Reengineering Human Nature: Dogmatism

The Problem: Human beings are stubborn creatures, set in our ways, resistant to changing our minds once we've made a decision. Religious groups publish creeds which they believe must be taken on faith and should be maintained against all contrary evidence - and they consider the ability to do that a virtue, rather than a character flaw. Even when dramatic disconfirmation comes, such as the apocalypse failing to occur on a predicted date, a common response is for believers to become even more committed.

Human dogmatism rears its head in politics as well as in religion. The stubborn persistence of conspiracy theories, even in the face of overwhelming evidence and common sense, is an example. Pseudoscientific beliefs such as the fear that vaccination causes autism persist even after failing the tests their own advocates set for them, and as with religion, outside criticism only tends to make the true believers cling to their beliefs all the more tightly. Although some people do change their minds about beliefs that are important to them, the striking thing about these conversions is how rare and noteworthy they are. The obstinate nature of dogmatism slows human progress, fostering division and sectarianism and causing people to hold to wrong ideas long after they've been more than adequately disproven.

The Solution: To illustrate how emotion dominates reason in human behavior, Jonathan Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis compares the mind to a person riding an elephant. The rider can usually steer, unless the elephant decides it wants to go somewhere else. In a similar way, the brain's emotional centers have deep projections into the rational parts of our brains, but not vice versa. A person who's feeling angry or frightened can easily be induced to make bad decisions, and it's almost impossible to persuade someone to give up a pleasurable habit that's bad for them, even when they know it's harmful. And the sense of belonging to a group, of being on the side of good or having access to secret truths of which the rest of the world is ignorant, is a feeling that has powerful emotional rewards.

Because the stubbornly emotional, nonrational parts of the mind can override the rational parts, human beings easily fall into the trap of dogmatism. But there's no reason the mind has to be designed this way. Why not shape our brains so that the rational centers instead override the emotional ones, or at least so that the two of them are equally powerful? That way, we'd be more likely to consider the evidence supporting a proposition and not just whether it feels good to believe it. The emotional centers would still operate just as before - we wouldn't be Vulcans, we'd still be human beings who feel happiness, love, anger and fear - but it would be far easier to overrule irrational emotion with objective reason when the situation calls for it.

The Real Explanation: The tendency toward dogmatism is a legacy of our having evolved in a complex and dangerous world. Humans and our direct ancestors lived on the edge of survival, at the mercy of the weather and climate and constantly threatened by natural disasters, by predators, and not least, by invasion and warfare with other humans. Under these circumstances, when a tribe found one way of life that enabled them to survive - fishing, or herding, or hunting and gathering - they'd have a strong incentive not to change it unless forced to by circumstance. It's much safer to go with what you know will work, rather than risk death by striking out into the wilderness and trying something brand-new. And evolution has imprinted that lesson on our brains, steering human behavior with brain areas that reward us with positive feedback when we find something that works, and warn us away from the unknown with negative emotions like fear.

Our ability to reason is a recent adaptation, compared to the older and more primitive emotional drives that shape our behavior. In evolutionary terms, it's like a new branch freshly grafted onto a large, ancient tree. It's little surprise that it hasn't gained the ability to override those older impulses - but an intelligent creator, foreseeing the greater benefits we stand to gain through reason, most certainly could have designed it that way.

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July 28, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink25 comments
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Reengineering Human Nature: Pride

The Problem: According to Christianity and other monotheistic religions, pride is the deadliest sin. Taking excessive pleasure in yourself and your own talents and accomplishments is the surest way to end up condemned. I personally don't agree with the extreme view that pride is the worst possible character flaw - when properly harnessed, it's an important driver of individual effort and achievement - but I do agree that excessive pride is a problem common to human nature.

Most dictators and other evil rulers partake of an unhealthy amount of pride, believing themselves to be infallible and deserving of unlimited power. The same is true of fundamentalist religious leaders who fantasize that they've been personally chosen to deliver the will of God and force others to conform to it. When it goes unchecked, pride promotes the destructive view that society's elite aren't just more successful but morally superior, and that others are lesser beings whose needs are unworthy of consideration. Excessive pride promotes the dangerous delusion that the wealthy and powerful succeed solely because of their own inherent greatness, when the truth is that luck and circumstance play a much greater role in individual success than most people acknowledge.

