Arrival, Timeless, and the Problems of Evil and Beauty

Arrival, Timeless, and the Problems of Evil and Beauty December 23, 2016

It was less than two hours after watching the movie Arrival yesterday that I realized it had solved, for me, one form of the problem of evil.
I can’t discuss this without spoilers, but even if you have yet to see the movie, it may be worth reading on, although I suspect that just as the underlying theological problem cannot be appropriately considered in a dispassionate manner, the emotional impact of this aspect of the film may also be crucial.

heptapod languageLinguistics is a major focus of the film. Some academics commented that, for all the realism in the struggle to communicate, to decipher, to interpret, the filmmakers botched that by depicting a professor of linguistics having an expensive house beside a lake. But other aspects made up for that – students not showing up for class when news of the arrival of aliens was breaking. Then the cell phones of the few students who were in class going off. Then the professor showing up diligently the following day and finding that not one student showed up.

About midway through the movie, mention is made of the view that immersion in a new language rewires your brain. Towards the end of the movie, we learn that this had been happening to the main character, Dr. Louise Banks, and that what we thought were memories of events in her past were in fact memories of her future. As she learned the language of the heptapods, who don’t experience time in the same way that we do, she begins to also “premember” her future.

And that includes the details with which the movie begins. The life of her daughter Hannah, who dies tragically young of a rare disease.

And so by the end of the movie, the question that is posed is whether we would choose to follow a path when we know the outcome.

And despite the tragedy and the heartache that it brings, Dr. Banks nonetheless chooses to follow the path that she has foreseen – presumably because she appreciates that along with the tragedy, there will be a life of incredible beauty, even if that life is cut short.

I wrote a song a couple of years ago, after reflecting on the death of a relative, that it is better to have lived half a life than not have lived at all.

And that topic is at the heart of some of the most recent episodes of the TV show Timeless. Agent Denise Christopher articulated how, with a time machine in the hands of people determined to change history, the big risk is no longer simply that something will happen to the people you love. Now the fear is that they might never have existed, and you would have no recollection of them.

And so that brings us to theodicy, to the problem of evil. It can be explored in relation to both Arrival and Timeless each on their own, but becomes even clearer at the intersection.

If someone changes history so that a person that would have existed now no longer does, is that akin to murder? Does God, or a time traveler, have any obligation to give existence to potential people? Does the fact that they were once actualized in a timeline change the obligation?

human-arrival-696x464If you are wondering how this relates to the problem of evil, the question is often asked whether it was worth creating the universe, given the Holocaust and other atrocities. Could anything ever make it worth having brought into existence a universe that has such horrors?

But we must ask the reverse question as well. Is it worth not bringing any universes into existence in order to ensure that no attempted genocide ever occurs? To put it more personally, would you consider it a better choice for you and everyone you love to never have existed, if that would prevent the atrocities in Iraq, and Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia, and the list could go on and on?

We cannot discuss this topic from the perspective of God – indeed, as humans, we cannot hope to know whether God has anything like the kind of deliberative choice-making that humans have, or is very different. But working with the analogy to human choice, the question is whether there is any moral obligation to bring beautiful people and things into existence once the potential is there for them to exist.

And so there is a problem of beauty (and of love and of significance) that is parallel to the problem of evil, and of undeserved suffering, and of all the rest that horrifies us. If we can ask about whether the cost in evil is worth the good in the world, we must also ask the value of the good in the world, and whether choosing to have it never be is not a worse atrocity than all the Holocaust. Would choosing to bring it about that no human being, no living thing, ever existed be a justifiable means to preventing the Holocaust and other events like it, or something worse still?

Or to bring it back to Arrival, would you choose to spare yourself and your child the tragedy of illness and untimely death, if the cost of doing so was making them not ever have existed?

To echo the words of the movie, we need to ask the big question whether we are ready or not, and in doing so, we must ask whether we can embrace – and whether God could embrace – the journey of life, of existence, in all its individual aspects, knowing where it leads.

