An Experiment in Comparative Interpretation

Earlier this week, I said positive things about Ted Kosmatka’s story “Divining Light“, in particular praising the ending. However, in the wake of that post I’ve been exchanging emails with a couple of other people, and it turns out we all have a different interpretation of the ending; in particular, what the ending means for the narrator of the story, and for his co-worker.

I’m going away for a couple of days, and won’t be back online until Sunday evening, so I thought I might invite you all to do some homework: go and read the story, and then post a comment here about what you think happens at the end. (And about any other aspects of the story that grab your interest.) When I get back, I’ll post what I think it means, and why (even if nobody else has done so).

32 thoughts on “An Experiment in Comparative Interpretation

  1. I guess my answer won’t impress anyone with its perceptiveness, because the ending didn’t mean anything to me. That is, by the time I got to the end, I was muddled as to what all the printing out and reading it or not reading it proved, and so couldn’t really guess what it meant to the narrator. I’ve answered without going back and re-reading, which may not be fair, but just to give a description of my initial reaction, which was … no clue.

    My larger difficulty with the story was that I couldn’t really understand the narrator’s Big Problem. What are the implications to someone, personally, if he thinks that reality is formed by conscious human observation (by most humans, at least)? I don’t know. Why would it render life unbearable? I don’t know. Obviously, the writer is trying to communicate some large idea, but I can’t grasp what it is. Maybe because I didn’t study physics in school?

    I have some other questions and thoughts about the story but will withhold them for now, and I’m interested in what others make of it.

  2. Honestly, I have no idea what the ending means. I couldn’t even tell whether the screen results at the end were supposed to show the particle or interference pattern or a hybrid of both, and I certainly have no clue what any of those possible results would mean for either Eric or Satish.

  3. I’m a little confused by the ending as well, because on the one hand the fact that Eric has taken a drink (which was the question that his quantum lie detector was supposed to answer) but still sees the interference pattern would seem to indicate that he is one of the soulless people whose consciousness doesn’t affect the universe. On the other hand, we never see him look at the detector results, which means that he hasn’t performed the test correctly.

    As for Satish, I thought the ending strongly implied that he’d been killed by a subject who didn’t like the results the test gave him.

  4. “Divining Light” (check the title) proposes that there is a difference between ‘objective’ reality and ‘subjective’ reality: the latter the one we ‘observe’ into being. The double-slit experiment is a signpost indicating that the reality we observe is the subjective one, not the objective reality.

    Hence the Descartes quote in the beginning:

    It is impossible that God should ever deceive me, since in all fraud and deceit is to be found a certain imperfection.

    And indeed, in our ‘observed’ reality there is a ‘certain imperfection’. Reality is not what we see: this is also part of the Hindu belief (Brahman) as Satish mentioned early on in the story.

    Another point is that only ‘conscious’ minds seem to collapse the waveform. That is, at least, what it initially looks like. But as Eric and Satish’s experiments dig deeper, it seems that there is something else at work: the majority of people — almost straight from conception — can collapse the waveform, but some cannot.

    Or, as one of the last paragraphs has it:

    But what if you could control that spotlight, dilate it like the pupil of an eye? Stare deep into the implicate order. What would you see? What if you could slide between the sheaths of subjective and objective? What then? Maybe there have always been people like that. Mistakes. People who walk among us, but are not us. Only now there was a test—a test to point them out.

    So there are people that can see reality as it is. Now, before I speculate as to the *reason* why they wouldn’t want to be found, first the 64 million dollar question: “what *is* reality?”

    Earlier on in the story, Eric remarks to Satish:

    “Some mathematicians say there is either no such thing as free will, or the world is a simulation. Which do you think is true?”

    These are the two possibilities the story suggests. Let’s check them out:

    1) The world is a simulation, or our Universe is an experiment. Thus, humans are the ‘ghosts in the machine’, or more to the point: ‘souls in the simulation’. Again the Descartes quote at the beginning:

    It is impossible that God should ever deceive me, since in all fraud and deceit is to be found a certain imperfection.

    The double-slit experiment is the signpost (the imperfection) that shows where the simulation falls apart; or, as Satish says near the end:

    “I don’t think we’re supposed to build this kind of thing,” he said. “The flaw in reality that you talked about…I don’t think we were expected to use it this way. To make a test.”

