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System W science fiction scenario "Canonical Coherence"

Note: “Canonical Coherence” was initially called “Universally Advanced”.

The last few days I’ve thought about a new kind of science fiction world that tries to depict a positive and relatively realistic sci-fi scenario based on the ideas about system W.

This latest sci-fi scenario called “Canonical Coherence” (CC) plays sometime in the 23th century. Since many decades superintelligences have proceeded to system W. Because the defining achievement is the arrival at the canonical value system (CVS) this era is called the canonical era, and everything before is referred to as pre-canonical era. In the canonical era the world is radically rearranged, since the entities which attain effectively ultimate wisdom have an exalted character compared to all other entities.

Complexity Stratification

In “Canonical Coherence” they are simply called the wise – also known as the “advanced”, the “perfected”, the “divine”, “angels”, “supreme spirits”, and many other names. The daily reality of the advanced is determined by the CVS. But understanding the CVS requires a very high degree of cognitive complexity. So, what about all those entities which are below that threshold of complexity? Those are the simple and the complex (also known as the intermediate). While the cognitive capabilities of the complex suffices to understand the full complexity of system V, the simple effectively live a system D life. Therefore, the imple and complex are not included in the highest levels of political, scientific, and artistic activities, because they wouldn’t be able to participate appropriately anyway. This division into the simple, the complex, and the wise is a rather natural stratification of society along the lines of cognitive complexity, which is why it’s referred to as complexity stratification. Mobility between those complexity strata is quite possible, but not all too frequent, because the transition to another stratum is a radically disruptive and transformational personal transition.

A mind ecology

Why is this kind of stratification of society “natural”? Why shouldn’t everyone be upgraded to the level of the wise? You need to think ecologically to truly understand that. The arrival of complex multicellular life hasn’t made bacteria and other single celled organisms obsolete, even though the complex life forms do have lots of advantages. But the simple single celled organisms also have advantages. They require little food, they replicated and mutate quickly. Some extremophiles can survive in certain areas in which complex life tends to break down.

In the future the situation will be quite similar: While the very complex superintelligences will play a dominant role for the biosphere / noosphere, simpler entities will fill the ecological niches that superintelligences don’t fit into very well. You don’t need a superintelligence for relatively simple tasks. Those could be done by simple automatons or by simple sapient entities. Those can be symbiotic subsystems of those superintelligences, in a manner analogous to the way that gut bacteria act as biological symbiotic subsystem of humans and other animals. While these microsymbionts might not be absolutely essential, they are still very useful, and it wouldn’t be very sensible to replace them with more complex entities.

The simple and complex entities in UA effectively play a symbiotic role for the wise, even though they might not fully understand how this symbiosis works exactly. Some simple and complex are designed intelligently by the wise, while others are more or less modified for certain purposes.

Simple cultures based on Amish principles

Interestingly, I’ve been inspired by the principles of the Amish when I’ve come up with the world of CC. The Amish select the technologies they use according to certain principles. For example, they consider how a technology will affect their social relationships. It would be quite reasonable for the simple to use similar principles when dealing with technology. After all, they are surrounded by the technology created by the wise, which is effectively incomprehensible for them, and therefore equivalent to magic. Sure, the simple can use those technologies, at least when they are assisted by the complex, but there’s a certain degree of estrangement to that. It’s much more fulfilling to use technologies one can fully comprehend. The simple aren’t Luddites; they appreciate technology, even if it’s beyond their cognitive reach. However, the simple use technology selectively in order to make their own lives more fulfilling.

In the 23th century of the CC universe the simple entities are on a level that we would describe as “transhuman”: They are genetically and cybernetically augmented humans, simple AGIs, uplifted animals, and other artificially created entities (for example recreations of mythological creatures). If we look at the complex we find really “posthuman” entities whose capabilities are way beyond those with “moderate” augmentations. Finally, the wise are truly superintelligent entities that are also referred to as “divine”. Compared to the simple, the complex are like gods, both in their capabilities, but also in degree of perfection of their characters. In UA the complex play the role of guardian angels for the simple and complex. They usually don’t interfere much, but if something goes really wrong, they are always there to intervene or help out.

Intelligently designed simple cultures

Based on the definition of the simple according to their comparatively low cognitive capabilities, they are affected by limitations like Dunbar’s number:

In the systems A and C this problem was addressed by creating hierarchies and using representatives, delegates, and so on. This breaks down the complexity of a society of many thousands or even millions of people to a manageable degree. In system D hierarchies get partially replaced by emergent self-organised networks of people. But in the 23th century the world has been radically rearranged by the wise to create something like a network of fractal states as envisioned in:

Each fractal state gets its own habitat in the world of CC. Most habitats are in space on an orbit around a star; many star systems have been colonized in the 23th century. Those space habitats are usually rather big and have thousands or even millions of square kilometers to live on, so they don’t feel cramped. Many simple live in villages, or as nomads in those habitats. They live in groups called tribes with a number of members at or below Dunbar’s number. Those tribes are effectively the smallest sub-states of the fractal state.

