Return to Copenhagen

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There were always only two possibilities; yes or no. That much was inescapable. All the nuances and complexities had at the last fallen away and been replaced by simple binary choice. O or I. On or off. Dead, or Alive.

“But did someone need to present that choice?” the woman stood framed in the doorway of the empty house, “What gave them the right?”

“What gave us the right to frame the question?” the scientist replied, not turning around, “We could have imagined where all this would end. We could have made a different choice.” he stared unblinking out the window at the distant city. “We could have accepted our own limitations.”

The woman shook her head, stepping close to lay a comforting hand on her husband’s shoulder, “Not you. Not any of us. We were there because we refused to accept our limitations. Because we never stopped trying to push the boundaries of understanding.”

“Was that not our choice? How many times has atrocity been justified because ‘I could do nothing else’? Not this time.”

“Is that why he’s coming here, do you think?”

“We will find out.” the scientist let out a deep, mournful sigh, “We began this story. Now we have witnessed the end of it. Perhaps we should be together again.”

Standing side by side now the pair silently regarded the city with it’s ruined skyline. They watched as a figure gradually resolved from the green hillside and approached. It took a long time for the man to reach the house, slowly and methodically pacing nearer. They all watched the inevitability unfold from each cause and each effect in turn.

The man met their gaze as he neared the building. Then he disappeared from view as he approached the open doorway. When he appeared, in the room with its wide, glassless windows and panoramic view, the pair had turned to wait for him.

There was silence, aside from the soft gusting of the wind and even softer, the waves on the shore. Once, long ago, there would have been conversation, despite the awkwardness of this final meeting. Three old friends would catch-up, reminisce, would engage in all those human platitudes. Now there was nothing left, nothing to be said that could bring banality back to a world unlocked.

“I am glad you’re here.”

It was the newcomer who spoke first, his expression hollow and haunted.

“We never left.” the woman replied, her face hardening at the futile attempt at human normality..

“We were all here and here we are again.” her husband continued with less coldness, regarding the man who had once been his pupil, “As it was before. Everyone made their choices and everyone lived with those choices as they played out across history. There is nothing that can change that.”

“Is there no room for regret?”, the newcomer asked raising his eyes like a supplicant to his former teacher, “Is it meaningless to apologise?”

The woman gestured to the world outside, “Is there any meaning that remains?” she demanded, “Is there anything left to appreciate your apologies? Just the wind and the waves. Nothing can change that either.”

“We could not have known.” the newcomer protested, a frown creasing his features, “How could we have known were our inquiry would take us? The world we would create?”

“And destroy.” his former mentor reminded him, “It may not have been us who expressed the answer. We may have been long dead when the end came, but our choices, our actions informed theirs. We posed the question and we began the search for that answer. We defined the universe in terms of probability, we defied causality to explain quantum uncertainty. Now that it has, now that the elimination of that uncertainty is inescapable, we must take responsibility for bringing it about.”

“I did not shirk my responsibilities, then or now. I stand by my choices, for all that I regret them.”

“Exactly.” the woman stepped forward, “We all made choices. Our choices were to solve the problems, to relieve ignorance, to quantify uncertainty. We set out to explain the universe, all the complexity, all the nuance in simple elegant terms. That we did not know that doing so would eliminate choice itself is immaterial. Even that Choice was not our own, we acted as all thinking machines would. As,” she looked out over the empty world, “did everyone else.”

“What we did was out of love of knowledge. We always hoped to build a better world, one free of doubt, one free of the unexplained and the unexplainable.”

“And what did we have left when we succeeded, when the problems were solved?” the scientist replied, turning back to the window, “We calculated away free will, we demonstrated everything was only following orders. We proved there was no choice. We unified the physical world and ourselves along with it. We calculated away our humanity.”

His wife and pupil joined him facing the windows, three ghosts together again. There was nothing more to say. Nothing left in the sea of terrible certainty that generations of thinkers and questioners had built. Once they might have held hands, found comfort in human contact, but even that gesture had been rendered meaningless now. All that remained was a question, the question, the final question each person had asked themselves when the last unknown was quantified and the universe became determinate. The question that had ended the world.

“Is there anything left to live for?” Someone asked.

“There are only two possibilities; yes or no.”

About the Author: 
Andrew "Highlander" Benn is a writer and philosopher working in Glasgow, Scotland. He divides his time between trying to save the world, and contemplating the futility of existence.