forking pathsThinking about Evolution & Economics and Some Notes on the Natural Selection of Ideas

Part 9 - Questions of Time - The Garden of Forking Paths

Jorge Luis Borges fires the imagination with questions about the evolution of time itself


Here's just one interpretation of a strange short story by Borges ...

... there maybe others ...  

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentinean writer and philosopher, who spent many years in Geneva. Disgusted by the perpetual failure of politics his fiction explores real ontological mysteries from an evolutionary viewpoint.

Perhaps we should first pause to establish where Borges was coming from. He called himself a 'Spencerian anarchist'. Hebert Spencer (1820-1903), was labeled a 'Social Darwinist', but he was educated in mathematics, natural science, history and English, an editor of The Economist, a prolific writer & philosopher and his theory of evolution 'The Developmental Hypothesis' was written in 1852 ... 7 years before Darwin's 'Origin Of Species' ... 

Borges saw the nature of reality, space and time as realms with vast possibilities and he questioned the idea of life as a linear process or a single path in time. He suggested every decision was at the centre of a system of recursive forking paths, an ever-recurring moment and place of choice with profound future effects and links to all precedents - making history unfathomable and the future unknowable.

His brilliant short story technique was to fire the imagination with questions by pretending to offer hidden truths only accessible to the most dedicated reader. Every word and phrase was potentially significant adding depth of evolutionary meaning to the story. Repeatedly playing with deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution he explored metaphors of labyrinths and recursive time - nevertheless the meaning of his stories are specific and clear to all students of evolution ...

'The Garden of Forking Paths' is a story about decision making, about discovering and accumulating survival 'know how' by the generating and testing of ideas in reality and in the imagination . Folk are motivated by aesthetics ('dopamine kicks' deep down in the skull?), striving in an evolving universe 'as if' in an eternal labyrinth with a centre that is present everywhere and an evolving circumference which is nowhere. 
We learn by investigating the legacy of our ancestors, we innovate by imagining future possibilities but we survive (or die) here and now. Both space and time are involved, every truth has a precursor in history which is invisible at the time and only revealed in one of the futures, in this way the past, present and future exist simultaneously for each individual? We are not alone in the universe and because each individual is different, interactions produce unintended consequences and unknowable responses - nobody knows what is round the corner. It is utterly pointless and counterproductive for anyone to decide for others which fork in the path to take. Maybe this idea is at the heart of Borges' disgust of politics?

There is a mystery about the meaning of time and diversity, but in our ignorance we are driven to choose between the forks, between competing alternatives, if we are to survive. This story is about choice not time. We know others in other places and other times choose differently. In this way vast alternatives are explored simultaneously with death bringing enlightenment as outcomes are sifted and surviving choices revealed. Remember long necked giraffes were the result of the death of the short necked giraffes!

'Intelligent design' is an experiment not a solution because truth can only be revealed in the future. Generating and testing in the imagination involves real physical structures in the brain, life and dreams may not be different books. Perversely our survival depends on our imaginative experiments!

Now read the few pages of Borges' masterpiece - 'the garden of forking paths' - and here are some questions to fire the imagination as the story unfolds ... but don't ask me for answers, I am totally ignorant, I don't even know the date of my own death …? 

History often sounds authoritative but did rain delay the offensive in 1916 as Liddell Hart claims? Who was Liddell Hart? Did he write these words? Was he a reliable historian convinced of the uncertainties and imponderables of history but with the moral courage to pursue and investigate the past? Does this reflect Borges' philosophy of history - 'just as you think you have unravelled a knotty string of evidence, it coils up in a fresh tangle, history is like an unending detective story'? 

So is Yu Tsun's explanation the true reason for the delayed offensive? 

Can 'insignificant' events be connected to major upheavals? Can the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Tokyo cause a gale in Chicago? Do you believe what you hear on the BBC or read in the Guardian? 

What about the two missing pages? Is the history prior to the telephone call important? Are we prisoners of history? Do the missing pages relate to past evolution to this point now? Does meaning come from a real physical continuity from the past?

What is the significance of Tsingtao? Why was it leased to Germany before the First World War? Why did Borges not make this China / Germany connection explicit?

Did Albert solve Ts'ui Pen's labyrinth mystery by 'detective' work? Is this how all historians work? Is this what Michael Wood meant when he wrote 'In Search of the First Civilisations'?

Were the Tacitus 'Annals' the linear year by year histories which Borges disapproved?

Death is certain but why should death seem secondary? Why strive if death is inevitable? Does death crystallise choices? Does death exclude other folk at different times choosing the other fork?

How can Yu Tsun be so certain of death? If premonitions and symbols can't foretell the future, can a voice at the end of a phone? If death is inevitable why lock the door? Why terror?

