The Fiction of Time Travel
a supplement to the paper, Time's Paradigm, questioning the Hollywood version of Time Travel and whether it is simply a sci-fi fabrication.
A time traveller goes back in time and kills his grandfather, thus terminating his family lineage and making it impossible for him to have been born. Sounds plausible, and makes for a great many exciting stories and Hollywood blockbusters. But what parameters must be resolved in order for this 'Grandfather Paradox' to actually make real sense.
Below are some fundamentals about time that must be addressed...
The definition of Time Travel is? Well, we all travel in time. We meander from day to day. So, if we slow down our passage through time behind those that travel at a faster rate, is that time travel? If we speed up ahead of others, is that travelling in time? We might argue that disengaging from our present passage through time and creating a loop back to the past via a worm hole or other portal, is the real deal - which we can call 'non-sequential Time Travel'.
Taking a quantity of matter, be it living or inanimate, and transferring it from its present location to another moment in time where it is accepted as existing and continues to function and interact, is generally regarded as the definition.
Most of us imagine this standard sci-fi version, as depicted above in the Grandfather Paradox, a love affair which has captured the hearts of writers and Hollywood directors for more than a century. However, a curious anomaly usually arises in these cases, where one moment of time can have duplicate individuals running about, who may even come face to face with one another: Younger and older versions of the same person, existing at the same time. Back to the Future, the quintessential Hollywood time travel trilogy, is full of such fanciful scenarios, brilliantly told and masterfully filmed.
However, stuffing an already crowded planet with more litter in the form of a human being from another time that is not supposed to be in this present moment - or, in other words, imposing a duplicate - is an extraordinarily liberal concept, with an undeniably implausible bases in scientific reality. Has our time traveller not just altered the entire cosmos, merely be materialising in a moment he was not supposed to be in, and taking up space? One cannot just add matter to a closed system. We film buffs and movie goers don't really mind; it's all about entertainment value, who cares whether it actually works?
In no way should we disrespect the awesome productions of such films as, Terminator, or Twelve Monkeys, both of which were phenomenal works of art and highly praised as classics. That the concept of travelling in time or how it worked was not addressed scientifically is not an issue, as there are no rules and liberties can thus be taken.
Well, what if it could work, but not exactly the way Hollywood wants?
It has been widely suggested that surpassing the speed of light might offer us the means to time travel, by setting our clocks in reverse. Yes, Relativity suggests that our clocks slow down as we approach light speed, so only natural to assume that as we reach it, our clocks stop - and then what, the unthinkable..! For some this immediately suggests that we could be heading back to 1984, yet somehow still be living in a forward trajectory. Reversing time is just as likely to be the act of living our lives backwards, walking backwards, eating backwards, flowing back through the life we have just lead, but in reverse.
First, we must consider today's known theories of how time appears to function. For an in-depth study you can follow this link to our Home Page, or continue below for some specific narrative on the subject of Time Travel.
Time is not the exclusive domain of physics. It has a broad spectrum, encompassing, notably, the disciplines of philosophy and psychology, and so any theory on how time works must engage with all three.
For philosophy we have these: 'Presentism' or 'Block Theory' - your choice. Presentism supposes that there is no past or future, we simply exist in the present. Block Theorists consider that all of time, the past and the future exist all at once, and that the present moment of supposed flow is just an illusion.
Have you got an alternative theory? If not then we will rely on the re-known postulates highlighted above. See pt1. Destiny, for more details, or Free Will, for the psychological point of view.
Presentism: if the past and the future do not exist, then time travel is impossible. The past has melted away, there is nothing to return to, it no longer exists. The future is yet to happen, you can't make it appear to exist until it actually does, for everyone. To think that you, a single individual time traveller, have the power and authority to make stuff happen all around you is a bit of a stretch.
You cannot choose your way through time travel. Choices denote a present moment in time that has no future, until you make a decision, and thus your fate unfolds based on your own free will.