I’m not sure that the questions above have a clear answer that everyone will agree on. But the questions are worth asking nonetheless, and doing so gives one a different perspective on the problem of evil. Do you agree?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that, in addition to the philosophical/ethical/theological element that is raised by the central premise, the movie also includes some more standard elements related to the subject of a recent article from the BBC, namely the theological implications of alien life. In Arrival we get two glimpses on television of the religious reactions to the arrival of the aliens. In one brief snippet, a large number of Muslims are seen praying. In another longer news clip, we learn that the St. Lawrence Pentecostal group had committed suicide, burning their building to the ground with themselves inside, because they believed that the arrival of these twelve (!) ships was something that had been prophesied. We also see how soldiers are influenced by right wing talk show hosts to undertake hostile action towards the aliens. But those elements seem to me far more stereotypical and thus less interesting, and less insightful, than the more central questions about time, choice, tragedy, value, and purpose.

And of course, the language in which we ask those questions may determine what precisely they mean, and what answers it is possible to give.

The movie Arrival is based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.”

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  • Shiphrah99

    Just a tidbit of a thought: The philosopher Lin Yutang observed that certain languages have better vocabularies for talking about different subjects. E.g. Greek has words for the nuances of philosophy, Hebrew for theology, French for sex and diplomacy (!), Italian for art and food, German for warfare as well as little endearments (another !), English for money and excrement. What I think of as an adjective in English is a verb in Chinese.

  • jh

    It makes me think of this story by Le Guin.

    “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

    Of course, if the Christian God exists, perhaps its standard of beauty and goodness is different from ours? Perhaps the horrors we see are nothing but shading on a beautiful painting. Or maybe, it can’t even see the horrors because it doesn’t have the capacity to see them much like my cat can’t see the world I see because my cat isn’t physically capable of seeing like a human being.

    After all, it is humanity that provides the descriptor that God is good. There is no verifiable evidence beyond hearsay to attest to the Christian God’s goodness. And by some standards, I think that most people would have a serious problem with some of the Christian God’s actions. It’s all very nice to go “God saved the Israelite slaves” but when it’s your first born child that is murdered because of Herr Trump’s “hardened heart”, how many of us would accept our child’s death as just? I think most of us would curse the Christian God out and work to destroy him for murdering our young.

    • Nick G

      The other relevant Le Guin story is The Lathe of Heaven in which the protagonist has dreams which retrospectively change reality.

  • James, I don’t think it’s a solution to the problem of theodicy to say that there is some good in the universe, or even to say that good predominates. The question is about the existence of considerable and significant amounts of evil and suffering in a universe designed, created and under the ultimate control of a good God. You can’t answer that question with an analysis stemming from a choice between the universe we have and none at all. Imagine applying that analysis to an abusive parent–we don’t defend the parent by saying that his or her children are better off alive than never born.

    • Well, if one views God as determining every specific suffering that people will experience, then the abuse analogy works. But I am envisaging more a scenario in which, say, the current universe does ultimately, in all its history including what is still to come, include the most possible meaningful lives and experiences that it was possible to bring about. That is the question: would it be right for a God who has foreseen what can be and has the power to bring it about, to deprive you and me, our spouses, our families, of existence so that we never were, by choosing not to create? It would prevent atrocities. But if a time traveler who hated you and I were to go back in time and prevent us from ever being born, we might consider that akin to murder, or perhaps even worse. And so the question I am posing is whether the same applies to God.

      • James, I think you and I are on related pages, but not the same page. You suggest that we might understand the problem of theodicy not in terms of inexplicable suffering and evil, but instead on a spectrum of meaning. Creation might be understood as a good and all powerful God providing the most meaningful possible lives for the creatures God designed to experience this meaning. Here, we might say either that suffering and evil are either necessary to our experience of meaning, or else that they are unavoidable side effects of other universal building blocks necessary for the experience of meaning. To this, I pose the following objections. First, the universe does not appear to provide us all with the most possible meaningful lives, or even with lives that possess any meaning whatsoever. Some die at birth without experiencing much of anything. Some suffer to an extent that would seem to preclude any meaningful experience. If we posit that even the most miserable existence is better than no existence at all (a judgment I am certainly not qualified to make), it certainly remains the case that there is no equality or fairness apparent in which of us gets to experience the most meaning.

