A fairly original complaint about Mass Effect 3’s endings

[Excerpt redacted for spoilers]

If you don’t know me, Hi! I’m a big fan of the Mass Effect video game series. I love the universe, the storytelling, the characters, and especially the fact that you can deeply explore counterfactuals for every moral/philosophical decision you make in the games. I have been thinking of Mass Effect especially often since the release date of the fourth game, Mass Effect Andromeda, was announced (March 21!).

I have seen this trailer^ roughly a million times since it was released a week ago.

Because the events of ME1-3 massively affected the entire Milky Way Galaxy (:P), the next game takes place in the Andromeda Galaxy. In fact, one of the possible endings of Mass Effect 3 irreversibly changes every single aspect of Milky Way. I will now opine about how that option does not make sense.

***SPOILERS for all original Mass Effect games AHEAD***

Many, many, many fanboys were upset with the endings because they were too formulaic.


And, to be fair…

I am not bothered (at least not as much as the rest of the fans) by the superficial resemblance between all the different endings. I think this is all happening in Shepard’s head anyway (“Indoctrination Theory”). But the Synthesis ending makes no sense on any level. You may ask, “Aren’t they all pretty fantastical?” Yes, but Control and Destroy are consistent with the space magic that we’ve been learning about up until the game’s climax.

Throughout the game we are learning about the Crucible and that it’s a massive source of energy that can, with the Catalyst, be precision-directed against the Reapers. When we find out the Catalyst is the Citadel, it makes sense because we already know that Citadel and the Reapers are intimately connected. It even made sense to view the Citadel as controlling the Reapers in retrospect. So when you get to the starchild, he presents two options: 1. You have passed the test, and now you can control the Reapers instead of him, or 2. you can send the order to Destroy them and the Citadel and the Mass Relays, which makes sense because they are all part of the same network (although he claims this would destroy all advanced technology, too).

Then, with sufficient Galactic Readiness, you get the Synthesis option. The game begs you to choose the Synthesis option, both through the starchild’s exhortations and the fact that no one but you has to die to achieve it (EDI and the Geth can live). The starchild suggests that this is a new possibility that has simply never been available until now, but it WILL solve the values alignment problem.

There are two problems with Synthesis:

1. It wouldn’t preclude the possibility of developing new AI– will it be impossible to make new machines after the Synthesis? If not, then won’t they just run into the same problem eventually given enough time? At least they won’t have the Reapers trying to kill every advanced organic indiscriminately over it, so it’s a better choice for Shepard than the status quo, but how could the starchild think that this is a lasting solution to the problem it was created to solve?

2. It makes no goddamn sense. How can “organic essence” be distributed and worked into machines? How can machine essence be incorporated into all organic beings? For one thing, these “essences” are not uniform among organics or AIs. The Krogan have values that pose a threat to the rest of the galaxy. There is no special sauce in organics that synthetics can’t attain, which means an AI can be fully sapient and become a real person. The Geth can be cooperative, more so than their organic creators. EDI can grow into personhood. This is a major theme of the third game. For another thing, code and DNA aren’t fully analogous. It would make more sense to say organic nervous systems were re-wired, but even plants get the machine essence infusion, as we see from the ending cutscene. The overall implication is that organics and synthetics will understand each other because they will become each other, but weren’t they all just a kind of machine to begin with? What is this sudden uniformity of experience by platform???

With Control and Destroy, there is a mechanism laid out for how they would work. Granted, it is fantastical, but it is within the limits previously established in the game. Synthesis is totally off-the-wall with respect to everything Shepard should know. I guess you could aruge that Synthesis is about aligning the values problem in the heads of all the living sapients, synthetic and organic, so that they will never make misaligned intelligences in the future. That would be all well and good if every being wasn’t literally rippling like a glittery circuitboard.

It is clearly shown that Synthesis is not a symbolic synthesizing of interests by way of merging systems of thought and value. It is a literal synthesis of the bodies of extant intelligences, organic and synthetic.


My gripe probably has more to do with my rejection of elan vital than the internal consistency of the Mass Effect space magic. To be fair, the Mass Effect series up until ME3’s endings never clearly rejects the idea of the “spark of life” or “vital essence,” but I always got the feeling that it did. The first Mass Effect seems to take place in a world where most educated people are comfortable with a mechanistic universe, exploring the possibilities of existence and transcendance with open minds. The idea that distinct organic and synthetic “essences” would turn out to be real and could be merged is, to me, very contrary to earlier themes of the game.

