Question to Ponder

Question to Ponder May 15, 2009

As we know, the more we explore our universe, the more we find ourselves able to do things which once were thought to be impossible. There are still things which appear to be impossible such as time travel.

But what if time travel is not impossible? There are scientific theories which suggest it to be possible. Indeed, the more we explore the universe, the more things such as time appear to be constructs of the human mind, and the reality is far more diverse than the construct would allow (this, for example, has been shown through Einstein’s theory of relativity).

If time travel is possible (and we can even change the way time has gone), would it affect our moral obligations at all? Would we be required to change history (or to try to do so)? For example, if we are to work for the prevention of abortion, would that prevention also include abortions which took place in the past, once we can get to the past? Why or why not? What about other great evils, such as the holocaust? Would we be obliged to find a way to support Hitler’s artistic career so as not to have it happen? Of course, one could argue the consequences of such changes could be disastrous, and indeed, they could be (things could end up worse from our interference), but, would that really be a valid response?

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  • Time travel would have to become a much more serious possibility for me to rack my head with this question. Einstein’s principle of relativity does show a perspectival difference, but it fails to show a complete divorce from reality as it happens. In other words to experience the relativity of time is not tantamount to “traveling” through time and landing, as it were, into another epoc. The speed of light is so fast and we are so slow that if we could do that (and we would have to abide in some relation to the speed of light to do it, at least if we are following Einstein’s view) we may indeed do ourselves great harm. Either way, I too have read the stories about time warps, but I do not see the viability of it happening on a basis of the Einsteinian notion of relativity.

    • I wasn’t trying to say Einstein’s theory of relativity made time travel possible, but only it brings to question what “time.” I tried to use an example of such questioning from a source people had heard about. There are better, sources which question the very notion of time, and whether or not it “exists” as we believe it does… but, I didn’t want to bring them into the question, since I wanted to merely show time is not as easy to explain as classical physics believed, and use that to show it is possible science will explore this difficulty further. But even then, Einstein still shows us that our interaction with each other is not always in the same pure “timestream.” And that is where the question can then begin to move back from time travel to the point that all interaction with each other is, in a sense, interaction with the other from the past. What does that mean with our morality?

  • I’ve long wanted to write an article on the ethics of time travel, but I’ve never gotten around to it.

    The problem with going back in time to prevent the Holocaust or whatever is that you know in advance you won’t succeed. The Holocaust did happen, so even if you do try to stop it you can be sure that your attempts to stop it won’t succeed.

    Most time travel stories try to get around this problem either by positing alternate dimensions or by lapsing into downright incoherence. Assuming an alternate dimension interpretation, “changing the past” would be possible, and so I suppose if I ever did find myself in the past I might try to change things on the chance that I’m actually in an alternate reality rather than in my own world’s past (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d utter). I’m inclined to think, however, that an alternate dimension model is inconsistent with Christian beliefs.

    • BA

      Yes, there are many theories of time travel. Such, of course, as what you said, that one could create new realities by such travel. So it would not prevent the Holocaust in universe A, but A seeds and creates a better universe B without it. But the fact that you went back in time would be creating B, so you now have obligations to universe B. But what is more, even if you follow your idea that we can’t change the past, what exactly does that mean with our obligation? Are we to say “I can’t change the situation, so I will not try to do so” and if so, does that also apply to things in the present?

      As for a multi-verse, I think it is perfectly consistent with Christian beliefs, and it is one I do hold to, but of course, it’s controversial. I believe God is infinite in all directions, in all dimensions, completely unbound, while we end up being a bounded infinity. I’ve written things on this before (follow Nicholas of Cusa and adapting to modern mathematical theory), but of course, it is very speculative, and many issues (does it become pre-determined? I would say no) need to be addressed. And I would think the “best of all possible worlds” or St Albert’s “one world” all apply to the multi-verse, but not the part we necessarily participate in, in the microcosm of the maco-multi-verse. Quite complex, but still.. one for the books as to something I plan to write on (probably as an appendix when I write a volume on alien life).