The Solution: Christian authors often speak as if pride was a character flaw inherent to free will, one that not even God could get rid of. But the truth is that it's an entirely contingent fact of human nature. There's no reason why we have to have that tendency at all, and a truly omnipotent creator could simply have designed us so that we don't feel it.

Even Christian authors recognize that this is possible. Consider this passage from C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce:

"It is up there in the mountains," said the Spirit. "Very cold and clear, between two green hills. A little like Lethe. When you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else's: without pride and without modesty."

The only problem with this scene is that Lewis thought this magical fountain was in Heaven. Why isn't it on Earth? Why doesn't all water in the world have the same effect? Or does God not want to eliminate pride from the world?

If you want a more concrete way of implementing this, here's my suggestion: design the human mind so that we don't feel a sense of ownership toward intangible qualities. The root cause of pride is that people feel possessive toward their own character traits, their own deeds and actions, in the same way that we feel possessive toward physical objects. They want to mark those things as belonging to me, not to the rest of the world, and praise themselves for possessing more of them than other people. But it's completely plausible to imagine a different psychology which would instinctively think it ridiculous that anyone could own something that can't be seen, touched, or held. People with this type of mind would still value intangible qualities like justice, compassion, or happiness, and want to see more of them in the world - they just wouldn't boast about how much of these abstract goods they'd acquired for themselves, and would value the existence of these qualities in others just as much as in their own lives.

The Real Explanation: The evolutionary roots of pride are murkier than more basic instincts like lust or selfishness, but I'd hypothesize that they have to do with sexual selection. Humans, like many species, compete with each other for mates. And when you want to convince a potential mate that you're a better choice than your rivals, the best way to do it is to boast (verbally or non-verbally) about all your positive qualities: how healthy you are, how strong you are, how high your standing is in the tribe, how faithful and true you'll be. The selective advantages to bragging about your virtues go hand-in-hand with the kind of brain that thinks of them as something belonging to me and not to anyone else.

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July 16, 2010, 12:16 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink13 comments
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Reengineering Human Nature: Selfishness

The Problem: Nearly all the world's religions teach that we should be generous to the poor and needy, and warn that greed and selfishness are destructive sins. "For the love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10).

But this principle is rarely honored, even by the religious leaders who supposedly believe it. Catholic popes and bishops, as well as many Protestant preachers and televangelists, live in opulence and luxury and possess vast amounts of wealth: ornate mansions, private jets, multiple homes filled with art and treasure. Preachers of the "prosperity gospel" teach that God wants to make all their followers rich. Meanwhile, on the secular side, there are libertarians and acolytes of Ayn Rand who teach that selfishness is an unmitigated good and that all taxation and social programs are equivalent to theft and slavery. These influential apostles of greed have attracted huge followings and have contributed to a vast and growing gap between the world's rich and the world's poor.

The Solution: Clearly, the majority of human beings prefer getting to giving. But this isn't an ironclad law of human nature: Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest had the custom of potlatch, where a person's standing in the tribe was set by how much wealth they could give away, not by how much they had for themselves. There are also modern philosophers like Peter Singer, who's argued that everyone should give away a quarter of their income or more to charity and who follows through on this principle in his own life; and businessmen like Warren Buffett, who's pledged to donate nearly all his multibillion-dollar fortune to charity. Examples like this are rare, but they do exist.

The traits of selfishness and greed are part of human nature, but the degree to which they're expressed is affected by the surrounding culture (the same is true, of course, for altruism and generosity). But there's no reason why the set point has to be where it is. Just as David Hume imagined the possibility of all human beings naturally being as diligent and industrious as the most devoted among us are now, we can imagine a world where human beings are naturally as generous as the most generous among us are now; a world where altruism is the norm, and cultures that value selfishness and greed are as rare as potlatch is in our world. Our brains could be wired so that giving away, rather than acquiring, is what gives us the most pleasure.