I’m not saying the Synthesis ending is a bad ending or doesn’t belong in the game. On the Indoctrination Theory, it makes sense that Shepard’s Reaper-inspired fever dream is an impossible fairy tale where the values problem is definitively solved without any more bloodshed. The starchild wants you to hesitate to Destroy the Reapers for fear of killing EDI, the Geth, and your cyborg self. In all likelihood, Destroy is your only real choice and the other two are just succumbing to Indoctrination in one form or another.

Synthesis is more appealing to Shepard’s idealism because it means mutual understanding (even though the Control ending has Shepard guiding the Reapers toward benevolent rule, there is still a gulf of incomprehension between the Reapers and the species of the Milky Way). To me, the strongest direct evidence that the Indoctrination Theory is canon is the fact that Destroy option is presented in red, the traditional Renegade color. Control and Synthesis are presented as more compassionate, open-minded endings. The Paragon part of Shepard that resists accepting irreconcilable conflicts of interests is being manipulated. I think the strongest evidence of Indocrination Theory period is that Saren was convinced of the same synthesis solution by the end of Mass Effect 1. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Synthesis is the wrong solution– it could just be that organics are ignorantly prejudiced against their own transcendence– but it is highly suggestive that Synthesis only seems like a good idea to the Indoctrinated.

Whether my criticism of the Synthesis ending is ultiamtely a criticism of poor writing or a subtle insight into the Reapers devious tricks and Shepard’s psyche as revealed by her Indoctrination-fueled dream, I stand by my claim that it makes no sense with respect to the rest of the series.

I don’t care that you haven’t heard of it– what you have or haven’t heard of means nothing

tl;dr: Why is no one talking about what a waste of time it is to complain about why people aren’t talking about particular things?

I made this resolution in June:


And it has really has cut down on the echo in the chamber of my mind!

I was inspired to renounce generalizations about public opinion based on my facebook feed by, of course, something I saw on my facebook feed. I wish I had screencapped this comment, but it’s too late now. Basically, the top comment on an article Bill Maher posted about the Democratic Primary– it was one of those 1000+ comment threads– said “Supposedly Hillary is winning, but I suspect a conspiracy, because I don’t know A SINGLE PERSON who voted for her.” Except I’m sure I’m remembering it too kindly.

The sad truth is that it’s very difficult to make generalizations about what “people” are saying in the age of social media, because you are seeing personalized content. And with the profusion of online media outlets, I don’t see how anyone feels comfortable saying that “the media isn’t sufficiently covering X.” Most of these complaints are made by news stories themselves. (Apparently, claiming that a story is under-reported is very successful clickbait.) Clearly someone knows about the story if they know to complain about how underplayed it is.

In fact, whether or not you have personally heard of something has never been a great means of assessing how thoroughly discussed some piece of news is. I only care about your impressions if you have some reason to think your ignorance of coverage is evidence of absence of coverage. If you are a well-connected expert in your field and you haven’t heard about something through your normal sources, that’s informative about how well-reported it is, because you would have expected to hear about it. If you are just casually browsing the news, and you see a news story that informs you about an issue, I don’t really care if you think you should have seen more than one of those stories. I especially don’t care if you read a story about how “the media isn’t sufficiently covering X– where’s the outrage?!” and find yourself outraged that a story hasn’t been covered more.

In order to draw valid inferences about public opinion, you need well-done polls. Unfortunately, polls are not perfect and you can’t do a sound poll for every question. Given that reality, I advocate 1) taking your impressions of what people are saying with a handful of salt and, 2) being the change you would like to see in public discourse. If you think a story or topic should be discussed more, discuss it instead of complaining that no one’s discussing it.


On losing my privilege

Friends, you may have noticed that I’ve been angry lately. And a big part of that is, as I know many of you have suspected, anger at the loss of privileges. I did not want to admit this was the case, but here it is: I have lost my liberal privilege.

To start, I still consider myself a liberal. But I no longer pass for one in Cambridge, MA. I am not that fussed by labels, so it doesn’t bother me anymore. There was a time when having my liberal credentials (which I equated with morality) questioned really hurt my feelings. It was a very effective shaming tactic, and that shame sustained growing cognitive dissonance over years until the dam finally broke. I began to say what I thought was true without thinking about what that meant for my tribal membership, and I stopped using the liberal/left label as a proxy for truth.

