An Interview with Laplace’s Demon

This is a brief attempt at humour. It began as a little writing challenge between my dad and myself based on the idea of whether free will exists in a deterministic universe (using this as a jumping off point). While my dad has started drafting an entire book, I’ve kept it short and sweet, as a script for an interview with Laplace’s Demon on a chat show.

Host: Good evening everyone, and welcome to Unbelievable Conversations, with me, your host, Percy Neville Chio. Tonight, I am exceptionally pleased to welcome Laplace’s Demon into my parlour for what promises to a truly unforgettable conversation.

LD: Well, I can tell you for a start that some people here are going to forget it, but *tsk* that’s people for you.

PN Chio: Ha yes well, probably channel hopping or something…

LD: Actually, what I meant was that they are fundamentally constrained by the immutable laws of physics, whereas I am not, but your version is kinder.

PN Chio: Ah yes well onto that, you are, famously, an all-knowing and all-seeing being, is that right?

LD: *sigh* That is a rather meagre way of describing the perfect knowledge of the location, speed and direction of travel simultaneously of every molecule in the universe, with an exquisite ability to know every event and decision that occurs in the universe and how they lead to subsequent events.

*PN Chio whistles, crowd is amused by his reaction, demon appears unperturbed*

PN Chio: And what is that like?

LD: Ultimately it is beyond all possible mortal comprehension.

*awkward pause*

PN Chio: Could you break it down for us, err, mere mortals?

LD: OK. Hopefully, this gives you an idea. You look at the ground and see a single blade of grass. This is all you can perceive at a single point in time.

PN Chio: My lawn has been looking pretty rough this year, but a single blade of grass…

*crowd laughs, demon appears unperturbed*

LD: With a brain that small I suspect my explanation is wasted on you, but for those with a glimmer more intelligence listening: while you see a single blade of grass, which is your experience of a limited realm at a single point in time, I am lying on a meadow where I can simultaneously feel every single blade of grass at once, and know how tall and wide it is, how old, how many ants walked across that day, and so on. Moreover, I know to what height each blade will grow before it gets cut, which blade is eaten by a cow and which is picked up and stuffed down the neck of Billy Jones in Reading, age 13, and why that drives him to become a stockbroker before crashing his Porsche and dying at the age of 31. I could go on.

PN Chio: Do you know if a dog peed on that meadow and so if you should not be lying there?

*crowd laughs, demon appears unperturbed*

LD: I knew you’d say that, as I know everything that has ever happened and ever will happen, but given your weak attempts at comedy this far I thought I’d toss you an easy set-up. You’re welcome.

*LD mock bows to the crowd while a smattering of very polite applause ripples through them*

PN Chio: Well, aren’t you a clever clogs. Does that not ever get boring?

LD: Boredom has no meaning to me since I am beyond time. All events are simultaneous and overlapping and unfolding to create the intricate tapestry of the universe.

PN Chio: Do you ever consider using your power for good, and altering events just a little bit to save a dying child’s life or something?

LD: I have no power to do that. All events are set, determined by the configuration of atoms at the start of time…

PN Chio: *interrupting* I thought you said you were beyond time

LD: I am beyond your concept of time, but the universe still began at some point, before which time in that place had no meaning, and after which I know all events across the temporal trajectory that this universe follows. Let’s try another metaphor, see if you can get your head around this one. Spoilers, I know it won’t help, but I’ll say it anyway.

PN Chio: well if it won’t…

LD *interrupting* as I was saying, imagine your gaze is scanning along a mountain range. You see a peak, a trough, a ridge, a bowl, a smoking volcano, and the glint of a blue-green mountain lake catching the early afternoon sun. Each of these features represents some configuration of atoms and so events at a point in time in the universe. Further, imagine that your gazed is compelled to move along the ridge at a steady rate, without ever reversing, so each feature, each event in the universe, happens inexorably. This is your experience of the universe, one event leading to another, and you only have a limited understanding as to how. For me, I simply see the whole mountain range at once, and I understand how the peak inevitably leads to the trough, and then to the ridge, and that the volcano must erupt and engulf the town below in smoke and lava, and that the lake is perfectly fine for swimming and no you won’t ever quite forget the exchange student you met on its shore. There is no other mountain range to look at, no way the peak could lead to another peak and then to a hot spring and a happy marriage to Ulrika.

PN Chio: That doesn’t help, can’t you warn the townsfolk about the volcano?

LD: No I cannot, this is simply the way the universe is. It cannot be any better or any worse than this.

PN Chio: Isn’t that all rather Panglossian?

LD: *whistles* oooh look at you using big words

*crowd laughs, PN Chio looks annoyed by their reaction, demon appears unperturbed*

LD: Look, I’m not pleased about any of this. Those townsfolk could have produced great works of art or important theories or designed really, really great jingles for selling aftershave. Or they might have founded a satanic death cult; none of those things happen, and so there is no point dwelling on them.

PN Chio: But you could do something

LD: No, I can’t, my hands are tied. Figuratively of course, my hands aren’t physically bound until June in three years time, but that has quite a happy ending for all involved.

