Perpetual Peace

[From I. Bickerstaff, The Endower Institute History of the 21st Century, pp. 55-60 ff. Hoboken: Endower Institute Press, 2207.]

In 2045 the Endower Institute organized the GSPW (Group for the Study of the Phenomenon of War) to conduct an interdisciplinary study of game theory, war-gaming, and evolutionary psychology. An elaborate computer simulation had originally been planned, but finally the participants in the War Study were issued modified versions of off-the-shelf strategy board games. Over the next four months, playing these games became the jobs of the study participants in a literal sense, as they were paid based on their performance in the game. (Several nonetheless indulged in bizarre behavior, such as massing their forces in Madagascar.)

The curious first result was that players in versions of the game altered to penalize war-waging (by introducing a random element weighted towards the defeat of the aggressor), and to reward commerce and diplomacy, waged war more often than players in the unmodified games. Players in altered and unmodified versions were about equal in other sub-optimal behaviors to be expected in connection with war (refusal to recognize imminent defeat, underestimation of the enemy, refusal to compromise between strategic goals when they became incompatible).

But the usual irrationalities would not suffice to explain why an increase in the difficulty and uncertainty of war would result in an increase in the rate of war waged.

The hypothesis, which the Second War Study would confirm, was that human beings were, for sound evolutionary reasons, prejudiced to regard violence in general, including war, as open-ended. As Dr. Abraham “Abe” Saintpear, then Director of the Institute, later explained in his book The Cornered Instinct:

An animal which has been backed into the proverbial corner is more likely to die than an animal being chased in an open field. From a game theory point of view, the animal should, to secure the best long-term results, instinctively fight its hardest when it has the best chance for survival. Instead, we find the opposite. It’s the doomed animal, the cornered animal, that fights most fiercely. Similarly, the people we admire the most are the ones who exert themselves to the fullest degree at the last minute, or in an emergency, even to a degree which, under ordinary circumstances, would be considered absurd.

The conclusion reached by the GSPW was that these behaviors arose from a hypothetical “short-circuit” which might take place in the brains of mammals in violent situations. As Saintpear said in his 2058 lecture to the World Post War Society:

We realized that cornered behavior could not be a rational reaction at all. It must in some sense be evolutionary advantageous to be irrational in this respect. We had been studying a false dilemma. The survivability of the species required the sacrifice of the survivability of the individual in such a way that, in certain situations, the rational optimizer and the irrational gambler must be the same person.

Their insight came through a thought experiment involving two “characters.”

The first was known as the Rabbit. The Rabbit always acts in such a way as to maximize the probability of his own survival by minimizing (through avoidance) anything that threatens his survival.

The second was known as the Wolverine. The Wolverine’s maxim is always to spend higher quantities of any finite resource (energy, money, or so forth) as the probability of his survival decreases.

What should have been obvious (according to Saintpear’s memoir, My Project) but did not show up until the simulations were run, was that in most situations their behaviors would be the same; and that, while in some border cases the Wolverine lost his life unnecessarily, it was in fact the Wolverine, not the Rabbit, who stood the best chance of survival, given any nontrivial rate of dangerous situations which could not be avoided. Wrote Saintpear: “The best long-term strategy of survival, given unavoidable dangers, is in extreme probability of death to replace optimization according to probability with optimization according to possibility.” Later, he restated the principle as: “In a crazy situation, the sane thing is to go crazy.”

The solution to the problem of the high-warring gamers was then simple: “As the probability of victory decreased, so did the players’ attention to the probabilities.” As the odds turned against them, they ignored the odds.

The War Studies became the centerpiece of Saintpear’s monograph The Last Argument: The Instinct for War. In this book (an unexpected best-seller), Saintpear contended that it was human nature to regard war as open-ended, even when the conclusion was objectively foregone. Negotiations, he pointed out, are begun with some idea of the treaty likely to issue from them; trials (in the first instance), of the verdict; but everyone believes they can win a war. “Wars are not lost once victory becomes impossible for the losing side; wars are only lost once there is nothing, however pointless, left to try; once there is no hope left to cling to.” Rational forms of conflict resolution, in Saintpear’s view, could not substitute for war because they did not make the participants feel cornered. Not feeling cornered, they were not confident that victory must, eventually, be theirs; and therefore, they did not commit themselves fully. His position was that a bloodless means of conflict resolution would require a strong admixture of irrationality and open-endedness.

It was according to this theory that Saintpear formed, with his own profits from the book and the contributions of several philanthropists (including the Estate of Wildcard Endower), the Court of Circular Appeals, a body whose stated aim was to render only provisional decisions in conflicts of international law. “It is only by offering an inexhaustible, receding supply of false hope,” wrote Saintpear to a friend, “that we can create a bloodless activity which will be the psychological equivalent of war.”

Saintpear did not make the mistake of trying to recruit the first-world nations into his scheme directly. Instead, he began by traveling with the whole Court into the most unstable areas of the world, in order to render judgments in sub-national conflicts of tribes, cartels, and so on. Soon the entourage of the Court, innumerable advocates ceaselessly debating all the causes into which the Court had interposed itself, had reached such a scale that it could not continue to travel, and took up permanent headquarters in Switzerland.

Later, when Saintpear discovered that a pair of tribes had impoverished themselves to the point of starvation to pay their advocates at the Court, he caused a portion of the Court’s fees to be diverted to humanitarian organizations, to be used in alleviating whatever misery the Court might cause.

After its first decade the Court could no longer remain in Switzerland. The road systems of that tiny, mountainous country could not support the logistical needs of the advocate corps of the first-world nations. Offers of land were made from every quarter; but, to the world’s surprise, the offer Saintpear accepted was in Israel. “It is best,” he said shortly before his death, “that the Court remain as close as possible to what have been the most fought-over regions of the world.”

