René and the Demon

Arnie entered his apartment to find a girl lying on the couch. Dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt, and sneakers, she looked like an undergrad. The head phones covering her ears and her closed eyes, told him that she was listening to one of his roommate’s immersive hypnosis programs. Isaac’s laptop on the coffee table displayed a sound wave, confirming the impression.

He closed the door quietly, walked around the video camera aimed at her, and went into the kitchen. “Who’s on the couch?” he whispered.

“René,” Isaac whispered as he replaced the orange juice carton in the refrigerator. “She’s testing my new public speaking program. She’s giving a presentation at a conference in a couple of weeks. Needed some help getting past her fear.”

“You know most men with your skill would at least try to turn women into an adoring love slaves.”

“Oh, Please! I could do that when I was an undergrad. The challenge now is to expand the art, do something with hyperempiria that’s never been done before.”

“Any good therapist can cure the fear of public speaking.”

“No. Any good therapist can help you overcome the fear; to go on stage in spite of it. This program immerses her in a full sensory experience of speaking in front of several groups. It develops a completely new cognitive framework for public speaking, which includes years of building up her confidence.”

“In thirty minutes?”

“Twenty three.” Isaac kept an eye on René while he drank his juice. “But subjectively, it should feel more like four or five years.”

René stirred. “She’s done.” Isaac finished his juice and set the glass in the sink. Then he went to the living room and lifted the headphones from her ears.

“How are you doing?” he asked as he disconnected the headphones from his laptop. He wound up the cord and put the headphones on the stereo shelf.

“I’m ah… fine.” She blinked a few times, and rubbed her eyes. “A bit…” She yawned.

“Groggy? That’s normal. Take a few deep breaths; they’ll help you wake up. Stand up, stretch, walk around.

René stood, stretching her arms wide. She continued to stretch while she took a few steps to the center of the living room. Then she bent over and touched her toes. “So how did I do?” she asked.

“You tell me. What do you remember?”

“I’m ah… I’m not sure. I… it seems like I was tutoring a few students, then giving them a lecture, then giving the same lecture to my coworkers. Then I …” Her eyes brightened with delight. “I did it. I gave the presentation at the conference, and it went great.”

“What conference?” Arnie asked from the door to the kitchen. He opened a large bag of corn chips and began snacking on them.

“This is Arnie, my roommate. He’s in the philosophy program.”

René waved, and Arnie waved back. “My team gave a presentation at the Women in Astronomy conference.”

“Will give,” Isaac corrected her. “The conference is next week.”

René shook her head. “Right. Will give. But …” She scratched her head. “But I distinctly remember giving it already. I remember the trip, the hotel room, the conference room. I even remember the smell of the coffee in the conference room.”

“That’s how hyperempiria works. It elicits sensory and emotional memories and uses them to complement the visualization. In this case, I built up your feelings of being prepared, your confidence in your knowledge, and the feeling of satisfaction that come from helping people, and I connected all of it to your mental image of giving presentations. From now you’ll be able to associate public speaking with these feelings instead of dread; and you’ll enjoy looking forward to the presentations.”

“Cool.” René beamed her excitement.

“Now I need to tape you giving the presentation again.”

“Right. Before and after. Can I just…?” She pointed toward the bathroom.

“Go ahead.”

“Her presentation is …?” Arnie asked.

“Something to do with dark matter, gravity, and exoplanets.” Isaac lowered his voice. “I barely understood a third of it, but don’t tell her that.” He moved his laptop so he could reconnect it to the camera.

René emerged from the bathroom and went to stand in front of the camera. Her own laptop was already connected to the projector from her previous run through. “I’m ready.” She smiled.

Isaac started the video recording program and nodded. René introduced herself and her team as if they were at the conference. Then she started the slide show. With the first slide, she described what she called the most commonly held theory of how dark matter is responsible for gravity. With the second and third slides, she outlined the assumptions underlying the theory. She maintained eye contact with Isaac and Arnie, only glancing at the slide for reference.

She talked about how two assumptions seemed to contradict each other. But then she paused. “I’m sorry. There’s a mistake on the slide. I thought I corrected it.” She stopped the slide show, corrected a bullet point, and resumed the show without losing a beat. “Now they contradict each other.

