The hypothetical ship is exceptionally unlikely; we must refer to it only in the subjunctive.

If this ship were to exist, it would be called Torquemada’s Conscience.

Are all boats female? Should I refer to a hypothetical vessel as “she”? Or should we be just as likely to assume the possibility of an alien gender incompatible with a typical human grasp of biology, subject to a certain amount of drift with respect to maturity and/or environment? It’s possible the best course here is to maintain a tone of casual and detached neutrality.

The crew of the hypothetical ship is less hypothetical and more simply undefined. I am the closest thing to a skipper at the moment, the chief servant to the hypothetical ship itself and to all of its terrible purposes. Elsewhere is the first mate (the chief officer and organizer), the second mate (navigator and signaler), the third mate (nurse and emergency management), the boatswain (foreman of the crew), the engineer, the cook, and all of the hands. Elsewhere in space and time, mostly in the future.

I don’t pretend to have any serious maritime training or academy certification. I have a minimum of sailing experience. On an actual sea-going vessel I’d be somewhere between able seaman and living ballast. I understand which bit goes in the water and which bit sticks up and all the basic physics that makes that happen. I understand how sails and keels and rudders work and how to keep a sail trim. I know to duck when someone calls “jibe ho!” — and I will possibly even duck if not on deck. I can tell which direction is north on a clear night and I know how and when magnetic compasses lie. But that’s about it. I will not belittle a holder of an actual maritime license by an inappropriate comparison.

But the capricious seas of the subjunctive are different waters. They require a different kind of vessel that steers by different stars, buoyed and blown by an entirely new kind of physics, of which I am one of a very small number of experts.

Even that is a fairly weak claim. Any position I have by default is certainly only temporary while I wait to be surpassed by those who come after me, just as I supplant the ones who have come before. But it’s not about me. It’s about the ship and the seas it would sail, and its crew, and cargo, and passengers, and various routes and destinations and ports of call.

To what purposes must a hypothetical ship be put? And how, terrible? What can it carry? Where can it go? What possible point could it serve by, hypothetically, existing? In what way is it different from Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot, or, for that matter, any arbitrary divinity?

Believe me when I say I understand why you must ask these questions. I assure you I have answered these questions for myself, and a thousand more like them. I am who I am in relationship to the Torquemada’s Conscience, partially but measurably defined by it even though it might not actually exist as more than a construct for the sake of argument. As a concept, it has weight easily the equal of all the others adrift in the currents of the subjunctive.

Like any other object, even hypothetical, the ship has inherent properties. Until and unless it were to physically exist, it would not have to have any physical properties, but that does not mean Torquemada’s Conscience is free of all properties. It has a name. It has, for the sake of argument, a provisional skipper. Even this close to complete nonexistence, it can have.

What else can it have?

It can have a terrible purpose.


September 18, 2012 · Posted in Everything Else