30 March 2010

Thought Experiment: new world, new rules*

The year is 2187.  Though global warming proved to be a cruel hoax back in the early 21st century, the world is soon to be destroyed.  Scientists have detected a string of asteroids headed straight for our solar system.  There is nothing we can do but wait for the end.  

A year before the asteroids are predicted to hit the earth, the world's governments are unexpectedly contacted by an advanced alien race that offers us a glimmer of hope:  human resettlement on a earth-like planet.  But there's a catch.  Their technology, though far beyond anything we could dream, is limited.  They can transport only 1,000 people to this new planet. 

The mode of transportation is something akin to the transporter device used in the old Star Trek  TV series.  Matter is converted to energy, stored as data, and then reassembled as matter in another place.  This mode of transportation has an unnerving, unavoidable side-effect.  The people who go into the device come out radically changed.  Every characteristic possessed by an individual is altered--physical appearance, mental capacity, personality traits, propensity to disease, skill sets; even basic beliefs, prejudices, habits, inclinations, and quirks.  

The aliens assure us that since the device uses the 1,000 people stored as a template for reassembly, that no one will be rematerialized as anything but basically human, including every potential for good and evil.  However, every other indicator of sex, race, skin color, personality-type, etc. will be changed.  No one will arrive on the new planet with the same characteristics that he or she left with.  

A computer-generated program selects 1,000 people that best represents the human race.  You are one of these people.  Once selected, all 1,000 of you gather on the alien vessel for briefing on the new world.  The aliens tell you that the trip to the new earth will take about two years.  During that time, they suggest that the group begin thinking and planning for your lives once transported to the surface.

Your first task:  establish the basic political and social structure of your world.  Given that no one in the group will arrive on the planet as the same person who left Earth, what will be the fundamental socio-political principles that guide the development of this new civilization?

To assist the group, the aliens lay down a few inviolable rules:

1).  All 1,000 members of the group must remain together in the new settlement.  There can be no "colonies" of like-minded individuals splitting off from the main group until all of the original settlers have died.

2).  Until all 1,000 settlers have died, the aliens will ensure that the new constitution of the settlement is enforced.  They will become involved only in the most fundamental decisions of the settlement.

3).  Once all the original settlers have died, the aliens will withdraw and allow the settlement to continue on unimpeded.

So, the question is:  what will be the fundamental socio-political principles that guide the development of this new civilization?

*adapted from John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" thought-experiment

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  1. The Rule, as drafted by St. Benedict. It's worked well for this sort of semi-autonomous enterprise for 1500 years. :D

  2. Article I. It shall be a capital crime to assault, injure, or kill anyone who can make beer or a nice, flaky pie crust.

    Article II. --

    Actually, Article I about covers it.

  3. Tom,

    LOL! First criminal case: someone kills the only person who can make a decent buttermilk biscuit. Are biscuits covered up Art. 1?

    The court rules. . .???

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  5. "Every characteristic possessed by an individual is altered--physical appearance, mental capacity, personality traits, propensity to disease, skill sets; even basic beliefs, prejudices, habits, inclinations, and quirks."

    I think I would prefer to stay on the earth and die, allowing someone else to live in my stead.

  6. Hi Father!

    Interesting pre-requisites on the machine there. So... If I understand it correctly, those who are more inclined to act well (based on rectitude of the will) will come out of the machine with a more weakened will?


  7. This is oddly analogous to re-incarnation, if I understand the concept correctly. None would be the same person, in essence, once transported. So what you plan on the way to Terra Nova would be moot. [Unless the aliens enforce a law that no one really asked for].

    My guess is that the closest government structure would look somewhat like the colonists who landed on the New World. A tough law that would punish those who would threaten the common good.

  8. Dismas, the idea is that you have to agree to the structure of your culture and gov't w/o knowing who you will once you get there. To wait until after the transport undermines the whole idea of the veil of ignorance.

  9. Biscuits? Sure; I might come out the other end of the machine a Southerner.

    Could we adjust the veil of ignorance by having the 1,000 people be babies, including your only child, who will be adults by the time they arrive at Terra Nova? That preserves both the unpredictability of the citizens and the personal investment in the outcome.

