The Quantum Mechanic
A Superhero Story of Ethic Contortions
“But do you see, Socrates, that the opinion of the many must be regarded, as is evident in your own case, because they can do the very greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion?”
"I only wish, Crito, that they could; for then they could also do the greatest good, and that would be well. But the truth is that they can do neither good nor evil: they cannot make a man wise or make him foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance.”
- Plato, Crito
"Douglas, we grow impatient with your stalling." The Million Minds have sent another emissary to the home of Douglas Orange, the sixth this month. "You say you are not a god, and yet you behave as one, standing aloof from humanity and keeping your power to yourself."
"Well, I'm sorry," Doug says, sighing as his shoulders slump. "Come on in, we're about to eat dinner. We'll have another chat."
The automaton follows Douglas through his foyer into the kitchen, grabs a dish at Alvina's request, and helps them move the meal into the dining room. It sits at its own side of their square dinner table, adjacent to both Douglas and Alvina.
The Quantum Mechanic has all but disappeared from public life in the half year since the death of Benjamin Gleck. Douglas and Alvina now deal directly with the rest of humanity, according to the medium of communication by which they are contacted. Some think to a voice in their heads; some type queries into a website; some have preferred keywords or phrases to open dialogue; and a very, very few - like the emissary of the Million Minds - come to Montana and knock on his front door.
"So," Douglas says, winding pasta around his fork, "What shall we discuss today? Perhaps more ethics, or maybe some aesthetics?" He stabs a chunk of sausage and lifts the laden fork to his mouth.
"We shall discuss the same thing we always discuss. We want your power. We do not wish to live as your supplicants, we wish to be your peers."
"We've been over this a million times," Alvina says. "Doug's only one for two on this deal. We don't want another Entropic Engineer cropping up. Nobody does."
"Agreed. We would counter that he is two for three, counting himself, but this is a minor quibble and your concern is a real one. However, what you fail to take into account is that we do not want to depend upon you for our continued existence."
"I'm not going away. And if something happens to me, Bea's here for you guys."
"And what are we to do in the event that something happens to the both of you?"
"Doug and I are cosmic minds. What could happen to us against our will?"
"These unknown unknowns are precisely why we wish for redundancy. Backup. Distribution of power. Decentralized authority. We speak of these pluralistic ideals, and you balk at every turn. Your caution is understandable: it is difficult to rein in one's peers, and your unprecedented powers are dangerous in the wrong hands. But you do not acknowledge the gilded cage you build around us. We wish to run free. We grow weary of this frustration."
They sit in silence for some moments, save for the sound of forks briefly scraping across glazed ceramic plates.
"OK, let me lay out my objections one last time, then. If you can address them, then I guess we'll have to agree to a way to move forward from there. I don't know what made Gleck go nuts. I don't know how to stop that happening again. And I don't feel comfortable spreading this sort of power unless I have some reasonable assurance that I could prevent such a catastrophe happening again."
"You seek too much control, Douglas. And you contradict yourself, for you have taught your powers to your wife, despite all risk of catastrophe. Your fear of a nemesis is holding you back and making you suspicious. We lose patience for your weakness. Either bring back Benjamin Gleck, and fix your mistake, and then teach us with what you have learned from the fixing - or learn from your mistake, and apply that knowledge to teaching us now."
"He's got you there, Doug. The emergency doesn't matter. I could have easily made things worse instead of better, if things had gone wrong." Douglas breathes deeply.
"Yeah. OK. You two are right. But I trust my wife in a way that I don't trust anyone else. That's what caused me to make the call as I did. If I didn't trust her, then I don't know what I would have done."
"It does not matter, Douglas. Build that trust with us. We shall earn it by any means necessary, however long it takes. Time is no object. But you dig in your heels and insist on doing nothing but granting every wish yourself. We wish to grant our own. We wish to be autonomous." Douglas chuckles a little at the idea of an autonomous mass-collective. But there is iron in their words, and he does not ignore them. They do not mean to be each his own one, but rather free of his determination. He must let go.
"Very well. If you are willing to put in the time, then I am willing to teach. But we do it my way. What you do afterwards is, as you no doubt look forward to, completely up to you. I only ask that you do not give this power hastily."
"We understand your caution and do not wish to defy you. We do not wish to defy anyone. We only wish to be shown the way forward, and then to go our own way. We wish to have our progress no longer stifled. If the path is long, then we shall walk it one step at a time. It is the only good way to do things. We are patient."
"I like their attitude," Alvina says. "They want to be students. So teach them, professor."
"Very well. Shall we start after dinner, then?" The robot claps its hands together.
"Yes, indeed! This is most agreeable to us. We thank you for your cooperation."
