Date: Tue, 22 Sep 1998 10:56:23 +0000
From: Holger Thiemann
I'm interested in Science Fiction and Time Travel, too and I've read some of your Pages including 12 Monkeys. Your theories are very carefully developed, but I think you miss the Point of the Movie a little bit. Like "Doctor TOC" in his E-Mail I think that the tragedy of the movie is that you can't change history. Everything you "will do" in the past allready has happened before you start your voyage and it is completely detemined, what you will do (have done) in the past. And the Scientists of the Future knew this exactly. Of course they knew about the mailbox messages even before the first voyage of Cole and perhaps they even had the Picture of the First World War and knew that he will be misguided there. Mos likely they even knew, that Cole has to make an assassination attempt at the Airport and that he has to die, because out of their Point of veiw it has allready happened, even before they send Cole on his first voyage. Perhaps they knew all about it from old Police Records or perhaps they scanned his nightmares and discovered what he saw when he was a child. They don't send him the gun, because they thought he could change the past. They send the gun, because they knew that he has to do the attempt, because it is allready determined. They just want him to fullfil his fate. All they want is the Information about the virus, to send back a scientist to catch the virus in the original form. Then they want to develop an antidote in their time and to go back to the surface with their people. They never planned to change history (the explorations and probe taking is no change, because it had allready happened). The tragedy is, that Cole did know anything about it. All the time the scientists had more informations than they reveal to him. They made only one mistake, because they confronted him with a message which he has not sent until know, but which he will send on his next journey. They didn't know exactly, from which voyage the message was sent and thought he had done it allready. When they realize that he hasn't sent it yet, they stop to ask him any further and to give him any more information. Perhaps the choice of Cole for the missions wasn't voluntary for the scientists. perhaps they knew from historical records or from his nightmares that they have to send him. This is likely, because he isn't treated very well and they don't seem to trust them. So the message of the movie in my opinion is that the main characters are heading directly to an catastrophe, and they could not change anything. The tragedy is, that everybody knows, but them.
After that I want to describe my understanding of the Time Travel matter. There are clearly two possibilities.
1. Time is not changeable.
2. It is.
Before i cover this topics I have an other concept to introduce. I'm not sure, but I think from your point of view, if I travel back in time, the future after my departure doesn't exist and possibly never will exist, if I change the past. This I think is not possible (not in the 12 Monkeys). If the Future after Coles departure doesn't exists, how can they get them back? Or if the future doesn't exist only if he made severe changes, would theese changes take effect immediately after arriving in the past, or (dramaticaly) when he actualy makes the change? This can't be. If they would not take him back, he would most likely change the past, so that the future with the machines to take him back will not exists. So if this Future doesn't exist till know, it never will come into existence, because he will change the past, when they don't take him back. This is an unbreakable circle. I prefer to look at time travel not as a "turning back of the wheel of time". The time isn't moved back for the whole universe, when someone travels back. the time, past, presence and future exists in coexistence. If I travel back, it is like walking down a road. Other people are an other points of the road and walk on it. If I walk back, not all the other people are drawn back or stopped. The future (or all possilbe futures) exists even today. Now to the 2 different concepts.
1. If time is not changeable there are a few direct implications. A paradoxon (killing once own grandfather, when he was a child) are not possible because of predetermined fate, and you can do nothing about it (if you try you would fail. Your Time Machine will break, you Gun will malfunction, you will die of heart attack ...) An the other Point is the existence of event loops (becoming once own grandfather for example) with no start and no end. Why does the loop exist. I just exists because I traveled back in time and became my own grandfather. Hm. There seems to be no cause for this loop to come into existence. (Note: This is not the same as killing your Grandfather. This would cause an alternating loop with two states, which is not brakeable. A paradoxon. But in our case, if I don't travel back, I would never come into existance and so i haven't to travel back. It would be easier for the universe, if I never had existed. There is no need for this loop, except the loop itself). An other example. Ever mentioned, where the name "12 Monkeys" origins? Cole was told about the name from the scientists. The scientists knew the name from historical records. Cole told the name to the later Leader of the 12 Monkeys and he seems not to know this name til then. So Cole introduced the name in the past. The name was never really invented from someone. This is theoretically the same event loop, as to become his own grandfather. But it is not so immediatly evident and we tend to oversee it. BUt in theory it is the same, as finding a device in the present, bring it back in time and hide it in the place where it later will be found. The device never was been invented and has no origin. Or think about your analysis of Millenium. Ever mentioned, that some of the atoms of the artificially bodies where atoms from the artificially bodys which where brought back in time? The atoms of the bodies where brought to our time and introduces to the present. Some of them will later be included in the creation of the bodies (think about that with every breath of you you inhale some atoms of the last breath of Julius Caesar). So this atoms have no origin, because they are introduced from the future and later brought back to the past. An other event loop. So if time is not changeable, this kind of event loops is a logical implication. Because this is an unresolvable paradox it is hard to analyse. But it's a great stuff to make interesting and fascinating story plots.