It was then I discovered what a privilege it had been to be squarely in the liberal tribe. The whole time I was a card-carrying lefitst, I thought I was being really bold and speaking my mind. I felt proud of my bravery. But it wasn’t actually that brave, because I almost never got any real pushback or faced negative consequences for doing it. I had had an utterly warped view of what “radical” or “heterodox” meant. I thought they meant something that invoked the disapproval of the faceless, amorphous “man”– I didn’t realize how hard it is to say things that are actually controversial among your peers. It would be funny how intolerant the “speak truth to power” crowd is of actual dissent if it wasn’t so sad.

I don’t think I’m any more outspoken that ever before. Until very recently, I would say I’m less outspoken than I was in high school and college (I am just that outspoken). I still passionately discuss and debate issues that I care about using basically the same intensity calibrator. But now everything I say is perceived as more aggressive and personal. I realize now what a luxury it was to be able to make fairly extreme political statements in class and at work without disapproval when I was a more doctrinaire lefty. I thought political expression was a right people just needed to seize (and I sure as hell won’t let go of it), but I see now that it is not equally available to all. I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing entirely– we don’t need to treat all opinions as equally valid. It’s just something I was completely oblivious to when I had liberal privilege.

In majority conservative areas, conservative privilege works the same way. This message is for everyone with majority-ideology-privilege. Please consider what people are saying and whether it is true instead of falling back on whether that person is in your in-group.

Everything in moderation?

I have always hated the admonition to “take all things in moderation.” (For one thing, it gets some of its zing from its seeming paradox (Even the tendency to moderate!?), a gimmick that annoys me.) It reminds me of the cosmological principle in astronomy, aka the principle of mediocrity, which is basically that nothing is special and if things start to look like they might be different in one part of the universe than another, you are probably missing something.

The thing about the Golden Mean and the Cosmological Principle is that the advice doesn’t give you the tools to know how to apply it. What does moderate mean? Does it mean taking centrist political positions? What if the “left” and “right” positions aren’t equidistant from a reasonable one? Why this conflation of moderate with reasonable??? At least the Cosmological Principle is based on observing the universe. I see no reason to believe that the range of human opinion and behaviors is centered on the correct positions.

I accept the Golden Mean as an epistemic humility thing. I do not accept it as actual wisdom about what the best thing is to do.


In defense of midichlorians

I never thought the midichlorians were a stupid answer to a question nobody had, because they don’t explain where the Force comes from. That would be like saying that food is where energy comes from.

“Master, sir, I heard Master Yoda talking about midichlorians. I’ve been wondering, what are midichlorians?” 

“Why, Ani, my boy– I’m glad you asked that question…”

“Midichlorians” has become a byword for the explanation that no one needed—an embellishment that reduced the Force to mere bacterial byproduct. Many critics rate the introduction of midichlorians as the single worst invention of the prequels. Another line in The Phantom Menace (Obi Wan to the Gungans, “You and the Naboo form a symbiont circle… Surely, you must understand this”) makes it clear that George Lucas had just learned about the endosymbiont theory and eagerly incorporated this science babble in his quest to ruin what had been the sublime and ineffable Force. More sloppy writing and bizarre retconning. Case closed.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a biologist, but I’ve never hated midichlorians. Clearly styled after mitochondria, which allow cells to capture energy more efficiently, midichlorians give force-sensitives the ability to tap into the energy field that “surrounds us and penetrates us.” They also create the Force, in keeping with Obi-Wan’s original explanation to Luke that the Force is created by living things. Like mitochondria, they are also the result of an ancient symbiosis. When Qui-Gon Jinn explains midichlorians to Anakin, he says that “no life would be possible without them.” While that’s not true of earth life (nor does it really make sense in context because the midichlorians are also lifeforms, presumably descended from a free-living ancestor), it is true that the acquisition of mitochondria is the defining feature of eukaryotes, the group that includes all conscious life that we know of. Eukaryotic cells are bigger, with a more complex and modular division of labor, and, thanks to mitochondria, they command more energy. I think it’s obvious that, just as mitochondria do not literally create energy, midichlorians do not create the Force. They simply allow cells to harness it.

All our mitochondria do is harness useable energy… which is only somewhat magical.

I never thought the midichlorians were a stupid answer to a question nobody had, because they don’t explain where the Force comes from. That would be like saying that food is where energy comes from. I just thought the idea of an endosymbiont that channeled the Force was a slight elaboration from a more scientifically sophisticated age. In fact, I was pleased that the Jedi Order had at least begun to approach the Force scientifically, since they seem so stultified in other ways.