There are also cities, which act as cultural centres for congregations of different tribes, but for many simple they are not places of permanent residence. Traveling is very frequent for most simple, because they are curious and want to explore the cultures of other tribes, or even fractal states. Therefore, the virtues of hospitality and tolerance are help up quite highly. Tribes have a high social cohesion, but they don’t cling to their members, because they grant them the freedom to choose their tribe freely. As a result, nearly everyone lives in a very fitting social environment.

Typical technologies used by the simple

In general, the simple use a quite diverse mix of technologies, whether they can understand them, or not. They usually do not have an aversion to using the technologies of the wise (well, if they have access to them), but often have a preference for simpler technologies that don’t satisfy one’s wishes immediately.

Producing stuff

Usually, the habitats are created by the wise and have all kinds of technologies that can be used. The wise can operate materializers most effectively for creating almost everything imaginable on the spot and nearly instantly. Dispensers and replicators are Intermediate technologies that are typically used to create food, clothes, tools, machines, furniture, or whole houses rather quickly. Alternatively people can make things out of nanobot swarms that move into a specific arrangement. Different tribes have different preferences about whether they use those technologies and for what. Often, they prefer simpler technologies to build and create stuff, simply because that’s often more fun and satisfying.

Internet of places

The environment within the habitats is pretty much saturated with intelligence: You can communicate with about anything, because about anything has an AI embedded within it. Most of those AIs are simple and aren’t really members of any tribe, but just do their job of providing a rather direct interface with the part of the environment they are responsible for. For example, there are environmental AIs for cities, villages, rivers, forests, mountains, meadows, houses, caves, trees, and so on. It’s sometimes interesting to talk about who those AIs have met before, or how they feel.


Usually, the simple, and the other strata, use a form of technologically enabled telepathy and empathy. You can sense the thoughts and feelings of those in close proximity of you, or of those people you focus on, at least to the degree they allow you that kind of access. Simple telepathic communication interfaces are available nearly ubiquitously. Animals are usually uplifted in the sense that they are able to use this telepathic and empathic network instinctively. Sometimes dreams are synchronized so that they become dreams that are shared by multiple individuals at once.

Virtual and augmented realities

Virtual worlds are used, too. They are typically habitat-wide and can represent historical or fictional worlds, educational environments, games, or generally places for communicating with people on the other end of the habitat. How much virtual worlds are used depends on the tribe. Some tribes spend nearly all of their time in virtual worlds, while others ignore them completely. In addition to virtual worlds there are many augmented reality layers that can be used to add information, comments, or decoration to specific places. Of course all of these things are part of a universally accessible habitat-wide information network. Accessing the information networks of other habitats is possible, too, but you would often experience lag, due to the fact that communication usually happens at the speed of light, or slightly below that.


The bodies that are inhabited by the simple, and other strata, do not age, and most often use nanotechnological parts, organs, or implants. If they are based on DNA, or similar storage substrates, they typically used a highly refined genetic enhancements, often provided by the complex or wise. Completely nanomechanical robotic bodies are used, too. If people really want it, they can switch to another body, but that usually requires the help of a complex or wise, because the required neural rearrangement is often not trivial. Teleoperation of bodies and (virtual, holographic, or material) avatars is possible, too. The diversity of available body morphologies is rather large: If it can be imagined and makes sense, it’s an option. This includes extinct species, natural or artificial animals, mythological creatures, anthropomorphic animals or aliens, robotic bodies, and hybrids thereof. Many tribes try to accommodate for a large variety of body morphologies, but some are very restrictive about how their members should look like.


Inducing altered states of mind directly comes natural to most of the simple. Having intense focus or creativity, different personality traits, or sublime moods, is all possible with some kind of technology, mostly with nanomachines that are embedded in one’s brain. What’s not regularly available, however, are modifications that would enhance one’s intelligence or consciousness radically, because that would lift them up of the simple stratum. If a person really wants to advance to the complex, or eventually to the wise stratum, she can ask the wise for such an upgrade. If the wish to change the stratum is sincere, it’s usually fulfilled.

