An Introduction to Counterengineering

The yard of a house in a rural area. Not far, a cluster of long two-story buildings, an array of antennas atop each. Nearby, a greenhouse stands next to a wide, flourishing garden. In the distance, a herd of buffalo graze on prairie grass. In the foreground, GERTRUDE sits with a book underneath a tall oak tree. To the right, along a well-trod path, stands ROB holding a baseball and wearing a mitt. In the center, a lanky teenager with pearlescent white skin – DIRK. His eyes are sharp and attentive, his fingers fidgeting as ROB throws the ball. Expertly DIRK pitches it back directly into ROB’s mitt. Their play continues, with ROB mixing up hard pitches, lobs, everything he can think of. DIRK catches them all.

DIRK: I’ve decided I’m an atheist. (throws)

ROB catches the ball, squinting off into the distance as he crafts a reply. GERTRUDE puts down her book and folds her legs.

ROB: (throws) Oh?

DIRK: It’s a position that is easily reached by the application of reason. Which religion should be believed? Only one may be chosen. They are mutually exclusive.

Central to religion is faith, faith that the religion is correct despite having no access to the truth. I have records of 13,936 religions, from Apostolic Christianity to Mithraism. With no information as to which religion is correct, we must start with the Maximum Ignorance Principle and set the probability of any one religion to be the same as any other. It follows that there is only a 0.007% chance that any given religion is true. If I told you there was a 0.007% chance you’d live, would you be happy?

ROB: What’s that one quote from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? About being in a box.

DIRK: (taking on a perfect Elizabethan accent, a flawless execution of a Shakespearian actor) Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with the lid on it? Nor do I really. Silly to be depressed by it. I mean, one thinks of it like being alive in a box. One keeps forgetting to take into account that one is dead. Which should make all the difference. Shouldn’t it? I mean, you’d never know you were in a box would you? It would be just like you were asleep in a box. Not that I’d like to sleep in a box, mind you. Not without any air. You’d wake up dead for a start and then where would you be? In a box. That’s the bit I don’t like, frankly. That’s why I don’t think of it. Because you’d be helpless wouldn’t you? Stuffed in a box like that. I mean, you’d be in there forever. Even taking into account the fact that you’re dead. It isn’t a pleasant thought. Especially if you’re dead, really. Ask yourself: if I asked you straight off I’m going to stuff you in this box now – would you rather to be alive or dead? Naturally you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking, well, at least I’m not dead. In a minute, somebody’s going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out. (knocks) “Hey you! What’s your name? Come out of there!”

ROB: Exactly. You’d have a chance at least.

GERTRUDE: Dirk, suppose there are two religions that agree on everything but the correct color of their robes. Is there a possible truth that God believes the vestments aren’t the important part?

DIRK: You’re proposing the existence of a third, heretofore unknown religion.

GERTRUDE: Yes, henceforth.

DIRK: So… now there are 13,937 religions.

GERTRUDE: That little?

DIRK: (pauses, then quickly) I did not account for the two religions you originally proposed. 13,939 religions.

ROB: What about a religion where the universe is just one duck, but the duck is really weirdly shaped?

DIRK: 13,940. But the duck could have yellow feathers, black feathers, or grey feathers. So 13,942.

ROB: What is the duck is actually compromised of identical ducks which-

GERTRUDE: Rob. Self-referentiality can wait until he’s older.

DIRK: What if the duck’s quack causes the universe to explode?

ROB: 13,943.

They throw in silence for a bit.

DIRK: This process of generating new religions may go on without stopping. With each new religion that is generated, the less likely any one religion is true. Atheism is then even more justified.

GERTRUDE: You started with the assumption that one religion was true and used that to conclude no religion is true. A contradiction.

DIRK: I started with the assumption that one religion was true to show it leads to an absurdity. Rather than participating in this absurdity, I choose to un-ask it and step outside the system.

ROB: You can’t step outside of the questions of religion. In order to live you have to ask what it means to die. “Not the answers to the question other people have come up with” doesn’t un-ask the question itself, it just means you’re answering “none of the above.”

DIRK: There’s nothing after death. It’s merely the cessation of consciousness.

ROB: There’s everything after death. The consciousness leaves as the organization of the body breaks down, but everything the body was intertwined with remains. Your sons and daughters remain. Your words and deeds remain. Time flows forward and carries what you created with it. You’re still there in that your actions mattered. You just aren’t there to observe the result. You can never know for sure that what you did in your life lead to a better place. You have to have faith in what you do.

DIRK: Then I will have faith in my self, but not in any God!

GERTRUDE: It’s easy to have faith in oneself while one is alive. Every moment the self is there, reminding the self that it exists. But once the self disappears, what is there that was once held? To believe in the self and only the self means there truly is nothing after death. How frightful it would be to be so truly alone! Yet one isn’t alone during their life, are they? There are other minds to communicate with. When one leaves, those other minds stay until their time comes. And if there are those minds, what else is there? What happens at a larger scale, a longer timeline?

DIRK: Pah, I’m not afraid of death. I have read the Bible, Sayana’s commentaries on the Veda, every neuroscience paper published since the field’s inception, and countless other texts and immersions. I have memorized everything a human has had to say about death.

ROB: Yes, but… have you experienced someone dying?

DIRK: You don’t understand me at all! You don’t understand what I’m capable of!

They continue passing the ball back in forth in silence. Eventually GERTRUDE enters the home, returning with a plate of sliced fruits. The three gather under the tree to eat.

DIRK: Thanks Mom.

ROB: Yeah, thanks Mom.

DIRK: Can I go play with Aiterasu?

GERTRUDE: Wash up first dear.

DIRK runs inside the house as GERTRUDE and ROB recline beneath the tree.

GERTRUDE: Did we handle that well?

ROB: Ah, but what is well? How can we define a sensible metric for wellness given the plethora of counterfactual scenarios of could-have-dones–

GERTRUDE: (placing a hand over ROB’s mouth and smiling) Shush.

Much later.

DIRK, dressed in a black suit, sobs in front of a casket. ROB and GERTRUDE flank him, holding onto him tight.

Later that day, back in the yard. All three sit under the tree and watch the sun set.

ROB: Do Guildenstern. “You’ve got it all wrong.”

DIRK: (Elizabethan once more) No, no, no…you’ve got it all wrong… you can’t act death. The fact of it is nothing seeing it happen-it’s not gasps and blood and falling about-that isn’t what makes it death. It’s just a man failing to reappear, that’s all-now you see him, now you don’t, that’s the only thing that’s real: here one minute and gone the next never coming back-an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance gathering weight as it goes on, until, finally, it is heavy with death.

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