The Real Explanation: Human nature is forged by evolution, and in evolutionary terms, the success of the individual is all; more specifically, the success of the individual's genes. In a world of scarce resources, which describes the environment of our ancestors, there's little evolutionary benefit to extreme generosity, and potentially a strong benefit for selfishness. If my genes motivate me to give away resources I could have used for my own survival and reproduction, then I'll be less likely to survive and less likely to reproduce, and those genes thus will bring about their own disappearance from the gene pool. On the other hand, if my genes motivate me to be selfish and acquisitive and to get as much as possible for myself and my descendants, I'll be more likely to survive and to have healthy children, who will inherit my selfish genes and propagate them into the next generation.

Granted, this isn't the whole story. In a social species, it may benefit me to give away valuable resources to other members of my tribe from time to time. If I have more than I need and give away some of my extra (food, clothes, tools, shelter, mates), the recipient of my gift will owe me a favor, which I may be able to cash in some day when I'm in need. The potential benefits of this reciprocal altruism laid the evolutionary foundations for humans' sense of generosity. But all else being equal, evolution will always reward the individuals who keep as much as possible for themselves, which explains the dominance of our selfish side.

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July 9, 2010, 10:45 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink18 comments
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Reengineering Human Nature: Violence

The Problem: Many religions, including Christianity, teach that unjustified anger and violence are sins that risk the offender's eternal soul. The Ten Commandments order people not to murder - usually a crime committed in the throes of anger - while Jesus says that even a momentary outburst of anger can lead to damnation: "But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca [an Aramaic insult —Ebonmuse], shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (Matthew 5:22).

But humans are violent creatures. Nations and peoples have been pitted against each other since the time of our oldest written records, and countless millions have died in the wars, invasions and rebellions that fill our history. Hunter-gatherer societies, often caricatured as peaceful savages, actually have even higher rates of murder and warfare than modern industrialized states. On the individual level, as well, there are millions of short-tempered people who think little of responding to any provocation with fury and violence. For most of human history, for example, and in many places still today, beatings were considered an acceptable method of keeping wives in line.

The Solution: Some human beings are natural pacifists, shunning war and violence. The question is, why aren't we all like that? Instead of giving us an impulse to violence and then commanding us never to use it, why wouldn't God simply create humans such that violence is unthinkable to us?

There are several plausible ways to implement this in human neural wiring, and the easiest one that I can think of is through the sense of disgust. Human beings have an intrinsic sense of disgust: we instinctively recoil from things like rotting food, diseased animals or excrement. This is an adaptation to protect us from disease and pathogens by making us physically nauseated at the thought of coming in contact with things that are likely to transmit them.

A creator with the freedom to design human psychology as he sees fit could have discouraged us from doing violence by connecting those circuits to the sense of disgust. With this change, the idea of doing physical harm to another person, whether up close and in person or at a distance, would fill us with revulsion and nausea and would make it all but impossible to actually carry out that impulse. (We could specify that this deterrent triggers based only on the intent of an action, not its effect, so it wouldn't interfere with doctors giving shots or performing surgery so long as they genuinely want their patient to get well.) Humans would then quickly find that diplomacy and negotiation, rather than bloodshed, would be the only feasible way to solve our disagreements.

The Real Explanation: The problem with this possibility, in evolutionary terms, is that it's an unsustainable equilibrium. If all people were peaceful and non-violent, and then one mutant appeared who could use force to get his way, the rest of us would be helpless against him and he and his descendants would rapidly outcompete us. There's no evolutionary advantage to the individual in being a pacifist. The benefits are only to the species as a whole, and natural selection doesn't work at that level. Thus we expect that evolution would make us violent animals, to defend ourselves from all the other violent animals who stand to benefit from doing the same.

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June 16, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink21 comments
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Reengineering Human Nature: Lust

The Problem: According to the commandments of the major religions, God expects humans to have only a single lifelong romantic partner and to remain sexually faithful to them: "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14).

Yet, as any given week of tabloid headlines will tell you, humans aren't naturally wired for monogamy. Even after we're married or in a monogamous relationship, the sex drive continues functioning, often producing strong feelings of attraction and lust for people other than one's chosen partner. Even celebrities and politicians in high-profile relationships, people who have by far the most to lose from being caught cheating, seem unable to resist the urgings of adulterous desire. (John Edwards and Tiger Woods are the two most famous examples in recent headlines - by the time you read this, there will probably be others.) Religion also seems ineffective at restraining lust: consider the many high-profile preachers, from Jimmy Swaggart to Ted Haggard to Jim Bakker (and many, many more), who've been caught in heterosexual or homosexual relationships outside their marriage.