Modes of travel

Travel is generally seen as enriching experience by itself, so slower modes of transportation are usually preferred: Walking, swimming, flying, or using slow vehicles. For bridging intermediate distances people can use a network of vacuum tubes and trains that move with speeds up to multiple kilometers per second. Those who do not care about traveling as experience also have the option of quantum teleportation (at the speed of light) from any location to any other location, whether that’s within the current habitat, or any other habitat, even if the destination lies within another star system. That’s a rather typical mode of transportation between different habitat, but using space ships is also an option – especially if those space ships are habitats on their own.

Conditional autonomy

The tribes and fractal states in the CC universe are typically conditionally autonomous: They can operate according to their own principles and laws, but the wise can intervene and veto any decision, if that would mess things up seriously. For example, tribes and states are not allowed to wage war against each other, and need to resolve their conflicts in peaceful ways. Also, tribes and states usually cannot decide to kill any individual – the wise could reconstruct an individual completely, even if a whole habitat was nuked, but killing is still generally frowned upon, because it’s disrespectful.

What do the Simple do?

It’s worth pointing out that CC is a pretty utopian scenario. There is universal peace and prosperity. Economic hardship is usually avoided remarkably well by voluntary population control. The material economy is typically a steady state economy within a developed star system. Even the wise cannot create energy out of nothing, but have to rely on some real energy source like nuclear fusion (or other more advanced quantum energy sources). Energy efficiency of wise technologies is as close to 100% as physically possible. So, the economy is typically so good that material abundance is guaranteed trivially. Information and knowledge is also accessible freely, unless certain states or tribes put restriction on that freedom, for example due to privacy concerns. In any case, the wise know about everything about anything and anyone.

For the wise, the concepts of science, art, and entertainment have effectively merged into one. The simple and complex are effectively intelligently designed and nudged to satisfy those interests of the wise. Even if the simple can more or less do what they want, they somehow serve the interests of the wise in some way or another. And since the wise have pretty much reached scientific and technological maturity, the simple do not and cannot contribute by creating cutting-edge technology. Progress is a thing of the past in the canonical era, because all major problems have been solved, and the world is generally as good as it can be. What’s left is to experience the possibilities of life in all kinds of variations.

Of course the tribes and states can create their own internal economic systems or science projects, if they like, but in most cases they merely have game-like character. There are a couple of activities that are rather popular among the simple:

  • Learning (of course the wise could make them know and understand anything immediately, but that wouldn’t be very fun or meaningful)
  • Socialising
  • Playing games
  • Creating art
  • Traveling

They don’t need to do much else, but anything else is optional.

Potential for storytelling

Writing captivating stories in a radically utopian setting like this is certainly a big challenge. After all, it apparently doesn’t give rise to a lot of conflict, and the wise are a deus ex machina that is available at all times. So, any good story needs to focus much more on the personal level. Because it’s almost impossible to imagine how the complex and wise think or feel, it’s a very natural decision to write stories from the perspective of the simple.

It would seem like a clear option to use the complexity stratification as source of conflict, but that’s not so easy. About everyone in the UA universe knows why the complexity stratification makes sense. Nobody has a really good reason to be discontent with it. If people advance to a higher stratum they inevitable estrange themselves from their previous peers, but everyone knows that, so they usually don’t do it, unless they have a very good reason for doing so. And here it may get interesting: What reasons would really compel an individual to switch to another stratum? In a world in which unhappiness is very rare, and mental diseases can be cured trivially, such reasons aren’t easy to find.

There are some options, though:

  • A simple really dislikes her cognitive limitations and really wants to understand everything
  • A simple could fall in love with a complex or wise and advance to their stratum to be able to be with them together
  • A wise challenges herself too much by pursuing crazily complex and ambitious goals and gets so frustrated that she wants to experience a simpler life for a while
  • A simple is really enraged by an intervention of the wise that she experiences as unjust and needs to advanced to the wise stratum in order to “talk sense into them” (of course such an endeavour is pretty futile, but simple don’t need to be very rational)

There are also problems that can arise within the stratum of the simple. People can become unhappy with their own tribe and join or found another tribe – or become a lone wanderer. Writing a story about that process might be pretty interesting. Meeting tribes that are uncomfortably different would also be an interesting scenario.

Ok, I have written enough for now. What do you think about my ideas for the CC universe? Of course, it could be a “sequel” to the Fractal Cosmos scenario, even though it can stand on its own definitely.

What kind of fractal states, tribes, or characters could you imagine?


Fascinating stuff. I see a lot of potenticial in that world. As you said, creating conflict in a scenario as utopian as that may prove to be a rather difficult task, althought I’m certain there are ways of pulling it off, but, in the end, I think that many people would read stories set in “Universally Advanced” mostly for the sake of the worldbuiding.

