An Eternal Engine

An Eternal Engine.

Writing of Ramon Llull’s ‘thinking machines’, Borges suggests playfully that we change the contents, the concepts these machines manipulate, designated by the terms on their rotating wheels. These wheels turn to create new combinations and so spell out propositions such as, ‘Angels are wise’.

But, according to Borges, Llull’s medieval expressions are no longer serviceable. He suggests, therefore, the preoccupations of Llull’s machine might be modernised along the following lines:

“We now know that the concepts of goodness, greatness, wisdom, power, and glory are incapable of engendering an appreciable revelation.

We (who are basically no less naïve than Llull) would load the machine differently, no doubt with the words Entropy, Time, Electrons, Potential Energy, Fourth Dimension, Relativity, Protons, Einstein. Or with Surplus Value, Proletariat, Capitalism, Class Struggle, Dialectical Materialism, Engels.” (Borges, 1999, p. 157).

In Borges’s revision, it is only the words that are modernised, not the machine itself. Nor is our understanding of what this machine is fundamentally challenged. Like Llull’s, Borges’s would continue to produce unpredictable, but highly determinate, sentences.

These machines of Llull and Borges, whatever their component concepts, are essentially random sentence generators, where the syntax is fixed and choices are made from a prepared list.


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