Omniscience by Contract

Most of this has already happened on Tumblr, but right now I’m the only one with all the information and that needs to be fixed.

There’s a species of monster that can only be harmed by inherited silver. You might recognize it if you’ve read Fool Moon, the second Dresden Files book. Purchased silver has no effect, but borrowing someone else’s inherited silver without owning it does work. (If you think it shouldn’t, just assume that after each maybe-sale it’s the original owner running the test instead. It’ll still depend on the right thing.)

The problem here is that “ownership” isn’t exactly an innate feature of, well, anything. Reality does not include microscopic flags saying “this molecule of chair is the property of Jorge F. Hardoy,” even when it’s true. This is why garage sales aren’t considered a subfield of chemistry. Except that in a universe containing that werewolf, property rights are an intrinsic fact about property. All that common sense stuff goes out the window. (Unless of course the defenestration process might break a window that belongs to someone else. Apparently the universe tracks that kind of thing.)

If it weren’t for the fact that it only applies to things made of silver, this could have all kinds of uses. And we can work around that. It isn’t necessarily clear whether we should care about the opinion of the laws of physics, but everyone would want to know whether the Tree That Owns Itself can actually own things. And does the inheritance requirement track clinical death, legal death, or some other thing? It’d be very weird if it’s the information-theoretic version. These need to be tested.

But there’s one best thing to try. (I wish I could say I came up with it, but someone else did.) We know the Inexplicable Magic Ownership Sensors can distinguish between silver that has been sold and silver that hasn’t. So you write a contract that says the sale only takes place if [literally any statement goes here] is true. If the owner sells it to the user under that contract, then the werewolf can be harmed by the silver if and only if the statement is false.

The limitation here is that it’s not obvious whether such a contract would be valid. You’d essentially be contracting for “one of us owns this, but nobody knows which.” A real-life judge, who can’t see ownership by magic, would have to assign it to someone. And either option would mean it doesn’t depend on whether the arbitrary statement was true. An invalid contract is good news from a self-preservation point of view, but bad news for attaining omniscience.

I asked my Contracts professor this, and apparently when a contract depends on something that is already either true or false (as opposed to something that might happen but is not certain, which is what a “condition” properly means), the actual condition is the verification. If the silver affects the beast, then we know that either the statement is true or the contract was invalid. Yes, this runs the risk of an “it’s invalid because it’s invalid” loop that doesn’t give us any information. But if it doesn’t affect it, then the contract is valid and the statement is false. And if it is possible for the contingency to occur, then the contract is valid. So there’s no risk of that loop after all, and we will find out one way or the other.

Also, the professor—who in addition to being a professor at a top law school is also the sort of person who had to reschedule class a couple times because she was speaking to the U.N.—said it was an interesting enough question that she’d ask some colleagues. I don’t know who, but I assume they’re similarly credible. Anyway, more information!

One source, a Realist, says that this doesn’t work. The plan is assuming that there has either been a sale or there hasn’t. But there isn’t a well-defined answer to that question unless a judge has decided or clearly would decide one way. There’s no Platonic realm of Actual Contractness that affects vampires but not us. (In the first email I got, my professor said vampires instead of werewolves; I didn’t correct that because it’s the same in every way that matters, so that’s what got forwarded. It’s vampires now.) And, well, this Realist point of view is true. Property is a social construct almost as much as money is. But in that case, how does the vampire know? Its skin is detecting something when it decides whether or not to burn, and that probably isn’t “what would a judge say.” Common sense, window.

The other person responding kind of surprised me by saying that the existing legal system is already equipped to handle this. They also included the excellent line, “Is the student unaware of the magical powers of judges?”

This is just an ordinary(ish) case of burden of proof. If for some reason a legal dispute turned on whether Richard III had a severe spinal condition, a judge would listen to historical evidence and testimony from the team that found his skeleton. If it’s the same question about Joe the Random Fifteenth-Century Peasant, the plaintiff would just have a much harder time meeting the burden of proof. Sometimes there are statutes saying what to do if there’s no evidence, like if multiple family members die in the same accident and who gets the inheritance depends on who died first, but having to rule on an undecidable question is a thing that is known to happen.