  • Henry: I see. I guess, then, my problem is with your approach—not a big deal at all, but it comes off as a bit patronizing. I think it is better (using the word in a purely preferential way, nothing too serious about it) to say what you need to say with as much sophistication as you can muster and then, if it sails above expertise of what have, refer people to basic theories of time relativity. But, again, its really nothing but my own opinion, and a biased one at that. I am a bit opposed to talking about time travel in the “possible world” sense without having a clue as the possibility of that world from a physics perspective, and, as you know, Einstein doesn’t provide that possibility. He basically proves that Newtonianism is extermely limited and if the sun runs out of mustard the cosmos will behave differently than we would think using Newton’s laws of motion. Nothing about that precludes time travel in the sense that would become ethically relevant. But let’s not squabble, cause its not a big deal. It would be so depressing for me to get into a debate over time travel.

    • Sam

      What brought out this question is one of my favorite Doctor Who audio stories, one I’ve mentioned this week, The Kingmaker. In this story, the Doctor investigates what happened to Richard the III’s nephews, only to find himself put into a trap by Richard. It turns out Richard had become a “fan favorite” of time travelers, since he was young, all with opinions as to what he was to do, but eventually he hears through them and their reaction of a great time traveler they are afraid of, The Doctor, who works to keep the timestreams normative. When the Doctor goes back in time, he is trapped by Richard, and they get into a debate on ethics. The Doctor believes that Richard is as his myth was, someone unscrupulous, and yet, Richard knows this and gets him into a puzzle: the nephews are in the hands of the Doctor. Either the whole “web of time” will collapse if the Doctor doesn’t order their death, or Richard can be… good, and reformed. It’s up to the Doctor (Richard had a way out — and wants to do what is good, so the trap was only a test to make the Doctor feel the effects of his own actions). But it made me think about abortion and the consequence of time travel if it were possible. I would go into greater detail with questions of whether or not time really “is” –for I do think time can be said to be merely a figment of the mind, but that is beyond this post.

  • Fair enough. Interesting thoughts, to be sure.

  • David Nickol

    Doesn’t anybody watch Lost?

  • jeremy

    Since God lives in the ‘eternal now’, wouldn’t that mean that from God’s perspective, you couldn’t change anything by going back into the past? What has happened has happened.

    • Jeremy

      But wouldn’t that also be true for the future. That God’s experience of it is in the eternal now, so it will happen, too? But since I don’t believe that God’s eternal experience of events means there is no free will, God might also have in the eternal now the experience of both (sort of like bi-location, but now bi-temporality).

  • jeremy

    Since God does grant us free will, our future actions are not determined (even if they are predictable). However, our past actions have taken place, the choices made and set in time. Since God is all powerful, and outside of time, I don’t see how we could erase what was done from the sight of God. So even *if* we could go back in time, and undo a tragedy, we could never actually ‘erase’ that tragedy.

    • Jeremy

      That doesn’t answer the situation, really. The future and the past are both equally present to God. That’s the point. What exactly is time? How is something “set in time”? Does the past still exist? Does the future exist? These are questions which are more complicated than your answer. For you see, the past for us, is the future for those in the further past.

  • jeremy

    LOL – it’s as complicated as you want it to be. The likely hood of the past being alterable is good fodder for the imagination, but in terms of living the Christian Life – now is what commits us. I don’t think we could go back in time, and convince an evil person to repent, and thus ‘rescue’ a soul that had already experienced their particular judgment. From that I conclude that we could not go back in time for the purpose of erasing sinful actions (ourselves or others).

  • JC

    Time travel necessitates, at least, that we either deny the immmortality of the soul and Divine Providence. If you could go back in time and prevent a given death from happening, then that soul, which would have already been in Heaven, Hell or Purgatory, would have to be brought *back*.

    Changes to the timeline would also necessitate the conceptino of people who didn’t exist in the first version.

    Thus, the best time travel fiction is the kind which says “you can’t really change things”–e.g., if you stopped John Wilkes Booth from shooting Lincoln, maybe he’d die of a stroke 2 minutes later, anyway.

    I think that, if “time travel” became possible, it would necessarily be limited to observation only.