  10. Seems to me that those individuals selected would effectively die since nothing pertaining to their individuality will continue to exist. the new rematerialized humans are templates and do not correspond to the 1,000 chosen who are at best raw matter to engender if you will these new human individuals.
    If these humans are made according to a template, then who or what decides on the criteria used for it? The alien's standards? Or if they claim that it would be based on our humanity then, how can we trust that the criteria they use to define us are fidedign and corresponding with the reality of our nature as we perceive it ourselves in ourselves?
    So any form of government that comes out as winner for this new humanity doesn't neccesarily have to correspond to the stuructures set up by us.
    What is a human? Just our bodies? How can they recreate our psyche? Who is to define their souls??
    Maybe, and is just a maybe, granted that this came true if ever: To plan the path that they will folow according to preestablished criteria is futile. Our path is not on our hands, but in God's who creates, sustains, leads, directs history: universal history.

    Any form of government devised by them will be, if there is anything human in them,inherently flawed. The city of Man will never achieve perfect justice and peace unless it becomes the kingdom of God, and for this to be achieved it is not enough that aliens come and redesign us or improve us.

  11. Still thinking it through... as far as leadership goes, those currently with the least desired qualities for government should be the ideal candidates for leading the new settlement in the new world. ^^


  12. DT, you are assuming that "change" means "opposite." This is true only in those cases where there are only two alternatives, i.e. sex/gender.

  13. Tom, having all 1,000 be babies wouldn't be representative of Earth's population.

  14. Laura7:40 AM

    My hideously practical mind is screaming "how will these people eat if none of them are fundamentally the same person who started on the journey?"

    Or to put it another way, without knowledge of farming, pottery, ironmongery, etc., why are we worrying about a government? Or is it assumed that in the rematerialization the sum total of human knowledge that began the journey will still be there in some new configuration? In which case, this isn't the tabula rasa that I am assuming is the point of the though experiment. If we bring along no prior assumptions of social organization and are working purely from the social contract devised by the original settlers (although its hard to say that they are in fact the settlers if we're denying that there is some essential nature that transfers), then it is hard to see how we can bring along technical expertise in anything.

    Meanwhile, I'll second Flambeaux's Benedictine Rule suggestion though I'll add that breaking the group up into sub-communities for a more human level of governance would be a good start. Call them tribes or colleges or what have you.

  15. Laura, you are assuming that the Ballerina won't be transformed into the Farmer, etc. The assumption is that everyone will be changed into another human person...NOT a tablua rosa.

  16. It's interesting to consider. I'm no academic though and so forgive my wasting anyone's time if my response is way off course... (The one thing I am certain of though is that we must let the aliens know not to let flies into the converion and reassembly chambers.)
    ---Will the individuals of the world's governments actually cooperate with the aliens to define the selection criteria? To design templates? (Knowing that they may not be the cream of the crop and therefore not selected themselves?) Perhaps the governments were not consulted but only told... Hm. But the aliens might trust the governments and their media-of-choice to get the word out which will put a bias on results.
    ---Will those who are selected have a say in the matter? (Yes, I'll do it. Or no thanks.) If one can say yes or no to this, the structure will correlate to the values of those who are willing to entertain this type of loss and death. If one has no choice, the structure will correlate to the values, in part, of fear and unwillingness. In any event, seems like notions of self preservation will rule.
    ---Will individual memory be disassembled and reassembled as well as all other attributes?
    ---Seems possible and likely that death of the original 1,000 could be accelerated for some benefit or another as time in the new place passes. Thus, survival of the fittest. Or smartest.
    ---Only consensus ideologies are preserved in this process. Not people. And no basis for loyalty. Possible net result: since power of reason will be maintained, they won't be animal-like though perhaps not far from it.
    ---Will you define or list "fundamental socio-political" principles?

  17. Isn't Rawl's essentially trying to compel the conclusion that reality is a social construct, or am I confusing him with Searle?

  18. Flam, I don't think either Rawls or Searle would make that argument. Rawls would certainly see our socio-political structures as constructs.

    Searle was Derrida's nemesis in several legendary debates around the nature of language and its referential power to reality.