GAME OF AXIOMS (Part 1)

The American writer Ted Chiang is nowadays considered to be the most honoured young writer in modern science fiction. Chiang earned this honour by publishing a collection of extraordinary stories called Stories of Your Life and Others in 2002. The movie called Arrival has just been made based upon one of these stories.

Although his recipe seems to be simple, the result is truly stimulating intellectually: (1) he takes an axiom, (2) with the help of science fiction confronts it, (3) finally evaluates the outcome in a way that the reader is left with plenty of unanswered questions. His impression is especially of a peculiar nature because all the problems Chiang comes up with appear to be rather familiar. ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ as some would say, yet in Chiang’s stories one can even imagine that people will take control of the sun so it can never come up again…

In this post, I reflect upon the unanswered questions I have after reading the book. Although there is some kind of connection between all the stories, this text is based on three short stories I selected with the intention to introduce a certain problem that Chiang confronts among others. My technique is the following: summarise the given story, evaluate it (*3) and after having done so, try to claim something general concerning all three of them.


Tower of Babylon

The story recalls the tower of the Babel myth – but in this case, it is happening for real in terms of a construction megaproject. The people of Babylon have been building the tower for centuries with the intention that appeared in the original Biblical myth, as well: by building all the way up to Heaven, humans can finally discover God’s creation. The plot turns into a science fiction when the construction seemingly arrives to its last stage: the Vault of Heaven. The Vault is described as a purely physical (namely marble) ceiling. With the help of hired miners, the digging begins. Finally, only one of the miners passes through the Vault but ends up in a desert next to Babylon instead of Heaven as expected. To sum up, (1) the axiom consists of a fundamental human ambition: to discover God in a direct way, (2) the science fiction is that there is a physical Vault of Heaven indeed and that by passing through it one ends up on the ground, (3) finally the unanswered question will be discussed in the following paragraph, namely the reasons why this story had to be finished in such a way.Heidegger claims that the ‘Dasein’ (this word means what it is like to be human in Heideggerian terminology) cannot be labelled as a subjective entity that examines things and their being as an outsider (in a way Cartesian philosophy does). As William Large explains the argument in his philosophical guide to Heidegger’s Being and Time:

“any particular involvement with a thing only makes sense within a totality of involvements. The question ‘Why am I building this hut?’ can only be answered through what my world means to me, but this world is not something that stands outside of me like a thing. … Rather it is the basic familiarity that I have with things” (Heidegger’s Being and Time, Edinburgh Philosophical Guides).

In other words, Heidegger claims that Dasein cannot be regarded as a physical thing amongst other physical things – which is the main argument we need. I have brought up the Heideggerian philosophy because I think that it – in some way – concerns the same problem Chiang’s Tower of Babylon does: the question ‘Why are the Babylonians building this tower?’ can only be answered through what their world (the Babylonians’) means to them. However, the answer is already given in the story: to discover God’s creation. Therefore, based upon their answer, we can identify the characteristic of the meaning they assign to their world, namely the “…basic familiarity that…” they “…have with things”. It is exactly what Heidegger criticises: they regard themselves as physical and finite things within the world – an idea that could be easily forgiven. What is of greater concern is that they consider Heaven and God as physical yet infinite things within the same world. This contradiction (physical-physical, but finite-infinite) is already a sign of forthcoming failure. Of course, one can argue that the Babylonians do not ignore spirituality in Chiang’s story as it appears in the forms of regular prayers and sacrifices. Still, if we consider that the leading activity to know God better is the construction of a tower or that reaching to a physical Vault of Heaven completely correlates with expectations, it is beyond doubt that physicality is superior to spirituality in the eyes of the Babylonians. To sum up, the mission with the tower must fail and serve the function of a lesson since to the Babylonians the meaning of the world is that it stands outside of them like a physical thing waiting to be explored – and as we know, the Cartesian world is ‘godless’. Thus, theirs must be so, as well.

To be continued…