Obligations are felt deep down in our skulls but why should an Irishman working for England (or a Chinaman working for Germany) have obligations to a foreign country? Is it money or some deep chemistry in the brain? Are all decisions mediated by deep chemistry in the brain? 

What made Albert become a Sinologist? What is the significance of Tientsin in the 'Opium Wars'?
Why did Ts'ui Pen 'renounce pleasures' to write an unintelligible book? Why is this 'astounding'? What is driving these men? 

Is the importance of 'precisely now' related to the carpe diem ('seize the day') idea? 

Ancestors are instinctively respected but can genetic inheritance or childhood experience help the reality of having to choose a fork in the path here and now? Can the knowledge and experience of great grandfather Ts'ui Pen help? Are we all influenced from afar? 

Could knowledge of labyrinths stop Yu Tsun getting lost? Does history repeat itself?

Why risk delaying the mission to learn about Ts'ui Pen? Is this the long reach of the genes?

Is the intangible swarming that Yu Tsun feels the imagined influence of ancestors?

Anachronisms are confusing and exciting, what is the meaning of time if everything that you know happens happens 'precisely now'? Is what happened yesterday unfathomable? Is what will happen tomorrow unknowable?

When was Madden mocked? Is a bullet or a noose going to kill Yu Tsun? Is this where history, the future and the present coincide? Is Borges playing 'mind' games with time and his readers? Is this a technique of all great literature? 

Is it similar to Shakespeare's 'mind game' of 'who is thinking what' in 'Othello'? 

Did Shakespeare intend that his audience realise that the Moor Othello believed that his faithful servant Iago was being honest, and not conspiratorial and revengeful, in claiming to know that his beloved Desdemona really loved the handsome, and falsely discredited, Cassio because of his race and self belief which persuaded Othello to favour him for the top job over his rival Iago?  

Do all conspiracies fail because of unintended consequences and unknowable responses of others? Can you can fool some of the folk all the time and all the folk some of the time but never all the folk all the time?

Is Ts'ui Pen using the same technique in his book? What is the difference between teaching and story telling?

Imaginations must have an evolutionary function so can 'mere' thoughts influence the future? Why does Yu Tsun's statement constantly switch between thoughts and reality? Why the shift in narrative from the third person to the first? Is his 'state of mind' relevant to the story? Why must a story about imagination be told in the first person?
Does the imagination and being 'an abstract perceiver of the world' help decision making?
Does success breed success? Were Ts'ui Pen's heroes 'resigned to kill and to die' because of their state of mind?

Is the intangible swarming that Yu Tsun feels the imagined influence of ancestors, descendents or other different decision makers?

Knowledge is ephemeral, is the Chief going to find the knowledge he seeks amongst the 'tittle-tattle' in newspapers? If so how will he recognise it? How do you sort the wheat from the chaff? Are we ignorant of what it is we do not know?

Was Ts'ui Pen's intention to deceive or was he misunderstood about writing a book and constructing a labyrinth? Why did his executor, 'the Monk', insist on publishing incomprehensible gibberish?

What was the clue contained in the letter fragment? Was this the 'correct solution to the problem'? How can there be various futures? What was the letter Yu Tsun resolved to destroy but didn't? How do ancestors communicate wisdom across the generations? Why did Yu Tsun 'dictate, reread and sign' a statement?

Inspiration is scarce so what is the significance of the contents of Yu Tsun's pockets? Where do you look if you want inspiration? Is the voice an inadequate means of communication? Is Yu Tsun suggesting he should communicate after 'seeing' the solution in his mind's eye rather than speaking so Madden wouldn't overhear him? Could a pistol shot be heard in Germany? Is this a synectics session, a vain attempt to connect hitherto unconnected connections through analogy and metaphor? 

Culture, race and society are not homogeneous 'things' so is it possible that there can be great individuals in barbarous countries? Is hatred confined to individuals at specific times? Can you hate a 'culture' or a 'country'?

If folk are different how can there be a 'thing' called society? If innumerable ancestors 'merge into one' is it logical for the Chief to hate all yellow people? Is the racial genetic pool 'pure' enough for national characteristics to emerge? What is the significance of Goethe? What about the man in England who was just as great? Was that man Albert who Yu Tsun murdered? Was Yu Tsun different from other yellow people? Was he uncomfortable being different or yellow and it showed? How was he visible in an deserted street if there was nobody there to see him? How did the boys know Yu Tsun was going to Albert's house? Is there a cohesiveness associated with race? 

Do we feel sympathy for others based on the recognition that although we are all radically different from each other - 'we are in essence one'? Does this essence emerge from the bottom up as evolution builds an ever widening complex web of interactions? In time and space?

Democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the alternatives that have been tried from time to time so are the 'Annals of Tacitus' significant in this story about decision making? Is the 'Annals' a linear description of historical time? Did Tacitus reflect Borges' view of politics as a pessimistic power struggle? Did Augustus squander all the democratic institutions with his perfect dictatorship and was it ultimately a destructive failure? How can others take decisions on your behalf? Was Yu Tsun taking decisions on behalf of his ancestors, or his descendants or himself? Or all three?
Is the problem of Democracy reflected in the problem of time where the past, future and present happen simultaneously?

Metaphors of labyrinths can be useful catalysts to fire the imagination but is 'keep turning left' a good strategy to get out of a labyrinth? Is it possible to design predictable answers to dilemmas? Does science produce predictable answers or temporary answers? Was phlogiston a temporary answer to a problem? Is a labyrinth of labyrinths spreading through space and time a good metaphor for life in the universe? 

Did economist and Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon reflect Borges' view - 'we encounter many branches in the maze of life’s path, we follow now the left fork, now the right. The metaphor of the garden of forking paths is irresistible to anyone who has devoted their scientific career to understanding human choice'? Unsure of the way to Albert's house does Yu Tsun extend the metaphor and get lost in the labyrinth of his own imagination? How are imagination and reality different? Why does the story move quickly when describing reality and slowly and leisurely when describing Yu Tsun's mental wanderings?

Is the labyrinth metaphor useful as a story within a story unfolds? Is Albert's story about Ts'ui Pen's story about a labyrinth story in Yu Tsun's story about spying and racialism in the first world war in a story by an unknown editor about the problems of interpreting history what Borges' story is all about? 

Who was the editor? Is a story within a story, a similar device to Shakespeare's mind games in Othello? Is the human mind only capable of following a narrative in linear time?

Determinism and conspiracy theories have an impelling logic but was the meeting with Albert and his study of Ts'ui Pen, random or a 'Black Swan'? How vast are the chances of such coincidences? Why are they so easily post rationalised as a normal course of events?

Is Ts'ui Pen implying determinism when his heroes were 'resigned to kill and to die'?

Is there a determining influence of the past and the future on present decision making?

What does Yu Tsun mean when he says the future already exists?

Time is a mystery, so what is the meaning of infinite time? Do all decisions in time and space have vast future possibilities? Is this what Ts'ui Pen means by 'various futures'? Over evolutionary time and space are all choices explored by someone at sometime? Did Ts'ui Pen think that sooner or later somebody somewhere would discover his labyrinth? But would this only happen if history repeated itself 'on to infinity'? Does the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics ensure history never repeats itself exactly? 

But wasn't Ts'ui Pen suggesting 'diverse futures' with 'several possible outcomes' simultaneously? Could all these futures exist in imaginations? And don't imaginations influence futures?

Do both the Scheherazade and Platonic musings treat time linearly, going from past through present to future? Is this the trap, was Ts'ui Pen suggesting time forked and fed back influencing other times? 

Does the Ts'ui Pen excerpt that Albert reads suggest outcomes are 'all in the mind'?
Or does it suggest more simply that 'if ifs and buts were candy and nuts then it’s a totally different outcome'?

Could the cookie have crumbled a different way? Is this what Albert means by 'in some futures Yu Tsun is a friend in others an enemy'?

Why is there an 'abysmal problem of time'? Why do most people consider time to be a simple linear progression? Does linear time a need events to mark its progression? 

Was Schopenhauer an influence on Borges - 'Life and reality as we know them exist in only the imagination, we can imagine the past and we can imagine the future but the imagination itself can only exist here and now. Therefore, if we are satisfied with life as it is, we may confidently, regard it as endless and banish the fear of death as illusive. Our spirit is of a totally indestructible nature, and its energy endures from eternity to eternity'? 


Is an 'abstruse', 'recondite', 'riddle' of a 'parable', an 'emphatic' method for teaching counter-intuitive subjects like evolution? Is this story about education rather than the work of a 'mere' novelist? Can 'philosophic controversy usurp a good novel'? What is the only 'prohibited word' in Borges' story?

Does Borges' last paragraph resolve the difficulties of understanding the Borges' story?

Does Albert's explanation of Ts'ui Pen's novel help the understanding of Borges' story?

Does Yu Tsun's contrition and weariness imply he has failed? If so why sign the statement?

forking paths

'The paths not taken beckon and I find myself in different minds

either I choose -

to stay secure comfort I continue on the well worn track

or -

I opt for change, to leap aside and wildly take a different tack ... '

thanks to ned may for this verbal fractal !!

john p birchall

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