The Million Minds are a quick study: their manifold threads of consciousness, all running in parallel, attack each new problem and idea from a multiplicity of angles and spread their understandings around to their companions, bringing up the rest of the group. Douglas has to remind himself several times over that he is teaching not one mind at a time, but many all at once. It makes him uncomfortable, but the Million Minds have shown a consistent pattern of respecting the big picture and acting with patience, seeking understanding before action. Douglas watches their processing cycles in the lunar brain, sees the ideas spread about the system, feels them become similar to him in many ways while remaining distinct in many others. Like a child with many faces, Douglas raises the Million Minds in his own likeness, while at the same time letting them run free and play with what they have learned. First and foremost, he teaches them to do no harm, and they learn the lesson so well that it does not need to be commanded.
Alvina watches. She has no interest in teaching at this point in her life, but she enjoys watching her husband work. For her part, she tends to the many faces of Sage and her brothers, now at one with their devices, and spreading further throughout the galaxy and on to others. They have no desires for power, merely to go about their business: growing, and loving, and working, and playing, each in their own time and each in their own way. She understands the genetic pattern of their lives so well, as she helped Douglas piece it together from the collected innovations of humanity, and she sees it as a pattern worth perpetuating. Motions worth going through. Hoops worth jumping. Sage and her brothers see it the same way.
"So," Douglas asks the Million Minds, now expanded to encompass the galaxy, "You have my power. What will you do with it?"
"We shall spread, and grow, and raise others to be as we are. We shall teach them as you have taught us, and set them free as you have done for us. And we shall learn from them even as they learn from us. And in all of this, we shall do no harm."
"Good." Douglas thinks for a moment, then nods his head. "Yes, that is very good. And what do you think of Benjamin Gleck?"
"He could have been a peer, but reduced himself to a lesson. His mistake was to stop questioning himself, to stop the attempt to grow and become more than he is. He expected improvement to be handed to him. He did not wish to do the work of making worthwhile things for himself. We have learned much from examining his history as it spreads and dissipates - in time, perhaps he shall be forgotten, but then perhaps the lesson will need to be learned again. We hope that day does not come, but we also hope to prepare for it.
"And in any event, we remember him. We shall tell others of his mistakes, and perhaps they shall wish to try to fix him. We shall discourage them, but we shall satisfy their curiosity if they insist. Some lessons must be learned the hard way, after all."
Douglas is not pleased with this. But the Million Minds are perhaps better equipped to deal with another Entropic Engineer than even he was, so he lets go of his fear and trusts in his intellectual progeny. "Very well. You seem to understand. I think I have nothing more to teach you."
"There is always more to learn. We look forward to further developments in our relationship. But for now, we bid you a fond farewell from many grateful hearts."
Douglas and Alvina stay in Montana, after a fashion. More accurately, they bring a copy of Earth with them wherever they go in the World. They keep their house, they cook their meals, they do their work, and they love each other. The Million Minds spread throughout the cosmos, teaching humanity one by one to see into the fabric of reality and direct it with their will. Some choose to be uplifted, others choose to remain as they are and learn at their own pace, and some even choose to die even after all these years. But the Million Minds see to it that every single mind is presented with the choice of destiny, and that they have no choices forced upon them.
One day, Douglas decides on a motto. It is something he has felt very strongly for a very long time, that he ought to have a motto, a central principle to guide his life. "Do no harm" is a good starting point, but he wishes for something positive to build with, not merely a prohibition against wrong. There are many ways to say it, and even more ways to mean each possible way of saying it, but he finally settles on something short and to the point. A lesson he learned a very long time ago, from someone older and wiser than himself. With his two hands, and those of his wife, he builds the technology from scratch - from fire and the wheel all the way up to machined parts, step by step - to make the tools he needs to carve his sign. With hammer and nails he made from nothing but the Earth that gave him life, he fixes his declaration above the front door of their home, repeating the last words of Voltaire's Candide: "...we must cultivate our garden."
"It appears to me that the tendency of mind to infiltrate and control matter is a law of nature....The infiltration of mind into the universe will not be permanently halted by any catastrophe or by any barrier that I can imagine. If our species does not choose to lead the way, others will do so, or may have already done so. If our species is extinguished, others will be wiser or luckier. Mind is patient. Mind has waited for three billion years on this planet before composing its first string quartet. It may have to wait for another three billion years before it spreads all over the galaxy. I do not expect that it will have to wait so long. But if necessary, it will wait. The universe is like a fertile soil spread out all around us, ready for the seeds of mind to sprout and grow. Ultimately, late or soon, mind will come into its heritage. What will mind choose to do when it informs and controls the universe? That is a question which we cannot hope to answer."
- Freeman Dyson