a theory for the darkness
Unlike us, white people are not afraid of being crushed by the falling sky. But one day they may fear that as much as we do! 2
I started by looking outside and realizing we’ve been wrong about too many things. It all went down from there.
A forest is quiet at night. There are no sounds. Nothing moves. A cold darkness. One could assume that the forest is dead. But quite the opposite, the forest is very alive. A forest gets quiet at night because that’s when the predators come out.
At night, the quiet and careful survive. The others die.
There are two good theories for why, in spite of a huge universe, all of our Instagram followers are from Earth. Yeah, I’ll talk nerdy to you: Drake Equation, Fermi Paradox, the Hart paper. But this is not about that. This is about darkness.
The first theory is The Great Filter. TL,DR: although the universe is huge and - given enough time - life is not that hard to appear, the evolution of life into something that can do light-year drama involves something that is extremely unlikely to happen. A barrier that prevents relatively common life to develop into very uncommon space-society. Assume that technology always moves forward, this means that most life gets extinct before it can reach that level. I.e., this barrier is a very strong filter.
If we buy this theory, we are faced with a serious problem: where are we right now relatively to the barrier? Have we reached a point that most universe societies can’t? Have we passed the filter? If so, what was this thing that we did that is so hard? And if not, what is the filter that lies ahead? I.e., are we going to be all dead before “90 days fiance: outer space” airs?
The second theory is that there’s no filter. That the premise is wrong. The universe is not a quiet place devoid of life. Quite the contrary. The universe is a dark forest.3
In the dark forest of our universe, life is everywhere but so is danger. The civilizations that survive are the ones that stay quiet, not bringing much attention to themselves, trying to hide in the dark.
The ones broadcasting stuff and screaming out loud… those don’t survive very long.
In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: ‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s true; if it’s written in red ink, it’s false.’ After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: ‘Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair - the only thing you can’t get is red ink.’ The structure here is more refined than it might appear: although the worker is unable to signal that what he is saying is a lie in the prearranged way, he none the less succeeds in getting his message across - how? By inscribing the very reference to the code into the encoded message, as one of its elements. Of course, this is the standard problem of self-reference: since the letter is written in blue, is its entire content therefore not true? The answer is that the very fact that the lack of red ink is mentioned signals that it should have been written in red ink. The nice point is that this mention of the lack of red ink produces the effect of truth independently of its own literal truth: even if red ink really was available, the lie that it is unavailable is the only way to get the true message across in this specific condition of censorship.
Is this not the matrix of an efficient critique of ideology - not only in ‘totalitarian’ conditions of censorship but, perhaps even more, in the more refined conditions of liberal censorship? One starts by agreeing that one has all the freedoms one wants - then one merely adds that the only thing missing is the ‘red ink’: we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.4
It’s easy to see that the domain where our experiences, emotions and feelings happen is not fully accessible by the words we have. We have experiences that: 1. we have no words to describe (what do we call the feeling of getting a gift we don’t like?); or 2. we may have a hard time describing even with multiple words (e.g., everything).
Discussing this lack of language is a good strategy to help fill the space that language failed to. As therapy: talking about our lack of ability to reference feelings gives us tools to work around those feelings.
That’s how I see the game. We are locked in a network of meaning and could use all the help we can get to access things that don’t let themselves be accessible by current constraints.
Extend this from feelings to objective reality outside and realize that this is more than about communicating how you really feel when you are not emotionally supported in a relationship. This is about survival.
Do we have enough words and concepts to describe what we really need to stay alive? Or as Chakrabarty’s says:
We may not experience ourselves as a geological agent, but we appear to have become one at the level of the species. And without that knowledge that defies historical understanding there is no making sense of the current crisis that affects us all.5
It’s a bit early to talk about perspectivism, so we will have to do with what we have. But we need one thing right now.
Imagine this. You are going your way and gets stopped by the police. Your documents are in order, you have nothing on you. And yet, you start sweating, shaking a bit. You feel your heart beating faster. What’s happening?
We go around our days being reassured by other people that we exist. More than that, that we exist in an agreed and expected way. Someone calls you by our name. Yes, thanks, that’s me. But it goes beyond that: there are social and political acknowledgments of existence. We have an expectation on how a person will see us, and we get signals back that the person understands and agrees with our role.
It’s rare that there’s a dispute of those roles. It’s why it’s way more awkward than it should be to be confused with a salesperson. It’s such a simple confusion: no, I don’t work here. But it feels so wrong, like something deeper is being messed with. As if you just realized that people are not inside your unconscious mind.
There are also metaphysical expectations. What are other people to you? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Back to the police encounter. We are faced with a situation where our own identity is put at check: will they know who I am? Will they care? How can I explain that I am who I know I am?
This has no proper name in any language that I know. But I will claim - in another text - that it’s part of a core set of universal feelings. It is pre-natural, to open the chaos box that lies ahead. Also, and not incidentally, this identity check is vital to the modern state and to our modern social stability.
