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Christmas Party Philosophy

Tim Wilkinson sure knows how to have a good time.

As ever I am anticipating a good turnout at my local Philosophical Society’s Christmas dinner this year. The dinner may not be an actual ‘office party’, but anyone familiar with the goings-on at such gatherings will probably not be surprised to hear that last year, after a number of priceless and embarrassing indiscretions by certain members of the Society (all caught on camera – you know who you are), I finally passed out from a lethal combination of mulled wine, Newcastle Brown Ale, and unusually strong pickled onions.

I awoke in unfamiliar surroundings, and found myself confronted by an ageing and somewhat rotund white-bearded gentleman dressed in a red suit, who introduced himself as St Nicholas Newcomb. I was a little mystified as to where I was and how I had got there, but assumed that the pranksters in the Society must have spiked my drinks in order to make me the subject of one of their hilarious philosophical stunts.

The next thing I knew the St Nicholas impersonator was offering me two Christmas presents.

“One of these is already open!” I said, noting that the parcel in question contained a small gold Christmas tree.

“Indeed,” said ‘Santa’, disdainfully picking a wine-soaked party streamer from my lapel. His brow suddenly furrowed. “Is that lipstick on your collar?” he asked.

“Oh that,” I said. “Last thing I remember I was at the philosopher’s Christmas bash. You know what they’re like when they’ve had a few.”

Hmmm. Philosophers, you say? Are you quite sure you were at the right party?” asked Santa uncertainly. “Anyway, the other present contains either a million pounds or nothing at all. You are free to take both presents, or just the closed one.”

“Thanks sucker, I’ll have both. And can you tell me how to get back to the function room?” I said, thinking that my interlocutor’s brain must have been addled by too much Christmas cheer. His scarlet complexion was a dead giveaway.

“Not so fast!” cautioned St Nick. “As well as knowing whether children have been good all year, I also have infallible knowledge of the future. As a matter of fact I already know what you will do next. If you’re going to take both presents I have put nothing in the closed box; but if you’re only going to take the unopened one, I have put a million pounds inside.”

“Have you been on the whiskey already Gramps?” I asked. “It’s not even Christmas Eve yet and you’re all juiced up.”

“That’s rich, coming from someone who can’t remember how he got here,” came the instant reply. “Especially considering that you haven’t even noticed that you’re still lying down.”

He shook his head slowly while I struggled to my feet.

“Well then,” I began, as I fought for control of my legs, “in addition to your spooky gift of precognition – which I’m not sure is compatible with free will, by the way – are you also able to change the past?” At this stage I remember thinking that as a card-carrying member of the Philosophical Society I could probably outwit anyone prepared to dress so comically in public: “If you can’t alter the past then the million quid is either already in there or it isn’t,” I asserted. “If it’s already there I can’t make it magically disappear just by making a choice now, so I have nothing to lose by taking both presents.”

“Since you ask – no, I can’t change the past,” he replied, “Although if I could I can think of several other paradoxes I’d like to try out on you... Nevertheless, it may help you to know that I’ve done this dozens of times before, and that everyone who takes only the sealed box gets the million, while everyone who takes both boxes just ends up with the Christmas tree – which is solid gold and worth ten thousand pounds, by the way.”

Now he was making it difficult. In my mind I could already hear the hoots of derision from my chums at the Society if I managed to mess this one up; but after the evening’s festivities I was finding it difficult to think. That third helping of Christmas pudding must have been dulling my normally razor-sharp logical faculties. Eventually I decided to take only the closed present and leg it back to the party before the bar closed. I took my gift, thanked Santa and headed outside, but as I crossed the road I was so absorbed with getting the wrapping paper off to see what w as inside that I wasn’t paying attention to the traffic. A lorry carrying festive provender swerved and braked fiercely, but it was too late. The lorry toppled over, and I was dead before its cargo of mince pies had stopped rolling around the street.

This time when I came around I was surrounded by large green creatures equipped with an alarming number of eyes and tentacles. Fortunately, the aliens turned out to be friendly. They explained that they had regrown my body in a cloning vat then imprinted a perfect copy of my brain state from a scan they had taken just a fraction of a second before my death. The hard part done, it had been comparatively simple to replicate my clothes and paper hat.