Today the traveler hears the shouting of the advocate corps engaged in ceaseless argument on the plains below even before they come into sight of the shining World Headquarters of the Court of Circular Appeals upon the hill of Megiddo.

Form and Formality

Stairs are different. Architects can re-invent every other part of a building; they can contort walls and roofs, or merge them together; they can re-shape or re-organize windows; they can create views or frustrate them. But every good staircase is like every other. The form can be adorned or hidden, but not overcome (except by banishment, through one-story buildings or substitution with elevators). There is a limited range of acceptable slopes for a staircase, to which all stairs must conform, or risk injuring their users. Each step must be predictable, and exactly like every other. Stair-climbing is an unconscious, algorithmic act. So is walking, so is typing, so is riding a bicycle; but climbing stairs belongs to a different class – along with driving a car – where error risks death. For a joke, you can trip, or fall off a bicycle; but not crash a car, or fall down the stairs. You have time to get to know a new car; but a new set of stairs should not require adjustment.

Consider music. Formality is obvious in classical music. The music, to be played well, must be considered as something to be reached; and the performer can always fall along the way, by insubordination to the conductor or infidelity to the composer. Audience members have every right to resent this, however the performer excuses it. Something that mars a performance hits the listener with a jerk – it is the performer who trips up, but the audience who falls.

Formality is less obvious, but equally important, in jazz. A sequence of improvisations is not a showcase of individual performers. It is not that every player is an orchestra, but that every player is a conductor. An arrogant classical player is a rebel in a monarchy; an arrogant jazz player, a demagogue in a democracy.

But songwriting is the most formal kind of music. It is because the blues is a rigid form that it can bear the distortions of strong emotion. People are never so still as when overwhelmed. If we can, we sit to cry. All popular music has strong formal structure; which makes it easy to gather with its kin into playlists, and makes it possible for the supply to be kept up.

It is by their formality – by how much alike they are in form – that songs are individualized. Any two pieces of classical music, each with a wildly different structure, sound at first much more alike than any two popular songs, each sharing the same chord progression, rhyme scheme, and instrumentation; just as, while trees are more different than people (count the limbs), we see the difference between two people more clearly than we see the difference between two trees.

The danger of too much formality is easy to see. Most of what is worth attaining in life is not repeatable, and is lessened when approached as if it could be repeated. Experiences which are had only once do not benefit by formality. Of the rest, some are recurring, but not meaningfully repeatable. They can happen more than once, but are less like climbing stairs than climbing a mountain – which does not, I imagine, improve by being done often. The rest is the repeatable. And repeatable experiences are no less valuable than singular ones. Old as I become, I would not trade music for youth.

The danger of informality is easy to fall into. Consider poets. Poets are rare for reasons that have nothing to do with poetry (most become songwriters now, who would once have been poets); but the poets that are, write less than the old poets. This is because of their informality. Free verse is dangerously therapeutic. A good poem in free verse is a unique victory – not the imprint of an emotion, but its draining, its defeat. Such poets fail when they approach something that is common to all, and so cannot be exhausted; they cannot make poetry, either of the everyday, or of the ideal.

But think of Petrarch; with the sonnet for his stair he could ascend to and return from the experience of the moment in which he saw (saw so that he therefore loved) his Laura; and as many times as he climbed up to and down from that moment, he never emptied it. Informality always stays on the ground floor; to rise, you must commit yourself to some form capable of bearing you up.

Fiction and Thinking

The mind is a lazy mapmaker. When it receives the survey data for a new place, it does not draw a new map. Instead, it writes the new names on an old map. Sometimes, it tapes two old maps together to make a new one; rarely, it cuts several old maps into pieces, then pastes the pieces together tile-wise. The maps from fiction are most useful to it. They are simple, at low resolution, and have few identifying features to ink over or rub out. An analogy from philosophy, history, or science does not spread generally until it has found fictional embodiment – in parable, fable, romance, epic, or tale. Think of Plato’s cave, think of the spacefaring twin and the earthbound.

Analogies do not solve problems by themselves, but they are indispensable because they show the right kind of solution – whether force, persuasion, invention, discovery, endurance, or sacrifice. What we look for is what we know in advance to look for; the more we know to look for, the more we find. The more we know can happen, the less we are overwhelmed. The more we recognize folly, the less time we waste on it.

Film does more of this than literature, though less powerfully. The wrath of Achilles is perhaps less lethal, but more frightening, than the wrath of Rambo; neither Leviathan nor Godzilla shall be drawn out with a hook, but Leviathan would not be troubled by an oxygen destroyer. I must recover from even a weak horror story, but (as an adult) a movie has never scared me; the best the medium can do is disgust or disquiet. Film is, at best, flat, distant, dreamy, intangible, and abstract; and though a wordless medium, it must still tell – with dialogue, with rovings of the camera, with caricature, with background music – things like weather, smells, the taste of air, everything that dreams lack, but writing can show. But film is more efficient and more accessible. It can give more analogies faster, and over a broader range.

A multitude of analogies leads to a multitude of ideas – some of them bad ideas. The stocked imagination is like black earth: anything will grow in it. Thin soils grow less, but can absorb less labor. Thick soil is hard to manage at first, when weeds take their chance; but it grows a much larger harvest. Which is to say: because it is hard to overcome bad ideas, there is something to be said for a slash-and-burn farming of the mind, which, producing few ideas, does not disturb the good-enough ideas it has received; but good ideas can be arrived at only by having many ideas, most bad – and hoeing the bad ones down.

All this is clearest for people. People are inexhaustibly unique; without the analogies which fiction from folk tale to epic provides, we could get no traction at all in thinking about one another. Fiction is what allows us to know stranger from enemy.