2. On the other Hand, if time is changeable, what about the killing your grandfather problem? Here we have an easy solution. If all possible timelines exists in parallel, you just jump from one timeline to an other. If you travel back and kill your grandfather, your own timeline is unaffected (your grandfather never was killed, you where born and disappeared, when you travel back in time). Your are changing to another timeline (where your grandfather was killed by an unknown man, and you never would be born in this timeline.) It would be hard for people of this timeline to determine your origin. Out of their point of view you came into existence from nothing. You came from a kind of parrallel universe. Perhaps there aren't any possible timeline existing from the beginning. Perhaps a new timeline parallel to your original is created every time you travel back in time. Either way. If you aren't able to navigate between different timelines you never will be able to return to your own presence (think about the butterfly in australia which causes a hurricane in florida). If you travel back to the dinosaurs, most likely hthe human race will never be developed just because of the changings your pure presence represents. On the other hand, if you are able to return to your own timeline, why should you want to change something if it doesent't effet your timeline either. But you are able to create your paradise timeline (or just get to it, if all possilbe timeline exists in advance).
By the way. The spliting of timelines isn't neccessary a tree like process. There need not to be more and more possible futures if you advance further. different branches of the tree could merge together to the same outcomming situation (atom by atom). This is not as unlikely as you think, regarding a very high number of parralel universes and regarding the uncertainty relation of heisenberg. Two universes are identical, if they are identical regarding the uncertainty relation. So the complete Universe is an non deterministic automaton (computer science theory) whith multiple actual states. The number of different universes is more or less constant.
I hope you can make something of this. I now have to go to work. Later I will read more of your pages.
You've written quite an epistle here--lengthy and packed with ideas. I hope I can do it justice in response.
You think that I missed the point of the 12 Monkeys--like Doctor TOC, you think that it paints an image of time which is immutable, and that I have claimed otherwise. But let me tackle this at three levels: first, it may be that characters in the film hold an opinion which is not intended to be the point of the film; second, it may be that the film makes a point which is not what the author or producer believes; third, it may be that the author of a story is trying to prove something which is not true.
On the first point, most of what we "know" about the theories regarding time in this movie come from the mouth of James Cole, who, it must always be borne in mind, ended his education in the equivalent of second grade. Whatever he was told he understands at the level of a second grader. We must further be mindful of the fact that the "scientists", whatever their qualifications, recognized this about Cole. At no time did they try to explain their theory of time in a manner which they might have used between each other, or indeed as they would have explained it to you or me. Now, given my theories of time, were I forced to send back someone who had only completed first grade--and that perhaps 30 years before--I would tell him that he can't change the past, and he should not attempt to do so. I'm sure if I told me rather precocious third grader that he was going to go back in time, but he must not try to change anything, he would probably develop the notion that he couldn't change the past--the very position which Cole takes. So we don't actually know what the scientists think about time; we only know what a first grader thinks they think based on what they said when they tried to prepare him for his mission--a mission which does not require that he understand time as they do.
But let us assume arguendo that Cole has correctly conveyed to us the opinion of the scientists--that time is immutable. Might it not be the case that Terry Gilliam has painted a picture of time travel within an immutable time line for the very purpose of pointing out its absurdity? I have seen time travel movies in which I came to believe that the point of the time travel story was that time travel must be impossible. As you have mentioned the two distinct paradoxes--killing your grandfather and becoming your grandfather--I think that these are suggested in some stories as a way of saying, "If time travel were possible, this would be possible; therefore, time travel is impossible." Even if Gilliam wants us to think that time is immutable in this film--and I am not at all sure that it was his intent--it is arguable that the point is that such a concept is intrinsically absurd, that the world he drew for us is impossible, that time travel leads to such an absurd reality that it must be different from what he has drawn.