        I have a second problem, which is: there’s a considerable distinction between a meaningful life and one we’d choose not to experience at all. The choice here is not a dispassionate one: we are hard-wired to cling to life.

        Ultimately, you seem to be telling the story of Noah’s generation, not of Job’s. God might well decide not to despair of a creation riddled with pain and suffering, and it might even be wrong for God to destroy this creation and start over. But that does not explain the existence of pain and suffering, let alone injustice and evil.

        • I am trying to focus in on the analogy with a time traveler. They have seen a present day with a variety of people living meaningful lives. They then travel to the past, and at a particular moment can choose to act, or to refrain from acting, and if they do so it will prevent a particular tragedy, but will also erase a far greater number of lives from ever having existed. It seems to me that that gives at least some glimpse of creation from a theistic sort of perspective. God can foresee the kinds of beings and experiences that will result if God creates. And so having foreseen their potential to exist, if God chooses to refrain from acting, from creating, isn’t that akin to a time traveler going back in time and acting so that the people that would have existed in the time they came from instead never do?

          • Given the nature of space-time, the act of a time traveler would have to be to have created an alternative universe. The fixed trace in space time of the universe we have known, already has its imprint in a more fundamental dimension and it cannot be changed through the law that prevents the reversal of the arrow of time in this universe. (2nd law of thermodynamics)

            Job wishes he had been miscarried so that now he would be at rest, he is happy to have been an infant that did not see the light. He considers in his first speech all those ‘meaningless’ lives: who are glad even to being overjoyed, rejoicing that they find a tomb.

            Yes- hard-wired seems for a moment a suitable metaphor, but our psychological bootstrap is hidden from us, and meaning is unassignable. We are – and we are stuck with this being. We need to make a whole of it as we make music, that the end should be seen in our beginning and the whole should be a melody worth hearing.

            For all the wonder of science and the emergent gravity of it all, we still are not at the starting gate of self-understanding, but we cannot escape our responsibility.

            A lot of commentators are dissatisfied with the frame of Job. But this is the single book that directly approaches this problem of theodicy, and the answer it gives through the speeches of Yahweh and the assumption that Yahweh will end up as referee for himself (a role that Job refuses) seems to me to allow for a continuation of the mystery of our consciousness, our knowledge of good and evil.

            enjoying the conversation -had to find a keyboard. Must learn to dictate more clearly…

          • I’m not sure that we know enough about space time to know whether time travel is possible, let alone whether it would create alternate universes while leaving the one from which the time traveler originated intact. I don’t think we know whether God has created one or multiple or infinite universes for that matter.

          • I understand the question, and it’s interesting to think of God from this perspective. But traditionally, we understand God as omnipotent and omniscient, which I think means that God not only knows both past and future, but that God has unlimited power to change either or both. Meaning, I think, that the choice you pose is not applicable to traditionally understood God. God as so understood could erase the tragedy you mention without erasing any lives.

            Yes, it’s possible to attack the question of theodicy by taking away some of the attributes traditionally assigned to God. Here, we are imagining a God who, not yet having created the universe, presumably knew the extent of suffering and injustice in the creation-to-be, but did not possess the power to design or build anything less painful or more just. I am sympathetic to such imaginations, but the resultant God does not much resemble the God described in our respective faiths.