*LD winks at crowd, some of whom giggle*

PN Chio: Let’s move on, so what do you get up to in your spare time?

LD: remember, I am beyond all time.

PN Chio: OK, well what do you do when you are not admiring mountain ranges, lying on meadows, or giving infuriating interviews?

LD: I luxuriate in the vast and rich complexity of the universe.

PN Chio: Come again?

LD: *sighs* OK, lets try yet another metaphor. Have you ever gazed at a painting, and felt every stroke, every dot of pain, was in the perfect place, and that it could not be better, that this was the exact representation of what the painting should be, and that there was no way to improve it? Or have you ever put a piece of steak in your mouth, and chewed it, letting the flavours and textures roll around your teeth and tongue, that deep, intense savouryness flooding your senses, and you never want to stop chewing, never want to let go of that deep oral satisfaction.

PN Chio: Oo-er steady on Mr Demon

LD: Please, It’s Laplace’s Demon; I never marry, much like yourself

PN Chio: I am currently engaged.

LD: Mmmm, anyway, can you appreciate enjoying the texture, the richness, the utterly unquestionable perfection of those experiences? That is what contemplating the universe is like for me, just on an incomprehensibly grander scale. I see complex chains of reaction and feedback everywhere, bifurcations and saddle points and strange attractors and systems as they are perturbed and change states and collapse and arise anew out of nothing. There is just so much going on, and all of it multi-layered and interlinked and co-dependent and deliciously varied and yet cohesive. It would be dizzying it its diversity and intricacy if I did not possess the capacity to experience it all without vertigo, a capacity you sadly lack.

PN Chio: Can we go back to my engagement?

LD: My dear Percy, it was logical that you were born, logical that you grew up to be a chat show host, logical that you became engaged, and logical that it ends once you notice the faint bruises on her neck.

PN Chio: Her neck?

LD: Yes.

PN Chio: *splutters somewhat at the last remark* I think you’re a load of garbage. It is not logical to become a chat show host, no one in their right mind would do this job!

LD: And you are?

*Crowd laughs, PN Chio continues indignantly*

PN Chio: and I chose this career, I decided, out of all the other options available to a graduate with a degree from a university in oxford….

*LD raises an eyebrow for comic affect, crowd titters, PN Chio becomes more indignant*

PN Chio: I freely chose this job, I had several other, equally good offers, and I turned them down to sit in this chair and talk to guests, most much more interesting than yourself.

LD: OK, case in point. Those other offers, one was based in Hull, one was working for the Daily Mail, and what was wrong with the other?

PN Chio: that’s private

LD: It paid £5k less a year, didn’t it?

PN Chio: Something like that, I guess

LD: and so, Mr Chio, if I knew your locational snobbery, your political views, and your desperate, desperate desire to earn a pay pack to impress daddy, I could have known which job you would chose, as I did. There was nothing free about your decision, it was logic, pure and simple.

PN Chio: OK, in that case its easy to argue that. But what about more random things…

LD: *interrupting* oooh lets flip coins, I love doing that, I can explain to you the physics equations and everything.

PN Chio: Lets not, while we’re all still young. What I mean is that, if I go up to a fruit bowl, I could choose a pear, an apple, or a banana. Each is sweet and will satisfy my little hunger urge perfectly. Which one I chose is up to me; I have free choice.

LD: Ah, you think you have free will in this matter, but in fact you don’t. You pick the apple because you passed Louise eating one in the hall way. In three days’ time you pick the pear as you are a little thirsty as on Fridays you go to the gym in the morning, and you want something extra juicy. Why do you go to the gym on Fridays, because Angela takes the class and you have a bit of a thing for her. I could go on, but don’t you see one thing inevitably leads to another, and if you know proceeding all things, as I do, you can know all following things, as I do.

PN Chio: But I am not a piece of clockwork, I have thoughts and feelings and a mind of my own.

LD: Ah a common misconception. Your thoughts and feelings are a product of neurons sending electrical signals in your brain. They follow the laws of physics and biology like everything else. While it is harder to predict how a brain turns input to output compared to a piece of clockwork, they are equally trivial tasks for an intellect like mine. I know the cause, I know the effect, it is as simple as that.

PN Chio: But that means I have no control over my actions, I am not responsible for anything I do?

LD: You are not in the driving seat, you are merely along for the ride. Don’t be sad about it, enjoy the sights, it’s a magical world out there, try and appreciate it.

PN Chio: It seems rather depressing.

LD: I knew you’d say that.

PN Chio: Hmm, well that seems like a good place to end it. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in thanking Laplace’s Demon for joining us tonight and having another Unbelievable Conversation with me.

*applause, demon appears unperturbed*

PN Chio: Next week join me as we discuss life in a single-parent household and dying for the sins of the world with Jesus Christ.

LD: Oh yes, that’s a great one, the guy has such great comic timing. And all those fish!

PN Chio: err, yes well, that’s all from us tonight, and all I need to do is ask Mr Demon if he expected this!

*PN Chio pulls a lever, a bucket of water falls on LD’s head, soaking him*

LD *brightly* yes I did

PN Chio: It is my piss!

*crowd laughs and applauds, demon appears unperturbed*


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