“Probably a Freudian slip,” she joked. “Because I’m about to show why we should discard this assumption of frictionless interaction between baryonic and non-baryonic matter.” The next few slides detailed complex equations describing the interaction between baryonic and non-baryonic matter. René explained how this could account for gravitational effects observed within our solar system. Then she outlined how to apply these equations to the detection of exoplanets. She concluded by showing that what was believed to be a planet orbiting Centauri B was more likely an Oort cloud.

“That’s it,” she said. What do you think?” She seemed to hold her breath.

“Much better. You’re much more enthusiastic than nervous and you connected to your audience much better.”

René let herself breathe.

“Yes,” Arnie said. “Your enthusiasm is contagious. I loved it. I even understood most of it. And I haven’t taken any astronomy courses.”

“Thank you.” René breathed a sigh of relief.

“I just have one question. That typo you corrected. When did you think you corrected it the first time?”

“At the confer…” She looked away shyly. “I ah… I’m not sure.”

Isaac frowned at his roommate. “Don’t worry about that. You did great. And you can do just as great at the real conference.”

“Right, you will do great. I’m just wondering how well you remember the imaginary conference you experienced under Isaac’s hyper-trance.”

“I remember it clearly; like it really happened, but I know it didn’t.”

Isaac shot a suspicious look. “What are you getting at?”

“You plugged her into your computer and injected images and experiences directly into her brain. René can’t tell the difference between a memory of something that really happened and something you suggested happened. You’re the evil demon that Descartes warned us about.”

“Descartes wasn’t warning about a demon.” Isaac folded his arms. “He was just positing a hypothetical. And there’s nothing evil about hypnosis. It’s a scientifically proven technique for overcoming phobias. I’ve just developed a more advanced version.”

“One that will no doubt be abused by politicians and advertisers.”

“Now your discussing Marx?”

“Wait,” René injected. “I’m lost.”

Arnie took pity on the astronomy undergrad. “Descartes’ was the 17th Century philosopher who posited that it would be impossible to tell the difference between real experience and illusions created by a malicious demon. Following this premise, he concluded that it was impossible to know what was real and what was illusion.”

“He concluded,” Isaac injected, “that his premise was absurd.”

“Yeah, back then. But it’s not any more. You’ve just proven it’s possible.”

Isaac growled. “René, please ignore my roommate’s rant. He’s exaggerating hyperbolically.”

“But he’s right. I can’t tell the difference. I remember being at the conference, giving the presentation there just as clearly as I remember giving it here five minutes ago.”

“That doesn’t make hyperempiria evil.”

“Doesn’t it? If I can’t trust that memory, how can I trust any of my other memories? How do I know I even came up with this theory? You could have fed them to me along with the false memory of working it while I was hypnotized.”

“Oy. Now I know what Mesmer must have gone through.”

“Arnie and René shared a wink”

“I saw that. Very funny you two. Listen,” Isaac addressed René. “You came here to develop confidence. And you’ve got it. Take that and hold on to it. Once you give the real presentation, you’ll have both that and the hyperempiric simulation in your memories. Both experiences will support your confidence. And it won’t matter if some of the memories are from a simulation.”

René smiled. “I know. I’m just teasing. Your program put me in a really good mood.” She packed her computer and the projector into her backpack. “But it does bring up an interesting question. Our memories define who we are. If I don’t know which memories are real, how do I know who I am?”

“Aha!” Arnie said. “She’s one of us.” He retreated to the kitchen to discard the empty bag of chips.

“Who says they’re not real? You had an experience. Even though the experience was induced through hypnosis and suggestion instead of physical stimulation, you still experienced it. And your memories of the experience are real.”


“It’s no different than remembering something you imagined. Say you’re at lunch and you imagine a new theory that will account for your observations. An hour later, you’re at the computer writing it down. You’re writing from the memory of the experience of imagining something. The memories must be real otherwise you wouldn’t remember them. And if the memories are real, then so must have been the experience that generated them.”

“He’s got us there,” Arnie said as he returned to the living room. “But I still say you’re an evil demon.”

“Are we going to get into this again?”

“Absolutely. You’re an evil mind controlling demon. I’m just surprised you don’t have horns and a tail.”

“My horn is over there.” Isaac pointed to his trumpet on the other side of the room. To René he said, “He just can’t get his head around the fact that I’m not the super villain in some kind of bad porn parody.”

“Hey, with great power comes great responsibility. You could at least get us a french maid.”

“Hey!” René injected. “Ladies present. And how do you figure that what he’s doing is evil?”

