“The Spade of Reason” is a science fiction story. That means it’s a story based on science that doesn’t exist.
But maybe Spade is not really science fiction because everything in the story could happen. It’s just highly unlikely that it ever will happen. There are no time machines, no ray guns, no faster than light travel, no telepathic aliens, none of that in this story.
If you program a computer to create a random stream of text (and how to do this is explained in both the film and the original text) then you will get a random stream of letters that, if you wait long enough, you’ll find a snippet here and there that will make some kind of sense to you. In the end, a monkey banging away on a typewriter will recreate the works of Shakespeare.
So how long to you have to wait? The answer is a very long time. Caxton’s message has 372 characters so, if you use only lower case letters plus a space character and ten digits (essential for Caxton’s purposes), the chance of getting exactly this message is 37 raised to the 372nd power. This is a very large number. If you use just letters and spaces and create one character every second then you’ll have to wait for eight followed by sixty one zeroes years, and if you create a million letters a second then you’ll have to wait for eight followed by fifty-five zeroes years. If you add in the numbers too then both Google and Excel fail to calculate the number because it’s so big.
But it’s not impossible to get Caxton’s message. It’s just very unlikely. By chance, this particular arrangement of letters will happen at some point in time and that point could be earlier rather than later. You could just be lucky and get it tomorrow. Or tonight.
The other aspects of the story are all true as well. Our knowledge is for ever limited: where things are in time and space by relativity, even our ability to measure things at all by quantum mechanics, our ability to reason by Godel’s theorem, and the hope for a better understanding by the brutal fact of Bell’s theorem – at the bedrock of quantum mechanics things are random, stuff just happens, and there is nothing deeper that might be causes at the deepest level. Nope – in the final analysis stuff just happens. There are no causes, only events. But, as Caxton said, the important thing is what you do with it when it happens to you.
Wittgenstein did write that ‘If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned‘. He went on to say, ‘This is simply what I do’, which is why Caxton liked these words. When reason breaks down you still have to do something. As Pete said, “You can’t just sit there, stuck in neutral ’til the end of time.”
And yes, there really was a Superconducting Super Collider that had the largest computer center in the world and was shut down by Congress before it was finished. There really is a nuclear weapons plant in Amarillo run by a company called Pantex that disassembles nuclear warheads. And of course there really was an Apple II+ computer that was followed by an Apple IIc at the times when Caxton and Evelyn were working on random texts. When we were making the film we found these ancient machines in people’s basements (including mine), dusted them off, plugged them in, and they came to life again. Then we texted our friends on our iPhones.
So what does the science tell us about the story? Well, as they say, “It could happen” or, in this case, “It could have happened.”