The Solution: It's utterly bizarre and inexplicable, on the theistic worldview, that God would create humans with overwhelmingly strong inclinations to commit an act he doesn't want them to commit, and then punish them harshly if they fail to resist the temptations he himself implanted in them. This view makes God out to be some kind of Kafkaesque sadist who doesn't want humans to be saved and delights in placing stumbling blocks in their path.

But it didn't have to be this way. If God is an omnipotent architect with the power to create any kind of beings he pleases, and if God's preferred model of sexual and romantic relations is lifelong monogamy and fidelity, it would have been easy for him to make that happen. Rather than creating human beings as we are now, God could have created a world of human beings with a different psychological makeup.

In this possible world, if entered into willingly, the ritual of marriage produces psychological and physiological change in the brain such that from that day onward, a married person experiences feelings of love and sexual attraction for only their chosen partner and no one else. The ability to feel platonic love, to form friendships and meaningful relationships based in mutual respect and admiration, would be unaffected, but the idea of falling in love or feeling lust for someone other than your partner would be as inconceivable as the idea of falling in love with a lamp or a table. In this world, adultery simply wouldn't exist, as there would be no desire to engage in it.

The Real Explanation: Human nature was not created by God, but shaped and instilled in us by evolution. And evolution, above all else, rewards reproductive success: the drive to have as many descendants as possible, to maximize the contribution of your genes to the next generation. This is not because evolution has some sort of moral preference for this behavior, but simply because living beings that act in this way will proliferate at the expense of those that don't, and therefore we're more likely to be descendants of the former rather than the latter.

That being the case, it's to be expected that many human beings become attracted to more than one person over the course of their lives. There's no evolutionary advantage to shutting down your sex drive, while there is an evolutionary advantage to mating with anyone who might be willing. (Natural monogamy does evolve, but only on rare occasions - usually when children need the full attention and nurturing of both parents to survive.) For this very reason, if human beings were wired as I've described above, this would be strong evidence against evolution and in favor of God's existence. But this isn't what we actually find to be true.

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June 11, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink32 comments
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Reengineering Human Nature

"For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would."

—Galatians 5:17

"In order to cure most of the ills of human life, I require not that man should have the wings of the eagle, the swiftness of the stag, the force of the ox, the arms of the lion, the scales of the crocodile or rhinoceros; much less do I demand the sagacity of an angel or cherubim. I am contented to take an increase in one single power or faculty of his soul. Let him be endowed with a greater propensity to industry and labour; a more vigorous spring and activity of mind; a more constant bent to business and application. Let the whole species possess naturally an equal diligence with that which many individuals are able to attain by habit and reflection; and the most beneficial consequences, without any alloy of ill, is the immediate and necessary result of this endowment."

—David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779

In 2006, I said the following in "Putting Humanity on a Pedestal":

...in the modern era, the findings of psychology and neuroscience have revealed that our minds and personalities operate due to comprehensible, material causes, not due to divine influence or demonic possession. For the most part the forces of religion have not even felt this blow yet, though glimmerings of an emerging understanding can be seen in, for example, the furious denials among the religious right that homosexuality could have any kind of genetic basis. However, when the full import of these facts becomes clear, I believe it will cause an upheaval in the religious worldview even greater than that caused by the theory of evolution.

Since I first wrote that, I've been thinking some more about it, and I've come to the conclusion that this was, if anything, an understatement. With a little work, this could be one of the most important arguments in the atheist's rhetorical quiver, one that would give us a virtually unanswerable talking point against nearly every form of theism.

If you've spent any time reading apologetic literature, you've probably come across the theologians who conceive of human free will as a blank slate, a mathematical point lacking any internal structure, such that not even God could influence our decisions without canceling our free will altogether. Curiously, many of these same theologians also insist on a doctrine called original sin, which claims that our decisions are biased toward evil - a contradiction that usually seems to pass them by without notice.

That contradiction aside, it's easy to see why theologians insist that free will is a blank slate. They want to claim that God is good, yet there's a huge amount of evil in the world that needs to be accounted for. The easiest way out is to put the blame on humans: insisting that God endowed human beings with free will so that we could achieve genuine fellowship with him, but that we went astray and brought sin into the world (and some go so far as to blame all natural evil on human sin). This serves to justify continued belief in God as the creator of all things while still holding him guiltless for evil and suffering.