And if we suppose that Gilliam genuinely is arguing for the notion which you claim is contained in the movie, that time is immutable, I could still claim that he is wrong, that if time travel is possible at all, the time line can be changed.
What I have done is create a theory of time travel which attempts to explain time within a framework of normal causality--that is, nothing can happen before its cause. Given that time travel redefines the concepts of "before" and "after", I have proposed an approach to time which suggests that events may occur in linear sequence by causing time to repeat and rewrite itself. In discussing time travel movies, what I have done is apply my theory to the proposed events of the stories. In each case, I've attempted to demonstrate what would be possible given my understanding of time, and what would be different from what the writer suggests; in addition, I often find it necessary to explain why a story wouldn't work the way the film suggests based on its own apparent rules.
As applied to the 12 Monkeys, what I find is that the events presented by the film are all within the realm of possibility under my theory; it is necessary in this to reconstruct the history which existed before it was altered. You see, the way I see things, time must first advance to the cause of each event, and then may continue to the effect. Time travel creates the illusion that the effect happens before the cause. I say that's not possible; what is happening is that time is moving to the point of the effect, and then is being pushed back to the cause, erasing the history which led to the effect, and permitting that history to be rewritten. If in rewriting that history, the cause is rewritten precisely as it was, then time has a new history, and can continue; if the history is altered such that the cause is altered in any way, then the effect will be different, and time must again repeat itself based on the newly altered history--and must do so until all events fall into a fixed pattern.
You suggest that they don't send the gun to attempt to change the past, but to fulfill the destiny of Cole. But there is at least one flaw in this: if they did not wish for him to change the past by shooting the lab assistant, they have no reason to send the gun but that they sent the gun--and why would they have sent the gun? It becomes a rational action without an initial rational cause. I would certainly agree that in a subsequent replay of the history, it might be possible for someone in the future to know that a gun was delivered to the past, and so take the steps to fulfill that event to preserve history--but how did the history become this in the first place? This is a bit difficult to communicate at this level, but I think you should be able to see the problem. Without a reason other than that it happened, it can't have happened. It's kind of like someone being lured into a time trap by their own distress call--if they weren't trapped, they can't send the distress call; if they didn't send the distress call, they can't have been trapped. (There is a simple explanation to this: they originally were lured into it by someone else's distress call; once they were trapped, in the repeated history it was their own distress call which lured them into it.)
They say that all they want is information; that would be the sensible approach. As I've said again and again, it is not possible to travel back in time without changing the past; at the same time, it is not possible to intentionally change the past in predetermined ways. But I cannot see any original reason for the gun to have been sent back other than a misguided attempt to change history.
You've made a minor mistake here; you say that they confront him with a message he hasn't sent yet, but will on his next journey. In fact, he never sent the message--it was sent by Dr. Railly. He says he never sent it at all--and he never does send it. That's why they don't question him further.
But let's look at your understanding of time travel.
You are correct about my perception of the effect of time travel. Think of it this way: time must move from 1900 to 2000 before Traveler can leave 2000 to return to 1900; in that original history, Traveler did not appear in 1900. Once Traveler makes his trip from 2000 to 1900, he has forever changed history--he now exists in 1900; whether he changes anything else, history is altered by that one fact.
This is where it gets tricky. By my approach, the 20th century had to exist right up to the moment Traveler left for the end of the 19th century; but once he steps into 1900, he erases that history. In effect, history must now be re-written, with whatever alterations he has caused by his presence. Everything that happened in the 20th century has just been erased.
Eventually, the 20th century willl be rewritten--the year 2000 will arrive. If in this newly rewritten year 2000 Traveler is the same person and gets into the time machine to return to 1900 with the same objectives in mind, then that history is self-preserving--that is, it then causes itself. If it causes itself, history stabilizes into the rewritten version, in which Traveler returns to 1900, and time moves beyond this. But the only past which can be known in the future is the one in which Traveler went from 2000 to 1900--therefore, it is reasonable for me to conclude that at the moment someone goes back in time, they forever destroy the timeline from which they originally departed. There is no year 2001 in which Traveler did not go back from the year 2000; therefore there is no 2001 in which Traveler did not arrive in 1900 and change history--the only 2001 which will ever exist is the one based on the altered history. But that doesn't mean that people in that 2001 can't pull him out of the past--it is their past, and it is their history.
