In The Balance

By Scott Alexander

When you first take the Artifact, you will see a vision of ALPHANION, Demon-Sultan of the Domain of Order, who appears as a grid of spheres connected by luminous lines. Alphanion will urge you to use the Artifact to enforce cosmic order, law at its most fundamental. He will show you visions of all the most brutal and sadistic crimes of history, of all the wars caused by nations that could not live together in harmony, and he will tell you they are all preventable. He will show you dreams of perfectly clean cities with wide open streets, where everyone earns exactly the optimal amount of money and public transportation is accurate to the second. He will tell you it is all attainable.

But if you hesitate even an instant to take Alphanion’s offer, you will see a vision of CTHGHFZXAY, Demon-Shah of the Domain of Chaos, who appears as a shifting multicolored cloud. Cthghfzxay will urge you to use the Artifact to promote cosmic chaos, the ultimate principle of freedom. She will condemn the works of Order as a lie, a dystopia bought at the cost of true human liberty. She will show you visions of primaeval forests, where no two flowers are alike, where each glade holds a new mystery, where people run wild in search of new adventure. She will tell you it can all be yours.

As you weigh these two offers, you will see a vision of ZAMABAMAZ, Demon-Pharaoh of the Domain of Balance, who appears as a man and woman conjoined. They will tell you that neither Order nor Chaos is at the root of human flourishing, but an ability to strike the right balance between the two. That a virtuous life is one spent in moderation between total wild liberty and a stifling concept of rote rule-following. That Alphanion and Cthfhfzxay are the two poles of the universe, and that righteousness exists in the space created by their interaction. They will ask you to devote the Artifact and its power to the Domain of Balance, so all people can better manage the interaction of Order and Chaos in their own lives.

This will seem reasonable to you, but then there will appear a vision of IYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY, Demon-Raja of the Domain of Excess, who appears as a blinding violet light. It will tell you that both Order and Chaos present coherent visions of the world, but that for the love of God, choose one or the other instead of being a wishy-washy milquetoast who refuses to commit to anything. It will tell you that blinding white and pitch black are both purer and more compelling than endless pointless grey. It will ask you to give the Artifact to somebody – anybody – other than Zamabamaz.

Just as you think you have figured all this out, there will appear a vision of MLOXO7W, Demon-Kaiser of the Domain of Meta-Balance, who appears as a face twisted into a Moebius strip. It will tell you that sometimes it is right to seek balance, and other times right to seek excess, and that a life well-lived consists of excess when excess is needed, and balance when balance is needed. It will remind you that sometimes you are a sprinter and other times a tightrope walker in the Olympiad of life, and that to commit to either eternal carefulness or eternal zealousness is to needlessly impoverish yourself. It will ask you to devote the Artifact and its power to balancing balance and imbalance, balancedly.

You will not be the least bit surprised when there will appear a vision of K!!!111ELEVEN, Demon-Shogun of the Domain of Meta-Excess, who appears as a Toricelli trumpet with eyes and a mouth. She says that seriously, pick a side, all this complicated garbage about the balance between balance and excess is just another layer of intellectualization to defend against having any real values, a trick to make you feel smart and superior for believing in nothing, not even Balance. She will ask you to choose something now, lest you be caught in an endless regress of further options.

As soon as you acknowledge that this makes sense, there will appear a vision of ILO, Demon-Chancellor of the Domain of Excessive Meta-Balance, who appears as a deep hole in space whose end you cannot see. They will point out that yes, there is potentially an infinite regress of further levels. But to act to avoid those levels is essentially to unthinkingly side with the principle of Excess over Balance. After all, if you had originally started by siding with Chaos or Order rather than waiting to hear of the existence of Balance, you would have been unknowingly favoring Excess over Balance. And if you had decided to choose either Excess or Balance, you would have been favoring the principle of Meta-Excess over Meta-Balance before even knowing they existed. So choosing at any level of the hierarchy is essentially equivalent to choosing Excess at all higher levels of the hierarchy. When viewed this way, the hierarchy collapses to chaos, order, first-level-balance, second-level-balance, third-level-balance, and so on. They offer a new, better vision: Infinite Balance, a theoretical top of the hierarchy in which you choose to balance all previous levels.

But as you start to consider this, there will appear a vision of PAHANUP, Demon-Taoiseach of the Domain of Balanced Meta-Balance, who appears as a hole in space exactly three inches deep. Ze will tell you that going to infinite lengths to ensure perfect balance at an infinite number of levels actually seems a bit excessive in ways. To choose either Chaos or Order outright would be insufficiently careful, but to give yourself an intractable problem with an endless number of meta-levels would be excessively careful. Ze will suggest seeking balance in the number of levels you seek balance in.

This will seem plausible to you right up until the sudden appearance of a fiery vision of IFNI, Demon-Secretary-General of the Domain of Chaotic Meta-Excess, who appears as static. She will point out that there is now another infinite regress, more difficult than the last – to wit, how long you should spend calculating the number of levels on which to seek balance. She will state her case thus: suppose you want to calculate the correct amount of balance in the universe. Let us call this Calculation A. You need to calculate how long to spend on this calculation before giving up and satisficing; let us call this Calculation B. But you need to calculate how long to spend on Calculation B before giving up and satisficing; let us call this Calculation C. Clearly you will never be able to complete any of the calculations. Therefore in order to avoid spending your entire life in an infinite regress of calculation, you should flip a coin right now and use it to decide either Chaos or Order, no takebacks.

But as you reach for the coin, you will see a vision of GOSAGUL, Demon-Admiral of the Domain of Ordered Meta-Balanced Excess, who appears as a cube with constantly flashing black and white faces. He will lecture you on how it seems pretty strange that, when faced with the most important decision in the history of the universe, you decide to flip a coin. Surely, even if Ifni’s argument is correct, you can do better than that! For example, you can just go a specific finite number of levels, such as three, then seek balance at that many levels, then stop. This will be strictly better than Ifni’s plan of choosing completely randomly.

But this sage advice is interrupted by MEGAHAHA, Demon-Pope of the Domain of Excessively Ordered Meta-Balance, who appear a as pattern of black and white that cycles between a line, square, cube, and hypercube. It will point out that if you’re in the business of accepting arguments along the lines that “it seems pretty strange that when faced with the most important decision in the history of the universe you…”, then it seems pretty strange that when faced with the most important decision in the history of the universe, you agree to a kind of random number of levels chosen by a demon you have no reason to trust. By what logic do you reject making the decision itself randomly, but accept making the decision about how many levels to make the decision on randomly? Any amount of Balance in Meta-Balancing Excess is just arbitrary capriciousness; you either need to act fully randomly, or embrace the entire difficulty of the problem.

At this point, you will remember that the Artifact is cursed and demons are evil. With a final effort of will, you will shout the words “I choose Balance! Just normal Balance! First-level Balance! That’s it!” and throw the Artifact to the ground, where it will shatter into a thousand pieces and the voices of the demonic hierarchy will suddenly all go silent.

And for a thousand years to come, heroes will grumble “Why, exactly, are we seeking balance in the universe? Isn’t that kind of dumb? Don’t we want more good stuff, and less bad stuff? Doesn’t really seem that balance is really what we’re after, exactly.”

And you will tell them the story of how once you found the Artifact that gave you mastery of the universe, and you refused to take more than about three minutes figuring out what to use it for, because that would have been annoying.