Three Wishes

This post is a little longer than my previous entries. It started as a tangent from my original project on teleology, but has grown. While I compile notes on Gaia, this has been my amusement. 500 words is a good optimum for success given the internet attention span, so I am not optimistic about this. Still, it was fun to write and it might be fun to read too.

 

As semi-professional killjoys, we spend much of our time examining and analysing things to the point where their magic and enjoyment is lost. Initially we do this consciously, but once started the tendency cannot be checked. It is a blind, mechanical process without end. I am Lovecraft’s Pole Star which “leers down from the same place in the black vault, winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message, yet recalls nothing save that it once had a message to convey.” Or maybe that’s just alcohol. Either way it is inevitable.

It was in this mindset that I cheerfully sat down to watch Disney’s Aladdin the other day. The turning point in the film – as in all versions of the story – is the appearance of the Genie of the Lamp, who is able to grant wishes. Versions of the tale differ (and in fact the entire story is a later European addition to the original One Thousand and One Nights) but the one known best, at least in the West, involves three wishes, perhaps with limitations in their scope. In the Disney version the holder of the lamp is unable to use wishes to kill, to raise from the dead, or to make a person fall in love. This is very convenient within the context of Disney since these are precisely the powers a Disney hero would require to carry out Hollywood’s ideological requirements of defeating the irredeemably evil villain and forming the romantic couple. Arbitrary restrictions on the use of magical powers have always been among the best starting points for fantasy plots, so this is ideal for the narrative.

I was unsure whether to take the Disney prohibitions seriously when I came to speculate on the consequences of wishes. It always bothered me that Robin Williams’ genie forbade raising people from the dead, not as an absolute impossibility, but on the basis that it was ‘messy’ and for that reason he ‘didn’t like doing it.’ Most likely this was part of the humour of the character and the prohibition was real, but it created doubt. I decided the best solution was to start with potential wishes which would avoid these issues. But where to begin?

The first place for anyone with normal, embarrassing levels of selfishness would be personal and material gain. Perhaps the fabled “riches beyond the dreams of avarice” ought to be one of the three? But this is something with much broader implications than it first appears. Consider another popular film franchise: The Hobbit. Tolkien’s book did not specify in any great detail the value of the treasure hoard possessed by the dragon Smaug, but I’m willing to bet an appreciable fraction of said hoard that it was nowhere near the eventual CGI glitter-party of Peter Jackson’s hyperbolic mind. To ruin these films too, let me just point out that Smaug’s defeat would lead to a sudden, catastrophic injection of gold into the economy of Middle Earth which would plausibly lead to the collapse of society itself – though truly this is well overdue, considering that the long-distance shots of the cities of Minas Tirith, Osgiliath and Edoras show vast plains of grass and not a single farm, ranch, small-holding or allotment – presumably they all subsist on Lembas bread and Pipeweed. For currencies based on gold the result would be an unmitigated disaster which would rival several of the other outrageous hardships faced by the average citizen of Gondor. No-one would be interested in the Return of the King in the climate of Weimar-style inflation on the price of Old Toby.

A large enough quantity of cash will either break the monetary system altogether, or be indistinguishable from political power. Why buy luxury good X when you can buy the factory? Why not buy the town? This leads to the second self-seeking possibility: wishing for political power.

Nowhere is the American origin of the Disney Aladdin more apparent than in the results of the hero’s first wish – the wish to be a prince. Rather than producing fake proof of royal heritage, or altering the past to create an actual heritage, the genie seems to overcompensate in the outrageous lie by focusing on providing seventy-five golden camels (don’t they look lovely, June?) and purple peacocks fifty-three (fabulous Harry, I love the feathers). In conversation an American friend of mine once assumed that hereditary nobility in Britain gained their status by first getting rich and then – in some hellish eternal version of the American Dream – being granted a special title until the end of time. Obviously the opposite is the case given the recent emergence of capitalism and the much longer period of military feudalism which created the original inequalities that later found new modes of expression in a market economy; until relatively recently ‘new money’ didn’t exist, and until very recently it was incapable of exerting as much influence as true capitalism should allow, at least in Britain. With a few late exceptions, they aren’t lords because they’re rich, they’re rich because they’re lords.