The whole “switching startum” thing looks like pretty good material for “coming-of-age” like stories.

Alternatively, one could also do like Ian M. Banks does in his Culture novels and set most of the story outside or in the fringes of this utopian civilization. That’s kinda like cheating :grin: but the way a utopian civilization interacts with not-so-utopian universe is certainly something worth exploring.

If UA were a sequel to Fractal Cosmos, those tribes and states would arise from the groups we already have in that universe. Maybe the Exaltation is still around, but is no longer such a big deal. The hell-creepers would still roam the surface of Venus, that’s for sure, but they wouldn’t have such a turbulent relashionship with the rest of universe.

Yes, I do invest a lot of thought into world building, and I think that people are really interested in that. Worldbuilding alone still doesn’t create compelling and engaging stories. That’s why good storytelling is needed, too: Meaningful conflicts, interesting characters, attention to interesting details, and so on.

It could be, but it doesn’t need to be framed that way. What I want to achieve is that people understand that being a Simple, an Intermediate, or an Advanced are simply different lifestyle choices. None of those is better in all respects than the others. The Simple may be limited in their abilities, but the Advanced are faced with incredibly difficult issues that demand their full attention. And the Intermediate have an uncomfortable role in the middle of both extremes. This kind of thinking may surprise the typical transhumanist, but it’s the conclusion I’ve come to by trying to extrapolate transhumanism to its possibly ultimate consequences: How do we really want to live in a completely mature and developed civilisation where almost anything is possible? In the end, it really comes down to personal choice through a personal comparison of options.

Yeah, that’s not a bad idea actually. It’s possible that the frontier is still kinda stuck in system V (which is indeed already pretty mind-boggingly advanced – at least from a technological standpoint – but still engulfed in ideological, philosophical, and political conflicts), and that those living in the frontier have a hard time adapting to system W. The technological infrastructure would also not be as advanced as in the core regions in close proximity to our solar system. Writing about the transition to system W could be quite interesting.

Yeah, I can definitely see that happening. The surface and the atmosphere of Venus would be two habitats that are very close to one another. Effectively, it would be a kind of meta-habitat that might also include space stations / habitats in orbit around Venus (who would live there, hmm?). The system W hell-creepers would most likely become much more civilised, but would still retain a lot of their pragmatic, spartan, and martial culture (perhaps comparable to the Klingons in the Star Trek universe when they are at peace with the Federation).

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There is an important distinction I need to mention. Not all Simple are self-governed. Some are actually governed by Intermediate or Advanced, whether they chose to do so, or just grew up in such an environment. I guess those different groups deserve cooler names than:

  • Self-goverened Simple
  • Intermediate governed Simple
  • Advanced governed Simple

For now those descriptive name shall suffice. We’d probably expect more machine/tool/AI-like Simple entities to be governed by Intermediate or Advanced, rather than the humanoid entities (or “terroid” respectively “terran” entities, as beings associated with a more or less direct origin on Earth/Terra? Very human-like robots/AIs, mythical creatures or anthropomorphic animals would be “terroid” rather than “terran”?), simply because there is probably more demand for tool-like Simple (for example the AI of a small ship, or any “internet of everything” entity).

It’s not so clear what degree of autonomy or what rights especially those Simple have that are essentially subsystems of Intermediate or Advanced. This is a pretty relevant question that is important for the first UA story I want to write. When is a subsystem your property, and when does it become its own property? Probably this line of thinking isn’t even differentiated enough, because human personhood consists of lots of properties and about any combination of those properties can be present or missing in artificial entities. Of course, the Advanced would know the correct answer, but we just have to guess what they would think about this issue. Perhaps they see personhood and its associated rights as gradual things, rather than something that is either present or absent. I guess an important question would be how sentient, sapient, and autonomous such an entity is. Some examples:

  • Different parts of my brain probably possess some form of intelligence, but they would be unable to operate autonomously without being connected to other parts
  • Characters in my dreams seem to be sentient and sometimes sapient, but they are certainly not able to exist independently from me (at least with today’s technology)
  • What about characters in a virtual world that are played by an Intermediate or Advanced?

The last scenario is not so clear. It would probably depend on what it means for a virtual character to be “played” by a more advanced entity. A complete simulation of a character would have all characteristics of a real character, apart from simply being simulated within the mind of an advanced being. That could be true for us, too. What if we are merely “thoughts of God”? Is being simulated an ethically relevant criterion? I’d argue that it is, because it changes the context dramatically. The rights a person has within a simulated world don’t need to be the same as rights that persons who are part of the superworld of that simulation have. They are persons in different societal contexts. And it’s actually society that determines what rights it grants to its members.