But this claim, as vehemently maintained as it is, is obviously wrong. As any observer of human nature knows, free will is not a blank slate. Human beings come into the world with an innate set of psychological predispositions, desires, and tendencies to act in certain ways. In short, there is such a thing as human nature. And this leads to the obvious followup question: If there is a god who created humans, and if he created us with a particular nature, why did he make the choice he did rather than creating us with a different nature?

This question takes on special importance when you consider that, according to the moral rules traditionally handed down by religion, God has created human beings with strong inclinations to do things that he doesn't want us to do (the original-sin idea again). For instance, he cautions us against gluttony, yet creates us with an appetite for rich, sweet, fattening foods. He enjoins us not to commit adultery, but gives us sex drives that are unpredictable and uncontrollable. He warns us against wrath, but creates short-tempered people who get irrationally angry. He threatens doom for homosexuality, yet creates people who have homosexual desires.

I've tried this argument on a few occasions, and what I've found is that most theists react with bewilderment. They fail to comprehend the question, or insist that humans are the only kind of creature God could possibly have created, or claim that God could not have improved us without making tradeoffs that would have resulted in an even worse outcome (the absurdity of applying the concept of "tradeoff" to an omnipotent being is something else that never occurs to them).

Well, I think we can help them out. In an upcoming series of posts, I'll propose a series of imagination-stretching exercises - thought experiments which show how human nature could have been different, in ways that would improve it without any negative tradeoffs. These changes, while not depriving us of free will, would lead to a world with a greater sense of morality and smaller amounts of sin - and after all, isn't that what we're told God wants?

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June 10, 2010, 5:57 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink22 comments
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Designing the Afterlife

In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis puts a challenge to those who condemn the doctrine of Hell as immoral: "What are you asking God to do?"

The apparent reasoning behind this question is that even those who think the idea of Hell is monstrous would be unable to come up with a superior afterlife scenario in which justice would be done. I am happy to take up this challenge. In this post, I will sketch an alternative scenario, one which I believe any reasonable person would agree is morally superior to Lewis' conception of the afterlife. In so doing, I intend to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that Lewis' conception of the afterlife is morally unacceptable, and that if there exists a benevolent deity, the afterlife cannot be as Lewis and Christians of like mind have historically pictured it.

For the purposes of this thought experiment, let us assume that the Earth is exactly as it is now (though I am not claiming I could not improve that as well, if given the chance), save for one difference. In this alternate world, each person possesses an immortal, conscious soul as theists have historically conceived of it. Upon the death of the body, this soul separates from it and travels to the afterlife, where the scenario I imagine begins.

In my afterlife, there wouldn't be a Hell, but there would be a Purgatory. Every person, upon their arrival, would undergo a review of their life. They would be shown both the best and the worst things they ever did, and would have explained to them, in a way that was impossible to deny or misunderstand, both the good and the evil that they caused by their actions. It will be explained to them precisely why their evil actions were wrong, and what they should have done instead.

After this would come the purgatory, less a place than a state of being. Each person would have to relive snippets of their life, not from their own perspective but from the perspectives of others whom their actions affected. All the happiness they caused in others, they would feel it as if it were their own, and likewise all the anger, sadness, pain and fear they caused. Each person would feel happiness equal to all the happiness they created during their life, and would suffer an amount equal to all the suffering they created during their life. (Naturally, for people such as Adolf Hitler, this process would take a very long time.)

Upon completion of this process, the person would be given a chance to express their sincere apology for the suffering they caused. If they refused (although I can't foresee that ever happening), they would be sent back to repeat the process as many times as it takes. Since it is possible that the person will repent at the end of each cycle, and since all things that are possible will happen eventually given an unlimited amount of time, no one will be condemned to suffer forever.

The people who complete purgatory and sincerely repent their misdeeds would be allowed into what we can call Heaven. The physical appearance and characteristics of this place are not especially important; what is important is that it would be a meeting place, where the souls in residence can freely mingle, interact and enjoy each other's company. Even aside from the enormous potential in a meeting of history's great minds, I envision this as a place of good company and fellowship. The purgatory process would not erase the differences that make people unique, but it would ensure that they would treat each other with the respect and kindness that only come from gaining the most profound perspective possible on one's own actions.

