by Kay Critchett
When I was an undergraduate studying philosophy in the 1950s, I used to wonder how anyone became a creative philosopher on the kind of instruction we received. This was almost entirely focussed on learning the arguments of the set texts and replicating them from memory, including precise definitions of the terms. It was a largely sterile slog.
I suppose a great many of us are drawn to the subject by feelings of awe, wonder and ordinary puzzlement at the reality we find ourselves in, and expect philosophy to reflect these feelings and develop them for us. Being terrified of mis-representing a text or muddling definitions creates an atmosphere that is the opposite of what was expected, and leads to feelings of disillusionment, of having been cheated.
Possible worlds provides a much more interesting stimulus for beginners, as the ideas involved are presented in a way that is easy to grasp, with a minimum of the technical vocabulary that makes so much philosophy difficult to read. The fictional form of the narrative, with setting, characters and conversation is not only entertaining in itself, but also easy to remember. As a consequence, the philosophical point being made is easy to remember, too. All of this helps when it comes to thinking the topic over later.
So, as a teaching tool, possible worlds helps the student "see" the matter under discussion and grasp its importance. After that, with the right teaching structure she can be encouraged to discuss her ideas and develop skills in argument. The teacher is of central importance in helping the student learn to think in a philosophical way, using her own ideas as a starting point.
The other great usefulness of possible worlds is that through them the writer can give a shape to ideas for which she does not have the formal background or vocabulary perhaps, even, neither of these exist and having given them expression, can offer them to someone else for comment and questioning.
This is not to say that major works of philosophy should never be studied in depth, rigorously, merely that it is an advanced form of study and other ways are more effective in giving students basic skills or opening our new topics.
Possible worlds is useful, economic and entertaining as a teaching method, and, having the multi-level qualities of literature, is accessible to a wide range of readers.
They were all asking him, "What are you going to do for your fortieth?", expecting very little by way of response, as everyone knew Richard was too quiet and set in his ways to do anything very remarkable.
"Going to do?" he would reply. "Nothing much, as usual, I expect."
This was a direct lie, as he knew exactly what he was going to do. On 15 June 2503 he was going to take a time-trip. Only for a day. Everyone else took time-trips regularly, of course. And came home and told him of all the wonders they had seen and how he should go too. He had never tried it, but for some time now he had wanted to, for a very particular reason. On his fortieth birthday he would take the plunge.
Richard was an amateur painter, with a special affection for Sarah Pugh, the great Swalian artist of the twenty-first century. Her first public exhibition had been, with other students, in a gallery in the small town of Bearcliffe during June 2003. Very little of this early work remained, and even less was undamaged, but a time-trip would allow him to see it all, as it originally looked. He hadn't told anyone, because he couldn't face the comments everyone would make about his catching up with the twenty-sixth century.
So, on the appointed day he presented himself at the travel agents and duly swallowed his time capsule. Reality spun, he seemed to fall down a dark spiral, there was a soft thud and he came to himself standing behind a large tree in a private garden. This was wrong. He should be sitting on a bench at a bus stop. He hastily removed himself from the garden before he could be challenged and found the bench on the opposite side of the road, just as the clock on a large building nearby chimed to his delight. He had heard about these clocks, but they had all gone by his own time.
This building must be the library they had told him about during his briefing, now opening its doors at half past nine. His exhibition didn't open until ten, so he crossed the road to make his first visit of the day and marvel over ancient first editions in pristine order, paperbacks (heard of but never seen before) and newspapers! Those delightful daily chronicles, all with today's date at the top. He decided to try and buy one to take home. The great thing would be to buy a painting and take that home, but that would have to wait until he made a longer trip. In the present a day only came once, and time moved on. As a time-tripper you could visit the same day as often as you liked, so if he returned next year or in ten years' time, he could still visit this day and find the paintings still in the gallery.
It was a beautiful summer morning and the streets were busy with traffic -- really funny old-fashioned cars and people moving about without restriction, just as he had been told. He hurried now, down the street, past a hotel (another landmark) and there it was the small gallery set back from the road. Once inside he was lost in the amazing exhibition set out before him.
He went round three times, totally absorbed, overwhelmed. In the end they told him the gallery was closing for the afternoon, ("Shortage of staff, sir. We're very sorry.") and he was out in the street again, his head full of colour. Time for a pub lunch a strange experience and a visit to the newsagent where he bought a newspaper and, not able to resist, something from the display of chocolate bars.
Then it happened, right in front of him, as he waited to cross the road, considering with idle pleasure how to spend the rest of his time here in Bearcliffe. A car coming round the corner much too fast collided with a young cyclist who was thrown into the air and fell at his feet in a growing pool of her own blood. She couldn't have been more than twelve.
He helped as best he could, which wasn't much and in the end moved out of the way of those who could do more. Clearly he would have to return to his time before the police wanted to question him. His day was ruined anyway. And every other prospect of future time travel. How could you bear the weight of it? How could you make people relive such horror? And what about the rest of the world on this day? Had he called that into existence too?
He had travelled through time to a place, as one does if one travels across the surface of the globe, but where was the past? He'd never though about it. Was the past constantly re-running? He was forty. Some time traveller from the future could visit his past and make him relive some dreadful period of his life, like when he was being bullied at school. That would mean the future was real somewhere. But that was absurd. Wasn't it?
He sat on the bench, clutching his newspaper, a Mars Bar going sticky in his pocket, until he saw a policemen coming round the corner, when he vanished.
© Kay Critchett 2004