          • Hi Larry, while I recognize I think, the problem of one ‘sacrifice’, the stretch of the NT includes ‘the lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world’. This from the writer of rev 13:8 seems to suggest that the people of this time recognized the problem and chose the solution that suffering is known outside of time. Whether there is power in this that coheres with both our faiths and those of others remains to be tested

          • Bob, theodicy is not just a problem of the existence of suffering within God’s creation. It’s also a problem of the extent and severity of the suffering, and the fact that it’s doled out so unevenly. It’s a problem that we’re told God occasionally intervenes to allieviate suffering, but God does not do so even-handedly or in a way that bears even a remote resemblance to justice as it is taught in God’s own book.

            Now, it may be as you suggest, that suffering precedes time and space, that it is part of a pre-creation state, perhaps even that it is a given that God can do nothing about. But again, the idea that the universe is governed by forces outside of God’s control is not one within the contemplation of your faith or mine.

          • Larry, I did not mean to separate suffering from God. My implication is that the pre-created is only and all of God, so the suffering in the pre-creation eternity is suffering ‘in God’ – perhaps the origin of compassion in the God who is compassionate (רחם). Clearly this could be seen as a vast projection of human terms onto God. (if I must create a god, I would rather that one than the impassive one)

            Your first point concerning the punishment or consequence fitting ‘the crime’ is traditional and difficult to apply to creation. A tsunami is bad enough, but a compassionate God through his prophet citing compassion, and then sword, scarcity, and pestilence in one chapter such as I just read (Jeremiah 42) last week, and using the fearful and unnerved as a parable (משׁל) for the benefit of all nations as I read yesterday (Jer 24) does seem difficult to justify. Jeremiah has a habit of using this trio of troubles. The concatenation of words in ch 42:18 and ch 24:9 applied to anyone is difficult to justify: And I will give them to be unnerved, for their hurt, to all the kingdoms of the earth, // for a reproach and for a parable, for sharp teaching and for denial, in all the places where I will banish them.

            I am not finished yet – two to three more years in my project to read in Hebrew and write in English -but at 45% complete, I would say that I do not expect to come to a tight or neat summary of this 4000 year wrestling match.

            Thank you for the merry Christmas. All the best to you also in your celebrations and holidays. I am visiting 1 and 3 year old grandsons. A full house in cold weather.

          • I think that omnipotence, if one wishes to posit it in any sense, has to be qualified to make room for free will and much else. And so it is theoretically possible that God could have made a universe with all the good that ours has, and none of the tragedy. But we don’t know that to be so, and don’t know whether or not freedom given to creation as a whole or to individual creatures makes determining that outcome impossible to achieve with absolute certainty.

          • James, Rabbinic Judaism has generally seen as a kind of eternal contradiction the existence of human free will notwithstanding God’s complete knowledge and control. But if you want to qualify God’s powers to allow logical room for free will, you’d have to drop omniscience as well as omnipotence. Because if God knows what’s going to happen, we’re not free to do it differently. But you need God omniscience to perform the exercise you’re trying to perform here.

            Of course, the need for free will is one traditional answer to the problem of theodicy. Problem is, the amount of pain and injustice in this world seems to be much more than we need to allow us the choice of good versus evil. If the world is created in such a way that a tsunami can wipe out a million people, it’s hard to say that this level of unwarranted suffering is needed to give us the freedom to choose to love God.

            To ‘fess up: I believe in antitheodicy. I think that the theodicy questions are essential to any reasonable position of faith, and that we have to own up to the fact that they cannot be satisfactorily answered. Any answer I’ve ever heard to the problem of theodicy leaves me more troubled and hurt than I would be without the answer.

          • Oh, and Bob and James (and anyone else reading this):

            Merry Christmas! Best to you and all those close to you.

          • Thanks so much! Hope you’re having a happy Hanukkah!

          • In principle I feel much the same as you do. But if one adopts the view that it may be simply impossible or undesirable to bring a world into existence which never has tragedy and atrocity, then the options appear to be to create a world with atrocity, or to refrain from creating. And I had felt the force of Ivan Karamazov’s question about this very point. But Arrival and Timeless got me thinking that knowing a future would exist in which meaningful lives were lived if one acted in a certain way, and one chose not to act that way, it could be viewed as akin to murder. One would simply be wiping those beings out of existence. And so one could argue that God’s options as Creator, thinking about this all anthropomorphically obviously, were to create and being beauty and terror into existence, or to refrain from creating and deprive all that beauty of existence. I’m not sure that the latter, from that perspective, is the better choice.

