Short Story: “Forced Inquiry”

Maybe we all reason inductively.

“Forced Inquiry”
by P. Orin Zack
[3/25/2009]

The balding man in khakis and a Hubble t-shirt seated across from her flipped a switch and leaned towards the two-headed mike hovering over the center of the table. “Welcome back to ‘Unconfirmed Citings’, listeners. I’m Arvin Daugherty, and we’ve been speaking with Paula Isikov, whose research paper sparked a tsunami of controversy when she posted it on the Internet a few days ago.”

Paula, who felt a bit overdressed in the navy suit she had originally intended to wear to the conference where her paper was supposed to have been presented, glanced at the tech in the sound booth. The guy was staring at her like she’d just admitted to being a space alien, and it wasn’t helping her mood.

“Before the break,” the talk-show host said as he laced his stubby fingers, “Ms. Isakov told us about the call she’d gotten from the conference coordinator, who not only refused to accept the paper she had submitted, but cancelled her pre-paid membership in the event as well. They really didn’t want to take any chances with your findings getting out, did they?”

“Apparently not,” she agreed, studiously focusing on Daugherty. “Of course, the conference committee was under the impression that if they blocked publication, that would be the last of it. I guess none of them has ever heard of the Internet.”

“Judging from the lights on my phone,” he said, punching one of them, “some of my listeners have. Hello, you’re on the air. Got a question?”

“Damned right I do,” the caller said angrily. “What the hell right does this ditz have to accuse Republicans of being mentally defective?”

“That’s cutting right to the chase, caller. Let’s give Ms. Isakov a chance to respond.”

Paula made a fist of her right hand, and then flattened it against the table to relieve the stress. “I realize that my findings have been characterized like that in several incendiary blogs, but we are talking about cutting edge neurological science here, and it’s easy to get lost in the possible implications.”

“See?” the caller snapped. “She’s not denying it. Well, all I’ve got to say is that she’d better watch her –.”

Daugherty cut him off. “If you can’t be civil, caller, we’ll have to address your question without you on the line.” He gazed coolly at his guest. “So, was he right? Are you really implying that Republicans are sick?”

“If you really want an answer to that question, I’m going to need a few minutes to explain my findings. But first, I’ll have to describe the experiment.”

He turned his palms up. “By all means. Take as long as you’d like. There’s almost three hours left of my show.”

Paula’s brow furrowed momentarily as she agonized over how to present the science without completely losing whatever audience there might be. There was no point delving into the details of quantum mechanics; that would only sidetrack the discussion. Still, she’d have to present the essence of that field in order to make sense of her conclusions. Sensing a solution, she smiled and relaxed.

“As long as people have tried to figure out how the brain works,” she said, “they’ve used some bit of cutting-edge technology as a metaphor to explain it. First they said it’s like a precision clockwork, then, when they ran into mechanical trouble, they changed their minds and said it’s like a super-fast computer, and so forth. Meanwhile, biologists and surgeons, the people who actually poked around in all that gray matter, were busy trying to map out which part of the thing did what. They ran into similar problems when they tried to identify exactly where an experience or a memory lived, and what it might look like. The thing is, all of these approaches had one thing in common: they made the assumption that the mind and the brain were the same thing, which drove them to conclude that some combination of neural connections and electro-chemical signaling meant the color blue, or the sound of middle ‘C’, or the memory of where you left your keys.”

Daugherty, who had been nodding agreeably, said, “I take it you didn’t buy into that assumption.”

“I did at first, yeah. But something I read, an unproven theory, gave me an idea. So I concocted an experiment to try to disprove the theory, which is how the scientific method works, after all, and found that I couldn’t.”

The two had a brief exchange about the scientific method, during which Paula stressed how often it had been subverted in the interest of maintaining the status quo, and then Daugherty signaled the tech to run a series of ads.

