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The Philosophy of Science: Part the sixth

November 19th, 2010 · No Comments · Philosophy of Science

WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. Youll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before.

Safety Not Guaranteed

It’s kind disturbing that so many stories about time travel are a Freudian wet dream.

The traveller goes back in time, kills their father and ends up sleeping with their mother in order to ensure their own birth. Why, when granted with the powers of space and time, do they use it for one weird-arse booty call? Are all time travellers from Inglewood or something? (Then again I went to Inglewood once and it felt like a trip back in time, so perhaps they are onto something there.)

If you did go back in time, could you kill your father? I don’t mean emotionally – I’m sure you are dead enough inside from years of television and playing GTA to pull the trigger – but physically. If you did would you suddenly vanish because you no longer exist? If that happened then who actually killed your father? Would your father be alive again, so you just kill him again and vanish again then he’s alive again and again and again… This of course is one of the most famous time travel paradoxes, along with the entire plot of Back to the Future Part II.

(I’d also like to point out here that my father is awesome and I have no plans to travel in time to kill him, it’s just good example.)

So let’s start with the assumption that time is fixed, kind of the granddaddy of time travel concepts. It fixes most problems with paradox; you may go back in time but anything you do is something that already happened in the past anyway, so you can’t kill your father unless there’s a handy replacement somewhere. The first Terminator film exemplifies this: Kyle Reese travels back in time and ends up fathering the man who sends him back in time, which completes the circle and is apparently less socially awkward than marrying your cousin.

There are several problems with the fixed past concept though. Firstly, the infinite loop problem. Under this concept of time, an item or idea could be sent back in time continuously without ever being created. The perfect example of this is plans for a time machine that are sent back in time to a person who builds the machine and sends the same plans back to himself in the past. Where did these plans originally come from? They must have come from somewhere, so a different version of time must therefore exist in which the plans were created, invalidating the concept. Also, according to the Law of Entropy, the plans may be stuck in an infinite time loop but would still degrade to destruction over time – similarly invalidating the “fixed past” concept.

A second aspect of this concept is that it also means that not only is the past fixed but the future as well. Why? Here’s a simple thought experiment: if it is possible to travel back in time, but not change it, then someone could travel back from the end of time to the beginning. Therefore all time between the traveller leaving the future and arriving in the past must be fixed so that exactly the same traveller will end up entering the machine and travelling back in time.

Simple as so far, right? Well how about the contrary idea, that time is mutable; ie. you can go back in time and change the future. This is the more popular concept of time and is utilised in many different pieces of fiction, a good example being the Back to the Future series [Pfft. Don’t get me on to Doc “Marty-fuck-your-mother” Brown! – Disturbed Ed.]. Doc Brown sends Marty McFly back in time, where he messes up the first meeting between his mother and father and changes the future. This kicks off a version of the Grandfather Paradox (kill your grandfather, so you don’t exist, but you had to kill him, so you do). In this case, Marty prevented his own birth, therefore couldn’t have travel back in time to mess up his mum and dad’s meeting, therefore they would have met and had a son who would travel back in time…

In the movie Marty resolves all this by getting his parents back together before he fades out of time. Practically speaking this shouldn’t work because as soon as Marty screwed the pooch and invalidated his own “present” he should have been offskis – but that would make a kind of crap film [and give Doc Brown less opportunities to get Marty to fuck his mother! – Ed.].

Under the mutable concept the possibility of time travel being discovered actually decreases dramatically. If time travel was utilised and someone went back in time, the “present” would change, if only slightly, and a someone from this new “present” would go back in time instead and change the “present” again. This will continuously happen until a stable time line is formed, and the most likely way one would be stable was if time travel is not discovered at all.

Essentially, if you believe in the mutable concept and you ever meet someone who claims they can travel back in time you should kill them instantly. Most people look at time travel from the point of the traveller, but what if you’re – as is far more likely to be the case – the observer rather than the traveller? What happens to you? Under the mutable concept, the traveller would go back in time and invalidate not only their “present” but yours as well. Would it be you, then, who would exists in this new reality or just a close approximation? Would that traveller wiped out the entirety of reality? What a selfish prick! Best to resolve the issue before it gets too complicated.

The final concept is the alternate timeline theory. Under this one, rather than travelling back in your own timeline, you end up in a totally new timeline separate from the original one. This resolves most paradox issues as the future “you” who travels back in time comes from a totally separate timeline where they are most probably wondering what happened to that crazy guy with all the hair and the insane ideas. You can feel free to kill your father, the son he was meant to conceive is not you – just the “you” who would have been born in this timeline. It does cause some problems with the mass/energy balance of those universes but it’s a big universe and I doubt you’ll be missed.

A good demonstration of this concept is the re-imagined Star Trek by J J Abrams (which I thought was awesome, the scientist finally scores the hot chick). Nero and his crew follow a decrepit Spock back in time and totally knock the planet Vulcan the fuck out. This should activate the Grandfather Paradox as their “present” is gone – yet neither Nero, his ship and crew or Spock disappear  – indicating they are in a different reality from their original one.

Basically this concept is the most robust, but still as always raise some questions such as is this time travel or merely reality travel? And from when does this new reality come into existence? Did it always exist or does it start from the moment the traveller arrives? How does this effect the idea of free will, or of morality – if every reality exists then all your choices in this reality are predestined by the ones you don’t make in other realities. And finally, the most important question of all: Where do I sign up for the hot chicks?

Time – best not to fuck with it.



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