For our purposes, this is great. It means that whether there was a sale really does depend on the question we want it to.
I’m not actually sure whether this was meant to imply “fortunately, in this case it’s being decided by magic and isn’t limited by what could be proven in court.” If so, we win. But even if the validity does depend on what a judge would say if it went to court, we still win.
If the answer to the question the contract depends on could be proven in court the normal way, then testing the silver on the vampire would just be a really powerful shortcut.  If the answer can’t be determined, and there’s no ordinary evidence, then the burden of proof might be met just by whether the silver affected the vampire. So it still depends on the right thing.
Either way, anyone who inherited a bunch of silver can get any question answered and more or less take over the world at their convenience. They just have to deal with vampires and lawyers to do it.

But don’t go signing these contracts just yet. There are a bunch of pitfalls I ignored here.
—A contractual condition might technically have to be a future event. (The relevant hornbook says this, but two experts said it probably wouldn’t ruin everything.)
—If there’s any ambiguity, an alleged condition will be interpreted as an obligation. For what we care about, this would be bad.
—It smells kind of like a wager, and those aren’t valid contracts according to the Statute of Anne. (Yes, Queen Anne. Yes, that Queen Anne. Yes, this law is from 1710.)
—There may be consideration problems. One of the Actual Competent People mentioned this case.
—It might get interpreted on other grounds, like “both people are acting as if there was a sale, so there was.”
—You have to capture a vampire, and keep it captured indefinitely.

And those are just the ones I know about. These are all solvable if you’re careful and know what you’re doing, but just remember to consult a lawyer before trying any contract-based divination.

One last thing: To keep exams anonymous, students aren’t supposed to write anything that would tip a professor off as to who wrote which set of answers. This hypothetical is pretty identifying. I wasn’t the only person who knew about it, but when I asked it after class the other students present heard me say “werewolves.”
And that is how I got banned by the Student Disciplinary Code from talking about vampires in a Contracts exam.

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3 thoughts on “Omniscience by Contract

  1. Itai Bar-Natan

    Another potential consequence of this trick is that it might be used to cause a paradox. For example, a person could very reasonably want enter a contract with another person, where in exchange for some amount of money she borrows from him a collection of silverware and then gets to keep whichever silver can be used to hurt vampires. If any of the silverware is inherited by its previous owner, then its potency depends on whether this contract counts as buying it. But according to the contract whether the piece of silver is bought depends on whether it is effective, and we end up with a Pinocchio paradox (a form of the liar’s paradox where a statement does not actually reference itself, but instead references a testable physical effect which depends on the statement’s truth).

    I understand for this specific contract a lawyer might interpret it in a different way other than “X is bought iff X will be able to hurt vampires”, but I specified tried to make an example that doesn’t seem contrived. A more contrived contract might be harder to escape from.

    Reply
  2. Susebron

    One could conceivably detect the universal property laws by making a contract that says the silver is sold iff, say, a coin flipped by a third party comes up heads. Repeat this a few times to ensure that you get both heads and tails, and repeat it a few more times with differences in knowledge (start with only the third party knowing whether it’s heads, then only the potential seller knowing, then only the potential buyer knowing). Then use a few unknown but testable propositions, and test them afterwards. If all of that works, then you can move onto the exciting stuff – major unsolved problems, future events, etc.

    Reply
    1. Susebron

      I can’t edit, but I would like to add that inherited silver may be considered “inherited” not because it knows who owned it, but instead because of order of transactions. If the last applied transaction was an inheritance, the silver is inherited. This is why it can be borrowed but not sold. This has no effect on the predictive power of the silver, but it does mean that garage sales are not a subfield of chemistry.

      Reply

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