Block Theory: if the past and the future already exist, then all at once; so wherever you travel to, you have already been to, and it has already happened. You can't just turn up somewhere, as if that moment had not existed without your travelling persona being present. No, all of time exists now. Also, travelling into the past is, in fact, the future related to your point of departure, and we must assume you are conscious of time's progression, otherwise what would be the point?
Moreover, within this Block Theory model, there must be multiple versions of you throughout time if you plan to visit yourself anywhere. By travelling back in time to 1984, you will do so continuously if all of time already exists. Every 'you' that reaches the moment of departure will end up in 1984, so an infinite number of duplicates will emerge. We could counter this by saying that if all of time already exists then it all happened in 1984 - again, what would be the point if we are not going anywhere?
Yet, here's a great new movie holding true to the Block Model, in some respects: Interestelar, points to such a remarkable possibility, and a first in alternative perspectives. Our hero is able to influence his daughter by consciously interacting within a semblance of the past, while not actually existing in it.
Next, we must consider this: where exactly were you yesterday? All things in our Universe are in constant motion. The planet beneath our feet is likely travelling at near 100 thousand miles per hour as it journeys not only around the sun but around a galaxy that is, in itself, travelling at a colossal speed. So, yesterday you may not have been where this Solar System now is, at all. Time Travel is not just about finding a path between one moment and another, but also between locations in the Universe whose distances might become immense the longer we wait.
Cutting this 'red tape' and arguing that a wormhole will reduce time and distance to nothing is a fairy-tale shortcut with obvious appeal. It cannot be unsubstantiated, it plays parallels with the Mobias Strip, and has theoretical scientific validity, of sorts. What more do you want, as a writer or director? And yet, we have difficulty even in this time, of reaching six miles down to the bottom of our deepest oceans. We have only in the last few years created a craft capable of reaching the limits of our tiny Solar System. However, time travel is no problem, we'll be skipping about in a matter of decades, so it seems!
If we accept (as above) that time travel is only possible if all of time exists at once, let's continue with the Grandfather Paradox.
You cannot sit at an empty table and then decide a few minutes later that you will surprise yourself in that past moment by sending back a plate of scrambled eggs. While you were sitting there in that past moment the eggs would have arrived. No surprise.
Does this mean you can now screw up the future by stopping yourself from sending the eggs? Also absurd: no idea to surprise yourself ever materialised; you never sent the eggs. Or, maybe it wasn't you that sent them..! So, what stops you from surprising yourself in the past, with something you know never happened? One possible answer: You are not as brilliant a physicist as you thought you were.
A universe in which choices are the reality, make time travel impossible, because that theory does not accept the existence of the past or the future. If our destiny doesn't already exist, then we can't leap forwards ahead of ourselves and go visit it. Once again, the Grandfather Paradox is seen as just a science fiction fabrication.
What if a government official decides that, tomorrow he will send an assassin back to kill his despotic dictator, today. This afternoon, he watches his assassin shoot the dictator. Now, he thinks, I don't have to send my assassin back tomorrow, the deed has already been done. He must have done it, but now he can choose not to. This scenario may sound like a winner for Presentism enthusiasts, however, with serious contemplation we can always arrive at the same conclusion: personality.
If he decided to play this trick on Time before the assassination, it never happened. If the idea suddenly occurred to him after the assassination, it never happened. Why didn't his plan work? Because that's the kind of man he is!
Future time travel is less complicated. If a traveller leaves his present moment for some future date, we can assume that he no longer exists with others in that present, unless we accept the magical 'split' phenomenon discussed above. So, when he arrives in the future he will not be able to meet himself as his earlier self did not continue on in standard time progression. He could return before he departed and warn his past self of impending future disaster, but he would only be telling the self that will soon time travel into the future. A never ending loop of time going nowhere: What good is that?
Being able to choose your way through time excludes the possibility of time travel. Not much of a film plot, unfortunately for sci-fi buffs or for Hollywood!
That leaves us with a couple of loose ends: why haven't time travellers been popping up all over the place in our life time, as one would expect if such journeys were possible? Isn't it reasonable that in all likelihood, a device of some kind will, eventually, be designed to transport us back in time?