    This is a twist on the observer bias: if study subjects *know* that they are being observed, they will behave differently, and the test might become invalid. Ultimate risk: the experimenter — a being (or beings) so powerful we might as well call it ‘god’ — might pull the plug.

    Satish is the first one to pay the price: one of the ‘soulless’ humans — most probably a tool and/or a local sensor, or a ‘virtual construct’ as Satish has it, for the experiment — removes Satish from the actual experiment. Mi Chang — “Point Machine” might be next. They don’t need to get to Eric, for a whole different reason.

    2) There is no free will. This is what Eric thinks: he believes everything is predestined, and that nothing he does or will do will make a micron of a difference.

    Hence the devastating reveal: Eric *knew* (deeply believed) reality was predestined all the time, not because he had already worked that out *theoretically* before he performed the actual tests, but because he was one of the *other* people, the ‘mistakes’. This is shown at the end when he *does* check the results, he already knew what they would be, as evidenced in the penultimate paragraph:

    I unfolded it and spread it out flat on the desk. I looked at the results—and in so doing, finally collapsed the probability wave of the experiment I’d run all those months ago. Though of course, the results had been there all along.

    And because he *is* one of those people who *cannot* collapse the waveform, the result is:

    I stared at what was on the paper, a series of shaded semi-circles—a now familiar pattern of light and dark.

    What is eating Eric up inside, the reason for his alcoholism, is that he knows (thinks, deep down, that this is true) that everything is predestined, and that nothing he does will make a difference. He can’t save Satish (and probably also not “Point Machine” Mi Chang, who’s supposedly next on the hit list), nor himself.

    The final irony of the story might very well be that Eric was wrong: reality is not predestined, but a simulation, so there is free will. The free will of bacteria in god’s test tube, but not *predestined* bacteria.

    BTW, The fact that Eric is one of the different people is carefully foreshadowed earlier on in the story:

    “Go in the next room. I’m going to open my envelope in exactly twenty seconds. In exactly thirty seconds, I want you to open yours.”
    Satish walked out. And here it was: the point logic bleeds. I fought an irrational burst of fear. I lit the nearby bunson burner and held my envelope over the open flame. The smell of burning paper. Black ash. A minute later Satish was back, his envelope open.

    “You didn’t look,” he said. He held out his sheet of paper. “As soon as I opened it, I knew you didn’t look.”

    “I lied,” I said, taking the paper from him. “And you caught me. We made the world’s first quantum lie detector—a divination tool made of light.” I looked at the paper. The interference pattern lay in dark bands across the white surface.

    The point is, it wouldn’t have mattered if Eric looked or not: the waveform would *not* have collapsed. But if Satish sees that Eric *has* opened the envelope, and still did not collapse the wave form, Satish could have surmised the truth. Eric was trying to protect Satish.

  5. Right: thanks to those who’ve commented so far: here’s my take.

    For there to be an interference pattern on the results Eric opens at the end of the story, one of two things must be true: either he never opens the detector results envelope, or he’s one of the soulless. Since he’s started drinking, we know that he’s going to open the detector results, because those were the terms of the bargain he set himself earlier in the story, and we therefore know he must lack a soul.

    Hence weakness one: we have to believe that Eric will keep his earlier word. On my first reading, I did.

    To set up this ending, there’s a necessary amount of sleight-of-hand earlier on in the story, to ensure that although Eric sets in motion the experiments that lead to widespread testing, he never actually tests himself. I don’t think there’s anything in the text of the story to suggest he ever looks at a set of detector results alone; Satish is always there. It’s “The day we ran the experiment”, not the day I ran the experiment; “We ran the experiment again and again. Satish checked the detector results”; “They’re responding to the fact that you’ll eventually read the detector’s results”, emphasis here on “you’ll”; and of course in the “lie detector” run Eric burns the results. The last is particularly neat, I think: we assume that the Eric opening the results would have worked, but it’s not confirmed.

    Weakness two: is it probable, is it plausible, that Eric would never have looked at a set of detector results during all the early work? That’s what the story implies: but it never explicitly confirms it. There is a gap.