During the break, the tech walked in with his headset cable wrapped around his right hand like a boxing glove. Paula sank into her chair, fearing some kind of attack. He glared at her for a few seconds, and then leaned conspiratorially over Daugherty. “I think you’re losing listeners, Arvin. We sold this show with come-ons about the controversy. If all we get is a boring science lecture, there’s not going to be anyone left out there by the time she gets to the point.”

Daugherty glanced at the clock, and then at Paula Isikov, before answering him. “Jason,” he said sternly, “I didn’t hire you to be a critic. You knew when you took this job that some of my guests would be speaking about things that are a bit outlandish. My listeners understand that.”

Jason shook his head. “Your listeners? Have you seen the ratings report? Your audience has been dropping for weeks. And if it drops any further, we’re going to lose some sponsors.”

The ads were finishing, so Daugherty leaned into the mike and welcomed any late arrivals before getting back to the interview. Jason, miffed, turned to go, but gave a withering glance at Paula before closing the door. She stammered a bit before regaining her composure.

“…so, anyway,” she said, “I set out to disprove the assertion that a spooky kind of virtual electrical storm arises when you have a dense soup of the sort of long chain molecules that inhabit the cells in our brains.”

Daugherty raised a hand for pause. “Hold on, Paula. A ‘virtual’ electrical storm? I thought the whole point of all those brain cells was to send electrical signals hither, thither and yon. Isn’t that electricity in the nerves what EEGs and functional MRIs measure?”

“It is, but this is something entirely different.”

“You mean like an aura or something? I had someone on last week with a Kirlian photography gizmo.”

She shook her head and grimaced. “No. Not that. What I was after was a current of quantum probabilities, kind of like, um… call it an induced electrical current, like you get when you wave a magnet past tightly wrapped wires. Except in this case, it’s not really electricity. What the theory suggested was that brains generate a novel kind of energy field, a quantum circulation, and that consciousness actually happens there, not in what we think of as the brain at all.”

When the radio host didn’t say anything immediately, Jason rose from his chair in the sound booth with an anxious expression.

“I think…” Daugherty said finally, and just over a whisper, “I think I get it. But… but how do you get from there to all of the speculations and accusations that are echoing through the blogosphere?”

Paula nodded excitedly. “It’s very simple, really. That nonlocalized virtual energy field, which works infinitely faster than any computer, represents memories and experiences in the form of moving patterns, like waves at sea. Since this tapestry of patterns is always circulating, new memories and experiences can be modulated over older ones. But crucially, and this is the point that seems to have sparked all the yelling, it’s also possible that the mind can overlay a model of what it would be like to be someone else, and in that way to step into that other person’s shoes, as it were.”

“So…” Daugherty hazarded unsteadily, “if I understand what you just said, then empathy is the ability to overlay a model of someone else onto this energy field?”

“Exactly. And if someone were unable to accomplish that overlay, then they wouldn’t be able to experience empathy. All I said in my conclusion was that a failure of that sort could explain some of the differences between people whose worldview is built on compassion, and people whose worldview has some other basis.”

The phone lines, which had been dark since the break, suddenly lit up. Daugherty picked one at random. “You’re on the air, caller.”

“Let me get this straight, Ms. Isikov,” a female voice said calmly. “Are you saying that we don’t think with our brains?”

“Well, yes and no. I think that our consciousness exists in this nonlocalized quantum circulation that arises from the presence of a brain, and that the electro-chemical activity we see in the brain – the things we can measure with an EEG or an fMRI — is how that consciousness interacts with the world through the medium of a body.”

The line remained silent, so Daugherty asked if the caller was still there.

She laughed. “Sorry. I was just sitting here with my mouth hanging open. Because if what you claim is true, Ms. Isikov, then a whole gamut of parapsychic phenomena is going to have to be re-examined.”

“I hadn’t really thought about it. But then I’m hardly the kind of person to ask about that sort of thing. I’m just trying to understand the physics of it.”