          • James, I think the best way for me to appreciate what you’re describing is to see it as a science fiction dilemma with theological implications. Certainly, I’ve felt the way you’ve described as a parent, wondering if I did something selfish and thoughtless, bringing a child into this troubled world. It is difficult watching a child suffer, and I sometimes imagine that it’s difficult for God to watch us suffer. I can also imagine that Creation was a choice, just as deciding to have a family is a choice, and that (borrowing from Bob) there may be alternative times and spaces where God might choose not to create. But yes: speaking from the standpoint of the created, there’s possibly nothing as awful as having the creator reconsider creation. I’m with you on that. From the standpoint of the created, it’s a terrible sort of negation, though I wouldn’t call it murder.

            But if I look at what you’ve written as theology … I’m no theologian, but from this view I struggle with the binary you pose, where we have either a known future with a single narrative written in stone, or no future/narrative at all. Even a human time traveler has multiple options to change the narrative: you send Hitler to sensitivity training, you release a second Access Hollywood tape showing Trump in a bad light, you issue a weather report giving Indonesia a day’s warning in advance of the tsunami. Yes: it’s a stock sci-fi theme, the unexpected consequences of a time traveler interfering in the past, but presumable an all-knowing God would be able to avoid these consequences.

          • Thanks, Larry. It seems to me that humans engaging in the task of theology have two options – to say that we don’t know and so will remain silent, or to use our language tentatively, symbolically, and analogically in reference to God. If all things are possible in the strict sense that God can make humans free and still control what they do, and so on, then the problem of evil is such that we must say that God is not “good” in the sense that humans use that term. Because in that case, God deliberately chose to cause atrocities in human history, and did not merely create a world that either was bound to, or had the potential to, include such events as a result of the actions of free agents that God brought into being.

          • Thanks back, James! I have adopted the second option you mentioned, in the sense that I don’t think we know, but we cannot remain silent. I think the theodicy questions have to be asked–in that sense, no silence. But no answer we can pose can ever be satisfactory. I think it’s probably a good thing to put forward possible answers, so long as we ultimately reject them. Whatever answer we try, we’ve either made God the author of horrible tragedy, or else removed God to a considerable extent (perhaps entirely) as the author and caretaker of creation. Those of us who are God-believers need to live with the unacceptablily of both ends of this either-or. I don’t have a theologically sound way to do so, except to take note that God need not live up (or down) to our logical expectations, and that it wouldn’t hurt for humankind to approach God and God-questions with the greatest possible humility.

            Thanks for listening, and sharing your thoughts.

          • That is beautifully put Larry. Thank you. It reminds me of a quote from Micah, to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly (modestly) with your God.

          • Nick G

            Or you could follow through the logic of your thoughts, and recognise that your God-beliefs cannot be correct.

          • Nick G

            I’m not sure that the latter, from that perspective, is the better choice.

            The only people who could possibly be morally qualified to answer that evil and suffering are a worthwhile price for meaningful lives, are those who have suffered most. And every one of them would have to agree.

          • I agree with you, Nick, in real-world terms. What you’ve said here reminds me of something I read about the thought of Eliezer Berkovits. Berkovits is a post-Holocaust theologian who addresses the problem of theodicy in a way that makes sense to me. He argues that nearly all of us lack the experience to affirm or deny faith in God after the Holocaust. He understands those who lost faith in God after the Holocaust, but how dare we reject faith in God when so many who survived the death camps kept their faith! But in the same way, how can we who never suffered as they did dare to affirm faith in God when so many survivors refused to believe! We’re caught on the knife’s edge. We HAVE to affirm with those who believed AND protest with those who rebelled.