    In a general sense, I think “Divining Light” is about destabilization and uncertainty (which is why I think it’s a positive thing that I couldn’t tell where the real science stopped and the fake began; I wouldn’t necessarily think that about all sf stories). I think the ending plays into this rather neatly, notably in the way it chimes with Eric’s depression, the way he thinks things like “I exist mostly in my head”. I also like (hopefully without sounding pompous) the way this ending destabilises the idea of “character”: it makes us question the belief we invest in fictional constructs as a way of deepening our appreciation of how Eric questions himself.

    Weakness three: is it plausible that the soulless are unaware of their condition? That is, is is plausible that their subjective reality is indistinguishable from that of a souled person? One response to this is to say that it feeds into the destabilization of character I just talked about; another is to say that, on a subconscious level, Eric did in some sense know. (Possible parallel: “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation” — if I remember rightly, doesn’t one of the twins tell one of the scientists they’re going to change gender?)

    As for Satish: there, I’m less confident: I initially read it simply as that he decided to disappear, taking the test with him. There may be other possibilities.

    The reason I was interested in response to this story is that, despite the fact that the story itself is about indeterminacy, I think the ending itself has to have a weight of certainty behind it if it’s to mean anything.

  6. Responses to everyone else:

    Donna, Gene: evidently Kosmatka didn’t explain himself as clearly as I thought he did — though I guess I knew that from the earlier emails to which I alluded. The two alternative interpretations offered there, in case you’re wondering, were that all Eric proves at the end of the story is that retrocausality can’t account for his breaking a vow; and that Satish is the soulless one.

    Donna: as for why it matters to the narrator … I think it’s intended as an extension/literalisation of existential despair, hence the noir-ish tone and stuff about the gun, and the drink.

    Abigail: yeah, as I said in my comment, you have to believe that Eric is going to keep his vow and go on to look at the detector results, otherwise it falls apart.

    Jetse: that’s a fascinating reading, but I’m not sure I buy it all the way. For example, I’m not sure how meaningful it is to say that the soulless “can see reality as it is”; that implies that electrons are “really” waves rather than particles, and I think it’s the fundamental irresolvability of that duality by conscious observers that’s at the heart of the story. That just seems to me a richer reading than a “simulation” interpretation; it’s probably a matter of taste.

  7. I’d never encountered Ted Kosmatka before this post, but now I want more. My instant reaction when i read ‘Divining Light’ the first time was simple: ‘Fucking hell!’ Beyond that i didn’t know what to think, not at first. I spent the weekend thinking about it though, and then re-read it.

    The first thing to note is that the ending is the beginning. Eric drunk on the shore with a gun. Whatever has happened has brought him to this point, seemingly a replication of his earlier brilliant career as much as an echo of his father’s demise. Whether he then kills himself, via the gun or the bottle, we do not know. We are not allowed to observe and so cannot collapse the probability waveform.
    At the end of the text there is a similar use of this metaphor, when Eric finally views the envelope of results and sees ‘the now familar pattern of black and white.’ This I take as relating to his pattern of existence up to the point of the experiment. If he views himself the pattern is clear Drink and suicide, not drink and life; when he doesn’t make this self-observation the pattern is Drink but without the suicide. That’s Eric’s tale, one of self-recognition and fighting with what he sees.
    ‘Divining Light’ itself is a very spiritual story, reminiscent of Ted Chiang’s ‘Division By Zero’ obviously and going back further, Clarke’s ‘The Star.’ It seeks explanations for reality and in doing so questions the role of God in reality. What the test that arises from Eric’s work seems to detect is something which is most aptly called a soul, so what of those who don’t collapse the waveform? Are they in some sense autistic, or might they be thought of as a different form, angels perhaps? I am drawn to the latter by other moments in the story. The reference to Boston designed by God, the boulders on the shore which have always been there, only uncovered by the waves, that the equipment used comes from Docent.
    This obviously leaves the fate of Satish confused. Eric says of his early research that ‘somethings you learn you wish you could unlearn’ and Satish is now in this position. Whether he has been killed, silenced, or in some way accepted that these others need their privacy is unclear. He is defined as a good man, and his use of the Frog In the Well Fable and reference to Brahman offers a reading that would have him accept the existence of angels and follow their lead.

  8. (I usually comment here as “Ted” but have added my last name to avoid ambiguity with Ted Kosmatka.)