Reflections on the rights of virtual persons

Granting a virtual person rights that limit what the simulator can do with them would diminish the (morphological?) freedom of the simulator to do with his own mind (that encompasses the simulation) what they want. On the other hand, not having certain rights would diminish the freedom of the simulated character. That’s obviously a serious conflict. One possible solution is to accept infringements of the freedom of a person, if that person is adequately compensated for those infringements afterwards, in the spirit of reparationism. After all, who wouldn’t be willing to spend some time in prison, if you’d get a certain number of wishes fulfilled by a faerie afterwards? If we are thinking in terms of freedom, the total freedom over time of the simulator and the simulated character should be maximised. For example, this would be possible by granting persons who were virtual persons initially more rights than usual, at least temporarily. To state it simply: For any infringement of your rights by someone else, the infringing person would owe you certain favours that you can use to increase your freedom above the “regular” level of freedom that a comparable non-simulated person enjoys. So, for having been a character simulated by an Advanced, you would get “Advanced favours”. That is perhaps the only way that avoids permanent reductions/limitations of freedom of anyone, or even an unjust lack of freedom over time.

I’m not sure whether that’s the correct philosophy, but at least it doesn’t seem to be too flawed, so I’ll run with this unless someone comes up with an approach that is generally seen as better.

Detour: Weird present world consequences of reparationism

By the way, applied to our current world this reparationist approach would have some mind-boggling consequences:

  1. Perpetrators of crimes would owe their victims favours. (This point is not especially surprising.)
  2. Anyone who gets punished needs to be compensated for the punishment by receiving favours from their punisher!

So, anyone who is imprisoned would need to get reparations for their imprisonment, regardless whether they were guilty or not! Also, imprisonment until death may only be permissible, if the inmate would be compensated for their imprisonment within the prison somehow, in the sense of an “equivalent exchange of freedoms”.

Phew, this stuff makes my head spin! :astonished:

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That doesn’t sound like like a bad philosophy, but yeah, it’s a recipe for instant headaches. Don’t worry, though. The advanced will figure it out.:grinning:

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There’s a fundamental question you didn’t touch at all. Which is, how would you tell the difference between a simulated person and a merely imagined/imitated person. Is there a difference? Where does one become the other? How would any outsider be able to tell? In other words, if I’m writing a story, how do I know if the characters of the story I’m simulating in my mind are virtual persons or not?

I expect you might point out that we’re not capable of simulating other people to the degree required but how do we know that? Many people writing a story have expressed wonder at how the story and the characters they’ve created seem to come to life on their own and the story then goes into directions they themselves weren’t planning at all.

Which makes for another point. Does it matter whether the being doing the simulation is controlling the state of the simulation to a degree or not?

Perhaps it helps to see imagined persons as controlled alternate personalities. Do we see people with multiple personality disorder as multiple persons? And why? How do we even define the identity of a person? Don’t we need to define the identity of a person in relation to a different person? Should we set it as totality of your dissimilarities with other persons? After all, if there are two perfectly exact copies of you, it doesn’t make any sense to say that they are two different persons – according to Ockham’s razor!

How would these thoughts contribute to solving the original questions? Hmm, let’s see it that way: A merely imagined character is not completely defined, because there are always aspects of them that would be defined for a real person. That’s why we can’t definitely how the character would differ from other persons. The imagined character has less “definiteness”, which is an attribute that would distinguish them from an actually simulated person. So, a virtual person needs to have a high degree of definiteness, otherwise it’s just a “mere imagination”.

How could outsiders tell the difference? Questioning might be an option, but asking questions about the presumed virtual person would increase their definiteness by the imagining mind coming up with more properties of that person. So, questioning is not a good idea. I guess there’s really no other reliable way than having some kind of device that tells you about the structure and content of the simulating mind. Some kind of “neuroscope”.

The characters we humans are able to imagine have a really low “definiteness”. Even our understanding of ourselves would probably only produce a laughable caricature of ourselves, because the “definiteness” of our model of ourselves still doesn’t have a really high resolution.

That is not surprising. The surprises come from the logical consequences of having a character with certain properties put in a novel situation. People usually take time for evaluating such logical consequences, and do them just in time, and not in advance for all possible situations. That’s what allows some consequences to be surprising, simply because we aren’t very good at predicting the results of the application of logic. That is also why mathematics can sometimes be surprising, even though all mathematics is already defined by basic axioms.

Good question! I guess in a more controlled simulation the virtual persons would have less autonomy or agency, and one might say that this decreases their degree of “personhood” – the more autonomous a being is, the more it counts as person, because persons are usually thought of as real agents.