Clearly, I have too much “time” on my hands…

June 6, 2010

Over the past few days, I’ve found myself thinking about time. More specifically, time travel and the potential paradoxes thereof. Thanks to science fiction, these paradoxes are pretty well-known. What happens if Bob travels back in time and kills his own grandfather? Would everything Sally does in the past affect the future (i.e. her present), and potentially alter it? What about travel into the future?

Let’s begin by looking at time travel into the past, since that seems to be the idea to which most people’s minds jump. Just to clarify things, let us call the Time Traveller’s present (the time at which they begin their temporal journey) “T0.” Thus, from that point, fifty years into the past is T-50 and fifty years into the future is T+50.

Now, there are two possibilities for time travel’s effects on the past. The Homeric Past is a conception of the past in which every action performed by the Traveller has an effect on the future. The accumulation of these effects eventually alters the future. And yes, I borrowed the name from The Simpsons. Remember that wonderful “Treehouse of Horror” episode? Homer’s actions in the past, whether he squishes a fish or sneezes on a T. Rex, lead to a variety of alternate T0s.

Conversely, the Andromedic Past is one in which the timeline is stable. Instead of altering T0, every action performed by the Traveller contributes to it. Yes, I borrowed this name too. This time, I’m thinking of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda. The crew of the Andromeda Ascendant goes back in time to a major battle. They didn’t change its outcome through their actions in T-300; rather, they caused the outcome as it was known in T0.

So is the past Homeric or Andromedic? Does everything matter to the Traveller, or does nothing matter?

I’m a strong advocate of the Andromedic Past. When travelling to the past from T0, everything in the past has already happened. Therefore, any action taken by the Traveller has also already happened. Since the Traveller was able to travel to T-X in the first place, everything the Traveller does there will lead to the set of circumstances allowing that travel.

Consider the paradox of killing one’s own grandfather in the past (incidentally, why does one never talk of killing one’s grandmother?). The paradox is as follows: if Philip kills his grandfather, Philip could not be conceived, and therefore, Philip could not return to the past to kill his own grandfather. In which case, he would be conceived, allowing him to go back in time and kill his own grandfather. Unless it turns out he is his own grandfather, this seems an unsolvable conundrum. Here I will concede that it is theoretically possible to kill one’s grandfather. I could take a gun, go to T-50, and shoot him. However, since I am alive to consider that possibility, I didn’t. Everything in the past has already happened. If I was conceived, and I am alive right now to type this, I have already failed to kill my grandfather. As evidenced by my birth, my grandfather successfully conceived my parent; therefore, at no relevant point in his T0 did he meet a homicidal future grandchild.

All right, but that’s just me. I’m compassionate. What about someone else, could they kill their grandfather? If they are even alive to consider the question, they could, but they would not. More accurately, they did not. We could send wave after wave of murderers into the past, throw a whole Russian army upon their grandparents, but none of them would succeed. This begs the question: if something could happen, but never would, is it rendered effectively impossible?

So murdering genetic forebears (and by the same argument, oneself) is out. Could I go back to T-700 and kill some hapless peasant? As long as he did not contribute to my genealogy, I could. This sounds like a contradiction, but bear with me. When I am born, the peasant has already been dead for almost seven centuries. How did he die? I killed him, as I will do when I grow up, travel to the past, and snuff him out. Thus, he may have no descendants in my T0, but he never would have. Due to the Andromedic nature of the past, the circumstances created by his death ultimately lead to a T0 in which I am a) capable of time travel, and b) apparently a very angry person.

So the past is unchangeable. What about the future? For some reason, people don’t seem as fascinated by the implications of travel into T+X. Admittedly, the paradoxes are less obvious. I could go to T+200 and kill my descendants, but that would not appear to affect my own personal timeline. To affect me, I would have to take action on my future self.

Suppose I went to T+3 and shot my future self, then returned to T0. Three years later, I look at the calendar and see that today is the third anniversary of the day I time-travelled and killed myself. What do I do? Do I call the police to foil my past self’s murder attempt? Do I hop a plane to Cuba to avoid myself/her? Remember, I was my past self; I know exactly how I carried out my plan. However, if I remember how I killed my future self, that means I succeeded in killing my future self. My personal past is Andromedic, and this past includes the successful murder of the Arvik at T+3. Again, I could take action to save my life, but because I have already killed my future self, I didn’t. Really, the best course of action would be for me to mix a cocktail and then go meet myself.

What if it was an accident? What if I went to T+3, had dinner with my future self, and then on the way back she got hit by a car? When I am the Future Self, I will remember what happened. Couldn’t I then suggest a different route home, or linger on the curb a few minutes longer? You may have guessed the answer by now. I could do that, but I already remember the accident; therefore, it already happened. Therefore, I don’t.

Some may cry, “But you wouldn’t just allow yourself to be killed! What sense does that make?” I’ll admit that I don’t know why I would step off the curb knowing full well a car was coming with a 100% chance of killing me. But, as my Past Self can attest, I did. If the past is Andromedic, so too is the future.

I suppose the question of multiple universes each with their respective timeline comes into play too, but let’s save that for now. Bottom line? If you ever find yourself time-travelling, don’t panic! You’re an old pro at it.




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