    I’m the one who originally e-mailed Niall to ask his interpretation of the ending. When I was first reading the story, I was expecting an ending where Eric, while currently on the wagon, sees that there is no interference pattern, which means that he will inevitably start drinking again. However, at the end of the story he opens the envelope of screen results and sees an interference pattern; this means that he never opens the envelope of the detector results. But he has already started drinking; he simply went back on his vow about opening the envelope. My interpretation was that all he’s proven is that retrocausality can’t account for his breaking a vow, which seemed to be a less dramatic ending than the one Niall described in his post.

    To me, it’s not believable that Eric is unable to collapse the wavefunction; he’s performed the experiment too many times not to have done it by himself at least once. Also, Eric explicitly notes that all of the scientists are able to collapse the wavefunction, and the story would have to work a lot harder to convince me that Eric was mistaken about that.

  9. Huh, interesting responses. I particularly like Jetse’s interpretation of things.

    Niall, my initial reading was similar to yours – in that I assumed the results at the end were an interference pattern (partly because that seemed more likely to produce interesting implications) and considered the possibility that either he never opened the detector envelope or that he was one of the people who couldn’t collapse the wave function. But because of the ambiguities around that and the weaknesses you and others point out, I wasn’t sure about my initial reading and went back to look for other possibilities.

    Since I’ve never actually seen the results of this experiment I didn’t know what they would look like, and the results as described at the end didn’t clearly sound like either possible result (though as I said, my initial assumption was that it was closest to the interference pattern). So that got me wondering whether the ending was supposed to be indeterminate, either because Eric could see through reality to encompass *both* possible results or because as readers we were supposed to determine which result it was through our own assumptions about which result better matched the final description.

    Then there seemed to be too many possibilities floating around and I got lost.

  10. There are some pictures of interference patterns here. If I’ve seen them before, I didn’t remember it when I first read the story, so I had to do a Google search before I truly understood the import of the final sentence. Like the absence of hard corroboration that Eric has looked at the detector results, this seems like a flaw in the story, but such an obvious one that I’m wondering whether it isn’t deliberate, and if so, to what end.

    Re Jetse’s thoughtful reading: it seems to me that the question of free will breaks down differently. If consciousness is capable of affecting the physical world, then free will must exist – our choices have repercussions at the quantum level. The soulless, on the other hand, don’t affect reality, and therefore have no free will, which simultaneously acts as an explanation for Eric’s nihilism and alcoholism and as a metaphor for it.

  11. Kev:

    I’d never encountered Ted Kosmatka before this post, but now I want more. My instant reaction when i read ‘Divining Light’ the first time was simple: ‘Fucking hell!’

    I’ve only read a few of his stories, but I have been impressed, to some degree, by all of them. Clearly one to watch, as they say. I do think, though, that the lack of clarity some have found in this story indicates that it is flawed.

    On the interference pattern: I should probably note that on its original publication in Asimov’s, when the experiment is first explained, there is a diagram of the experiment and the resulting patterns. The interference pattern looks like (d) in this picture. As I said, I think the story ideally wants us to take a certainty from the final image; but that doesn’t mean I think the readings built around uncertainty are wrong, per se.

    Abigail, I like that reading of the free will issue very much. It also removes the question of whether or not we believe Eric will look at the detector results from the table: or at least, transfers the question of belief to earlier in the story, to the times when Eric looks in the mirror and tells himself how something is going to come out. If we accept that this is a subconscious recognition of the fact that his actions are determined, we don’t have to believe that he will look at the detector results if he drinks; we can know it.

  12. Abigail & Niall: Yeah, I googled for pictures of interference patterns too, and got lots of ones that looked like picture d) from Niall’s link. That’s part of what confused me – where do semi-circles come into that? If the ending was going for clarity why use the word semi-circles when it looks more like stripes?

    If I had been certain it had been the interference pattern I would have thought through the implications of that more clearly, but because of the doubts and weaknesses of that interpretation I couldn’t get behind it enough to examine it for implications.

    Having said that, I really liked the story and am convinced that there was a meaning in there that I wasn’t getting out of it properly – the interpretations that are coming out here are very satisfying and I really wish the story had a worked a little bit better for me so that they could have seemed plausible to me as interpretations on the first reading.

