristics (ie, it differs from mere classical fluids like water in that information connections cause non-local entanglements).

It’s not just an interference pattern, but an interference pattern of opinionated non-consensual hallucinations, governed by a rather anarchic collision of non-universal perspective-anchored rulesets.

New Nature is that process going on with such promiscuity and intensity that the metaverse level — if indeed it exists — is too cryptic to directly inhabit. So whether there is no there there, or the there is merely inaccessible, is a distinction without a difference. It doesn’t matter whether a metaverse exists or not if you you cannot go to it.

Here’s an informal scale of complexity. Somewhere between 6 and 8, it becomes dangerous to assume a coherent metaverse level, and you’re in a paraverse-without-metaverse regime of complexity.

  1. Traditional mythologies (consensus metaverse)
  2. Cowboy Western (+ procedural non-mystery adventure)
  3. Hardy Boys mystery (+ procedural mystery)
  4. Agatha Christie mystery (+ epistemic mystery)
  5. Rashomon (+ unreliable narrators)
  6. Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age (+ ontological complexity)
  7. Iain M. Banks Culture universe (+ agency complexity)
  8. Doctor Who, Discworld, MCU (+ coherent counterfactual/modal logics)
  9. New Nature (+interference complexity)
  10. Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently novels (+ontological mystery)
  11. Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels and Sylvie and Bruno (edge of absurdity)
  12. Monty Python (full-blown absurdity)

Despite its self-interfering complexity, however, New Nature as conceived by Ian is a plausible and realistic speculative future, since it doesn’t assume any currently impossible technologies like time travel or hyperspatial jumping (some theorists might argue we’ve always already been there, and it’s just getting too intense to ignore now).

New Nature does, however, create enough of an ontological mess at the edge of realism that it requires enchantment to inhabit successfully (without getting to the outright fanciful imaginings of Dirk Gently).

I’ll save my comments on Alice’s Wonderland for another day, but I’ve been reading a collection of critical essays on Carroll’s work, and I’ve concluded that Wonderland is not a world of absurdity. It toes the line of absolute absurdity (a condition with no reality principle), in the sense of say a Monty Python world, without crossing over. To quote Harold Bloom:

“Wonderland has only one reality principle, which is that “time has been murdered. Nothing need be substituted for time, even though only madness can murder time. Alice is only as mad as she needs to be.”

New Nature is a place that stops short of purely fanciful invention and murdered time, and in a sense represents the limiting kind of paraverse where some sanity can be sustained. Only the mad can venture beyond. Dirk Gently is only as mad as the mystery needs him to be in order to solve it, Alice is as mad as she needs to be to survive, the cast of Monty Python are as mad as they can be.

Enchanted Flows

New Nature makes an interesting commitment that I share: a paraverse is the obverse of a set of minds. If the paraverse is a world of worlds, an individual world within it is an evolving coherent experiential perspective (or hallucination), accompanied by patterns of information and agency, turned inside out. Or what you might call an externally projected subjectivity. A hallucination consciously anchored in designed experience.

A world is a point of view that can impose itself on the material environment to shape it. A point of view is a stable stream of consciousness, associated with a (presumed continuously existing) mind that can be biological or artificial, embodied or parasitic, but is defined primarily as a self-perpetuating locus of responsive agency. This point of view can itself be “moving” in a general sense (ie acting under the power of its own agency, based on its own understanding of reality) or stationary. It can be a doer, or a watcher. It can span being and becoming, as it strives to impose itself on its environment. Success at such imposition is a feature of enchantment and annoying aliveness.

A paraverse is a set of enchantment-seeking dents in a metaverse, which may or may not actually exist.

In New Nature, there are worlds — externally projected subjectivities — that you create or author, worlds you inhabit as a participant, worlds you overlap or collide with, worlds you coauthor with others through transient periods of shared agency, worlds you observe but do not influence as a spectator, and worlds you can observe out of the corner of your mind, but not grok, worlds you align or misalign with.

There is a permanent traffic snarl worth of such worlds in New Nature, and they are all sort of at the same level of abstraction. They do not form a hierarchy that you can climb via progressively stacked conceptual metaphors and reifications, but that doesn’t mean there is no temporal structure or ontological regularity to them.

The structure is created by the flow of particularly enchanted subjectivities. Just as someone driving through bad traffic, changing lanes and routes at exactly the right times, might “beat” traffic, there are patterns of (imitable) agency flow that can “beat” the paraverse and achieve high enchantment states. For a while.

The paraverse itself then begins to derive and structure its meanings according to the particularly enchanted experiences playing out within it. Just as the stock market is shaped by the lore swirling around the current cohort of successful investors who enjoy the enchantment halo of survivorship. The paraverse may be a traffic snarl of hallucinations, but some of those hallucinations are self-fulfilling prophecies.

In other words, our understanding of the paraverse comes to be shaped by the most enchanted experiences within it. Call this the Efficient Hallucination Hypothesis.

If Tennyson’s idea of nature was about survival of the fittest, in a condition “red in tooth and claw”, New Nature is about survival of the most enchanted, in a condition “blinding in mirror and lens”.

Series Navigation<< Worlding Raga 6: World To Live

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter