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Thought-Experiments and Trains of Thought



"The Ones Who Take The Train To Omelas"


My parody started as a bare plan to whip up some graphics for laughs. Travel posters! I reread Le Guin’s story, so I’d get the bits right, and realised the tourism angle is right there. Riding into Omelas on a fast train, past walkers walking the other way?


A story idea was born. But let me reflect on the philosophy. My parody raises two questions:


1) if it’s ok not to walk away from Omelas, is it ok to ride a train to Omelas for a weekend getaway?


Is day-tripping in worse, because more a matter of doing than letting happen?


Or is it better, since you are there briefly? (You are exposed to only a low dose of moral contagion?)


Or is it about the same?


If Omelas engages in commerce with the world, is the whole world implicated?


What about goods manufactured in Omelas, on which its magic mojo rubs off? Le Guin's narrator stipulates gracious living is achievable without banal modern appliances so often employed. Can you put that in a package and sell it?


Now we’re starting to distort the premise, absurdly. But it’s an absurd premise. So how does that impinge on the philosophy of the story?


If Omelas were in the US, in California (I planted it there because Le Guin grew up in California; California is a Hotel California sort of state) the treatment of the child would be unconstitutional. That settles that. But Omelas is magic, or metaphysics, so anything’s possible, I guess, even legally. That leads, finally, into the second question my parody raises.


2) Is Omelas a stupid idea?


This is underscored, at the end of my parody, via asinine notion of ejecting stowaways into the sea. Daffy Duck: “brother, what a way to run a railroad!” So: is ‘what would you do if you had a Utopia engine powered by the pain of one child?’ also a stupid question? (Play stupid games, win stupid prizes?)


Back up a step. The stowaway into the sea is a “Cold Equations” half-twist. If you don’t know, “The Cold Equations” is a classic SF tale by Tom Godwin. TLDR: pilot’s got to eject the girl. ‘Cold equations’ say so: no other way! It’s not dumb story, but it’s not as smart as it thinks it is. Cory Doctorow wrote a good take-down of ‘lifeboat rules!’ fantasies, which posture as ‘tough decisions!’ set-ups, but are permission slips for cruelty. Audience gets to enjoy, guiltlessly, guilty pleasure of being forced—for good!—to force the dumb girl out the airlock, while (more in sorrow than in anger) relishing a ‘look at me, I can do moral math!’ sense of superiority. Kind of messed up.


What permits sleight of hand, in such cases, is, in part, ambiguity in the genre thought-experiment. Philosophers and scientists love thought-experiments, from Plato’s Cave down to today. (Who doesn’t love an Old-Time trolley, if only because you love to hate how silly the set-up is.)


Here’s the ambiguity. Is the what if ‘in’ the picture or is it the frame? A thought-experiment (TE) is a story problem, is a thing whose terms you are supposed to just accept, unquestioningly.


If one train is heading North and another is heading South, at X distance from each other, and moving at Y and Z rates, you are supposed to do the math not muse: why trains?


Similarly, in a TE, you aren’t supposed to worry about whys and wherefores of the set-up, or what’s offstage, or at work behind the scenes.


Like: why would people be all chained in some Cave?


And: don’t worry about Schrödinger’s cat. No real cats were made neither-alive-nor dead in the course of the TE.


Who cares who locked Mary in a black-and-white room? Her well-bring does not concern us.


But, especially when the TE concerns ethics or large issues of justice and social order, wires can get crossed. You may swallow some story problem premise, uncritically, that, ethically or socially, you shouldn’t. In the case of Plato’s Cave, arguably you shouldn’t accept the set-up epistemologically or metaphysically, never mind the ethics and politics. You should ask: why would you build a Cave? (Plato did. Why did this model attract him?)


In the case of “The Cold Equations”, the moral pressure should, by rights, be on the idiots, everyone besides the girl. The moral is supposed to be that wise men—unlike foolish girls—know, accept and respect that the universe has ‘cold equations’. But the actual moral should be: jerks are always trying to trick you into thinking things are cold equations that don’t have to be, or didn’t have to be before some jerk got his hands on it.


Cold equations are excuses; humans love excuses. Never take a cold equation, cold, from a jerk.


I should get on to “Omelas”, and my parody, but let me work up via two more points about TE's and crossed wires. TE's are story-problems in which, often, utterly weird stuff is true for no reason. The set-up is exact yet unmotivated. ‘Why am I suddenly attached to a famous violinist?’ The reason is not: will to Rube Goldbergishness. The reason is: duh, we are solving for some variable, to make the thing tight and neat, hence solvable, like a story-problem should be. This is fine. But the results are often weirdly surreal, claustrophobic, and/or whimsical, if you pause to breath in the air. So the ‘solutions’, if they arrive, partake of some of that air.


Not every surreal what-if is a TE, of course. Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is not a TE about if you woke to find yourself turned into a giant bug. But every TE that involves a surreal premise—e.g. Mary, color scientist, locked in a black-and-white room—can be relished for its surreal side. Plato’s Cave is surreal. A Kafkaesque version of Mary, or of the Cave, could be good.


Also, often TE's, including Omelas, involve little locked rooms.


Why is that? Are the authors of these experiments trying to trigger claustrophobes? No, the prevalence of these set-ups is due to TE's often being about the relationship between some Domain A and Domain B: appearance and reality, mind and world, distributions of harms and benefits. Concretizing these to-be-explored domains as rooms, and sticking a lock on some door, tidies the mental domain.


Obviously there is a risk, then, that the TE just hypostasizes a bad metaphor—makes the mind a little ‘locked room’ mystery, thereby making bogus mystery, maybe. But even if the set-up isn’t some fallacy-by-literalized metaphor, there is a literary atmosphere to a locked room mystery that might, potentially, confound our ‘intuitions’ about the case.


How so? Let me shift to whimsy. Just as TE's can seem surreal, they can seem whimsical. Or (what’s the word?) cozy. Like an old-fashioned English locked room mystery! Cozy. A mood of cozy, or whimsy, or cozy whimsy, may illegitimately incline us to accept a style of answer that fits the mood.


If thought is always about cozy locked rooms and toy trolley sets, ethical thought starts to seem like a whimsical puzzle to be solved, like the good sort of murder.


I think there’s a connection between Anglo-American analytic philosophy’s penchant for cozy, whimsical thought-experimental set-ups, and the culture of early 20th Century Oxbridge academia and the Englishness of the locked room mystery. I don’t mean the philosophy is nonsense by association with mere stories! Nothing wrong with literature. It isn’t all nonsense. TE's are old things, non-indigenous to England. Still, philosophers could do to think more about the literary atmosphere of the English TE.


Ursula K. Le Guin is too smart not to sense much of all this, which brings us to “Omelas”.  “Omelas” is a brilliant, exemplary TE. But also not a TE.


Let’s start with the first. It’s brilliant that Le Guin’s narrator lays to rest worries about the narrator being unreliable. Obviously a story-problem with an unreliable narrator is a hilarious disaster. ‘If Johnny has five dollars, and Suzy has three dollars, and Johnny gives two dollars to Suzy, how much money do each of Johnny and Suzy have?’ That’s a TE—that is, a story problem. But if you don’t trust the narrator not to lie to you about money, forget it. You can’t get it off the ground, then. But this is the problem with Utopia. The narrator of a story about an alleged ‘real Utopia’ could be lying. In history, everyone who has ever said ‘welcome to Utopia’ was deluded or laying a trap. We have such native distrust of Utopia that it’s like if someone asked you, ‘what you would wish for if someone gave you an evil-looking monkey’s paw that grants wishes?’ You would wish for nothing, obviously! Thing is cursed! But the story-problem says it grants wishes! Yeah, right.


Utopia! First, you can’t get there from here. They don’t exist. Second, careful what you wish for, you just might get it. They are always cursed. (That these concerns are contradictory does not give us pause.)


So Le Guin’s narrator does a brilliant thing: she lets the reader tell the story, filling in about how great Omelas is. Surely the reader doesn’t need to worry that she herself, the reader, is unreliable!


Tell Omelas as you like. 


