Quick short story here. This one’s going in the short story collection but not being sold separately, as it’s too short…
Free Will And Testament
One of the great pastimes for those of us with a rigorous mathematical bent is to annoy philosophers, and so it was that last Tuesday I was spending my free period between tutorials, not at the pub, but sat in the common room of the Philosophy Department at St. Cymian’s College, arguing about free will.
“But surely,” I was saying, “you accept that the universe runs according to deterministic laws?”
“Oh yes. Every effect must have a cause.”
“But John Conway has proved, mathematically, that free will cannot exist in a universe that runs by deterministic laws.”
“Ah. . .that all depends on how you define ‘free will’. . .”
Hearing this, my colleague the Egregious Professor of Physics wandered over.
“Interesting idea, free will. Nonsense, of course, but very interesting.”
“Nonsense?” replied the Loquacious Professor of Philosophy, “You dismiss thousands of years of thought in a single word? Honestly, the arrogance of scientists, thinking they know it all. . .”
“In this case,” said the Physics Professor, “I do know what I’m talking about. (I heard you mutter ‘for once’, Giles). I happen to have seen with my own eyes conclusive experimental evidence that free will is a mirage, an illusion, a falsehood. In short, it’s nonsense.”
“But what possible experimental evidence could ever prove or disprove something like that?”
“Well, let me tell you. . .”
“Did you ever hear,” the Professor asked, “of a man named Nigel Dickinson?”
“The computer billionaire?”
“The very same. He used to be a student of mine, before he dropped out. He was a Libertarian, like so many of these computer fellows are. He had, I’m afraid to say, a very limited intellectual horizon. His only interests were making money, science fiction, his computer, trying and failing to have sex with girls, and whether or not free will exists.
“You see, he was, as I said, a Libertarian. He argued that we all had the power to choose our own destiny, and that while an invisible hand of the market would inevitably hurt some people, those people would have chosen that through their own free will. An incoherent position, to be sure, but then he was only nineteen when I knew him. I’m sure some Libertarians make more sense.
“But this combined with his love of science fiction. He was obsessed with time travel, and this fed into his beliefs about free will. He argued that since time travel was possible, it must also be possible to change the past – that all time must be fluid, because otherwise free will must have no meaning.”
“Wait a second,” I interrupted, “you say ‘since time travel was possible’. Surely we don’t know either way?”
“Oh, my dear boy,” the Professor replied,”every physicist knows how to travel in time. We’ve known for the best part of sixty years. We just keep it to ourselves. Wouldn’t do to have laymen messing around with time travel. It’d cause no end of mess.
“Anyway, where was I?. . .Ah, yes, Nigel. Well, he was absolutely convinced that we could change the past. So much so that he actually tried the experiment.
“You must understand, of course, that as a rule time travel is incredibly impractical. You can’t cross over with your own timeline at all, for example. Nobody quite knows why – it’s not like the atoms that make you up have little labels attached that have your name and address on – but a sentient being just can’t go backwards in time to any point beyond its point of departure. And you can send people forwards in time, but only to a time after their own death. Of course, once we discovered that, people pretty quickly stopped experimenting with time travel – no-one wants to accidentally set the controls for next Tuesday and actually arrive there, as it would absolutely ruin the weekend.
“So no-one’s done much in the way of actual time travel in decades. But Nigel got it into his head to try something else. He was going to send himself the winning lottery numbers back in time on a slip of paper – slips of paper being, as far as we know, non-sapient – and then, when he’d got the money, decide not to send the numbers back, thus proving that free will exists, but with the consolation prize that if he did turn out to be a soulless automaton merely obeying natural laws, at least he’d be a rich soulless automaton.
“I could have told him it wouldn’t work, of course, and I did. Oh, he got the money, of course – he won ten million pounds – but he came to me a week later and said ‘I just can’t do it.’
“‘Can’t do what?’ I asked.
“‘I can’t go through with the experiment. I have to send the numbers back. I can’t risk losing that much money.’
“I knew, of course, that this would happen. If you receive winning lottery numbers through a time portal, of course you’ve got to send them to yourself later. It’s just logical. But Nigel was absolutely distraught.
“‘I can’t let this stop me,’ he said, ‘I’ve got to find something else that matters to me less than winning the lottery. Something I can choose to give up of my own free will.’
“‘How about investment advice?’ I suggested. ‘Get some stock tips from yourself from future.’
“So, of course, he gets a tip to buy zatt.com , just before it goes huge, and within a year he’s a billionaire. He came up to me just before he left the university, to thank me for everything I’d done for him.
“‘But why don’t you do the same as I’ve done?’ he asked me. ‘Why don’t you quit your job and become a billionaire?’
“‘Being a physicist is an avocation,’ I replied. ‘We have a higher duty than money. So what about your experiment?’
“‘Oh, I had to send the stock information back, too. I couldn’t very well risk not becoming a billionaire, could I?’
“‘So you accept that free will is a nonsense? That you can’t change the past?’
“‘Hardly, and I’ve got the perfect test case. I just received a message from the future telling me to marry Alexandra Harcourt.’
“‘Supermodel if you don’t mind! But yes, I just got a message to marry her. And that’s only sex, not anything important like money.”‘
I had a horrid suspicion, at this point, that I knew where this was going. I’d seen the news about Dickinson’s death in the newspaper the previous week, and I remembered reading that he’d recently been divorced.
“Are you telling us he managed not to send that message back, and that’s what killed him?”
“In a way. . . but let me explain. What the newspaper didn’t say about poor Nigel’s death is that it was suicide. He did marry Ms. Harcourt, but it was a terribly unhappy marriage. They fought constantly, and they hated each other within a couple of years.
“They got divorced last year, and Ms. Harcourt took pretty much everything from him in the settlement. She got his house and most of his money. And she humiliated him in the divorce courts, as well. Said he’d only been interested in her as a sex object, and that she’d have been okay with that if he’d been any good in bed. There was a headline in one of the tabloids, actually, ‘Ninety-Second Nigel’.
“Well, of course, poor Nigel was ruined. He’d built up this huge business, but he had no real talent for it, and he had no money now to start again. He could have sent himself some more messages, but he didn’t have access to the university’s equipment any more, and he didn’t have the money to buy it for himself.
“So last week he killed himself. It was all hushed up, of course – reported as a heart attack – but it was definitely suicide.”
“If it was hushed up,” asked the Professor of Philosophy, “how do you know about it?”
“Because right before he killed himself, he sent me this note.”
The Professor of Physics handed our colleague a note, which he read before passing it to me. It said simply “I managed not to send the message, so I can die knowing I’m doing this of my own free will. Thank you for everything, Nigel”
“But wait!” said the Professor of Philosophy, “Doesn’t this disprove your whole argument? He didn’t send the message, so free will does exist!”
“On the contrary,” said the Professor of Physics, “it rather proves the opposite. He didn’t send the message, but he didn’t manage to change anything, either.”
“But that doesn’t make sense!” I said, “If he didn’t send the message, why did he end up marrying her?”
“I said he didn’t send the message,” said the Professor of Physics. “I didn’t say I didn’t send it. As I said, we can’t have non-physicists knowing the secret of time travel. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lecture to give.”