To return to the point, Aladdin is later faced with the dilemma of whether to continue lying about his origins or telling the princess Jasmine the truth. The ‘truth’ in this case – utterly bizarrely, to my mind – is that he is ‘not really a prince’. Obviously the genie’s powers are even more limited than we thought, since Aladdin’s wish to ‘be a prince’ was interpreted as to ‘appear to be a prince’. One could let Theory out of its cage here to make Lacanian squawks about Aladdin’s symbolic identity. The madman is not just the beggar who thinks he is a king, but also a king who thinks he is a king – the status of king being nothing more or less than being treated as the king – rather than some inherent property which magically makes people bow, on the contrary, it is the bowing itself which works the magic. Thus one reading would have us believe that Aladdin really is meant to be the prince, but that he nonetheless has a Richard III-style hysteric outburst in which he questions his symbolic identity. I think this is too clever. Really the genie has just provided him with a light-show, and the real essence of Prince-ity (unreal concepts can bear stupid names) has not been delivered. Somehow, in spite of being treated as one, Aladdin is not a prince.

Considering the alternatives, Robin Williams’ genie seems to have chosen the smart option. But it is also perhaps the only option available. Recall the rules the genie lays down at the very beginning: no killing, no raising, no romance. These three types of wish are probably a complete list of the ingredients required for the alteration of history. It is hard to imagine how a respectable lineage can be established for Aladdin without the use of any of these – even leaving out the paradoxes in personal identity which would result. Then again, the genie seems very loose on wishes which might indirectly result in any of these three coming to pass – how many thousands may live or die based on Aladdin’s eventual ascendency?

Again, my instinct is to leave these rules behind. They seem very ambiguous (especially the love one) and some of the genie’s other powers ought to overrule them a fortiori. A genie without these limitations may be too terrifying though. Aside from those explicit limitations, must we hold on to the implicit ones? What are the implicit ones?

Here we return to the familiar ground of omnipotence. There are certainly a few more thinkers – and people generally – who profess to believe in an omnipotent God than those who have a deep faith in genies. And more philosophy has been done concerning the nature of such a God than about any other subject – at least in the West. It is therefore troubling for our investigation that no real agreement has been reached on the property of omnipotence. If God can ‘do anything’ then can he create a round square? In other words, is he constrained by the laws of logic? If he is not then our method of discourse breaks down entirely, since we have no way in language to talk about such a being, except perhaps poetry, given that language as we use it is predicated on an adherence to non-contradiction. But if he is so constrained then we are also entitled to ask whether the constraints end there. Some things which are logically possible might not be metaphysically possible, or nomologically possible. We cannot be clear on the boundary.

Whatever the case for God, it seems like he might be capable of frightening things but never be inclined to do them. Whether this counts as a limitation is also contentious. At least it might mean that his moral sense could prevent him from waking up one morning and deciding to destroy the whole universe. Either way, the genie of the lamp will differ from God in that his powers will not express the will of a perfectly good being, but a human animal, the holder of the lamp. Human animals are capable of great altruism and nauseating pettiness – in fact our evaluations of both are always calibrated by humans as we find them, so that humans as a whole species no more ‘are’ good than they ‘are’ evil. The problem is that even a generous normal distribution over three wishes would likely give us at least one unpleasant desire realised with magical inevitability. Even Disney’s hero, who was meant to be a moral paragon, a “diamond in the rough”, only used one of his wishes selflessly, when he freed the genie at the end of the film.

Even leaving aside the explicitly repugnant wishes, there are plenty of well-meaning wishes which might have consequences which we would worry about. For example, one of the common hallmarks of utopian political projects is that they are concerned not only with changing material conditions, but precipitating a change in consciousness, a change in people themselves; humankind must be transformed in order to realise the bright future. For some this is a transformation which inevitably takes place through education or the escape from wage slavery. For others, such as Fanon, the only effective catalyst is violence. But what if one could simply wish this transformation into existence? Wouldn’t the world be better if, for example, humans were a bit more empathetic? Or a bit cleverer? Or suddenly fully possessed ‘class consciousness’? Wouldn’t Aladdin have an obligation to create such a world?