  13. Niall: I think this has been a very interesting experiment, can we do it again? Maybe not necessarily here, but would there be interest in a short SF reading group? There is enough material online now to mix new and old.

  14. Kev, in principle I’m all in favour; I just wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to wait for the right story to come along than to formalise it. But what do others think?

  15. The ending seems pretty clear to me; the narrator is one of those people unable to collapse the wavefunction. Or he kills himself before opening the other envelope.

  16. Gene:

    Ted’s description of semi-circles fits more with an interference pattern looking like this: . The problem is, I think, Ted confusing the normal diagrammatic explanation of interference patterns with the normal results. See here: .

    If set up on a standard bench, you’ll get the stripes effect, but if you were to set up the experiment so you got a full two-dimensional screen result, you get the first picture. But, the experimental setup described sounds like it was on a bench.

  17. Interesting discussion, and I’m happy to join more like this, depending on if I have the time and inclination (the latter depends very much on the story to be discussed).

    For the record, personally I don’t think that ‘conscious’ observation collapses the waveform (which is one of the central points of the story), see for example the Wikipedia article on Wheeler’s delayed choice experiment that Niall linked to in his original post:

    As Heisenberg pointed out, being “observed” does not actually have to involve a human consciousness. What is actually required is that the “intrinsically undefined” photon, encounters a situation that results in its presence being manifested in the Universe in such a way that it is no longer “undefined.”

    This is even more explicit in the world’s smallest double-slit experiment, where the two proton nuclei of a hydrogen molecule are used as “slits”. In this experiment — performed last year, and the results published in the November 9, 2007 issue of Science — the interference pattern disappears as the energy of the ‘slower’ electrons is increased:

    As long as both electrons are isolated from their surroundings, quantum coherence prevails, as revealed by the fast electron’s wavelike interference pattern. But this interference pattern disappears when the slow electron is made into an observer of the fast one, a stand-in for the larger environment: the quantum system of the fast electron now interacts with the wider world (e.g., its next neighboring particle, the slow electron) and begins to decohere. The system has entered the realm of classical physics.

    Basically, almost any interaction with another particle (maybe particle/wave is a better way of putting it) will destroy the interference pattern. Decoherence is a well-known phenomenon, and the major headache in getting quantum computers to function.

    Also, I searched around if there had been actual tests performed like the ones described in the story, and came upon this: A double-slit diffraction experiment to investigate claims of consciousness-related anomalies. While it didn’t try to measure if consciousness collapsed the waveform — as far as I understand — it tried to show if conscious *intent* could change the interference pattern:

    A Young’ s double slit interference experiment has been conducted which tested the capacity of human operators to change the interference pattern in accord with their intention. The experiments conducted at York University did not show any evidence that the human operators tested can succeed in this task. The experiments conducted at Princeton University showed marginal evidence of an anomalous effect at a scale consistent with that of similar experiments with larger databases and corresponding larger effects.

    Note that the ‘marginal evidence’ of the results at Princeton may very well be due to statistical fluctuations rather than intent, and that they were measuring in an ‘intrinsically noisy’ area (“about 5% of the peak value”).

    So I strongly suspect that neither consciousness or conscious intent is a factor in collapsing the waveform.

  18. Coming in slightly late, so I have probably had my waveform of possibilities collapsed by reading the previous comments, but I saw the ending as Eric drinking again without opening the detector results, because it was inevitable that he would revert to alcoholism, and there was no way he could stop it by putting a piece of paper in an envelope. I read Satish as being killed by the soulless because he’d discovered what didn’t want to be found (and if the soulless are lacking in free will, then when they killed Satish and drove Eric to drink they had no choice in the matter, so it was preordained.)

    I find almost all the ideas proposed here to be plausible. If Eric is one of the soulless, I think it needed signposting a little bit more, but I liked the story a lot. It reminded me of the best Greg Egan pieces, and I have a soft spot for any story requiring a diagram to fully understand it.

