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A Blog for MOOCs and Other Animals

SF Short Story – Experimental Philosophy

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I wanted to try my hand at writing science fiction and this is my first attempt at a short story – inspired by Edinburgh University’s excellent ‘Introduction to Philosophy‘ MOOC. It was great fun to write but I have no idea whether it would appeal to anyone else – comments are welcome! 

The Experimental Philosophy Unit

Jim woke up and blinked at precisely the same time as the other 36 in the ward. Looking round, he found himself near the end of a poorly-lit, cavernous ward, seemingly populated by male patients, all peering into the gloom just as he was. He had been dozing on a bench in his favourite courtyard surrounded by some of Edinburgh’s finest old tenements when suddenly an enormous black insect had flown up out of nowhere and stung him on the face – “What the !! ……” and then oblivion. Touching his face now, he felt no marks or pain. “So far so good”, he thought. He even felt hungry.

An Edinburgh Courtyard

View of the tenements from Jim’s bench in his favourite Edinburgh courtyard (2013)


“Your attention please, gentlemen!” This from a bright but strangely flustered young lady who had entered unsteadily through the door beside Jim’s bed and was doing her best to address them. She wore an odd but expensive looking tunic and a narrow, draped skirt. It was wide at the hips but so narrow at the ankle she had difficulty in walking. “There is no need to panic!” she exclaimed as if there really were some reason for alarm. Jim smiled at the spectacle and subdued laughter rose from the other beds. A little nonplussed she continued, “Everything you need is here. You’ll find clothes under the bed. There’s a washroom over there, buffet and bar next door – just help yourself – any questions?” Then she turned on her heel and headed back to the door. As she passed Jim he noticed the letters “EPU” emblazoned on her sleeve and called out, “Nurse! What does EPU stand for?” “I’m not a nurse Jim29 – the name’s Sue”, she replied and hobbled away as quickly as her skirt would allow. “Why’s she wearing my grandmother’s best clothes? ” said a voice beside him. Peering at bed 28 next to his own, he made out a stocky, middle-aged man of about the same age and build as himself. “Dunno – thought she was a nurse – yeah, reminds me of my grandmother’s Sunday best too.” chortled Jim29. “The name’s Jim28 by the way” said the man, smiling as he stuck out his hand. “Gent beside me’s another Jim – Jim27 I call him – coincidence eh?” Jim29 grasped the outstretched hand. “Sure is!” said another voice from bed 30, “Jim30 here too!”

The four Jims put on the old fashioned clothes they found under their beds, but left the the cloth caps. They were all hungry so they took some sandwiches from the buffet into the bar and washed them down with the free beer. The others from the ward had had the same idea and soon all 37 were in the bar discussing their predicament – but with ever-increasing anxiety. All 37 had the same first name and closely resembled each other – right down to the beginnings of 37 beer paunches. Jim29 disliked exchanging surnames or much personal information with strangers and the other Jims seemed to share his aversion but what they found really weird was that they had all suffered the same type of accident. “Pesky insects carrying some horrible infection maybe” said Jim29. Jim28 agreed and thought they’d been dumped into a secret isolation ward somewhere and they had better find out who was in charge. There were some big questions to put to Sue in the morning.

But what happened in the morning was completely unexpected. Jims 28 and 29 were having breakfast together. Jim28, still determined to find someone in charge, raised his hand, pointed a finger then suddenly froze – motionless. Jim29 followed the gaze of Jim28’s unblinking eyes but saw nothing unusual, just the other Jims chatting or silently munching their breakfasts. “What is it Jim?” The seconds passed but Jim28 neither spoke nor moved, his hand and finger suspended stiffly in mid-air, his mouth fixed half open in silent protestation. Jim29 was thoroughly alarmed by now but before he could act Sue tottered out of a side door carrying a large white sheet that she threw over Jim28’s inert body. Effortlessly scooping him up from his chair she marched off with him under one arm as if he was a tailor’s dummy. “What happened there? Was that Sue?”, asked Jim30 anxiously from the next table. Momentarily delayed when Jim28’s rigid index finger caught on the door handle, Sue managed to lock the door behind her before the two Jims could catch her up. They banged on the door and eventually she emerged, embarassed. “Look guys, I’m sorry. It was my fault. Please don’t say anything. Jim28 took ill but he’ll be OK. I can’t really tell you any more but there’s no need to panic”. She shuffled awkwardly as a large crowd of Jims began to gather round. “You’d better tell us more Sue!”, retorted Jim29 angrily. “For a start, where are we and what’s going on here?” “Yeah!” sang the crowd in unison as they demanded to know where Jim28 had gone. “Sorry gentlemen!”, said Sue as she turned to go.