This is important because it does not seem to violate the genie’s original prohibitions – at least, no more than adding a new member to Arabian royalty would – and it becomes clear that wishes like these change everything. The human condition itself can be altered. Unless we are (like God) necessary beings with necessary characteristics, there is no reason to suppose that we could not be other than we are. True, we have evolved in a certain way, but why should this be the only way?

All of our valuation systems and all of the language we use to express these systems become inadequate. As I just mentioned, we judge the great altruism and nauseating pettiness on a scale in which humans are placed dead-centre as our reference point. Kant creates ‘supererogatory actions’, virtue ethicists need a harmonious mean, and utilitarians talk about ‘least suffering’ to absent themselves from a messianic quest of moral exceptionalism, all because they presuppose a norm of humanity – sometimes good and sometimes bad – and recognise this as an unsurpassable limit to their projects; there is no point trying to apply tennis strategy to a swingball set, which has a ball which is never capable of long shots but is stuck orbiting the same post anchored in the dirt. The perfectly virtuous agent whose tennis ball flies freely can only be God, while the rest of us carry out the same rotations of only slightly differing shapes. To wish to cut the rope and make us God-like in our virtue might be the logical decision.

Humans thus changed become inhuman. The paradigm of such collectivism is perhaps the ant or the bee, neither of whom seems like an attractive role-model. Even another higher primate which behaved in such a way would earn our contempt. We constitute at least a part of our identity on the ability to think for ourselves and to rebel against authority, rather than taking pride in roboticism. Weighing up the advantages of such a wish becomes impossible given that it does not represent a move from a worse to a better situation, but a shifting of the very coordinates against which we judge what is worse and what is better. Some would have said that God was constrained if he would not be prepared to use his omnipotence for evil, are we not similarly constrained if we are reborn as incapable of evil? What of literature?

Perhaps this is indeed what someone in possession of the lamp would desire. But if so this is a choice which cannot truly be justified on moral grounds since it is the very redefining of the moral system itself. Kant recognised that even if we cannot prove the freedom of the will, we must presuppose it for morality to make any sense at all. My pleasure at seeing the reform of a villain is predicated on the freedom of his will, so that the genie’s coercive magic feels like cheating. I grant that I am defending the right of humans to do evil, which obviously sounds monstrous to some, but maintaining a sound moral system without this is fraught with hardship.

How can any of these decisions be made without the relevant information? I don’t know what the queer features of morality demand, any more than anyone else who has dedicated countless barren hours to thinking about ethics. It would probably be wise to spend the first wish on a magical, exhaustive encyclopedia. We could determine finally whether free will exists in the first place. We could sort out once and for all what moral reality demands – and whether or not it exists in the first place. If not, could we wish it into existence or is the concept itself meaningless? Obviously we would probably spend some time asking the encyclopedia whether intelligent life existed elsewhere, whether faster than light travel was possible, how to finally defeat ageing etc. But after a while the puckish among us would begin to ask it the questions which the early Wittgenstein considered meaningless – those about ethics, aesthetics and religion. Not to mention finally discovering what we mean by “this sentence is false”. I wonder whether many philosophers actually believe in a determinate answer to these questions, and whether they would want to know the answer if it was so readily available.

Would I?

 

Consider this post the beginning of a longer conversation about wishes. This has been surprisingly fruitful so far. I am edging closer to the idea of the importance of limitation to define activity. If I can wish away all humans and wish them back again, they suddenly appear expendable and contingent. If I can wish for wealth or poverty then everyday struggle becomes a silly game. Knowledge might be attractive, but what does one do afterwards? The whole drama and striving of existence becomes nothing more than a casual pastime to alleviate boredom – assuming one hasn’t wished time itself away or something even more outlandish.

Now we return to the real world where genies are probably scarce. But paddling in the shallow water of speculation has made us painfully aware of the unthinkable things in the deep, which are only vague, dark shapes from the surface. All our work is ahead of us to reconcile ourselves to the limits of the world, since the alternative could be worse. We will return, properly equipped, some time.

 

I repeat that this has gone on rather longer than I had originally planned, and yet I feel that I have skimmed over important details. There are even whole avenues which I have deliberately avoided exploring in the interests of brevity. Perhaps if this had been better thought out then it would have a pleasing structure and even a sustained thesis, without an ending which trails off abruptly. Perhaps if I rewrite it then all the tensions will resolve themselves so that there will be nothing worth saying. We can hope.

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