  19. I have to admit that the possibility of Eric being soulless never occurred to me when I was reading the story (twice). My reasoning was the same as Ted Chiang’s: I can’t buy that in the whole year or so the story covers, the narrator never tested himself. My reading of the ending is that he knows that he’s already started drinking again, but the screen results say he hasn’t/didn’t/won’t. That’s sort of one last betrayal by the universe. Combine that with the fact that his best friend Satish, who represented stable reality for Eric, disappeared/killed himself and I’m betting that Eric couldn’t come back from that abyss. Certainly for someone that unstable, I can’t buy that he’d go back to being sober again after a setback like that. The ending could have been a lot clearer, but I think the ambiguity was intentional.

    Of course, when I read the story I assumed Satish was the soulless one and killed himself. I was so certain of that reading that it surprised the heck out of me when I read a bunch of different interpretations of Satish’s end.

    While this story is obviously a really powerful one emotionally (My “Wow!” reaction was similar to Kev’s, see my initial review:, I’m starting to think that it just doesn’t hold up to detailed scrutiny. There’s sometimes a benefit in ambiguity, but if 10 different people read something and come up with 10 different summaries of the actual plot/facts of the story, has the story communicated effectively?

    As to Kev’s proposal, I’m planning to back off my short fiction reading/reviewing in 2009. However, short fiction is easy to get through, and if an interesting conversation pops up I’d certainly be amenable to joining in.

  20. I returned to the story and read it a second time and I have to say I still don’t get anything from the ending. As I understood it, he was using the envelopes to divine whether he would start drinking again. The wave pattern was supposed to mean that he would never look into the first envelope and therefore never drink again. Yet he had. So — ? I dunno. Ted C.’s conclusion is possible, but I feel doubt that it’s what the author had in mind. All my own theories seem equally dubious.

    The whole “soul-less” thing just seemed to come out of nowhere. Why automatically decide that because someone couldn’t collapse the wave, they are soulless? Doesn’t sound like a likely mental step to me, esp. for scientists. I suppose it could show that they were becoming nonscientists, no longer believing in evidence, having their whole conception of the universe altered, and worse, realizing that there were a few people who lived in and who could perceive a different reality (if it’s possible to use the word “reality” to refer to a state of not having one).

    As for Satish, it seemed plain to me that he killed himself, succumbing to horror because there are some things we are not supposed to know. Something that the boy said to him caused him to feel that he had committed a great transgression and so caused him to end it all.

    I think everyone above has some good conjectures, but it’s too inscrutable for me to solve. My reaction at the end, where as a reader I want to find understanding and meaning, is disappointment. The author has perhaps withheld too much. I did not, by the way, get the feeling that the narrator was one of those who could not collapse the wave. It is certain, in the story, that these people know who they are and they know how they are different. Is there any reason to think the narrator is one of them? If so, I didn’t see it.

  21. I’ve read all these posts with a mixture of fascination and humility. I’m a huge fan of several of the names I see commenting above, and I am deeply, deeply humbled that people have taken the time to discuss my work. Thank you all very much.

    –Ted Kosmatka

  22. Well, it looks like casting “Summon Author” worked, but while you can get an author to a forum, you can’t necessarily get a clarification out of him!

    When I read this story the first time, I still thought it was awesome despite having no clue what the ending “meant.” Actually, I sort of didn’t care about the narrator–that level of existential despair indicated his genetic tendency towards depression more than any salient point about the universe. I also didn’t mind that the experiment as described is more or less impossible; I treated it as an alternate universe “what if?” story. What impressed me most was the societal reactions to the revelation of variable consciousness. It made total sense to me that people would treat it as a test of human-ness and get all up in arms about it. So I still think it’s an interesting story with emotional power dealing with society’s relationship to science–however I still think that it’d be better if a bunch of people reading the same story could agree about what happened in it.

  23. Hi Karen, I actually wrote a long response to this thread yesterday but then deleted it in favor of the short response I posted. I was honestly a little hesitant to give my take on the story after so many people had given their views. I didn’t want to write something that might take away from somebody else’s interpretation.

    It’s snowing like crazy right now, and I need to start shoveling, (or I’ll never get my car out tomorrow) but I’ll post some of my thoughts about the story when I get a chance later tonight. Again, thanks for the interest.

    –Ted Kosmatka

  24. I’m back from shoveling snow, and the baby is in bed for the night, so I have a few minutes to type. It seems that the ending of “Divining Light” was confusing to a lot of people, and the fault for something like that always lies with the writer.