Back to the story, the event here (the guard stopping, asking for a document, deciding who you are) has to be seen as the judgment day for our own social non-narcissistic existence, the ultimate reality check: is the universe going to acknowledge that you are who you think you are, or is it going to destroy that version of you?
It’s easy and wrong to assume that all people face basically the same existential questions, with the answers changing a bit for different times, places, and instances. This attempt at universality is everything but universal.
It’s what makes me lose my shit over this lamarckian genetic determinism that seems to accompany nerdom these days. “<thing> is determined by genes that gave us an evolutionary advantage to do <something>“. Except <thing> has never been universal in mankind and is not even universal in your own family. “well, there’s some cultural influence”. Yeah, glad for all of us, you are the one not impacted by this so-called culture.
“are you saying genetics doesn’t impact anything?”. It must be so interesting living inside your head. Do you even believe other people exist? “Elon Musk said we are living in a simulation”. Well, he is right. You both are living inside your own minds.
Trying to universalize internal issues is a way to normalize them - i.e., faking understanding while cashing out any responsibility. “Of course I masturbate to the 16-24 big butt demographics, but only because those are the best women to bear children.” I’m glad your life goal is to be a parent. Oh, it’s not? Because you are a rational individual? The only true part about this statement is that you are alone and the only person who could change that is too scared to try.
There’s no universality of complex behaviors. Therefore they can’t be explained by claiming that they are answers to universal questions. The reality is that once a question is posed, the variability in answer is not that interesting. “What is the meaning of life?” is not a question that even makes sense for people that live in societies where meaning hasn’t been completely destroyed. You don’t know anyone like that, but trust me on this.
It’s why it’s asinine to force your own questions when trying to understand others: “but you are getting arranged married without being in love?” Are you purposefully trying to not get it? Do you make it your life’s goal to be numb to the world?
I suggest you think hard about this because your future depends on it. Stop forcing your questions into other people. Instead: what are the questions other people’s lives are answering? And if your courage allows you to go further, if post-modernism hasn’t rotten the last bit of humanity inside you, then what are the questions your life has been answering so far?
We approach the abyss.
Earlier I said that there are two theories about the lack of other space civilizations talking to us: The Great Filter and The Dark Forest. But that’s not exactly true. I believe there’s only one good theory.
The real theory of why we look outside our planet and see no one else is because realizing that the universe is a dark forest is the great filter.
It takes only time and no regard for human suffering to build satellites, antennas, Instagram. Since there’s no deadline, there’s infinite time, and therefore any small probability becomes extremely likely in the long run.
But once you get there, you have very little time to shut up and start thinking about collective survival. This is hard, counter-intuitive and time sensitive. This is the filter. Fail and you are left out on the dark forest, powerless, facing the predator.
Wait, are you saying that an alien civilization is going to come and destroy us all? If only it was that easy. This is not about pampering your proto-xenophobic-post-colonialist ass. No, you won’t get off the hook that fast.
Yes, it is historically accurate that when two civilizations encountered each other, it was a fun discovery for one of them (look, we get to name all those new things) and complete savage annihilation for the other. But history has been superseded5.
You got tricked by yourself again. Go back to the text, read carefully. The danger is not within the forest. The real danger is the forest. This is about getting our collective shit together in face of the danger of being alive.
We choose not to see this violence on our daily strolls. Every time we say nature is beautiful, we are saying a prayer, fingering our worry beads.6
Don’t you see? This is serious. We’ve been misunderstanding everything. Space, nature, the universe. Everything right in our faces and we do our best to get every important detail wrong. Nature is not here to nurture us, it’s here to kill us. It’s the dark forest. We either grow up, or we are gone.
Because one day the universe police will come. And it’s going to ask for documents, proof of identity.
You will show off your iPhone, your business card. You will want to talk about all things that you are proud of: arts, sciences… look! We made a pyramid and a copy of that pyramid somewhere else. We have been discussing cardinal directions of political issues, and I think we are very close to a conclusion. At least we know for sure that we are supposed to hate some folks and like others, that’s progress for sure.
When the time comes, will you see your own weakness? As the words come out of your mouth, will you finally realize that you have been fucking around and none of this matters? Or will you still hope deep inside that the universe will take pity in your stupidity and arrogance? Are you going to claim that it was an unfair game? How were we supposed to know that this was a test if nobody told us…
Except it was so obvious and it is our fault. Because we wanted power over things and so we gave up power over our own lives. We gave up on choosing the questions and instead went for a dog-eats-dog fight for the answer of a stupid question.
This is your last chance. Close your eyes. Picture the universe. The dark forest. Listen to the humming silence. What is the question that our lives should have been answering?
Now open your eyes.
It’s still dark everywhere. But now you see.
Photos from Buzludzha Monument, Bulgaria. ↩
Davi Kopenawa, The Falling Sky. ↩
This is the premise of Cixin Liu’s sci-fi book The Dark Forest. ↩
Slavoj Zizek. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. ↩
Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History: Four Theses ↩ ↩2
Camille Paglia ↩