I was almost beside myself with excitement. I felt exactly the same in every detail as I had done before the accident, and told my new alien friends that I could hardly wait to return triumphantly to the Philosophical Society. I explained that since my old body would still be in the morgue, I would be living proof that the brain generates consciousness. It would be the final nail in the coffin of all that dualism nonsense.

The aliens exchanged worried twenty-eyed glances. “If I were you I wouldn’t repeat that argument at the Philosophical Society – unless you want them to throw things at you,” said one, whose name according to the badge on his uniform was Bertrand. “Given how we’ve recreated your body and wired your brain up, how can you know for sure that the poor fellow you also seem to think was you didn’t kick the bucket under a huge pile of mince pies? Have you considered the possibility that you didn’t exist until thirty seconds ago, and that your memories are artificial, having come from our neural imprinter?”

Er,” I said weakly, and shut my eyes in an attempt to ruminate on this new possibility. “On the other appendage, my colleague René” – he gestured towards René, who waved a friendly tentacle – “thinks your mind survived the crash and was probably on its way to the afterlife until we interrupted its journey by regenerating your body and brain …”

“Unless of course you’re not really here at all, and powerful demons have tricked us into thinking we rescued you,” interrupted René with a smug alien smile.

“Yes, thank you René. Shouldn’t you be at your skeptical therapy session by now?” asked Bertrand. René mumbled something to the effect that perhaps he was there already, and then he shuffled away. “Then again, Thomas here” – Thomas nodded a large wobbly protuberance that I hoped was his head – “would like to have a chat with you about the possibility that you might be a zombie. Or perhaps…”

“Wait!” I said. On top of that business with the clairvoyant Santa’s presents, not to mention the Brown Ale, this was just too much. I could feel my new brain starting to overheat. “I can’t take any more!” I exclaimed.

Fortunately, the aliens were sympathetic to my predicament, and offered to pack my head in ice and send me home, prior to their return to the Triangulum galaxy 2.6 million light years away. They led me to a small room with an illuminated panel on the floor, and explained that their matter transporter would have me home in a fraction of a second. Bertrand grinned as he told me, “Heisenberg scanners in the panel will record the quantum state of every particle in your body. You will be disintegrated in the process, but the information from the scan will be sent through hyperspace and used to reconstitute you back on Earth.”

“No!” I cried. “What if a totally different person who just looks and behaves like me walks away at the other end? I’ve already been killed once today!”

“Oh don’t be such a baby,” said Bertrand, and threw the switch.

At the next meeting, my comrades at the Philosophical Society were strangely reluctant to accept my story. They seemed troubled by irrelevant minor details, such as my inability to produce any evidence in support of my version of events. To make matters worse, my friend Karl seemed to think he could easily falsify my claims, since apparently several ‘reliable’ witnesses at the party had kept me under close observation, slumped beneath a table all night, until they had finally carried me home at dawn. They pressed me to accept their own account of the previous evening based on an argument to the best explanation. Their version was that I had got monumentally Brahms and Liszt and dreamed the whole escapade.

I hit back with an appeal to relativism. Since truth is not absolute but rather can only be established with respect to a particular frame of reference, I protested that by bullying me with their so-called ‘facts’, my associates were merely trying to oppress me with their narrow worldview. Unfortunately, my argument crumbled when under subsequent heavy questioning I was forced to admit that I actually thought relativism to be a load of codswallop. I was also finding it increasingly difficult to explain why there were no independent reports of wrecked mince pie vans, or announcements from the mortuary concerning the arrival of a pastry-encrusted corpse. By this stage I was losing the argument hands down, but thankfully we all agreed that since it was the season of goodwill we might all feel more comfortable continuing the debate in a nearby tavern. So it was that later that evening we rounded off another successful Christmas meeting of the Society by devising marvellous and as yet unsurpassed solutions to two of the most vexing problems in the history of philosophy: Why are we here? And where are we going?

We’re here for a drink. And we’re going to the bar.

© Tim Wilkinson 2011

Tim Wilkinson has a PhD in pure maths from the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. He lives with his wife and three children in the North East of England, and is kicking himself for not asking the aliens for their views on the continuum hypothesis while he had the chance.

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