There is one potential problem with this scenario that needs to be addressed straight away. One of the major benefits of Heaven in every religious tradition is the hope of being reunited with departed loved ones, but Heaven would be a very lonely and distinctly unheavenly kind of place if one had to wait hundreds of years for friends and loved ones to complete the entrance process. To fix that, upon completing the process of purgatory, regardless of how long it took, every person would be moved to the same time, the "entrance time" of Heaven. Thus, no one would have to wait for anyone else to arrive in Heaven, and no one would be the first or last to arrive; everyone would appear there at the same time.

There would be another, major aspect of this heavenly realm. Each person knows better than anyone else what they themselves would consider paradise, so why not let them create it for themselves? Each person in Heaven would be granted a private reality that was completely under their control, within which they would be omnipotent, able to alter the laws of physics and create or alter worlds by will alone, limited only by what is possible to imagine. The heavenly residents could create private paradises inhabited only by themselves, or shape whole new planets inhabited by people of their own. They could reign over their worlds as gods and direct their unfolding from above, or enter them as one more mortal resident. They could even shape a storyline and suppress some of their own memories to better fit in, if they wanted. (Imagine being a character in a story you created yourself!) The saved would also be able to freely visit each others' home realities, though they would not be able to affect anything there without the owner's consent.

The possibility of creating a world with its own living inhabitants poses some special difficulties. I do not expect any of the people inhabiting Heaven to want to create a world where others would suffer, but I can recognize that an interesting world might involve conflict. To solve this problem, I propose that two options be open to world-creators: create either "zombies" that would behave as the creator desired and that would be practically indistinguishable from ordinary people under most circumstances, but that would lack any true subjective experiences and hence could not suffer, or create true, conscious free-willed beings that could learn and grow and would not be fully predictable. (And yes, the created free-willed inhabitants of these worlds could, in the fullness of time, gain admittance to Heaven on equal status with any other resident and become creators of their own worlds in turn. Why not?)

Finally, if anyone grew tired with even this degree of variety, residents of Heaven would also be able to reincarnate themselves and live another human life on Earth. People who had been through at least one life already would be able to control, to an extent, the location and circumstances of their next birth.

The only problem I can see with this scenario that I have not yet worked out is the problem of boredom. Given infinite time, even the limitless diversity possible within this conception of the afterlife could grow monotonous, and Heaven would not be Heaven in that case. It could be possible to allow the souls in residence to annihilate themselves, but that would raise problems of loneliness and grief among those who remain, two emotions that would seem inappropriate for Heaven. I do not know how to solve this (although, I should note, I do not think the traditional conception of Heaven avoids this problem or offers a superior answer to it). If anyone has an idea that respects the freedom of all involved and does not threaten eternal monotony, feel free to suggest it.

July 19, 2006, 10:04 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink37 comments
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How Big is the Library of Babel?

One of my favorite short-story authors is the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. Many of his stories deal with mind-expanding themes, including "Blue Tigers", about a handful of stones that do not obey the rules of mathematics, "The Book of Sand", about a book with an infinite number of pages, and "The Aleph", a point in space that allows one to observe all other points simultaneously.

However, Borges' most iconic short story is the one called "The Library of Babel", less a narrative with a plot than an extended thought experiment, about a race of people who live in a cosmos that is bizarre indeed. The universe in which these people (Babelians?) live is a vast, apparently endless honeycomb of interlocking hexagon-shaped rooms, each one with two hallways that connect it to other rooms on the same level and a spiral staircase connecting it to rooms both above and below. Every room's walls are occupied by bookshelves that are full of books. Most of the books are complete nonsense, nothing but random combinations of letters, but a few contain tantalizing hints of sense.

One which my father saw in a hexagon on circuit fifteen ninety-four was made up of the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first line to the last. Another (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters, but the next-to-last page says Oh time thy pyramids.

