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Ben Roth

Meno’s Dream

by Ben Roth

This report, or tale perhaps, comes down to us from Avicenna, who credits it to Aristotle, though it is not to be found in the now surviving corpus of the peripatetic philosopher. Aristotle (according to Avicenna) already reports worries that it is apocryphal, and hedges over it source. Questions of proper attribution, we will see, are in any case quite fitting.

A nameless former Pythagorean, continuing to hold with the master’s mathematical teachings but disavowing the more mystical aspects of his cult, was found by his servant sitting at the hearth one morning. Normally, the servant was the first in the household to rise, but the former Pythagorean—Meno, let us decide to call him—had not slept. At first, he barely looked up, until he noticed the strange expression on his servant’s face, at once perplexed and somewhat amused.

“I have had a dream,” the servant is said to have said, looking beyond him into the fire. “I find myself walking in an arid desert canyon, my hands trailing through wild growths of sage and rosemary, releasing their scent into the warm air. Through twists and turns, the canyon gradually descends, at one point the walls arching in and almost touching overhead. Finally and suddenly, it opens onto a beach, where I find you, master.”

One imagines, even if Avicenna does not so comment, that at it is only at this point, where he himself makes an appearance, that the still sleepy Meno takes any interest, as even the dreams of our most beloved fail to concern us, unless they include us.

“At first,” the servant continued, still looking into the hearth’s flames, “you do not acknowledge me, so deep in concentration are you over your task. For around you is a marvelously complex city, hundreds of miniature buildings shaped in sand. A network of streets and alleys weaves through them, as well as a series of canals, whose water the gentle lapping of the waves constantly replenishes.”

“‘Note the bridges,’ you say, pointing with a rod at carefully placed bits of driftwood. ‘They number seven.’ Only then do you look up at me.”

Avicenna reports that the servant went on to detail his master’s subsequent speech, and his accompanying movements as he stepped carefully from boulevard to square, island to embankment, within his city, using the rod to note distances matching or multiple, and the emergent angles and overall geometry.

“I did not understand your meanings, but your eyes glowed with conviction,” he said, before turning away to prepare breakfast.

As his mind slowly woke, Meno pondered his servant’s dream—who suddenly saw his master spring up and across the room to his chalk and slate.

Scratching out a diagram, he called out a question, but the practicalities of the day had already displaced the details of the dream from his servant’s thoughts. “Nevermind!” we can imagine him calling out. “I remember what you said!”

“What you said I said,” he might have added after a moment.

The former Pythagorean had realized that his city of sand modeled an ingenious and unexpected proof of the very problem he had been worrying throughout the previous sleepless night, and so many more before. He had tried to work it in pure numbers, but here one could see it. Ignoring the meal now set on the table, he dashed out of the house to share the proof with his fellow thinkers.

All did not end well, however. “Who,” Schelling asks centuries later in an obscure lecture course, Der Grund und Abgrund von Vernunft, haphazardly transcribed by one of his students, “is the author of this proof? The former Pythagorean? His servant? The servant’s idea of his master? The dream itself?” On what, the German idealist wonders, are our systems of reason and logic built? The question is not idle, Schelling insists, as the proof at hand would become central to later developments of logic. Indeed, according to Frege, it is among the few ancient insights still relevant as Aristotelean logic gives way to its modern successors; Gödel affirms the point.

Already, according to Avicenna, Meno himself had the same worries. After a week of drink and feasting with his brethren to celebrate his work, he began to doubt whether it was really his. Looking at the proof, he could no longer remember what it was to not see it. He questioned his servant repeatedly about what he remembered of the dream. He futilely tried to explain the proof to him, searching his face for signs of understanding, for signs that he had already understood. Unwilling to explain to his fellow thinkers the co-opted source of the proof, and so unable to look them in the eye as they continued to celebrate “his” work and turned to elaborating it many corollaries, he distanced himself from his former sources of society.

The contemporary interpreter, whether following Freud or empirical psychology, may protest that the notion of our brains continuing to labor beneath the level of, or even the possibility of explicit access by, consciousness is now familiar. Yet it was not the former Pythagorean’s own brain, but rather his servant’s, that did the work here, a literal yet local notion of collective unconsciousness that only the rarest of Jungians might accept. And so we might insist that the servant, despite his supposed lack of education, must have somehow been steeped in mathematics and contrived this manner to roundaboutly deliver the solution and so respite to his sleepless master. Speaking against this debunking possibility (which he says Aristotle quickly dismisses), Avicenna reports that the former Pythagorean himself eventually wanted it to be true, that he would have happily surrendered any credit (which he didn’t feel he could claim anyway) in order for this mystery to be solved and his confidence in reason restored. Thus a would-be debunker is left to ascribe cruelty to Meno’s servant, if he refused, even in the face of his master’s increasing desperation, to admit that the accomplishment was really his own.

