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Speculative Fiction 'JACK AND JILL: An Existential Problem'

Updated: May 12, 2021

Arun Somasekharan, Warping of a Strange Attractor


I always wanted to write a story about two characters engaging in deep conversations about the Universe, trying to understand it and to figure out where they fitted in, in the vastness of it. This formed the premise of this speculative piece that you are about to read. The idea to use Jack and Jill was purely incidental, but then it made a strange sense with respect to the setting and brought in some lighthearted banter between the two, and took on a life of its own. They are also characters some of us are familiar with, from our childhood, and have formed a lyrical connection with. Characters that we ourselves perpetuate to our progeny. I would not strictly call this a science fiction story but more a genre of the weird, or slipstream fiction with a heavy dose of science and speculation in it. But I hope that you, dear reader, find the conversational transitions from a philosophical standpoint to the scientific and then to the delightfully weird, enjoyable. In classic Douglas Adams style, this story is presented as a trilogy in four parts.


Jack and Gill Went up the hill To fetch a pail of water Jack fell down And broke his crown, And Gill came tumbling after. - As originally found in John Newbery's Mother Goose's Melody, 1765

Dusk teetered at the edge of time, making the view from atop the hill breathtaking as always. Jack was late. Jill was sitting on the soft grass, looking at the mist descending over the grassy Swiss-Alpine hill tops, like a wispy waterfall, dissipating a few hundred feet before touching the chimneys of the houses in the valley. Harebell flowers carpeted the hillside grass all the way down from where she was sitting. The view from here extended for miles through the valley and beyond. The hill had a water well just a few feet away from where she was sitting. Jill recalled from her childhood, when both she and Jack came up here to watch the mountains and the valley and the wind, playing with the flowers on the hillside. It was their favourite spot. She could sit here watching the valley for any length of time.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" a voice spoke from behind, making her jump.

"Jack!" she exclaimed.

"Sorry if I startled you, Jill," Jack said, and he dropped down to sit beside her. He was carrying a dark wooden box, which he placed next to him. "Been waiting long?" he asked, knowing the answer.

"You did!" she playfully punched his arm. Jack avoided and quickly produced a bouquet of lilies and extended it to her.

“Aww! They’re beautiful, Jack!” she said with a wide smile and gently buried her face in them breathed in its fragrance. She lifted her face and looked at him. “Thank you so much,” she gave him a hug. She was delighted.

"And yes, I've been here awhile. What took you so long? Not that it matters. Gave me time to enjoy this," she gestured at the expanse of the scenery before them.

Jack took in the beautiful serenity of the Swiss landscape. "Such beauty... like waves in a vast ocean."

Jill looked at him and raised her eyebrows. “Feeling poetic today, are we?”

“Mmm? Ah no,” Jack shook his head, “I was just reflecting on the conflict I feel when I witness such beauty. ”

Jill felt like the moment was spoiled, but she had to know.

“Conflict? Why is that?”

“Because of a duality. We see the beauty here, but underlying that is another… something... that we cannot see. Like waves in the ocean. You only see the turmoil on the surface, but if you go deeper into the waters, there’s calmness, which you don’t experience when you’re on the surface. We all see a painted veil, a collective perceptive reality," Jack explained thoughtfully, almost struggling to find analogies to make Jill understand his conflict, his turmoil.

"Collective illusion? Is that what you’re saying?" she looked at him, some unhappiness registering on her face, partly directed at him for ruining a beautiful moment and partly at herself for giving in to her curiosity to know what Jack meant.

"No, I said perceptive reality. If you think about it, we perceive reality as we know it, using a combination of our sensible faculties and brains," he said pensively, completely ignoring her look of disdain. "And all of us possess the same sensible faculties and brains."

"So, you're saying we are under a mass hypnosis? That what we see the world as, is not real?" Jill pointed, feeling miffed at Jack’s disregard of her displeasure.

Jack looked at her. "Well, it is real for us. That's all that matters, for us to continue existing. At least for most of us. If all you have is what you perceive, then how can you know of what you cannot?" he looked away.

"What do you mean?"

He was silent for a moment and then sighed. "There are different schools of philosophies that try to pose existential questions and to interpret answers to them. But there is one that struck me in particular. Have you heard of Immanuel Kant's transcendental idealism?"

"Can't say that I have. What is transcendental idealism?" Jill was curious now. She knew this was going to be one of Jack's winding talks touching up on some esoteric subject. But she enjoyed them.

“Wait, before answering that, tell me what’s in the box? Is it something for me?” Jill asked expectantly, pointing to the box beside him on the grass. He looked at it. “Sorry, no it’s not," he looked apologetic. “That’s for later. I’ll get to it in time. But first let me tell you about Kant’s doctrine.”

“Oh, alright,” Jill was disappointed. She knew there was no point in insisting once his mind was set.

"Kant had the idea that objects that we see and perceive, the phenomena, are merely sense impressions, produced by our sensible faculties, of things that are unknown. And that these unknown things exist outside of observation. The true nature of these unknown things will forever be hidden from us. According to him, space and even time itself were subjective constructs produced by our sensibilities, as a way to understand these unknowable things," Jack explained.

"So, you're saying that the water well over there behind us, is not a well, but something else entirely?" Jill mocked. "Like maybe it's a hand showing us the finger," she couldn't help but giggle.

He smiled, "I didn't say that. You did. But the truth, according to Kant, is we cannot know. The well is merely our brain's representation of something. I mean a metaphorical well in this case. The well behind us is very real, I assure you. You see, Jill, I think Kant meant something else. He was talking about things in a cosmic sense."

"Hold on. What you are talking about are philosophical thought experiments. Not to belittle that in any way, but how does it affect the reality that we live in? How does it affect the tangibility of what we experience? The wind that we feel on our face, the texture of the soil under our feet, all of this," Jill pointed at the grassy plains stretching into the valley, the sky, the clouds and everything that they could see.

"Oh, but it does, Jill, very much so. Science is a distillation of philosophical ideas giving them a concise mathematical form. It derives its methodology and encompassing worldview from philosophy. You could say that philosophy is the source and science the destination. Without philosophy there would be no science."

"Philosophy is a steppingstone, not to be taken purely at face value," he continued. "That well is a conscious construct for our perception in this instant of time and previous instances throughout our lives, and for a moment, if you think of the well as a quantum phenomena then by observing it, we have removed it from the set of superposition of states and actualised it.In the quantum realm, this is called decoherence.In a collection of infinite states, there might have been a state with a hand giving us a finger instead of the well.Or maybe a state where we are characters from a nursery rhyme," Jack grinned. "The probability of that happening might be infinitesimal."

To be continued...

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