It would likely take enormous amounts of energy to power such a device. It would be unrealistic to assume that time travel was a cheap affair. Equally, it would be realistic to assume that the further back one wished to travel the more energy would be required, eventually making it practically impossible to reach too far into the past.
One need only look at CERN, its size, its personnel and its consumption, for a glimpse at the power necessary to accelerate a single electron with absolute precision to relativistic speeds.
The nearer we get, therefore, to the date when the art of time travel has been mastered, the more likely we are to be visited by folk from the future. At present it would appear we are still some way off. Aren't we..?
In both Presentism and Block Theory models, making any changes to the past that might affect the future is completely illogical. Remember, if the future exists then the present is the future's past, suggesting that the past must also exist and all, then, at the same time.
Quantum Mechanics favours the Many Worlds Theory, whereby all future time lines exist and therefore all future possibilities are open to travel. Does that mean that all past time lines also exist? Or, is there only one now firmly cemented in history? Because, the Grandfather Paradox is equally about the past. Therein lies the Achilles heal of MWI, it talks only of future possibilities and does not adequately resolve the concept of past existence, as if all possible past time lines merge into the present single moment, before bursting out with all possible future events - a Bow Tie scenario.
Moreover, if all possible futures and pasts already exist, then there is no surprise in time travel. It might be interesting to visit a future that you didn't actually take, from a scientific or anthropological stand-point, but from a Hollywood perspective: What's the plot?
Recent interest in alternative theories of time have brought into question older models, such as Relativity. Time and our Universe, they argue, may not have started with a Big Bang - instead, time cycles, with no beginning or end. Superluminal velocities may be possible and doppler universes rise again. Find out more about this on our Home Page.
Time does not stretch out forever, from an infinite past into an infinite future on a flat, linear model like a ruler. Time revolves, it cycles, a continuous circuit. In every aspect of our lives we live in never ending loops; a day is twenty four hours and then we start again. So, if we could separate or split ourselves from this cyclical flow, we would simply create a smaller cycle or loop, into which we, the time traveller would become for ever engaged, with no way out.
The successful TV series, Quantum Leap, depicted just such an awkward scenario, but even they had to adhere to this fabricated Hollywood concept that 'there is no fate but what we make'. It supposes that if we do something differently, we make a new future. But the proof is nowhere to be found. How does one do something differently?
However, time travel is not out of bounds, it could well become a reality. Just how? Temporal Perception and our cognitive awareness of time is an area little explored as a means of non-sequential time travel.
Suppose we look at time like this: There is no such thing as physical motion. We move only in time, and as we progress from one moment to the next we simply perceive that we have moved in space, because all of time and our whereabouts already exists.
Suppose we accept that we are, as individuals, aware throughout our time line, we flow seamlessly from one moment to the next as an entity, we are everywhere along its length, alive and existing and interacting with our surroundings at any moment; and so no time traveller can suddenly or simply appear to alter what has already been dictated as fact. Is it not more likely then that travelling in time would be a conscious function and not a physically altered phenomenon. Might we not succeed in the future to slide our awareness of self through time rather than our physical form?
Gone will be the days of clunking and whirring contraptions, giant revolving portals and fizzling globes of energy. H. G. Wells and his beloved 'Time Machine' must now give way to a more modern approach, where lab coats and clinical sterility might one day whiz a comatose guinea-pig back to Time's Square and 1984, with no ill-effect on the cosmos, and no time continuum paradox.
Alternatively, just assume that physics catches up, we may actually have the wherewithal in the next few decades to create Time Travel. Not a Black Hole, but a White Hole, capable of reversing our speed through the Universe to zero velocity, and instant re-emergence - as postulated in this paper, Time's Paradigm.
Visit our Home Page for a complete picture of How Time Works.
Flip of a Coin - a short, serialised SF thriller: Read here... Based on the theorise within this paper.
View or download full article Time's Paradigm. in Adobe pdf format.
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A synopsis of a work in progress. Copyright: A. Graham, 1988 - 2015
No unauthorised use of the material published or the concepts described herein is permitted.