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Judgment Day July 11, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Science.
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I don’t find thought experiments about the nature of God very interesting—but throw in time travel and I perk up a bit.

Mike Lebossiere poses the following puzzle:

Sally is working on a time travel project and during one experiment, her own smartphone appears in the lab. Startled, she checks her pocket and finds that her phone is there. Yet it also appears to be on the table. Picking it up, she finds that video has been recorded on it. Much to her horror and dismay, it seems to be a video of her saying that she has killed her husband for having an affair with her friend, only to find out after that she was wrong.  In the video, she can she the body of what seems to be her dead husband. The video closes with her future self saying that she is sending back the phone to tell her past self to not kill her husband; future Sally then shoots herself in the head as the phone is being sent into the past.

Being something of a skeptic, Sally checks the phones carefully and finds that (aside from some blood on the future phone that matches her husband’s blood type) the two are identical. This convinces Sally and she does not kill her husband.

Now, let God be brought into the picture, at least hypothetically. If one prefers to leave God out of this game, then an omniscient observer who judges people for their deeds and misdeeds can be used in His place.

In this scenario, what would God actually “see” and how would He judge?

On one hand, the future Sally did kill her husband and send the phone back. After all, without those events, then the phone would not have the video recorded on it and would not have been sent back. As such, God would judge that Sally was guilty of suicide and murder, hence worthy of divine punishment. Also, both Sally and her husband would be dead and thus would have gone off to the relevant afterlife (assuming there is such a thing).

On the other hand, the time traveling phone prevented Sally from killing her husband and committing suicide. Thus, Sally would not be judged for these deeds. Also, neither Sally nor her husband would be dead. In effect, that future event never will be, although it must have been (otherwise there would be no phone).


One classic view of God and time is that God perceives all of time “at once.’ To use an analogy, God’s perspective is like being able to see the entire filmstrip of a movie at once. The past, present and future are just positions on the strip relative to a specific film cell. Hence, He does not see any changes in the past-He merely sees as the events that did occur, shall occur and are occurring all “at once.”  So, God would “see” the phone appear from a future that never was to save Sally from committing a murder that never will be.

I think this just points out that the idea of time travel is logically incoherent. The whole idea of going back in time to “undo” an event that has occurred requires that the event both did happen and did not happen. That is a logical contradiction. The future event would have to have happened in order for it to be caused to not happen. Since the “undoing” event is in a cause effect relation with the undone event which must exist for the undoing event to occur we have backward causation going on.

And it is not obvious that backward causation is a coherent idea. It would seen that the outcome of an event must happen only after the event. Although quantum mechanics seems to allow for backward causation (if I understand it correctly) surely there is no experimental result that depends on that idea.

So what would God see? It is a widely accepted view that God is a rational being and thus can neither see nor coherently think contradictory states of affairs. If time travel is logically impossible then trying to imagine how an omniscient being would view it doesn’t help.

Of course, if Sally is the sort of person who would murder her spouse for infidelity then God may have all the justification God needs.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Is the Future Over? June 20, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science, Technology.
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William Gibson thinks maybe so:

Say it’s midway through the final year of the first decade of the 21st Century. Say that, last week, two things happened: scientists in China announced successful quantum teleportation over a distance of ten miles, while other scientists, in Maryland, announced the creation of an artificial, self-replicating genome. In this particular version of the 21st Century, which happens to be the one you’re living in, neither of these stories attracted a very great deal of attention.

In quantum teleportation, no matter is transferred, but information may be conveyed across a distance, without resorting to a signal in any traditional sense. Still, it’s the word “teleportation”, used seriously, in a headline. My “no kidding” module was activated: “No kidding,” I said to myself, “teleportation.” A slight amazement.

The synthetic genome, arguably artificial life, was somehow less amazing. The sort of thing one feels might already have been achieved, somehow. Triggering the “Oh, yeah” module. “Artificial life? Oh, yeah.”

New devices are cool; new human possibilities with new meaning? Eh. Not so much.

Alvin Toffler warned us about Future Shock, but is this Future Fatigue? For the past decade or so, the only critics of science fiction I pay any attention to, all three of them, have been slyly declaring that the Future is over. I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this is akin to the declaration that history was over, and just as silly. But really I think they’re talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the culture of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that. If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.

The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely…more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian.

The future used to be a place of radically new promises and perils, game changers made possible by science. But he welcomes this new realism.

This newfound state of No Future is, in my opinion, a very good thing. It indicates a kind of maturity, an understanding that every future is someone else’s past, every present someone else’s future. Upon arriving in the capital-F Future, we discover it, invariably, to be the lower-case now.