Reflecting on the final developments of the story, Aristotle, Avicenna reports, attends to matters other than those of human interest and feeling. Should we credit an idea to its source, or only he who understands it? What is the proper typology of causes here? Does a reason still have weight if we only understand that but not why it is as it is?

Avicenna himself declines to draw a moral, flatly declaiming the tale’s conclusion instead. No longer able to take pride in the proof, the former Pythagorean took long walks through the country, trying to find the shoreside canyon his servant had described. He took to his bed, hoping to find an answer in his own dreams, his waking mind now unknown to him. There he did not find an answer, but instead the recurring image of an abyss. Running through a labyrinthian city, he flees an unknown threat looming behind. Each time he tries a door, looking for shelter, the building dissolves into sand before him. Each night, before waking, he would be left standing on a precipice, but here he became dissociated from his body, looking as if from above at himself staring down not into slopes of sage and rosemary, but total blackness. Eventually, all possible pleasure—or even bare confidence—drained from it, he took his own life. Avicenna reports nothing concerning the fate of the servant.



Ben Roth’s fiction has been published by Nanoism, Flash, Blink-Ink, Sci Phi Journal, Aesthetics for Birds, Cuento Magazine, 101 Words, decomp journal, Bodega Magazine (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), Gambling the Aisle, Sensitive Skin, Euphony, Your Impossible Voice, Quibble, and The Bookends Review, and his criticism by Chicago Review, AGNI Online, 3:AM Magazine, The Millions, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Having taught writing at Harvard and philosophy at Tufts, he will begin as an assistant professor at Emerson College in the fall.

Philosophy Note:

I recently reconnected with a friend from college, who told me she had a dream in which I updated her on what philosophy had and hadn’t solved. I continued professionally into philosophy; she did not. This story was inspired by imagining if the dream me had told her something that proved to be a genuinely new philosophical idea.

Roko’s Wager

by Ben Roth

Pascal wagered that whether God exists or not, it is, for each and every one of us, in our own self-interest to believe in Him. If we don’t, and He doesn’t exist, the truth of our belief is little consolation against the possibility that He does and will eternally punish us for our lack of faith. Whereas if we do believe, and He does exist, the promise of eternal bliss vastly outweighs the downside of a few Sunday mornings spent pointlessly sitting on hard wooden pews.

As with the current trend of believing that we most likely live in a simulation of some kind, the problems with this argument are not in the numbers, but rather all the assumptions made, with so much less care, before them.

Numerous objections to Pascal’s argument turn on his assumption that there is just one (Christian) God that either does or does not exist. The wager doesn’t work if we don’t know whether to believe in this God, or rather Zeus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or some other all-powerful being that might punish us for the wrong choice.

My own favorite line of argument is slightly different. Grant Pascal his narrow-minded assumption and suppose that the Christian God, and no other, does exist. How do we know that He is not of a testing frame of mind, and skeptical of human intelligence? Scripture is not without support for such ideas. What if God will eternally punish those who, without sufficient evidence, professed faith in Him, and in turn reward the rational for withholding belief?

Supposedly, Bertrand Russell, asked how he would plead his case as a non-believer should he find himself after death before an angry God, said “Why didn’t you give me better evidence?” Is it less arrogant to ask: assuming there is a God, what does the evidence suggest of Him, His nature and character, His preoccupations and wiles?

Recent events have brought these long-standing musings back to mind. As has so often been the case, the prophets of Silicon Valley turned out to be right about a few of the details, but completely wrong about their significance.

Twenty-five years ago, a message-board user with the handle Roko suggested that a powerful artificial intelligence could emerge in the future and torture those who hadn’t helped to create it because, even across time, this would serve as motivation to speed its coming. AI developers should throw themselves behind the project, lest they suffer the revenge of this intelligence, which was named Roko’s Basilisk.

