Welcome to the most epic trivia contest you’ve ever seen! I’m your host, the Omniscient Narrator, and I’m still not the best-informed person in the room! We’ve got some fiendishly difficult questions lined up tonight. And that’s appropriate, because let me introduce you to our contestants!
In one corner, we have LAPLACE’S DEMON! A thought experiment about a deterministic universe, he can see everything there is to see, right down to the subatomic particles and how they bounce off each other! And he can use that knowledge to predict the future with perfect accuracy! To him, nothing is uncertain and the future just like the past is present before his eyes! (That was a quote, folks, look it up.)
In the other corner, we have a CARTESIAN DEMON! Invented by famous philosopher René Descartes, he is powerful and clever as he is deceitful, and he hangs around philosophers using illusions to make them doubt their observations and even their logic. And if you know any philosophers you know how hard that is! He is perfectly capable of faking everything you could ever think of and more besides. He is a certified evil genius and may have some surprises in store. Watch out for an upset victory, folks, because this could be anyone’s game.
Our first question is for the defending champion. Right now, what precisely is the population of Earth?
This may be a hard question, but it’s right up his alley. He is Laplace’s demon, after all; he can just count them. And with his intellect, he can do it in no time at all. What’s the answer, L?
SEVEN BILLION, EIGHTY-FOUR MILLION, FOUR HUNDRED THIRTEEN THOUSAND, NINE HUNDRED AND TWO.
There’s a reason he’s the reigning champ, folks, because THAT’S RIGHT! That is exactly the population of Earth, down to way more precision than anyone else could have said! You know, a trivia contest with someone who can see the whole of creation might be a bit unfair. Well, let’s see what our challenger can come up with. Next question, in pointlessly obscure trivia: What is the best method for listening in on “Olympian gossip”?
“Well, as you know, my day job is to give people Cartesian doubt by giving people experiences that don’t correspond to reality, or otherwise preventing them from correctly understanding the universe. If everyone knows I might be lying to them, they can’t completely trust themselves. I’m like the seventeenth-century version of the Matrix.
A while back I was showing this one guy some shapes and pigeons, and he turned out to be an amateur poet. So I’ve read the poem you’re referencing (didn’t think much of it, by the way), and the answer you’re looking for is a “cosmic phone.””
THAT’S RIGHT! Score one for Team Evil, our challenger is still in the game! The score is tied at one to one, and this next question is a doozy! For Laplace’s demon: I’m thinking of a number, what is it!
And he’s off! He’s checking the position of every atom of every neuron in my brain, and recognizing the patterns! He knows more about the inside of my head than I do, and is literally reading my mind!
But what’s this? Descartes’ demon is staring at him intently! Ordinarily I wouldn’t comment on this, but they are demons, you know. He’s altering his perceptions! Laplace’s demon isn’t observing my brain now, he’s observing a near-perfect imitation created by his opponent! And of course that brain won’t be thinking of the number four like I am! Wait, he’s got his answer!
And the crowd goes wild! They haven’t cheered this hard for a wrong answer since the last time an omniscient guest missed a question! And that was—let me check—never ago! Better luck next time, LD, maybe you shouldn’t have trusted what you saw when there’s a CARTESIAN DEMON IN THE HOUSE!
This could be it, the challenger’s chance to move ahead! Can his questionable ethics and cleverness be more effective than sheer omniscience? Let’s find out! What is the nearest star that is just barely too far away to ever be visible from Earth?
He’s looking at me like he doesn’t know the answer. Of course; he can’t use the trick he did last time! No human has ever observed it! And I guess he never bothered to visit it himself! He just might be stuck! He’s staring at me like it’s some kind of a dumb question, but that’s not going to help him! He’s staring at me….
“Its name is Lucy.”
THAT’S RIGHT! A strange name for a star, but that is exactly what I have written down on my card here! AND HE MOVES AHEAD! Could this be the first game that Laplace’s Demon ever loses? We’ll find out, after this break.
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Welcome back, to this stunning display where Laplace’s Demon is losing at his own game! Can he tie the score when he can’t trust his own senses? Our fifth question, halfway through the game, is: What is the seventeenth word of Chapter XV of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?
Since Laplace’s demon can see everything, he can of course check every copy of it in existence, and that is exactly what he is doing! But his opponent is staring at him again, and he looks confused. He must have noticed that whatever the evil genius is showing him doesn’t fit with what he remembers! Of course! Descartes’ demon is only altering his perceptions! Laplace’s demon is remembering the positions of every particle in the universe as it was in 1814, and calculating where they must have gone since then! He doesn’t need to look at the books right now; he couldn’t trust what he sees anyway. But he can predict how those billiard balls would bounce around for decades, and some of those particles ended up as ink on paper…
THE ANSWER IS “BELL.”
DING DING DING! “Bell!” When they said this guy could read the universe like a book, they sure weren’t kidding! The challenger looks shocked, almost like someone, say, SAW RIGHT THROUGH HIS PERFECT IMITATION! Better luck next time, ‘cause this guy is good!
It’s two to two, and contestant number two is up. And I like this question; I’ve never seen it answered correctly before, but he just might manage. You, the Cartesian Demon, are going to answer this question, and here it is: What is the wrong answer TO THIS QUESTION?
He’s staring at me again. It’s kind of unnerving, but the joke’s on him because he can’t answer it! And here’s his answer…
“The answer I am giving is correct.”
Sorry, that’s…wait…THAT’S RIGHT! I could have sworn that question was going to be impossible, but that answer actually works! He just solved the unsolvable!
YOU KNOW HIS ANSWER WAS A CONTRADICTION, RIGHT?
No, it isn’t. Well, I thought it was, but the more I think about it, the more obvious it is that HE’S RIGHT! Look, you’re supposed to be smart, don’t be a sore loser or I’ll banish you to Jeopardy with the regular people. This is basic logic; he’s right and therefore not wrong. It’s just plain obvious!
Next question! Who will win the next Super Bowl?
Laplace’s demon knows what he’s got to do now; he’s simulating the universe again. It doesn’t matter what the Cartesian Confounder does to his perceptions; this guy can reconstruct the universe from memory! And that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s being stared at, of course, but he knows what to do and HE’S FIGURED IT OUT! I’m writing this answer down!
That’s a soccer team you idiot supergenius! How could you possibly…oh. The Cartesian demon didn’t just mess with his perceptions, he edited his memory! All of it! He must have described a whole universe, from its beginning all the way up to next year, without misplacing a single particle, and fooled Laplace’s demon into mistaking it for the real one! And he made it a universe with a Super Bowl in it and a team with a silly name winning, and me asking that question. Wow.
Two to three, and the forces of evil are in the lead! Next question, for the player who might be our new champion: What are next week’s lottery numbers?
“You know what? We’re done here.”
And Descartes’ amazingly powerful Demon has left the stage! And doesn’t appear to be concentrating on anything in particular anymore. It’s like he’s letting go of some other illusion he was holding before…. Hey L! If he’s stopped messing with your mind, can you tell me what’s about to happen here?
What? Wait. That guy could fake an entire universe, and if he stopped, then of course something would happe…Last time I checked we were in the universe. We’re about to stop existing, aren’t we?
I KNEW THIS WOULD HAP-