    I enjoyed reading Jetse’s take on the story and found that he was very good at picking out the extact sentences that I would consider to be signposts within the story. And he’s right about the Descartes quote being key:

    “It is impossible that God should ever deceive me, since in all fraud and deceit is to be found a certain imperfection.”

    The story is about finding that imperfection, a flaw in reality itself, and looking at the deeper implications of such a discovery. And Jetse’s interpretation that it could mean that “The world is a simulation, or our Universe is an experiment. Thus, humans are the ‘ghosts in the machine’, or more to the point: ’souls in the simulation’ ” was very much what I had in mind when I wrote the story.

    Jetse quoted from the story:

    “I don’t think we’re supposed to build this kind of thing,” he said. “The flaw in reality that you talked about…I don’t think we were expected to use it this way. To make a test.”

    And then he wrote:

    “This is a twist on the observer bias: if study subjects *know* that they are being observed, they will behave differently, and the test might become invalid. Ultimate risk: the experimenter — a being (or beings) so powerful we might as well call it ‘god’ — might pull the plug.”

    –Yes, yes, yes. This is how I see the story, too.

    And further,
    “The final irony of the story might very well be that Eric was wrong: reality is not predestined, but a simulation, so there is free will. The free will of bacteria in god’s test tube, but not *predestined* bacteria.”

    –Again, yes.

    But I also agree with Ted Chiang’s view that it would be unlikely that Eric is one of those who cannot collapse the wavefuntion. It wasn’t my intention to imply that that was the case, and perhaps I should have more explicitly ruled that out so that readers wouldn’t have to wonder about it.

    As for the ending, the last few lines, it seems here I really should have been more careful about what I was getting at. All that was supposed to be happening was that Eric had started drinking again, and he opened the envelopes as he had promised himself. I wasn’t trying to imply some grand new revelation about the nature of Eric’s position in reality. If the story ever sees the light of day in a reprint, (pretty unlikely, I think) I’ll probably take out that last sentence altogether since it seems to confuse things and to imply things that should not be implied.

    Perhaps Gene said it best: “there seemed to be too many possibilities floating around and I got lost.”

    I wish I had another crack at a quick edit, just a few sentences to clarify… but it is not to be.

    –Ted Kosmatka

  25. Karen Burnham said:

    however I still think that it’d be better if a bunch of people reading the same story could agree about what happened in it.

    Ambivalent about this: sometimes this can be because the writer didn’t compose the story carefully enough (and this can also be a matter of not enough critique — in the writing/rewriting/polishing stage — as in not seeing the forest for the trees because you are *too* close to the story, and *know* what you mean to say, without realising you aren’t expressing it clearly enough). However, sometimes a deliberately ambiguous story can evoke interpretations that the author never intended, but that *are* there nevertheless, because once a story is published, it’s out of the author’s hands (and into the reader’s).

    Next ambiguity: on the one hand I’m thrilled that Ted (Kosmatka) made his intentions with this story clear, on the other hand it might have been better if he didn’t (as it did — IMHO — destroy some of the magic of the story), and Ted is well aware of that (“something that might take away from somebody else’s interpretation”).

    Nevertheless, thanks for being so open about it.

    I’ll even argue the case that the *unintended* effect of the last line not only deepened the story, but delivered a devastating emotional punch, as well. Even if Ted (Chiang) was right about Eric being able to collapse the wave function, and I (and others) were not.

    I’m *very* biased, of course, but I would rewrite key parts of the story to enable the more devastating ending. As always, YMMV.

  26. Finally got around to reading it. It reminded me most of this:

    And yes, I was also confused by the end – because the “circles” reference made me assume particles, while the shading made me assume interference pattersn.

    But I was more taken by the world-building anyway – the thought that you could test for consciousness, the idea that the soulless moved among us, etc.

  27. Lacking a physics background, but having experience in subjective/objective realities (living), I found the alcoholic researcher to be wavering between the two realities. Drinking and losing his “soul”, searching for meaning and living. Free will and determinism, a parallel universe, simulated life, all “real” to this observer. Thinking and feeling, the researcher experiences the horror of existence (consciousness) by acting out a determined ending. Are the “souless” less real, are they good, evil, lacking, or existing on another plane? Great story, more questions than answers.

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