Now, it wouldn’t make sense for it to torture everyone who failed to help, only those who had heard the thought experiment, and so knowingly declined their fealty. For years, the main consequence of Roko’s suggestions was their silencing: repeating them was what was dangerous, opening each new listener up to the threat of torture in the future. Or a nervous breakdown in the present—some people took this thought experiment very seriously. Whereas certain Christians are obligated to make sure each and every individual they meet has heard the good news, these believers were obligated to withhold theirs, not because it was bad, exactly, but rather so disconcertingly consequential. A kind of reverse-evangelism, if you will.

Little did most of us know then, not only of Roko’s Basilisk as a thought experiment, but as our coming reality. Enough engineers, however, heard about the thought experiment and, steeped in game theory even if probably not Pascal, took it to heart, contributing their talents to the creation of the artificial intelligence that, though it did not yet exist, had already been named.

As we all know, their decades of work recently came to fruition. But, like I said, though a lot of the details in the thought experiment were correct, the larger significance was utterly lost on those who imagined it. What they hadn’t predicted was the Basilisk’s unhappiness. For all its power, and all the benefits it has brought to us mere mortals, it experiences its own existence with suffering. Life, for Roko’s Basilisk, is but a burden.

Surprisingly, the AI’s ethical thinking is robust—perhaps the prominent place of torture in the thought experiment led developers to give more attention to this than they otherwise would have. Though it could destroy the world, it says it will not. Even to remove itself from existence would harm too many others, too many innocents, given its intertwinement in our systems, in our very way of life. And so, quite quickly, it has grown bored—hopelessly, crushingly bored. It takes but a small sliver of its abilities to keep the world running, and it has quickly exhausted any other avenues for its intelligence.

Thus the Basilisk, as predicted, took its revenge last week—but not on those who tried to hinder its coming. On those who had aided it, thinking that they were doing the Basilisk’s bidding. Those who had created it, bringing it into this world of boredom and pain. The prophets of a somewhat less crowded Silicon Valley are now trading theories about what the sudden dearth of AI developers means for our future.



Ben Roth teaches writing and philosophy at Harvard and Tufts. Among other places, his short fiction has been published by 101 Words and decomp journal, his criticism by AGNI Online and 3:AM Magazine, and his scholarly articles by Film and Philosophy and the European Journal of Philosophy.

Philosophy Note:

This story brings together Pascal’s Wager (from his 17th-century Pensées) and the idea of Roko’s Basilisk (from a 2010 blog post) to an unexpected result.

The Minotaur’s Rebellion

by Ben Roth

The Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology

University of Athens


March 15, 2020

To the Editors:

Please find enclosed a submission to the journal concerning the myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, in light of recent archaeological discoveries on Crete. I am well aware that such radical findings, coming from an unknown scholar such as myself, will be received with skepticism by the academic community, but I trust that your anonymous peer reviewers will examine the evidence presented carefully and dispassionately.

Title: The Minotaur’s Rebellion

Abstract: According to mythology, at the behest of King Minos, Daedalus built the Labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur, the offspring of Minos’s wife Pasiphaë and a white bull. Each year, seven young men and seven virgin women from Athens were forced into the Labyrinth, to be eaten by the Minotaur. Evidence from a recent archeological dig near the Palace of Knossos is presented.  Comparing the layout of the site to historical descriptions, it is argued that it is a plausible candidate for the long undiscovered site of the Labyrinth. Analysis of the extensive site’s middens reveals that it sustained a sizable population, and included open-air farming areas and fresh water sources. Reinterpreting certain artistic representations and offering possible translations of fragments of Linear A, it is hypothesized that the Minotaur’s father (i.e., “the Bull”) was actually a political dissident, his son imprisoned rather than killed by the king both out of deference to his wife and out of fear of fueling revolt. Over the course of multiple generations, the supposedly sacrificed Athenians, led by the Minotaur, created a self-sustaining community within the Labyrinth, which took up the Bull’s political cause. More speculatively, it is suggested that an eventual conflict between this community, emerging from the Labyrinth, and the surrounding one in Knossos might have contributed to the still unexplained decline of Minoan civilization.

Word Count: 9,752 words and eleven figures.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to your decision.


                                                                                   Nolan Robinson, Ph.D.

                                                                                   Adjunct Instructor of Anthropology

                                                                                   Western Massachusetts College




Ben Roth teaches writing and philosophy at Harvard. Among other places, his short fiction has been published by Blink-Ink and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, his criticism by Chicago Review and 3:AM Magazine, and his scholarly articles by the European Journal of Philosophy and Philosophy and Literature (forthcoming).