“It’s an unstated assumption in Descartes argument. Deception, creating illusions, making someone believe what isn’t real; it’s all evil.”

“Also,” Isaac added. “Dr. Evil is the villain in one of his favorite porn parodies. He kidnapped Dr. Feelgood’s patients and brainwashed them into a chastity cult.”

“Ewww.” René shuddered. “But by that reasoning, advertising, politics and television all evil. And even religion; since Christianity was founded on deception.”

“And Descartes was a devout Catholic,” said Isaac. “So in fact he was the victim of an evil mind controlling demon, without knowing it. Ironic.”

“Descartes was a deist,” said Arnie. “He only claimed to be Roman Catholic to avoid persecution.”

“Maybe he was a Cafeteria Catholic,” René suggested, “afraid to voice any criticism of church dogma after what the church did to Galileo. But if he said he was a Catholic, then you should accept that.”

“Fine, I’ll conceded the point for the moment. But I ask you this. Was the Church always evil? If the founders’ original goal was to improve the overall condition of humanity, was the deception truly evil? Was their initial deception about the life of Christ evil if the goal was to unite all of humanity in an effort to improve itself.”

“Yes, because The Church imposed their will on uneducated masses, and used force to suppress any dissension or challenge to their authority.”

“Before that. Before the church had it’s army or sent kings to war with each other. I’m talking about the first years of its foundation; when their only goal was to give people hope. Was the deception about the acts of Christ inherently evil?”

“That wasn’t their only goal,” said Isaac. “They also wanted people to rebel against Rome. They establish themselves as an authority on God so that they could influence the way people thought. Establishing the church was really about acquiring power.”

“Hey, if I have to accept Descartes at his word, you have to accept Saint Peter at his.”

Isaac growled. “Fine, but only for this argument. No. If his real intent was to give hope and help people. Then no, the deception wasn’t evil.”

“Maybe not evil, but it was still wrong,” René said. “He didn’t respect people. He didn’t ask them to think for themselves. He didn’t help them improve their minds, or develop analytical thinking skills. He just dictated what they should believe and how they should behave.”

Isaac chuckled.”Out of the mouths of Astronomy babes… He was the opposite of your hero, Socrates. If you’re going to hold up Socrates as the paragon of goodness. Then St. Peter is his antithesis. If Socrates’ actions were good, then St. Peter’s were evil. And so, by extension, are the preachers who followed his example, all the way up to the religious nuts of today.

“Okay, so you’re still saying that deception is evil. But that’s exactly what you’ve done with René. You may have helped her improve her public speaking skills, but your techniques are routed in deception. You use illusion to give her false memories. You’re an evil demon.”

“There’s no comparison. I gave her a cognitive framework that will enable her to build her public speaking skills; skills she may use or not as she chooses. And “evil” isn’t about reality or the truth; it’s about social engineering. The whole concept was created to limit behaviors and scare people into what religious zealots deemed correct behavior.”

“And you crossed the line of acceptable social behavior. You changed her memories, redefining her personality as…

“Tweaking her personality —at her request. And only so she could help herself become a better person.”

“Who decides what makes her a better person.”

Isaac deferred to René. “I guess I did. I wanted to be a better speaker.”

“And did you decide this for yourself? Or did your teachers put that idea in your head?”

“Well, I…”

“Your teachers put it in your head. They told you that if you want to succeed in this world, you have to be better at public speaking.”

“But it’s true. Lots of studies have shown a direct correlation between communication skills and career advancement.”

“She’s got you there, Arnie. I’ve seen studies confirming that point going back to the 1970s.

“Even so. It’s institutionalized mind control.”

“Now you’re being facetious. You know as well as anyone that society would break down if it didn’t pass it’s knowledge onto the next generation and make a serious effort to integrate them into the existing social structure. Without institutionalized learning, we’d all be living naked in the woods. You said so yourself in your paper on Hegel last semester.

“Well, if institutionalized mind control is necessary for the continuation of society. Then mind control itself can’t be evil. So hypnotizing an undergrad to become our french maid would be a good thing.”

Isaac folded his arms. “Fine.” He snapped his fingers. “René, french maid.”

René stood ramrod straight. She blinked twice. Then she stepped up to Arnie and slapped his face. “Vous pouvez faire votre propre lit, monsieur.” (You can make your own bed, sir.)

Isaac laughed. “You’re right. That was good.”

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