The Jellyfish

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Inside the gallery, the first room was dark, and on the ceiling were pink neon strip lights that made the darkness strange and enchanting. At the centre of the room was a glass case, a cube measuring four feet on all sides, that contained several translucent jellyfish bouncing around in water. Their bodies were like smoke, trailing long wisps of stinging tendrils. Alex stood gazing at them. He had always found aquatic life fascinating, for they seemed otherworldly; too many a strange thing came and went under our murky oceans, and were so often of size and shape that one would assume of an alien. Beneath the glass was an illuminated glass plaque that had on it some information about the things. It explained that oxygen simply diffused through their membranes, that they had no necessity to breathe like humans do. They were also without hearts, for they have no need to pump blood. One would at least assume that they require a brain, but alas they did not have those either. But there they were, still swimming in that glass cube.

One particular jellyfish was smaller than the others, and it tried competing for space and food, but had unfortunately been shoved into the corner by the larger, more brutish jellyfish. The big ones had monopolised the tiny fish that swum too near – injecting complex neurotoxins designed to kill, neurotoxins that were created without even the need for a brain. Alex felt sorry for the small jellyfish, its poor feelings, bullied out by the others… but then he suddenly felt foolish for having sympathised, for if he were to sympathise for this thing, then what prevented him from feeling for bacteria, or cells?

A woman in a long, dark coat approached him.
‘The Jellyfish. It’s a good piece, isn’t it?’
Pulled from his contemplation, Alex was slightly startled. He looked up and down the woman,
‘They’re fascinating I’ll give you that. I mean, how does a thing go on existing without a brain, a heart, or any real organs at all?’
‘How does one go one existing at all?’ the woman smirked, ‘It’s not as though we will ourselves to do it. It just sort of happens, doesn’t it?’
‘But I could end myself at any time, and the same cannot be said for these Jellyfish. I have the choice, and the thought, and the reasoning behind my decision.’
They stood in silence for a moment, both watching the membranous things dip and bob in the glass cube.
‘I’ll let you in on a secret. The Jellyfish,’ she gestured her hand towards their half-sentient, tissue like structures. ‘They’re not real.’
‘What do you mean, not real? They’re very much there, aren’t they?’
The woman smirked again.
‘They’re generated. Sure, they’re real in the sense that they’re there, that you can see them, and that they’re doing things. But they aren’t real jellyfish. It’s all code, a projection. An algorithm.’
Alex bunched his eyebrows, finding difficulty to accept this strange woman’s ‘secret’.
‘But how would one even go about coding something like this? They look plain and real to me, look!’ Alex squatted down and pointed intently at their tendrils, floating like debris from the UFO shaped heads. ‘That cannot be simulated. Look at the way it’s stinging those little fish and eating them! You mean to tell me that the fish aren’t there, either?’
The woman laid out her palms, ‘None of it is. It’s an empty glass box.’
‘I don’t believe you. Who are you anyway, some trickster, someone to come and toy with my head now that you’re bored of the exhibit?’
‘Well, go ahead and prove to me that they are not simulated.’

Alex tried to collect his thoughts. Interrupted in his peaceful contemplation, antagonised by some manipulator, some deceiver of rationality! But try as he might, there was little he could do to prove that the jellyfish were not simulations. How could he possibly prove such a thing if the glass prevented touching them. But then, what good would that even to do to prove it still..?
‘Well, there is no way to tell, but lack of evidence is still not evidence that you are correct.’
‘Let us ask the question: “Are the jellyfish real?” There are only two possibilities: yes or no.” She squatted down and stared at the creatures, her eyes deep and blue and wide with fascination, catching in the pink neon light. ‘There is no way to answer, however, and so the jellyfish are both real and not real.’
‘That’s impossible!’ Alex shook his head. ‘This art exhibition is real. Whatever is in that box, be it fictitious or live jellyfish is at least real. Just because I do not know what it is does not change the fact that it must exist as one or the other. Anyway, why don’t we simply ask the one who made this thing?’
‘You’re talking to her.’
Alex shook his head again, this time a maniacal grin on his face. ‘You’re a rotten liar. Do you really enjoy playing me with these mind games?’
‘You’re not to know whether I am really the creator or not. You’re not to know whether the jellyfish are simulated or live, as you put it. You’re not to know if I am a liar or a teller of truth. What are you left to know other than the questions that you want to ask?’
Alex was still not convinced.
‘In that case, I’ll smash this glass and free these creatures, and I’ll prove you wrong!’ his voice was thick with frustration and irritation. Others in the room looked over to see what the matter was, thinking he was having some sort of outburst.
‘Do as you want, but you wouldn’t prove anything. After all, does it matter if they are or not?’
And with that, the woman walked away. Alex remained staring at the jellyfish; then he walked away in the opposite direction.

About the Author: 
Jack Davies is a Philosophy student at the University of Hertfordshire. He likes fiction and thought experiments.