“O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids …”


It’s a good trick for making sure the audience doesn’t reject the terms of the what-if illegitimately. Don’t cheat and imagine they are all secretly miserable, or enslaved. Accept the premise: the suffering of one child suffices to make a whole city truly happy and humanly fulfilled. The deal is the deal.


Which isn’t to say that the narrator isn’t unreliable, after all. But hold that thought.


Despite being so well-constructed as a TE, “Omelas” isn’t a TE; rather, as Le Guin calls it, a ‘psychomyth’. She says it’s the myth of the ‘scapegoat’. That’s not quite right. The child isn’t imagined to be guilty. That’s part of what makes it so awful. She seems to put her finger on it better when she quotes William James, from “The Philosopher and the Moral Life”:


“Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?”


“Specifical and independent sort of emotion” is a great phrase! That’s what Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is for, too, but it isn’t what a TE is for, classically. TE's aren’t to make us feel ‘strange’, though they may. Le Guin quotes on from James:


“All the higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of probable causes of future experience, factors to which the environment and the lessons it has so far taught us must learn to bend.”


This feels right but is a bit hard to apply, straight, to the story—Le Guin’s “Omelas”. Let’s consider


As I said, the story is a TE.


It’s a tidily-engineered touchstone for the truth of consequentialism. Omelas is a classical Utility Monster—that is, an inhuman thing that generates so much happiness that you do right to feed humans to it, for that’s what it eats. Cold, consequentialist equation!


This might seem wrong—no, not feeding people to Monsters. That's separate. It might seem wrong that Omelas is a classic Utility Monster, in a Robert Nozick sense. In the classic Utility Monster case, some many are sacrificed for some one, on the assumption that the one is capable of being really, really, really happy.


In the Omelas case, by contrast, the one (child) is sacrificed for the many (Omelans). So this is just a plain vanilla greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number case. (The Utility Monster case reverses the usual, so a reverse Utility Monster doesn’t get us something yet more exotic. It gets us back to the usual.)


My response is that, as readers, we are invited to imagine Omelas as one thing. ‘Omelas’ is the proper name here. We hear descriptions of denizens, besides the suffering child, but only the city is named. The title denotes the Ones Who Walk Away. You can capitalize them. But they aren’t named. They aren’t really described or even called Omelians (Omelasians?)


The child is about 10 years old (although it looks only 6-years old.) Omelas is obviously a lot older, and its towers may shine for a long time to come. So we imagine a line of pitiful children being fed to happy Moloch, Omelas, through time. QED, Omelas is a Utility Monster. Many fed to one.


Having all these happy people living ‘in’ the Monster makes it more plausible. The usual objection to Utility Monsters is ‘I can’t imagine it’. But we can imagine a happy city. Anything done to one person that makes a whole city really, really happy is a-ok, according to simple consequentialism.


To critics of consequentialism, this is the absurdity in the theory. We need some account of right that rules out self-evidently monstrous acts of unjust sacrifice.


This is what calls into question the aptness of Le Guin’s suggestion that her story functions to spur openness to as-yet unrealized ‘future values’. It isn’t like we are all orthodox act-consequentialists now, so undermining that view amounts to boldly suggesting we go, morally, where no one has gone before. No. Most people aren’t strict consequentialists now.


So what is Le Guin targeting that we all think now if not consequentialism, as such?


The story feels like it is nudging us to ‘walk away’. But, like a good TE, the story gives Omelas itself an elaborately, scrupulously fair shake. The reader is discouraged from taking the easy way out by simply disbelieving the premise that the lives of everyone in Omelas, besides the one child, are great. If you imagine everyone in Omelas is secretly wretched shuddering at the curse they live under, crying into their pillows in the night, that alters the cold equation. But now you went and rewrote the story, cheater.


Why do we feel Le Guin feels we should ‘walk away’, even though she is also so concerned to make the case for the great good of Omelas, against our lazy temptation to bait-and-switch in some crude dystopia?


Partly there’s an external reason. In her story notes for “The Day Before the Revolution”, Le Guin writes that ‘this story is about one of the ones who walked away from Omelas’. This does mean that “Omelas” is an actual-to-gosh prequel to “Day Before”, which is part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, implying the existence of this magic city in that universe. Rather, the anarchist protagonist of “Day Before”, Odo, founder of the Odonian sect, is a high idealist, like the ones who walk away. Le Guin admires Odo. Ergo, she admires the Ones Who Walk Away.