            For those of us who regard ourselves as children of the Holocaust, this is the only honest position: to stand at the threshold of belief, knowing that it is only from this place that a breakthrough can take place, and knowing that this is the only honest place to stand until there is such a breakthrough. From this place, I quietly affirm a faith in God, knowing that the knife’s edge on which I stand is uncomfortable and in many ways incoherent, and knowing further that I have nothing to offer believers to my left and skeptics to my right except a kind of solidarity.

          • Nick G

            how dare we reject faith in God when so many who survived the death camps kept their faith!

            That’s just nonsense. The existence of evil and suffering – particularly on the scale of the Shoah – is overwhelming evidence against the existence of a benevolent god, irrespective of the responses of that atrocity’s survivors. Whether there is such a god is a matter of fact, not a value judgement such as the one I referred to.

          • As you put it yourself Nick, the only people capable of making the judgment you’re making are those who have suffered most.

          • Nick G

            As I already pointed out, there’s a difference between judgements of value, where that is a valid point, and judgements of fact, where it is not. Whether a certain benefit justifies a certain cost in suffering is a question of value, on which those who have done the suffering have a privileged view. Whether there is a benevolent creator is a question of fact, where they do not. And while “faith in God” might be psychologically beneficial to such sufferers even if there is in fact no such benevolent creator, it would nevertheless be a mistaken faith, which we would be right to reject.

          • And how is this fact to be determined objectively, out of curiosity, if the question of whether a certain benefit is worth a certain cost in suffering is not an objective fact?

          • Nick G

            There could certainly be cases where it can’t be. But first, we have to distinguish between “X is a fact”, and “X can be determined objectively”: something can be a fact without it being possible to determine its truth. (This is provable in metamathematics using Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, but is almost certainly true of many facts about the past, such as what Julius Caesar’s oldest slave had for breakfast on some arbitrarily chosen date.) If it is a fact that there is no creator, then clearly it is a fact that there is no benevolent creator, and whether any particular benefit is judged worth any specified suffering is simply irrelevant. If there is a creator, then we need some criterion of benevolence. The one I implicitly suggested is that every sentient creature should judge that any suffering it undergoes is justified; and I submit that by that criterion, there is overwhelming evidence (I don’t claim a logical proof) that if there is a creator, it is not benevolent. I think the same would be true even with much weaker criteria of benevolence – such as that the author of nonconsensual suffering should always, if possible, explain its necessity to those on whom it is inflicted. Many theologians appear simply to define the creator as benevolent; or else come up with ridiculously far-fetched attempts at justification, such as the claim that we’ll all agree it was worth it in the end – including all the rabbits that die of myxomatosis, presumably.

          • It was precisely the fact that this question involves sentient beings giving their opinion on whether their suffering was or was not justified that makes the matter subjective rather than a matter of fact. I think that the problem of evil is something very serious – but not something that exists independent of human subjective experiences and value judgments. Indeed, in the absence of such beings who experience pain and frustration, there isn’t actually a problem of evil in anything like the sense we are talking about.

          • Nick G

            That’s just wrong. An opinion is subjective; but whether a specified agent holds a specified opinion is an objective fact; and given the criterion of benevolence I suggested – or many others – whether there is a benevolent creator is also an objective fact. (Parenthetically, there is no justification for limiting the class of agents whose subjective experiences and value judgements should be taken into account to human beings, or beings capable of expressing their value judgements linguistically.)

            Your attempt to wish away the problem of evil, like all other such attempts, fails. It may be easiest to see this by taking an extreme case. Suppose there was a creator, and that every created being suffered endless excruciating agony, suhc that it wishes it had never existed. According to you, it would still be a subjective matter whether this was justified, and whether the creator was benevolent.

          • It would be possible for the creator and the created to have different perspectives and make different value judgments on the matter, and for both to change their minds about it in light of further considerations and experiences. It would be an objective fact that they held these subjective views about the benevolence or otherwise of the creator, on your scenario, but how does that turn their different and contradictory value judgments into “objective facts” except in this very trivial sense?