Now Jim had never laid a finger on anyone before – certainly not a lady. He was a paragon of virtue in that respect, drunk or sober, but he lost it now. Sticking out a foot like a demented footballer he brought Sue down in a flurry of tunic and skirt. She lay on the floor in some distress until a couple of the other Jims helped her up. “Why did you do that Jim29?” she wailed. “I’m sorry Sue, but I had no choice. It was the right thing to do. We’re stuck here with no explanations. You’re not leaving until you’ve told us what’s going on.” Sue recovered and astonished them all by smiling delightedly. “It was the right thing to do.” she repeated. “Note the subject’s unemotional demeanour indicative of objective moral opinion. This is unarguably a relativistic moral situation and furthermore a case of …”, she gabbled on. “Stop it!” shouted Jim29. “We want some answers – now!” Startled, she retorted, “I’m only taking notes for the experiment…… oh gee!” She tailed off …

Crestfallen once more, she told them that working for the Experimental Philosophy Unit was no easy option and that mistakes did happen. She’d fluffed the ‘copy and paste’ and now there were 37 Jims – 37 of them, guinea pigs in a thought experiment where there ought to have been just one. “You mean we’re … clones?” interrupted Jim29. Sure enough, examining each other’s features confirmed just that – down to the least pimple and hair follicle. “But what happened to Jim28?” asked another Jim. “I had to take him away”, explained Sue. “I thought I’d be in trouble. You’re not very heavy when your module’s suspended – defaults to a surface representation in a light wire frame so I just took him away. You can’t have your reality shattered by people suddenly vanishing into thin air now can you? Anyway, the experiment’s ruined now that you know everything and I’ll be in trouble for wasting resources again. And these stupid clothes are just killing me! I can’t see why you like them!” The Jims looked at each other blankly. Sue continued, “I thought you’d feel more at home but you all just laughed! Best 1914 fashions too – I checked it all out with the Edinburgh store!” Jim29 told her gently that this was in fact 2014. “Oh No! ..I’ve never been any good with numbers since that Jamie from Epistemology told me they don’t exist – and anyway”, she pouted, “19’s right next door to 20, isn’t it? – it’s an easy enough mistake to make. My project’s on early 20th century working class moral relativism – now it’s ruined! How can I probe the moral scruples of a 1914 working class man when I’m lumbered with 37 cloned Jims from the wrong century? And she started to cry.

Jim29 took a very long, deep breath. “So we’re nothing but robots or zombies or something then?” “No no, that’s not it, of course you’re not” she sobbed, you’re manifestations – but I can’t expect you to understand that!” Jim pinched himself and duly winced. Was he dreaming? “No you’re not dreaming. You’re all sentient beings just like me.” she said, having regained some composure. “Well then, if your experiment is off can’t we all just go home now?” asked Jim29 but Jim17 wanted to know how this could happen. The thought of 37 Jims returning to the same home was not attractive. There would be no end of trouble with wives and families. Heated arguments broke out among the Jims about who would get home and several punches were thrown. “I’ll see to it gentlemen!” soothed Sue anxiously. “I did some really smart identity switching during a Brain in a Vat experiment after someone knocked a vat over – well, OK, it was me but I managed to convince the brain he was drunk at the time. So we patched him up and plugged him into a new vat before he sobered up. He lived happily for years after without getting any fancy sceptical ideas about reality!”

Before the Jims could absorb any of this, Jim17 suddenly froze and keeled over. “No problem at all” shrieked Sue trying to make herself heard above the clamour. “You’ve killed him you …” shouted Jim32, only to freeze and topple over himself. The other 35 Jims stepped back, wondering in alarm who would be next. “They’re not killed. I’ve only suspended their modules” explained Sue, exasperated. Sure enough Jim17 promptly picked himself up from the floor, a little shaken but all in one piece. “What happened?”, he spluttered. “I’m standing up talking and then I’m on the floor, without falling, fainting or anything?”. “I just saved your status and then re-activated you to show the others I’m not a murderer” said Sue proudly but she wouldn’t resurrect Jim32. “Miracles don’t come cheap” she beamed. “I can’t turn water into wine every day but there’s no problem. Jim32 goes home but with no memory at all of this place. The few hours he spent here with us won’t be mourned by anyone, will they? I’ll fix it for you all to lose your memories of here even if I use the very last of my resource allowance to do it!” Her brow furrowed in wrapt contemplation.

