“The Well of Souls”


Professor Mason Mainbridge worked long into the night, as was his custom, even though his was the only light on in Hazard Hall. He found that he got his best work down after everyone else went home to their wives and husbands, their pets and their children.

Mainbridge didn’t have a wife, and he certainly didn’t have a dog. His work was his life. He had one graduate level class in Modern Hegelian Philosophy that he taught each fall, and a class in the spring entitled Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, which was universally feared by underclassmen as being one of the classes not to take.

The short, chubby man had a reputation as being a tough teacher, but students who got to know him learned that he was actually a very caring professor, and often worried more about students’ grades than they did. He loved the classroom, but the emphasis at Weatherford University, like most research institutions, was on publication. Right now, he was working on a paper on Martin Heidegger he hoped to publish in Philos, a professional journal located in Great Britain. The room was dark, except for a cone of white light falling from the desk lamp he used to eliminate distractions so he could concentrate.

He was so absorbed in his studies that he didn’t see the tall, angular form standing in the doorway, light streaming into the room from the hall behind him. It took the sound of the man clearing his throat before Mainbridge realized he wasn’t alone. He looked up and smiled.

“Jordan!” he said. “It’s been a while since you graced my office. Come in, have some coffee. I think there’s some still in the pot.” He gestured toward the floor-to-ceiling bookcase and the small table that stood before it. A coffeemaker stood with half a dozen paper cups to one side.

“A little late for coffee,” Professor Jordan McFeather replied. “Don’t you have a class tomorrow morning? I would think you would want to get home and to bed.”

“I just had some thoughts I wanted to add to that paper on Heidegger I am working on.”

“Isn’t that finished yet? Seems like you have been working on it forever.”

“Well, you know what they say, Jordan. A professor’s job is never done.”

McFeather shrugged. “Well, you have Heidegger on your mind. I have something else. A philosophical exercise, so to speak. You remember Schroedinger’s cat? Let’s call this one McFeather’s Muse.”

“It seems a bit odd to hear a philosophical argument coming from a computer science professor, but all right,” Mainbridge said, putting his pen down and turning in his chair. “This sounds intriguing. Go ahead.”

“Say you were able to capture a person for all time and put them in a box. The purpose being to have access to their abilities—mental and otherwise—whenever you needed them.”

“That would presume that whoever you ‘captured’ was someone of either significance or someone with special abilities, but go on.”

“Now, having an actual person in a box has its own set of problems. Things like feeding and some facility for relieving themselves are necessary. Not to mention difficulties with the authorities due to slavery laws. So instead, you perfect a method of preserving their essence, what makes them who they really are.”

“You’re talking about their soul.”

“Excuse me?” McFeather said, surprised. He paused, then chuckled.  “Yes, I guess you could say so, if you believed in such things.”

“What, you don’t believe people have souls?” Mainbridge asked, shaking his head. “Even if you don’t believe in any form of hereafter, the soul is the essence of what makes us who we are. Take away the body and that’s what’s left.”

“Whatever,” McFeather said. “To me, man is just another machine. The brain is a hard drive and serial processor. We are a product of genetics and what we experience. But that is a different discussion.”

“Right,” said Mainbridge. “So you have this ‘soul’ captured in a box. What will you do with it?”

“What will I do with it? Well, say it was your soul. I could access it whenever I needed to. Have the person work on problems—perhaps even philosophical problems, such as we have here today—and get the benefit of their experience, education, training and wisdom whenever I wanted to.”

McFeather went to the coffee pot and finally poured himself a cup, talking as he went. Mainbridge watched him for a long while before finally speaking.

“So that’s it? That’s the philosophical question?”

McFeather nodded. “I am a man of logistics. But I can’t help thinking that there are some philosophical and perhaps even moral issues here. On an academic level, of course.”

“Sure,” Mainbridge said. He leaned back in his overstuffed desk chair and looked up at the ceiling before answering. “OK, a few questions to begin. First, let me ask this. What makes a human being a person?”

McFeather frowned. “Hmm, that’s a good one. I’m not really sure.”

“Separate a person from his arms and legs, and he is still a person, isn’t he?” Mainbridge held his hands out to his sides as if appealing his case. McFeather nodded.

“I suppose.”

“All right, how much of his body does he need? Do we need our stomach, liver and spleen to be a person? What about our tongue? What if we were a disembodied brain that was able to think and feel? Would we still be a person?”

“And your point is?”

“My point being, if these ‘souls’ you have captured are still able to function in order to solve problems and interact with you, then you are dealing with human beings. And if they are, indeed, people, you have to consider that what you are suggesting is no less than a form of slavery.”

“Slavery?”

Mainbridge nodded. “You use them as you see fit. You don’t pay them. They aren’t free to come and go as they please. How is that different than slavery?”

McFeather chuckled again. “So this recording of the person should have the same rights as the person you recorded. Is that what you’re saying?”

“If they are independent thinkers, able to act creatively and solve problems on their own, then yes. That’s what I am saying. They need the same considerations as your flesh and blood brothers.”

“That seems a bit of a stretch. But what other implications do you see?”

Mainbridge picked up his coffee cup and took a sip, thinking as he did so.

“Well, on the positive side, it would be an alternative to the concept of heaven. More like a purgatory, I would suppose.”

“What do you mean?”

“A recorded soul—I suspect you are talking about a digitized soul here—would never wear out. No replacing parts, no worrying about what you eat or getting enough exercise. But then, you are stuck in a box.”

McFeather shrugged. “Give me web access and enough coffee and I would be set for the duration.”

Mainbridge was the one to shrug this time. “I doubt it would be that simple. I would need something meaningful to do to pass the time. Either that, or some sort of short-term memory loss.

“I would suspect that these captured souls would work best—most true to themselves—if they weren’t aware of their situation. You’d have to trick them into believing that they were living a normal existence. Otherwise, they would either refuse to cooperate or would give a biased response. They wouldn’t be themselves.”

McFeather nodded. “Sounds reasonable.”

“Finally,” Mainbridge said. “There’s the question of how much access you would have to the memories of your captured souls. Would they be able to say no when you asked them for information?”

McFeather shook his head. “We’re really just talking about a database here. A sophisticated database that can also problem solve, mind you, but still just a repository of information. It would defeat my purposes if the computer would refuse to answer me.”

“I see,” said Mainbridge. “Then you raise the question of privacy. Everyone has things in their lives and in their minds that they share with only a select few or perhaps with no one else at all. I am sure you have such thoughts and memories in your own life. Would you want to be forced to make all your past sins and secrets public?”

McFeather didn’t answer, but stared at Mainbridge, who could see he was considering his last question. After a long pause, he opened his mouth to speak.

“Well, this discussion has been very enlightening. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.”

Mainbridge nodded and stood to shake McFeather’s hand.

“My pleasure, Jordan. It’s always a privilege to discuss such ethical issues with a colleague.” Mainbridge watched as McFeather put his coffee cup down and pulled the front door open and let light stream into the room once again.

“Don’t be a stranger, Jordan,” Mainbridge said, and McFeather paused to nod, perhaps a little self consciously before closing the door behind him.

Mainbridge stood in the middle of the room, staring off into the dark corners for  a long moment before a thought came to him. He took a couple of steps and pulled the door open.

“Oh, Jordan, just one more thought–,” he said, but he opened the door to blackness. He could see no walls, ceiling or floor. He paused, looking out into the void before pursing his lips and closing the door slowly.

He took the few steps back to his desk and sat down, once again pulling up his notes on Heidegger and continued.

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