On multiplexity and the Zarathustrans

In my last post talking about simplex–complex–multiplex, there was one angle missing from what Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart say about them. I’ll write about it in a post of its own but also add it there afterwards.

In both their book The Collapse of Chaos and the previously mentioned Figments of Reality, Cohen and Stewart sometimes illustrate their points with stories about the fictional aliens called the Zarathustrans. In Collapse, human space travellers encounter Zarathustrans on their own planet, whereas in Figments, Zarathustrans observe the Earth. They look vaguely like flightless birds, but this resemblance is superficial, and they’re both very alien and very human at the same time. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that they have evolved not to be entirely independent individuals but to live in groups of eight Zarathustrans (plus one symbiote of a different kind). This means not only that they are obsessed with the number eight and see numerological significance based on it everywhere, but also that they naturally think in a multiplexual way and find simplex thinking hard.

Humans are naturally simplex and have a harder time becoming complex or multiplex. The difference to Zarathustrans is illustrated by a comment from one of them:

“Their thought patterns intrigue me. I have been trying to make sense of their way of thinking. They appear to — well, I was going to say ‘place the universe in a different phase space’, but that is not how they think. The closest image I can fin in humanspeak is that they carve up the universe differently from us. A curious way to smell things. … What I mean is, they seem to think of the world in terms of fixed things instead of fluxy processes. And the way they understand things is to carve them up[.] … It appears complementary to our way of thinking, rather than opposed.”

(Figments of Reality, pp. 181–182. Emphasis added.)

What is most puzzling about this is that the Zarathustrans seem very limited in their own way. In some sense, they are definitely having problems rising above what I’d call simplexity in some sense. For one thing, like I said, they are obsessed with the number eight in a way that seems entirely contingent on their own evolutionary history. This is evidently clever commentary on we and the things we regard as obvious would appear to aliens. But more importantly, they seem “simplex” in their being stuck on what is being called multiplexity and having difficulty understanding what is being termed simplexity. They can only see things from a lot of points of view but not see the value of a fixed point of view… I think. Or something like that. Anyway, in Figments, they eventually discover that the human way of thinking is really complementary to their own, not just something horribly wrong.

In case it’s not clear, what’s so weird about this is that everywhere else it seems that multiplexity is superior to simplexity, and that multiplexity means not being limited. This seems to apply even in what Stewart and Cohen say otherwise. But here, they are complementary and each is limited without the other. Further, it seems they are themselves the kind of paradigms that simplexity can’t see beyond and multiplexity can. It’s like there are two levels plexity: The normal level, on which humans and Zarathustrans are just different. And a meta-level, which concerns being simplex or not between different levels of plexity; so the Zarathustrans’ normal state would be to be meta-simplex, just like we are, because they can’t understand how multiplexity and simplexity fit together.

I don’t really know what Stewart and Cohen were thinking of here, but I’d be remiss not to mention this angle as well. Anyway… if nothing else, it demonstrates how there are multiple ways of interpreting just what simplexity and multiplexity are. (How complexity fits into this view of the picture is another question I have no answer for.) It does seem a fairly valid point that if you look at things too much without a particular point of view, you might miss something too.

When we think of multiplexity (or complexity) as something better and desirable, it must imply that it’s something that understands simplexity too. This seems to describe Delany’s characters who explain Comet Jo these things.


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