One year ago today the Notre Dame caught fire, burning down the entire roof and the spire. It has since been largely secured, but proper restoration work is still a long way off. After the fire, I wrote this short story for a contest. It features a post-singularity mind choosing to have a particular type of experience of the cathedral. It will tell you something of what it means to me, and perhaps some of what it means to humanity.
Throughout all the centuries, there has been no gesture as pure as the creation of the medieval cathedral. Built across so many generations and touched by so many hands, it was humanity itself that came to say, this is who we are.
That caught her attention. Her attention, slightly decentralized as it traversed the mindspace, wrapped up its threads and drew back together toward this one idea. She had been wondering lately, what had it been like to be human before the rise? What had they thought of the world and what it would become? What did it feel like in each moment, to be confronted with a life so bounded? And what did it feel like to be human?
Records of the past, though well-secured by now, were quite finite compared to the deluge of information that was continuously being added to the mindspace. One had to do a lot of analysis and guesswork to draw conclusions about the past.
So why were cathedrals so important to them? She knew about religion; humanity’s attempt to find meaning and purpose, metaphysically and ethically, in a world where they had little control over their environment or even themselves. In part, cathedrals were a concretization of a specific religion and its symbols. But in a bigger way, they had had an enduring and universal appeal.
Her first instinct was to consume all known information about cathedrals. Modern minds, being distributed, could do this very efficiently. But before she started, the thought occurred to her; maybe this would be more fun, and a better learning opportunity, if she tried to make inferences only from the artifacts in question. She could treat the task archaeologically.
She loaded up renderings of all cathedrals that had managed to be information-theoretically preserved. Whether something was preserved in a physical form was not something that modern minds tended to even consider.
One of the most common decisions that a modern mind made was not so much when to parallelize one’s mind, but exactly how to parallelize it. For many tasks, the default was clearly sufficient; partition the new content into pieces, make a copy of one’s mind for each piece, peruse the content, and then merge all the now slightly different mind copies. Many tasks however required a controller copy of the mind to coordinate many other copies. Still further tasks required substantially differentiated copies to start with.
For this cathedral archeology, she decided to split off two different and simplified mind-threads; one that focused on the functional structure of the buildings, and another that focused on the aesthetics.
Having such control over one’s mind leads to some experiences that would be paradoxical to the ancient singleton mind. The older minds tended to either know something, or not know it. Modern minds, being made of countless parts in a hierarchical and interlaced structure, could know something in one part and not another. Alternatively, they could know something with two different parts, and not know that the other parts know it. Worse yet, the two parts could think they know something in different ways. Reconciling these inconsistencies was a major part of being a modern mind. Maintaining the inconsistencies was as well. It could be very efficient to know something one way in one part, and another way in another part, depending on what those parts had to do.
Worst of all, the same part could know something and, in some sense, not know it at the same time. It was in this sense that she first approached the image of a cathedral. In a mind-thread loaded with domain knowledge from physical engineering and some basic retention of human history, the holistic appearance of the Notre Dame de Paris was piped into her simulated visual system, leading to the appropriate reaction: stunned and impressed. In the context of the time and the materials available, this structure was substantial. Using only the most primitive of materials, stone, wood, glass and the like, these people had made a most unearthly structure thrust into the sky. They had clearly done this before; not as individuals, but as a society. The sheer amount of coordination required to raise this form was of comparable impressiveness to the structure itself.
Though this mind-thread was technically skilled, it was not an earth-bound homo sapien, and thus it took an explicit step of recollection to understand the basic directionality of the pieces. This structure was in a strong gravitational field; thus, its pieces had to be arranged in roughly linear stacks against that field in order to envelop a usable space. In other words, it went “up”. The ceiling was not just far away from the floor; it was “high”. This confused her immensely, because the whole thing about gravity was that it was hard to go against. Why did they go against it for so far a distance? Did they need to store very tall objects? Did they somehow need the volume for acoustics? It was unclear. For whatever reason, it seemed to be an externally imposed constraint that the ceiling be extremely high. It was perhaps even an optimization target; given these materials and technologies, make the ceiling as high as possible.
Putting aside the question of why, she went on to discern how. The simplest way to achieve height was to stack stones like the ancient pyramids; mountains are the upper limit here. But these builders clearly had further constraints in mind. She was in awe at their techniques. Internal walls consisted of rows and rows of arches, pointed to transfer more forces downward. This was not the optimal shape, but it was understandable given their lack of computers or even calculus. The ceiling used thicker ribs of stone to transfer its weight onto columns. The surface of the columns was carved in a way that made them look like many columns bundled together; she couldn’t see why.
The external walls were the most elaborate. On first appearance they just looked confusing, but she could see the logic. They needed to illuminate the inside of the building. At this point in human history, there were no sources of light that compared to the sun. Therefore, they got the light through the walls. The taller your walls, the thicker they have to be, and the smaller a window you can squeeze into them. So the builders did something brilliant; effectively, they cut the thick walls into sections and rotated the sections perpendicular to the building. This could support the same weight, but now allows light to pass between the sections. As if that wasn’t enough, they split each section further, and spaced out those pieces with arches in between, letting light stream in from the side. This gave the exterior of the building a spidery, complex appearance; the kind of engineering solution you arrive at if you have substantial material constraints and are willing to put in copious time into the project.
She couldn’t help but feel glee at seeing this system. There was one especially confusing element, though; instead of using clear glass to maximize internal lighting, the glass was all very darkly colored.