This is a good argument. But a bit of an interpretive cheat. One wants internal evidence that “Omelas” is a parable about the rightness of walking away, rather than, say, an honest dilemma with no clear solution—a case in which both sides seem to have something heavy weighing in the scales


I’m honestly not sure there is internal evidence of that sort. But I feel the story has to do with lying to ourselves. Somehow the poison in it is in the fact that it is a ‘deal’—a ‘bargain’. The rationality of the bargain struck, given the terms of the offer, reconciles us a bit too much to the terms of the offer.


G.A. Cohen has his kidnappers case. Don't know it? It's simple: if kidnappers kidnap a child, it may be rational to pay. But the kidnappers cannot morally excuse themselves on the grounds that it always turns out for the best, because they offer such reasonable terms. It is at this point that the metaphysical mystery of Omelas, which might seem like it is out of the frame (it doesn’t matter why this ‘deal’ works) becomes important.


One interesting question is whether we react to Omelas in the negative way we do partly because we regard the ‘what if’ of the child as some sort of unholy curse. Clearly some sort of unholy bargain with powerful, malevolent forces has been struck. And that’s just never a prudential option, quite apart from the ethics of it.


Is the fabric of the universe of Omelas to be imagined as more like a monkey’s paw, or more like a weirdly rigged trolley problem?


Another interesting question is whether the narrator is unreliable, after all. She—the narrator—wins our trust by letting us tell the story at the start. We describe the city. But this might be the classic confidence trick of letting the mark win a little at the start. The narrator also says there’s no ‘guilt’ in Omelas. But isn’t there? Otherwise, why walk away?


I said above that the job of a TE is not to just make us feel a funny feeling, but rather to be sharply solvable, like a good story-problem. But that’s a bit narrow. It is very nice if a TE is ‘solvable’. But some TE's may just loosen the old conceptual framework, making room for new concepts to get in. Maybe that’s how Le Guin thinks of it?


But I have clean forgotten to discuss my own story! I guess the idea of my story is that the original is so idea-packed, that plenty of that is sure to wash over mine, making mine smart, just by association.


Beyond that, my idea was, partly, the ‘meta’ one (most parodies are meta): just look at this weird what-if! Make that frame element the subject.


The child is technology: a powerful engine for generating goods, services, human welfare and flourishing. Technology worth using at all is worth using optimally. The ‘exploitation’ is baked in either way. We should see how much good we can generate from one child. So: can you bottle it, export it? Or, in the tourism case, can visitors come and having its goodness rub off on them, temporarily, and then they leave again?


By having one of my two characters be an outsider and all ‘Omelas, WTF!’ I foreground this. (I’m not saying Le Guin erred in not doing this.)


‘Bad facts’ are one thing. Reality is full of them. Leveraging bad facts, for good, is just making the most of a bad situation. But there’s a fine line between making the most of a bad situation and exploiting a bad situation. And people will be motivated to smudge that line, make the latter look like the former.


Final note: I’m interested in the category of jokes that aren’t jokes. I think Le Guin’s “Omelas” is that. It isn’t funny. Isn’t even tongue-in-cheek. (Maybe there’s a little deadpan twinkle?) Still, it feels like a “Monsters, Inc.” joke waiting to happen. But it doesn’t. Its serious air blows alternately warm and cold, towards Omelas and away, and is kept up steadily.


Ted Chiang does that a lot and it’s a very interesting literary mood. Every Ted Chiang story is a hilarious joke, minus the joke, hence the hilarity. Me? I’m a joker. Seeing the joke that “Omelas” might have been doesn’t mean it was just a joke, all along. Still, you’ve got to crack some yokes if you want to make an Omelas. (TE to tee-hee and back again.)


I also omitted the kid from my parody pictures. You might have thought the joke was going to be that in every Omelas travel poster there's that kid, tiny, world's saddest Where’s Waldo. Nah. Funnier the other away.

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