As he points out (and he should know), science fiction is more about present hopes and fears that it is about the future.

If you are a William Gibson fan, his comments on his own writing career and his forthcoming new book are quite interesting.

If Pattern Recognition was about the immediate psychic aftermath of 9-11, and Spook Country about the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, I could say that Zero History is about the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event, but that must be true of any 2010 novel with ambitions on the 2010 zeitgeist. But all three of these novels are also about that dawning recognition that the future, be it capital-T Tomorrow or just tomorrow, Friday, just means more stuff, however peculiar and unexpected. A new quotidian. Somebody’s future, somebody else’s past.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Life on the Table Top April 24, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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Sometimes I’m wondering if I’m living on a table top, and just haven’t discovered it yet. The significance of that metaphor will be explained below.


I go to the store to find a favorite product, and it’s gone from the shelves. There’s not even a label where it used to be. Other stores don’t carry it, either. I am met with blank stares: “I don’t think we’ve ever carried that item” or, sometimes, “We haven’t had that item while I’ve been working here.” Occasionally a sales clerk will remember, “They just canceled a bunch of items,” or “It wasn’t selling.” (But it was! I was buying it, and had for years!) Instead there are other items, stuff I’ve never seen before; ads for new products, products we can’t live without, stuff that will make us feel better, look better, live longer, have nicer breath, and so forth. And in another 6 months they will be gone from the shelves, and we will be asked to be excited about other products. Sure, this is life in a Western consumer society, and truthfully, I prefer it to the limited number of available goods from my post-WWII childhood, or neighbors fighting over a loaf of bread in empty bakeries in other cultures. It’s just that I have this sneaking suspicion that there’s a certain scenario at play, involving a huge table top, and that’s because of one of the first science fiction stories I ever read when I was in my late teens. I haven’t read it since, so I apologize if my summary isn’t completely accurate. But it’s the metaphor that counts, not so much the actual story:


The story was called “The Tunnel Under the World,” written by Frederick Pohl. It is about a husband and wife living in a small town, ordinary lives, work, shopping, dinners, sex, and so forth, but every morning they wake up from terrible nightmares, and so does everyone else. Their world is awash with commercials—billboards, commercials on TV and on the radio, in papers and magazines, even advertising trucks driving around the neighborhood with bullhorns. And somehow, it seems like all the items advertised are products nobody has heard of. They usually go to bed fairly early, because they have busy days and get tired—but one night the husband, let’s call him Joe, changes his routine, and works in his garage. Here he discovers that the floor and walls are really fake, and underneath is solid metal. Joe sleeps in the garage overnight, and goes upstairs next morning. He notices that the date on the newspaper is yesterday’s, but his wife thinks that date is correct. Nobody else seems to notice that the date, on TV and the radio, is also the day before, and the news is old. But Joe remembers—and he also remembers the commercials from yesterday: They were different. That night he hides in his garage again, apparently shielded from whatever steals his memory by the metal walls, and sure enough, next day his wife, co-workers and neighbors all have had nightmares, and remember nothing; the fresh newspaper still reads the date from two days ago, with the same news, their clock shows the same date—but the commercials are totally different. When he recognizes a co-worker who tried to contact him the day before, the co-worker realizes that Joe can remember—and takes him underground to show him that nothing is what it seems. Underneath the town there is now a new, shiny metal tunnel. Every night the entire community has been drugged, somehow, and someone is manipulating everybody to think it is always the same date. The co-worker has managed to stay awake, and avoid the collective nightly brain wipe. But why this elaborate scheme? And what’s with the never ending commercials for products nobody has ever heard of before? Joe decides to explore the tunnel—and ends up on a large smooth surface ending abruptly, with a bottomless abyss in front of him, and across the abyss, a huge dark mountain. That moves. And has hands. Joe realizes the terrifying truth: They can never escape, because they are not real people—they are nothing but miniaturized robots, living on a table top, as part of a major experiment. What kind of experiment?  Every day these little test subjects who think they live real lives are being exposed to new forms of advertising and store items, to judge what is most attractive to consumers. Then at night their little brains are wiped, and in the morning it starts all over again: Same newspaper, same TV news, same date, different commercials and different items in the stores. And it will go on forever.

Quite a story to read when you’re 17 and starting to question the social status quo, and there were no Truman Show, Thirteenth Floor or Matrix movies yet. But of course we’ve always had Descartes and Plato. Evil demons and shadows on a wall…So the “table top” is a metaphor that has been on my list of possible scenarios of deceptions/delusions for a long time. And that’s why I’m thinking, when I shop for my favorite items and find nothing but new stuff on the shelves that maybe we’re all on that table top, reduced to guinea pigs…