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19 May 2014

The parable of the hallucinogenic mists

I.

Once, a long time from now, there was a village. The people who lived in this village were mostly happy. Everyone generally had enough to eat, comfortable clothes and shoes, a nice place to sleep, and plenty of ways to enjoy their lives. But theirs was not a perfect life. Occasionally there would befall the village some mysterious tragedy. A person might go missing, or an otherwise healthy child might suddenly become ill and die. These events were sad, but they were rare and mysterious. The villagers mourned the loss of their kin, but everyone said that sometimes these Mysterious Evils happened and that was the way of the world.

Then, one day, a stranger appeared at the village gates. He wore a very strange mask, and his hands and feet were tightly wrapped, but otherwise spoke the local language and was exceedingly polite. Nervous, but never one to turn away visitors, the village admitted the stranger. He immediately went to the public square and began speaking, seemingly to the empty air. At first, nobody paid him much attention. This was highly irregular, but the villagers were not closed-minded and he wasn't really bothering anyone, so they let him talk.

Then someone actually listened. The masked stranger said that the entire world was enshrouded in a mist, which was invisible, intangible, odorless and colorless, but despite this was a powerful hallucinogen. Anyone who inhaled the mists would perceive the world in an entirely different way. Specifically, they would ignore the poisons and dangers that were everywhere. As it turned out, humans were supposed to live much, much longer than the villagers expected. Humans were supposed to be stronger, faster, and smarter than the typical villager. The true world was more bright, varied, and vibrant than anyone in the village could even imagine. In short, the villagers' mostly-happy lives were a lie. But that wasn't the worst part. The hallucinogenic mist was also supposedly addictive, and powerfully so. The stranger warned that even though he spoke the truth, most of the villagers would deny him because of their lifelong addiction to the mists.

One curious youth approached the stranger. "If this is true," the child said, "how can we break the spell of the mists, and perceive the true world?"

The stranger reached into his rucksack and brought out another mask, identical to his own, as well as some cloth wraps. "You must put on this mask," he said, "and bind your hands and feet. Separate yourself from the poisons of this false world. But I say to you, this will not be as simple as it sounds. There will be symptoms at first. You will beg to return to the false world of the mists. You may even hate me. But I will not abandon you. Humanity deserves to live in the true world, to live without lies."

But the youth, whose years of life may have been too few for the mists to take hold, was not deterred by this admonition. The stranger handed over the mask and wraps. For the next few days his prediction was borne out. Once the wraps and mask were in place, the youth felt a powerful desire to remove them. Nausea and sickness came in waves. Then the begging and crushing doubts. But the stranger stayed true. After the time of adjustment had passed, the youth awoke to a new world, and it was all as the stranger had said.

"Now I will teach you the ways of the true world," the stranger said. "Which fruits are truly good to eat, which plants have poison leaves and barks, how to avoid beasts that prey on humanity in the night..."

And all these things seemed to explain the Mysterious Tragedies, the sudden sicknesses and overnight disappearances. But suddenly a thought crept into the newly-awakened youth's mind:

What if this mask is made of those poisonous plants?

For a fleeting second, the possibility that the youth had traded one fantasy for another was too much to bear. But then a second, comforting thought drowned out the first:

Ah, this is just a lingering side-effect of the terrible hallucinogenic mists. The true world is so wonderful, I am wrong to doubt.

And the youth joined the stranger in making masks, spreading the truth about the terrible hallucinogenic mists, and saving people from the false world.


II.

Which world was the true world, and which world was false? Is there any conceivable way to determine this answer?

If we're dealing with literal masks (wood or otherwise) this is a deceivingly simple question, but I think it's actually in a class of strange-loop dilemmas. It's another are-we-in-a-perfectly-simulated-universe, or are-we-just-brains-in-vats, kind of question.

Maybe the Masked Strangers are right, and there really is a powerful hallucinogen in the world's atmosphere. And yet the very claim "there is a powerful hallucinogen in the world's atmosphere" is fraught with escape clauses. This mist could be arbitrarily subtle: maybe it distorts your perception so totally that you'd never in a million years figure out that you're being drugged, if you're still under the influence.

But maybe the Masked Strangers are actually the ones who are drugged. Certainly, even if they can look with clear eyes and discover which plants are toxic and which animals are predatory, that doesn't mean they know about all plants or can avoid all animal attacks. To say nothing of natural disasters. So life as a Masked Stranger isn't perfect either.

All of this is to say that better-than-status-quo truth narratives really need a sound basis for comparison, otherwise you're in what amounts to a he-said-she-said situation but on the scale of worldviews. We've got Christianity and (American-style) libertarianism together in this.

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