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Bygone Days Yet To Come

Tim Wilkinson reports from the philosophical past, present, and future.

Our philosophical society meetings have become much more entertaining since the invention of the Chronometric Displacement Turbine. The transport of tomorrow can pick you up today, and drop you off yesterday. The last meeting was a real corker, with philosophers from many eras converging on Greece in 350 BC. (Come to think of it, maybe that was the next meeting, rather than the previous one; time travel has turned diary management into a real headache.)

When we materialized at the Athenian station, Philippa Foot was already there, making some adjustments to the new railway leading to the conference centre. She explained that the modifications were all part of a new experiment, which she promised to show us on the way home.

Just off the train, I bumped into Margaret Cavendish and Thomas Hobbes, both in reflective mood. Apparently, they’d just had a bit of an argument with René Descartes concerning the immateriality of minds. Cavendish advised me to steer clear of the canteen.

“Is Descartes still spoiling for an argument?” I asked.

“Not at all,” she replied, “It’s just that Heidegger and Nietzsche are both there, and they’re really killing the mood.”

Hmm. I expect all that nihilism is finally getting them down?”

“Oh no, it’s much worse than that: the canteen has run out of brownies. I knew there would be trouble if they got a taste for fancy future comestibles. Heidegger looked like a broken man, and Nietzsche seemed to be weeping. Someone will have to pop back to the future to get some more. In the meantime, we sent Schopenhauer in with some chocolate digestives to try and talk them round.”

Schopenhauer ?” I gasped. “Are you sure that was wise? We don’t want them throwing themselves off the top of the Parthenon. Nietzsche hasn’t written Also Sprach Zarathustra yet, and we can’t afford to upset the literary timeline again after what happened last year.”

“Last year?” enquired Hobbes.

“You know what a joker David Hume is… Well, during a game of billiards, he started debating the relative merits of scotch versus vodka with Dostoevsky, and the debate turned into an all-night ‘inductive experiment’. The pair of them were still singing rude songs when everyone came down for breakfast. Then, when Dostoevsky said he was thinking of writing a book called The Brothers Karamazov, Hume talked him out of it for a laugh. A large swathe of existentialism was almost wiped out at a stroke. The Time Police were absolutely furious. Eventually, they had to lend Dostoevsky a first edition and make him promise to copy it out by hand. Then we all had to suffer an interminable lecture on the bootstrapping paradox and the integrity of the timeline.”

I followed Cavendish and Hobbes into the lecture hall (actually a leafy colonnade). The presenter was a robot with state-of-the-art AI from the Turing-Lovelace Seminary in the year 2439. It was saying: “In the twenty-fifth century, data from the recently constructed Preposterously Enormous Hadron Collider has shown that fundamental particles are made of some sort of computer code.” There were a few gasps of astonishment from the audience, followed by a shout of “I told you so!” from Nick Bostrom at the back of the room.

Scarcely had we begun adjusting to the apparent confirmation that the universe is a simulation, when a space near the bot began to distort into a multi-chromatic patchwork of impossible geometrical shapes surrounded by a ring of fractured and boiling air. Either this was the unexpected operation of the Turbine, or it had been a mistake to eat those mushrooms I’d found growing on the side of the Acropolis. But the distortion evaporated, revealing what appeared to be an exact copy of the Turing-Lovelace bot.

Bygone Days Yet to Come
Bygone Days Yet to Come art by Cameron Gray 2023

Before it could speak however in rushed half a dozen Time Police, wearing flak jackets emblazoned with the moniker Paradox Avoidance Division. Naturally, everyone felt the immediate urge to find out exactly what paradox was about to be avoided – but people asking questions of that sort tend to find themselves locked away awaiting a memory wipe, so we all decided to hold our tongues. The Time Police grabbed the new (or was it the same?) robot, and left in a blazing prism of contorted time. All in all, it was shaping up into a fantastic afternoon’s entertainment.

The news from a robot that the universe is a computer program ignited a spirited debate concerning whether organic life has a monopoly on consciousness; whether the term ‘organic life’ even has a useful meaning any more; whether turning off a sufficiently advanced video game amounts to murder; and, more generally, about just what the hell’s going on with the universe. But the Turing-Lovelace bot then dropped another bombshell: future neural nets had undertaken a systematic review of all published philosophy papers, and had found the rate of logical fallacies and other errors to be unacceptably high. As a result, all academic philosophy journals abandoned the traditional peer review process in favour of review by AI. Within a few years the error rate had dropped markedly, the bot told us; but it also turned out that ninety-nine out of every hundred papers were now being written by computers in the first place.

The audience reeled. All that speculation about robots taking over the world seems to have been right! The prospect of cyborgs enslaving humanity is already bad enough, but when the food banks are overwhelmed by an army of starving out-of-work philosophers, or there won’t be enough soup left to feed all the debt-laden graduates. It certainly gave us all something to think about.

It was, therefore, in somewhat sombre mood that everyone boarded the train for the return journey to the time station. But we soon heard Philippa’s voice over the intercom, introducing an ethical problem to cheer us up: a quick ballot would be held, and the train would be heading down the track with the most votes. There were only three options, and whichever one we picked, there were, unfortunately, certain to be casualties on the track. The choice was between running over the last surviving eastern hare-wallaby, which had recently been rescued from Australia in the year 1889; running over the robot from 2439; or running over a group of philosophers.

“The vote would be easier if we knew what kind of philosophers they are!” shouted Leibniz.

“I was expecting you’d ask that,” came the reply from Foot.“They’re epistemological relativists.”

“Then it’s easy,” responded Leibniz. “As far as they’re concerned, there is no objective truth, even about whether they’re alive or dead; it just depends on what cultural framework they happen to be using to frame the question. So if we kill them, we’ll merely be introducing them to a new point of view. We’ll practically be doing them a favour.” Knowing nods were exchanged all round the carriage, and everyone agreed that things were looking pretty good for the extinct marsupial and the robot. “Throw the switch to track number three!” I shouted, and everyone cheered.

It had been quite a day; but when I got home, I found a couple of Time Police waiting for me at the door. They pointed to the bundle I was carrying, protruding from which could clearly be seen an exceptionally cute, friendly, furry face.

“Is that your hare-wallaby, sir?” one of them asked.

The game was up. Reluctantly, I handed her over. “Make sure you take good care of her,” I said. “She really likes brownies…” But the air had already folded into a maelstrom of scalding colour. The Police and the hare-wallaby were gone.

© Dr Tim Wilkinson 2023

Tim Wilkinson is a former maths lecturer. He does occasional work in the e-learning department of the School of Mathematics, Statistics & Physics at Newcastle University.

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