          • Nick G

            Unless the creator creates all logically possible universes, it would still, by your logic, be guilty of depriving the beings that would have existed in the universes it didn’t create of their lives. But I must admit all this seems completely batty to me – typical of the sort of nonsense theologians invariably come out with when they turn to theodicy.

          • If this topic seems batty and nonsensical to you, then I suspect the problem is with you and not with the topic.

            Let’s leave God out of it for the moment, and see if you can grasp the underlying point. Imagine two time travelers, both of whom set out with the objective of preventing the Holocaust. The first goes back in time and prevents Adolf Hitler’s parents from ever meeting, thus wiping him out of existence, but in the process also changing history so that some people that might have otherwise existed later never do, including the two of us. The second time traveler decides that, in the interest of making absolutely certain, it is best to go back earlier and prevent life from arising at all on Earth, and so humanity as a whole and indeed all other living things never come to be.

            The two key questions are (1) do you think there is anything morally problematic about a time traveler causing beings to never have existed, and (2) do you think that both time travelers’ actions are morally equivalent, and equally appropriate and justified responses to the evils that led them to go back in time in the first place?

          • Short answer: I think morality depends upon the direction of time and therefore precludes even the thought of time travel.

          • Nick G

            Questions about the morality of time travel are themselves pretty pointless, other than as entertainment (Stanislaus Lem among others deals with them amusingly) as there’s no reason to think it is possible. But the time travel situation you describe is quite different from the “Creator’s dilemma” as you posited it, because the latter concerned potential beings that never have existed at the time the decision is made. Now you might say that when the time traveller from 2100 arrives in 1880 (or 4.7 billion BCE), the people that their actions would prevent ever being born have never existed. But if you say that, you also have to say that the “time traveller” isn’t a time traveller at all – because the “time machine” they used has never been built and the “future” they came from has never happened – but simply someone who appeared from nowhere without explanation and with false memories. If we posit that time travel is possible, then to avoid these sorts of paradox we have to posit a second temporal dimension, in which changes to the stream of events in the ordinary time dimension occur. But then at any point in the second temporal dimension, the whole stream of events in the first temporal dimension is fixed, and the time traveller is wiping out people who do exist.

          • All analogies have inadequacies, but sometimes they can nonetheless be helpful in thinking about challenging subjects. But if you find both the topic and the analogy pointless, then there is probably no reason to pursue it. I am inclined to agree that time travel is unlikely, and is filled with paradox as depicted in a lot of sci-fi. But I don’t think that, just because the brain transplanet scenario that Daniel Dennett incorporates as the basis for his story “Where Am I?” is likely to ever become reality, its usefulness as a philosophical thought experiment is at all undermined.

          • Nick G

            That’s true, but if you’re using a thought experiment for serious philosophical purposes you have to think it through. I don’t think you did that either with your original “Creator’s dilemma”, or with the time-travel analogy, for reasons I’ve already laid out, in both cases.

  • Job’s story undoes creation in the way you describe. Fortunately I am on holiday and not in the presence of a useable keyboard. So I’ll just leave you with that ancient thought.

    • He effectively wishes he had never been born – that is why I say that the Book of Job is the earlier version of It’s a Wonderful Life.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    It’s a classic argument: to exist as beings independent of God (and therefore to exist at all) requires that we have free will, and exist in a universe that allows us to exercise it in a meaningful manner with consequences and results, but this means God having to self limit what he can do to intervene and how, and so we are left with the ability to mess up and do horrible things to ourselves and others.
    The question is not therefore whether God should or should not intervene in this way or that, but whether overall it is worth it.

  • I just used premember in a sentence. It does sound like a reversal of the direction of entropy, a sort of dismembering reversed. My wife had asked me to do something in the future and I said I would forget to premember so I went and did it. Hmm premember doesn’t even show as a spelling error.