The aesthetics mind-thread was loaded with only the most basic understanding of physical reality; just enough to interpret where a human would have even been standing with respect to the rest of the structure. Just enough to know that the internal structure of the stone was not part of the perceivable aesthetics. Besides that, she was given the full human appreciation of aesthetics; preference for symmetry, fondness for certain color combinations, the pleasingness of unspoken connections between parts, an appreciation for the omitted; each explicable and every inexplicable feature of what humans call beauty was packaged in its abstract form into this mind-thread. The thread was initialized standing inside the church under the crossing, in view of the majority of the interior.
Her reaction was not one of being impressed; it was more like being teleported into a typhoon. The visuals and shapes that arrived at her from every angle were more than overwhelming. The intricately polychromatic light streaming from the windows blinded her to any depiction they might carry. The soaring bands of stone made off with any ability she might have had to orient under them. If crying was something a modern mind could do, she would have cried uncontrollably. Instead, her mind fell apart under the bombardment. Its pieces yearned and radiated, trying to grasp what they were experiencing in order to drink in its form, only to be knocked over by the rush.
Modern minds often consider this kind of experience great fun, and it is part of the motivation to partition parts in the way one does.
The pieces sheared and tumbled, rearranging themselves to be able to handle the base level perceptions. For though this mind-thread was optimized for analyzing beauty, she had to do so through the initial responses of the passions. The interior of Notre Dame demanded a strong response. Once they started picking up patterns and regularities, she would start to have the capacity for analysis.
While most of her responses were pure adoration, there were some not entirely positive. One part wonders, “Why does this light have no orange or purple?” Another suggests, “That gargoyle is hideous. Couldn’t they have used a creature as beautiful as the rest?” These thoughts tossed in the torrent, but eventually cohere.
Eventually, the thread’s reactions began to orient, stretched out along one axis of the building. Though two of the axes contained repetitions, one of the axes contained progressions. The overall form seemed to be that of a flat cross, out from which rods rise and eventually bend over to meet one another. This happened in layers until the whole of the stone bent together to form the vaulted ceiling. She had a sudden feeling of realization as she connected this shape to a prominent historical symbol, though she was not exactly aware of the tenants of Christianity.
Between the rising columns were the long, shattered panes of color; the stained-glass windows. Even inside her mind, she was speechless. She wanted to look at every part at once, and thus it entranced her. There was just enough regularity to soothe the eyes, and enough variation to keep them moving. The colors were deeply saturated, yet the sunlight through them was bright enough to make the rest of the interior almost too dark to see in comparison. Countless figures adorned the panels; it was as if they were trying to tell an entire epic of stories within the glass. That they were lit from behind made it seem as though they were lit from within. She decided to stay here for a while.
The merging of intentionally diverged mind threads is an intimate process.
At first, it is similar to the meeting of two entirely different people. In mindspace, you don’t just pass by a person, as if on the street; you get a gestalt summary of what it is like to be them. This maximally humanizes the minds during interactions and makes everyone feel as rich and worthwhile as they really are. Empathy is not so much a skill people practice as a way the world works. You can talk to someone, in the sense of exchanging symbolic linear communication, but you can also increase the gestalt experience exchange. It’s fluid and consensual, in the same way that you can stand closer to a person, give them eye contact, or inspect their face.
In this way, the two mind threads approached one another. They recognized their overwhelming similarities, and then focused on their differences. The engineer thread began to feel the passionate weight of the experience had by the other. She felt intimidated by it, and almost a regret at having missed it herself. Of course, after the merge, it would be as if she had experienced it herself; the transition contained many paradoxes.
The aesthetic thread began to perceive the immense technical complexity, and felt in awe. The engineering thread had noticed so much! The pieces were so interdependent! There was an aesthetic to mathematics, after all, and this came most naturally to her. The builders had done so much to make her experience possible. She felt the gratefulness sink into her.
The engineering thread’s most pressing question — why was the ceiling so high? — was answered immediately. Because it was glorious. It was so unnatural and elegant that it caused the viewer to feel transported, perhaps to the heavens themselves. In this place where sky is earth, most wonderous things could happen.
And the windows! She felt her soul waver at the first re-seeing of the windows. Of course the builders had put so much effort into letting the light pass through the walls. It wasn’t just for internal illumination; it was so that the walls themselves glowed with a life-force. The figures within the panes were thereby animated. Every extra bit of arch reinforcement was worth that.
As each thread began to see what the other saw, they began to lose track of which thoughts were their own reactions to the other’s experiences, and which were simply the thoughts of the other. Their processing locus began to cycle back and forth between the two, and on each pass, more content of their minds was integrated. If, in their creation, they had been imbued with any sense of individuality, this would have felt like a terrifying loss. But as they were always meant to be ephemeral, they instead felt a joyous relief. No longer did they have to hold on to their deliberately constrained ways. Eventually, as their mental representations of the cathedral became one, it also became greater than the sum of the two. Conclusions that neither had reached could be appended; mutual appreciations densified the connections. A distinctly different mind-thread resulted.
The merging of this cathedral thread into the rest of her mind was comparatively straightforward, as the content was not directly overlapping. Having successfully completed the experiment of analyzing the cathedral on her own accord, she could now take stock of it in the fuller context of historical knowledge. Despite being a thousand years old, the motivations for constructing it had been startlingly relatable. And before long, she began wondering what the modern equivalent of a cathedral would look like.
The challenge of modern day was not gravity, but complexity. The amount of information available to humanity was vast beyond reckoning; extracting insight from it was the great challenge. How could she represent the complexity of this data to transport the viewer to another world? What were the flying buttresses that factored out the patterns with such elegant cleverness? And what were the rose windows that iconized the most profound invariants?
All minds are in a neverending act of creation. Some create to perfectly satisfy constraints, some create to bring forth the never before made, some create to make the world in their image. For this act, she would need more hands.