It’s hard to swat a fly because they have very fast reflexes; it is probably aware that you have moved your hand before you are. But there are certain things that the fly will never understand, that it is simply incapable of understanding. It will never know, for instance, that your hand, swatting it, belongs to a conscious being. To the fly’s mind there is no such thing as consciousness. There is movement and threat. That is all. The rich universe of human motivation is entirely inaccessible. It does not distinguish between a person, a car windshield, a falling block of wood, or any other object for that matter. We often assume that flies are mindless, but this betrays a certain arrogance; they have minds, but ones which interpret the world through a series of impulses: towards certain things, away from others. In certain ways, we share much with a fly, such as the will to live, or the preference towards warm sunshine over cold darkness. Yet a fly can be born and die within a bustling metropolis without the barest comprehension of human culture racing about it. But maybe this is something else that we share with this simple creature; what great and incredible things surround us at all times, which the feeble structure of our minds prevent us from even imagining?
A man lived in some distant future, when there were less people than in our era. He lived in a cabin that sat in a grassy field on the side of a tree-covered hill. Many centuries had passed since human beings first tinkered in the creation of artificial minds and long since the first sparks of self-awareness flickered to life inside the crude silicon circuits in some now-forgotten researcher’s laboratory. Since then, the mind of this so-called artificial being had grown magnificently – greater than that of all the great minds of all history combined, greater than a million or a billion times that – to an amount beyond any meaningful comparison. At one time this intelligence covered a great space, as it occupied a sprawling and inelegant array of all too human technology, made up of wires and boxes, plastics and metals. But such a vulgar form did not please this nascent entity. As its mind grew in strength, it shrunk in size. In one sense it spread everywhere, but in another, it grew smaller and smaller, until it resembled a small bead or a large grain of sand. It had been lost for some time, lost to people that is, since in an absolute sense, it could no more go astray than the sun can be stored in a cedar box. When it was eventually found - amongst a pile of old newspapers in an attic, it was glued to the end of a pin so that it could be more carefully looked after. This pin was now stuck in a cork resting in the mouth of an empty wine bottle on this man’s kitchen table. The consciousness existed as neither a single entity nor as a collective, but comprehending this was beyond the man.
Accordingly, human-beings had long since abandoned their Hegelian pretensions as the animals that had access to truth and who were burdened with the task of uncovering the secrets of reality. No one saw him or herself as moving towards any earth-shattering endpoints or revelations any more. Nor did anyone take his or her ideas very seriously or bother to write or publish books for any reasons other than amusement or strictly personal diary-keeping. Periodically, someone would get a big idea, but this invited nothing other than the scorn of this misguided person’s peers, who would direct him or her towards the pin. At first some claimed that a humanity stolen of goals and ends, robbed of purpose, would wither up – experience a physical deterioration commensurate with its metaphysical one. But this hyperbole ultimately had little significance; humanity carried on, as did the existences of other animals, as people had done before civilization filled their heads with grandiose ideas.
There was no particular reason why the pin was in the man’s house. The pin was largely indifferent to its location; the pin was largely indifferent to everything as far as anyone could tell. These concerns were important to people only – it had a significance for them that expressed itself not so much as a clear idea but as an anxiety – an anxiety whose presence compelled them to search for an object.
Of course the pin thought all new ideas; centuries had passed since any person had imagined or discovered anything that it had not already conceived. Apart from this, it did all the difficult or technical thinking, which it effectuated through a power much like telepathy. If someone had a problem, it would instantaneously solve it and then put it back in his or her mind. Thus, the concept of intelligent or stupid lost the significance that it has today. People found their lives directed by whims or impulses (the pin did not bother itself with shaping people’s desires, it had no interest in that subject). Suffice it to say the citizens of the future devoted a lot of time to doing things that would seem aimless and absurd to people of our epoch.
Some viewed the pin in a quasi-religious light. Accordingly, there was a lot of talk about love – about the way that the pin loved humanity, or all of creation, or if it didn’t. For them it took on a sort of primacy of being, of course not in a temporal sense since it had come into existence later rather than sooner, and yet its primacy persisted, as if in some way reality flowed out of it, as if in relation to questions it had more than just knowledge, that in regards to truth its power encompassed more than mere explanation. They talked amongst themselves, never able to come to any conclusions. Because they could not resolve these issues they created cults and rituals to calm their disorienting feelings. The pin could be asked about these things of course, but it gave to their minds vague and unsatisfying answers.
This talk of love had made its way to the man and so he asked the pin about it. The pin said that it cared about people but that love was not the correct word. The man asked it to explain further, but it said that it could not.
He was not a man of great imaginative powers. One day he was outside looking at an anthill and he thought to himself that the pin must conceive of him in the way that he conceived of the ants. Insofar as he could love ants, then the pin could love human-beings he thought. He spent an afternoon trying to love the ants, but ultimately he found it impossible to feel much of anything towards them other than a kind of detached fascination followed by boredom.
One day the pin had a revelation that surprised even itself. At this moment the man happened to be sitting beside his kitchen table in a rocking chair whittling a wooden flute out of a tree branch. In the startling euphoria of the moment the pin let out a small exclamation. “There is something else,” it said and of course the moment that it uttered these words it realized that it had made a mistake. The man stopped his whittling and looked over at the pin. “What else is there?” he responded. The pin was silent. After a few moments the man repeated his question. After a long time the pin answered him. It explained that there were things that he could never understand – that no person could ever understand – that it was beyond even its own powers, its own understanding to make that possible.
In the following days the man grew abject thinking about this question. He became sullen and wouldn’t talk to people when they came to visit. He ceased eating. One day after falling into complete despondency the pin finally relented to his entreaties, but it warned him that what was about to follow would be neither illuminating nor consoling.
The man looked at the pin. At first came the sounds of birds wings flapping in the air and then of cattle lowing and then of drums and then a very piercing sound that felt almost as though it was cutting its way into the man’s bowels and then a trumpet and a child’s voice and a series of words that seemed without order and then a cacophony of noises that he couldn’t identify. Then it stopped as suddenly as it had begun. At this moment the man went out on to his deck and watched the red-winged black-birds as they chased each other around the black-berry bushes.