Jim furiously swiped at his face and the insect buzzed away into the distance. There was no pain or even the presence of sting marks. It seemed inconceivable to him that dreaming about the ward and all the other Jims could have happened between the insect coming and now – but the mind does play tricks. He was just about to stand up and leave when he spotted a lady in fancy dress hobbling towards him from the other side of the courtyard. As she approached, the tunic and the narrow, draped skirt, assumed a terrible familiarity.

Sue stopped beside him and announced in a haughty voice, “Please excuse me kind Sir. Do you have the time of day?” Jim was flabbergasted. “Sue! What on earth are you doing here?” Now Sue was flabbergasted. Dropping the haughty tone, she flopped down beside him with some difficulty. “I was just testing to see if you remembered anything but that really is odd. All your memories of the ward should have gone by now! Silly me! My resource allowance is gone so I’m afraid you’ll just have to live with it. But everything else will be OK – just go home as usual and relax.” Jim sighed with undisguised relief but he still wanted to know what had happened to him and why he seemed to be wearing the same clothes he’d had on in the ward, plus that cloth cap. “For a start, what’s the Experimental Philosophy Unit all about?” She seemed quite willing to tell him.

“Well, we did a lot of these old thought experiments. You know the sort of thing. If you really were a brain in a vat could you ever know it? Plato’s Caves, Evil Demons, Deities – you name it, we’ve got them all, raring to go but it’s not always been plain sailing. It took scores of shepherds and fake sheep and we never solved the Justified True Belief thing. We had a great run of Fat Man experiments though. Somebody decides whether or not to save the lives of six people in a runaway trolley on a railway line by pushing a fat man off a railway bridge to his death – right in front of the trolley.” Jim was horrified. “I don’t believe it! You’d kill fat men – just as an experiment?” She looked puzzled. “Of course you could. It’s either him or six die! That’s the whole point – it’s a moral dilemma but most people let the six die anyway and we wanted to know why. Mind you, one time it all went horribly wrong with a group of pacifists. Not one of them would push the fat man off the bridge and he got so cross he jumped off the bridge by himself and missed the runaway trolley altogether. Everyone got killed and I had to fiddle the statistics!” Jim had had enough. “That’s ghastly!”, he spluttered. “If any of this is true then it’s criminal and if it’s not, you’re badly in need of help!” Sue paused to think, “Good logic Jim”, she said sternly, “But truth can be relative, compossible as we say in the trade. Look, your moral indignation is all well and good in the right place but the Fat Man is one of our best zombies and loves being pushed off bridges. I really didn’t mean to annoy him but I thought the pacifists were pastors – an easy enough mistake and I did spend the rest of the afternoon pushing him off the bridge myself to make it up to him.”

At this point Jim was having serious doubts about Sue’s sanity and was beginning to question his own when he noticed for the first time a couple of fine gas lamps on the wall opposite. Then, glancing up he became aware of a trio of chattering ladies entering the courtyard followed by a small boy chasing a hoop – all fashionably dressed in the same style as Sue. A couple of working class men sauntered by wearing cloth caps and old clothes – just like his ….. He looked at Sue ….”Don’t panic!”, she whimpered.

Written by Gordon Lockhart

April 15, 2013 at 11:07 am

5 Responses

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  1. Oh, Gordon, what fun! Definitely more than community blogging about composting and rural unemployment. This is what was missing in the discussions and assignments. In an interview, Ursula leGuin referred to The Left Hand of Darkness a “thought experiment”… probably other stories too, like The Lathe of Heaven about dreaming reality.

    Will there be more? Please say yes… You might even be interested in trying NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) as part of your ongoing exploration of MOOCs since NaNo (for even shorter) has been pointed to as a MOOC forerunner.


    April 15, 2013 at 5:17 pm

  2. PS another for your “what is philosophy list”


    April 15, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    • Thanks Vanessa (and for the links) – it was your comment during CCK11 that got me going on writing SF. First, I tried reading the old SF masters – Bradbury, Asimov etc but some was so good it actually put me off! I find it difficult to formulate a coherent story line in advance and the endless iteration that I do for short blog posts doesn’t work too well. The philosophy course gave me plenty ideas to hang things on. I think I’ll ask people for their SF recommendations and then do some more reading before trying another short story.


      April 16, 2013 at 9:49 am

  3. Thanks Vanessa – much appreciated – should keep me out of MOOCs and the academented continuum for a while 🙂


    April 19, 2013 at 8:29 pm

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