Daugherty thanked the caller, speculated aloud on what sort of follow-up interviews he ought to schedule, and signaled Jason to go to commercial. When nothing happened, he turned to look into the sound booth, and found Jason struggling with some stranger, who had wrapped the cord around his neck and was attempting to strangle him. He told Paula to call 911 as he was standing up, and lunged for the sound booth door. The stranger released his grip on Jason and pushed Daugherty back into the studio.

“Sit down, both of you,” he said angrily, tossing Jason, who was coughing and unwrapping the cord, into the small room as well. “You’re not going to cut me off this time.”

Daugherty looked at the man, who wore what appeared to be the work shirt from a local welding shop, and then nodded. “You were on the phone earlier, weren’t you.”

“Damned right,” he said, still standing in front of the door. “I came to face my accuser.”

“What?” Paula was aghast.

“I don’t take too lightly to someone calling me, and just about everyone I know, ‘sick’ on the basis of some fraudulent pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo.”

“Look,” Daugherty said easily, “I’m just trying to run an interview here. If it’s that important for you to have your opinion heard, then why not just calm down and let me include you in the interview?”

He crossed his arms. “Oh, no. I’ve heard how you’ve turned people’s words against them. I didn’t come down here to talk to you. I came to talk to her.”

Paula returned his angry glare with a defiant one. “A confrontation, then?”

“In a word, yes. Why? Are you afraid to defend that idiocy you’ve been spouting?”

“Not against you. No.”

Jason finished disentangling the cord, and started towards the sound booth. “In that case, you’re going to need me at the controls. So if you’re done trying to kill me, I’d like to get back to work.”

He waved dismissively. “Whatever. Let’s get on with this.”

“All right, then,” Daugherty said. “Let me introduce you to our listeners, and then I’ll step aside and let the two of you carry on. Will that work for you?”

“Sure.”

“Great. So who are you, and what was so important that you had to try to strangle my engineer?”

The man shut his eyes briefly, and slowly shook his head in disgust. “My name’s not important. What is important is that your expert guest here has made a blanket statement condemning all conservatives for what she claims is a failure to bask in other peoples’ problems.”

“It’s okay if you don’t want to reveal your identity,” Paula ventured soothingly, “but it would be easier for me to relate to you if I had something to call you, even if it’s made up. So would it bother you if I called you ‘John’ during this?”

He shrugged. “Whatever floats your boat, lady. Now, can we get on with this?” When nobody objected, he drove on. “Good, because I’ve got a bone to pick with you. All that fancy tap-dancing you did in that paper you posted to explain –.”

“You read it?” she interrupted.

“Of course I read it. Just because I don’t share your pansy politics doesn’t mean I’m illiterate. Anyway, not to put too fine a point on it, the whole idea that a person has to get all soggy in someone else’s problems in order to understand what they’re up against is ridiculous. The difference between liberals and conservatives has squat to do with compassion. Yeah, yeah, I know that’s how the twits who’re so gaga about ‘framing’ want to put it, but the real nub of the thing is that liberals are damned moral relativists.”

It took Paula a few seconds to realize that he’d stopped talking. “Okay,” she said uneasily, “let’s use that as a starting point, and see where it takes us.”

John tentatively raised a fist. “Jesus, don’t you ever fight back?”

“Since you’ve posited that liberals are moral relativists,” she said, ignoring the attempted provocation, “I take it that conservatives, in your judgment, are not. Have I got that right, John?”

“Absolutely.”

Daugherty snorted. “Figures you’d say something like that.”

“You’re supposed to be keeping quiet,” John admonished him. Then, turning back to Paula Isikov, he added, “Reality demands it. Facts are facts, after all.”

“Hmm. It’s more than that for most conservatives I know, though. They’re also very religious people, Christians of one sort of another. If you don’t mind my asking, then, are you religious? Do you take your moral absolutes from scripture, or at least from some religious leader you trust?”

He nodded.

