“We are all aware that the senses can be deceived, the eyes fooled. But how can we be sure our senses are not being deceived at any particular time, or even all the time? Might I just be a brain in a tank somewhere, tricked all my life into believing in the events of this world by some insane computer? And does my life gain or lose meaning based on my reaction to such solipsism?”
— Project PYRRHO, Specimen 46, Vat 7
Activity Recorded M.Y. 2302.22467
TERMINATION OF SPECIMEN ADVISED
I can’t lie; this quote is about half the reason I started this project. Maybe more. It’s glorious. Let it soak in for a moment. Roll it around on your tongue like a fine wine. Good. Now let us begin in earnest.
The body of the quote is a typical freshman-level philosophical exploration of basic metaphysics and epistemology. People have long wondered to what degree it is safe to trust one’s senses. If one is willing to agree, following Descartes, that “I think; therefore I am” is a legitimate line of reasoning, one is almost immediately drawn to the corollary that one has no such assurance for any other person one might meet in their travels. Hence the solipsistic hypothesis: the observer is the only real conscious entity among a horde of zombies or automatons putting up the façade of consciousness.
Our specimen is familiar with the power of modern computers. So he is capable of extending the solipsist argument to the next logical level. What if the observer is the only player character in a simulation akin to a Star Trek holodeck or an MMORPG of our time? In this model, his lifetime of sense data and experience has been carefully crafted to fool him for some purpose.
Our hero then asks the next obvious question: if the solipsist hypothesis is true, what follows? Who would do such a thing? What’s the point of it all? At this point, your typical freshman follows Descartes by shrugging and applying Occam’s Razor to the question. If you can’t be sure and the illusion is convincing enough, there’s no point in radically doubting your senses. Evidence of reasonable coherency of the input sense data is sufficient for daily life.
But then Reynolds drops the hammer by popping the stack. We see that this quote is actually a transcription of the thoughts of a literal brain floating in a jar. The insane computer running his life is in fact the computer system behind Project PYRRHO. Not coincidentally, this project happens to be named after a Greek philosopher who advocated radical skepticism in the ability of man to determine the true essence of things from their appearances.
From the context, it must be a program run within the new Bioenhancement Centers to improve people’s performance using Neural Grafting. Presumably, this is technology to splice new circuit boards on living brains to give the enhanced colonists increased reaction speed, memory, math skills, and other such advantages. SMAC models this as a large morale bonus to all military units produced at the base with the center.
Our protagonist is therefore likely just one specimen floating in a vat of hundreds in a giant brain/microchip fusion testing facility. And since bugs in the testing system are certainly commonplace, failures in testing from the outside probably look like a bunch of the testing nodes suddenly starting to really contemplate the idea that they’re being systematically fooled with electrodes on the input sensory nerves. If they get too hooked on the idea, the people running the Bioenhancement Center mark that up as a failure, flush the brain, and replace it with a fresh one.
It’s worth keeping in mind the fact that this procedure is clearly routine by this point. In SMAC, the provable, objective Ethical Calculus clearly puts little to no weight on consciousness as the source of “personhood” or the equivalent ethical value. Even by the currently-held, relatively liberal bioethical standards, this entire process is essentially a grinding Holocaust. They’re growing brains, simulating lives for them, manipulating their entire experience, and then flushing them when convenient.
It’s also worth remembering that Neural Grafting is only one technology further down the tree than Gene Splicing, which unlocked the Research Hospitals and their secret chambers of horrors. It’s obvious that programs along these lines are proceeding apace. Each tier up the technology tree has proven to represent a substantial leap into the future.
All in all, this quote serves as an excellent example for everything Reynolds is going for with SMAC. In a handful of words, he lays out a scenario that’s simultaneously philosophically engaging, humorous, and can’t help but ignite the imagination of the player. By now, it’s almost impossible for the player to not be convinced on some level that the world is alive. Beneath the interface, it feels like there’s a real, living, compelling place there. And one whose future he has the opportunity to shape.
Looking at how it was done, it’s no wonder SMAC was a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. No one has ever even tried to seriously replicate the magic since. But that’s less amazing than the fact that it was ever made at all.