As Borges' narrator explains, the people of the Library of Babel have finally discerned the nature of their world, based on two observations: first, that every book uses the same twenty-five symbols for letters and punctuation; second, that no traveler has ever come across two exactly identical books. These people have come to the realization that the Library contains all books - that is to say, not just all books that have been written, not just all books that ever will be written, but all possible books, every single permutation of letters of a specified length.

Life in the Library is both a blessing and a curse. The vast - overwhelmingly, crushingly vast - majority of these books are total gibberish; but buried among them, somewhere, there are - there must be - books containing every truth that anyone could ever want to know.

Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.

There must be books that tell the true history of the Library of Babel, and explain how such a fantastic cosmos came into existence. There must be books that contain the truth about the existence, nature, and attributes of God. There must be books that tell the true biography of every individual's life, perfectly foretelling their every action from birth to death, if only there was a way to find them; Borges' narrator refers to these books as the Vindications. Of course, because this library contains all possible books somewhere, every such work of perfection will be undetectably camouflaged among an immense number of sinister counterfeits - books that tell you your life story in perfect detail up to the age of thirty, say, but diverge radically thereafter.

Though it is obvious that the Library of Babel must be vast, I did not appreciate just how vast it is until reading Daniel Dennett's discussion of it in Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Consider: according to Borges' description, each book in the Library is 410 pages; each page is made up of 40 lines each consisting of 80 positions, and there are 25 possible alphabetic symbols that can fill any of these positions. This works out to 410 x 40 x 80 = 1,312,000 positions per book, each of which can be filled in 25 distinct ways: 25 x 25 x 25... and so on, 1,312,000 times. In other terms, the Library of Babel contains 25(410x40x80) = 251,312,000 books. This is a number compared to which the number of atoms in our universe is infinitesimal.

Since it is all but impossible to get a handle on the size of this number, let us consider something more manageable: the number of variants of just one book, say, War and Peace. (I do not know if this book actually has something like the 1,312,000 characters possessed by each book in the Library of Babel, but say for the sake of argument that it does.) In all the vast Library there is only one book that replicates it exactly as it was written by Tolstoy. But how many slight variants are there, versions that differ by just one character?

Again, there are 1,312,000 positions in the book, each one of which can differ from the canonical version in 24 ways (since the original character at that position can be replaced with any of the other characters). Thus there are 24 x 1,312,000 = 31,488,000 one-character variants. By the same logic, there are an incredible 991,493,388,288,000, or about 991 trillion, copies of this book that vary by just two characters (31,488,000 ways to vary one character, times 24 x 1,311,999 = 31,487,976 ways to vary a different character). The number of three-character variants is exponentially larger, and the number of four-character variants larger still; and then there are the versions that differ by five, by six, by seven... (Dennett points out that even a copy with several typos on each page would still be quite recognizable.) And none of this includes translations of the book into other languages, retellings of recognizably the same story in different words, abridged versions, summaries, versions with scrambled page order, versions with alternate endings, commentaries, commentaries on the commentaries, reviews, parodies, scholarly analyses, denunciations, deconstructions...

Just how big a number is this? The estimated volume of the observable universe is 1033 cubic light-years, or about 1087 cubic centimeters. Assume that the thickness of a sheet of paper is 0.1 mm, and that each sheet is of standard 8.5 x 11-inch dimensions (about 21.6 by 28 cm). Then the volume of a single book is 21.6 x 28 x (400 x 0.01) = about 2400 cubic centimeters. It would take 4.16 x 1083 such books to completely fill the volume of the observable universe. How many variants on War and Peace would this be?

Incredibly, all the books that were exact duplicates of War and Peace, save for a mere twelve or fewer single-character differences somewhere in the text, would more than fill the observable universe. (If you're not convinced of this, I've written a simple Java program that calculates the number of books in the Library of Babel that differ from a given book by X single-character changes. Download it here and check my math: BabelCalc.java). And the Library of Babel must contain these books, as well as all the other character variants, plus all the other relevant books mentioned above. The amount of space required to store all these near-duplicates - Tolstoy Space, let us call it - is, by many orders of magnitude, larger than the entire observable universe. And Tolstoy Space is just the infinitesimally small, vanishing fraction of Babel Space devoted to the variants of one book. Borges wrote that for every book in the Library there were "several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles", but we can now appreciate just how much of an understatement that was.

March 14, 2006, 9:46 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink35 comments
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