“For the benefit of our listeners,” Daugherty said, boldly eyeing the interloper, “John here shook his head in the affirmative. I guess there wasn’t anything inside to rattle, though.”

“For the love of God,” John shot back, “will you just sit there and shut up, or am I going to have to gag you?”

“It’s radio, John. The people can’t see you shaking your head.”

Paula rapped the table. “If you two are finished butting heads, I’d like to explore this. John, and I know you can only answer for yourself, but tell me something. When you encounter a moral quandary out in the world, how do you know what those absolute moral values say to do? Do you pull out your bible? Call a priest? How do you know what to do?”

“I just know, that’s all. My parents taught me. I’ve read the bible. I’ve been to church. Why? Do you have a problem with that?”

“No, but I thought you might sometimes. After all, there’s a lot in this world that didn’t exist when the Bible was written, lots of situations that the people who wrote it could never have encountered. How do you deal with that?”

“I just do. I know what’s right. There’s no question.”

“I get that,” she said after a pause, “but I’m interested in knowing why. I want to know how someone who believes that there are absolute moral values that apply in all situations knows that.” She glanced at Jason, who was visibly enjoying the exchange, and then turned to John with a sly smile. “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘to commune with God’?”

“Sure,” he said, taken aback at the sudden change of subject. “I do that when I’m praying. Why?”

“Because I think — and I don’t want to start another fight here – that when you do that, you might be getting a taste of what whatever problem you’re praying about looks to God. Kind of like seeing it from His perspective.”

John raised his eyebrows, and then knit them. “Well,” he said, “I know that some people think that’s a bit presumptuous, putting yourself in God’s place like that, but I do kinda get a different view of my problems when I do that. It does make them seem so small and unimportant, in the grand scheme of things, I mean.”

“Wow,” she said, her eyes suddenly unfocused, and laughed to herself. “I never looked at it that way. Thanks, John. I think you just disproved part of my theory.”

“What are you jabbering about?”

“Oh, sorry. I had assumed that the only kind of external consciousness that could be overlaid on our circulating quantum patterns was that of another person. That was my problem. But now that I’ve had a chance to talk with you, I realize that it’s a whole lot more complicated than that. I’ve been thinking that liberals find it easier to be compassionate to others than conservatives do because there was something broken or missing. But what’s really happening is that conservatives, well, at least the religious ones, find it easier to overlay what they believe to be God’s consciousness than that of other people.”

“Hold it. Stop,” John said, a confused expression crossing his face. “Did you just say that conservatives have a direct link to God, and liberals don’t?”

“Well,” she said amiably, “it does explain the facts, and you did say the facts are what’s important, if I recall. So, was there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

He glanced around the room, shrugged, and said, “I guess not. No.”

“Great!” Daugherty said, as he rose from his chair and extended a hand. “Well, John, it’s been a pleasure having you come down here to talk. I hope you’ll continue to listen to the show.”

Jason stumbled into the studio after John left, his jaw slack. “I take back what I said, Arvin.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I don’t think ratings are going to be a problem. Not after that performance.”

Paula tilted her head. “Performance?”

“Sure. That was a put-on, wasn’t it? I mean, that convenient realization of yours was just too precious for words. You had him so bamboozled he thought he was the hero of the piece. But, hey, it did get him out of here, and he didn’t try to strangle me on the way out.”

She chuckled. “But he was, Jason. The hero, I mean. After all, if he hadn’t come down here, I never would have thought to expand my theory like that. It’s a whole lot more interesting now, too. I mean, think about it, if you can overlay your idea of God onto your mind, the same has to be true for Shakespeare, your dead uncle Joe, or even made-up people, like Frodo Baggins, if it comes to that. I’m going to have think about this some more.”

Arvin Daugherty grinned broadly. “In that case, I’ll keep a seat warm for you anytime you’re in the mood.” He turned to Jason. “Don’t you think we ought to go to commercial?”

THE END
Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack

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