It’s only the way the midichlorians are used in Phantom Menace that makes zero sense and introduces a huge plot hole. The only plot purpose midichlorians ever serve is to establish that Anakin is off-the-charts force-sensitive, but then this insanely useful blood test for Force adepts never comes up again. The existence of this quick and easy test makes the idea that there’s a Sith hiding in the Senate that the Jedi just can’t find even more ridiculous. But this problem is  not intrinsic to the idea of midichlorians– it could easily have been avoided if there were no test for midichlorians, or if regular living thing midichlorians aren’t distinguishable from those that give Force powers.

For some, the problem with midichlorians is in the attempt to “unweave the rainbow.” No mechanistic account of the Force will do. But, as I’ve said already, midichlorians don’t explain the Force. At least, they don’t explain the Force anymore than the existence of neurons explains our thoughts. At most, midichlorians are a new level of analysis. As in real life, I think that people who are upset by unweaving the rainbow and find mechanistic explanations cheapening are just unaccustomed to thinking mechanistically. Often, they just haven’t grokked that every phenomenon, sublime or mundane, has an underlying mechanism. Sometimes the mechanism itself is another layer of beauty.

This is not to say that midichlorians are a great example of an elegant mechanism. In The Phantom Menace, they don’t add any weight to the Force or give us any insight into Its effects on the world of Star Wars (except to give the impression that the Old Republic was more scientifically sophisticated). But there is one way in which I think midichlorians could add depth to the Force. There’s an on-going debate about the origin of mitochondria—partnership or parasitism. It’s true that today the relationship between mitochondria and surrounding cell is one of “mutual advantage,” but it may not have begun that way. The textbook story– a large cell offered a smaller cell protection in exchange for ATP, and then eventually started farming the mitochondria that became essential parts of a new eukaryotic cells—is possible. But it’s also possible that the mitochondria-progenitors were sneaky pathogens that preferred to consume living hosts from the inside. In fact, the closest free-living relatives to mitochondria, Rickettsia bacteria, are intracellular pathogens (some are responsible for typhus in humans). Qui-Gon seems to think that the creation of life and knowledge of the Force are good things, and that therefore the midichlorians are good. But this explanation is a little too pat. The Force is a complicated entity with a will of its own. It has a light and a dark side.  How much more fitting would it be for the midichlorians to be characters like everyone else, with complicated pasts, doing what it takes to thrive, their actions both good and bad from “a certain point of view?”

My favorite poem

I keep this poem at my desk for inspiration. It expresses the exact reason that I love knowledge– “A million isolations burn away.” It reminds me how wonderful it is just to exist as a mind.

Crystal Cabinet

Julian Huxley

The world of things entered your infant mind
To populate that crystal cabinet.
Within its walls the strangest partners met,
And things turned thoughts did propagate their kind.
For, once within, corporeal fact could find
A spirit. Fact and you in mutual debt
Built there your little microcosm – which yet
Had hugest tasks to its small self assigned.

Dead men can live there, and converse with stars:
Equator speaks with pole, and night with day;
Spirit dissolves the world’s material bars –
A million isolations burn away.
The Universe can live and work and plan,
At last made God within the mind of man.

We have to think mechanistically about morality

“A certain kind of liberal makes me sick. These people traffic in false equivalencies, always pretending that both nominees are the same, justifying their apathy and not voting or preening about their narcissistic purity as they cast their ballot for a person they know cannot win. I have no problem with anyone who voted for Trump, because they wanted a Trump presidency. I have an enormous problem with anyone who voted for Trump or Stein or Johnson—or who didn’t vote at all—and who now expresses horror about the outcome of this election. If you don’t like the consequences of your own actions, shut the hell up.” — Kurt Eichenwald in Newsweek

I have more forgiveness in my heart for people who don’t accept that protest votes do more harm than good than this author, but I know how he feels. I also know what it’s like to be that kind of narcissist purist he’s talking about. I know how it feels to think that pure motives and actions must somehow translate into good for the world. It’s a natural way for humans to think, and the pathology of it only really becomes clear when someone takes moral behavior very seriously, which is tragic because caring about morality is a good thing.

It’s a hard thing to learn, but we have to learn to see moral actions mechanistically the way we see less charged issues. We have to demand to know *how* an action will effect the good outcome we want, and we have to be open-minded about weighing the various harms and goods that the various available options entail. We have to see moral problems as *problems to be solved* instead of just evils to oppose. This is why the Effective Altruism movement is so important to me.

So for the narcissistic purist liberals out there– I know you have the best of intentions. In order to implement those intentions in the real world, I urge you to be more open-minded and fact-based about how to actually do that.