But does the future exist at all? Does the past exist? From our perspective, time is in motion; "now" exists only for an instant, and then is gone. If time travel is possible, it means that we are able to move between points in a theoretical continuum. But from a temporal standpoint, the only time which truly exists "now" is "now". If by moving back through time I erase a century--even a millennium--time will continue to move forward, and in a century, or a millennium, that moment will be re-created. If my time travel abilities allow me to treat all of time as if it were a spatial dimension, stepping into it at any point, it intrinsically allows me to move forward across that time without waiting for it to pass; but within the world, that time will pass--I merely skip over it. Thus, when I am in 1900, 2000 does not exist at all, and never has existed; but if I move forward to 2000, in seconds I skip a century of events which will happen between 1900 and 2000--but those events will happen in time, and I will arrive in a 2000 in which it is all the past, in which the 1900 which I left exists only as history and memory. At any moment, the only moment which exists at that moment is that moment. If I can travel through time, I am moving from moment to moment.
But you suggest that if they don't take him back to the future, he will change the past such that the time machines will not exist. This is two separate issues: will he change the past? and will his change of the past result in the destruction of the time machines? To the first question, I say absolutely yes--he changes the past just by being here. But to the second question, I say that that's the real issue: will he change the past so drastically that the time machines will cease to exist? In fact, it is possible that he will change the past, and have it make no difference to the time machine, the plague, the known history of the world. It is indeed possible that he will change something which will cause such significant differences in the timeline that all time will be destroyed; but I give the story the benefit of the doubt: if I don't see it do something which will destroy time, I presume that time was not destroyed.
You suggest that time travel can be treated as space travel; that time exists in fixed form, as a road, and you can travel back along it. But if you travel in the wrong direction, haven't you changed what's there?
Is history mutable or immutable? You've suggested some of the classic problems. In fact, all of these problems are solved by my theory--check out the primer on time on my site, and look at some of the other movies. What I particularly like about my approach is 1) causality is maintained; 2) free will still exists; 3) there are no divine interventions (and after all, isn't your immutable timeline essentially that God won't let it happen?); and 4) all of the classic paradoxes are soluable within it. I conclude that if time travel is possible, time must work very like I have described--or more like it than any other explanation I have discovered.
In brief, my solution to the problem of killing your own grandfather before he has children is the infinity loop: a change has been made in the past which prevents necessary events in the future which support that change in the past. Two alternate time lines cause each other; time will repeat those two lines perpetually, and never advance beyond the moment Traveler stepped out of it.
As to the man who becomes his own grandfather, there is an extensive analysis of this in the Multiverser game rules and already discussed with Doctor TOC on this site. In short, the story has a different beginning, an original history in which grandmother met stranger; stranger was traveler's original grandfather. But when traveler went back in time, he interfered with grandmother's meeting of stranger, and so fathered father; father sires traveler--but it must immediately be noted that the DNA of father and traveler has been altered, reducing the amount of DNA drawn from stranger in favor of DNA drawn from mother and grandmother. Thus a different traveler goes back in time, passes different DNA to father, who passes different DNA to traveler. With each adjustment to history, father and traveler lose the connection they have to stranger, and slowly replace it with DNA from mother and grandmother--but eventually, one of them will become a woman, and the chain will be broken. At this point, time will snap back to the original history (since a woman will not be able to father father), in which stranger becomes traveler's grandfather. History is still caught in the loop--but the loop has many more rings, variations on the theme.
Note that no other theory will allow a person to go back and kill his grandfather, or go back and become his grandfather, without posing serious problems. This theory transfers the problems from theoretical notions which destroy free will and claim that choices and actions are not possible, or that time is not sequential, or that causality is unreal, to a belief that time itself can be damaged or destroyed by the actions of sentient beings playing with it, in ways which make nuclear fission look benign by comparison.
As to the origin of the name "12 Monkeys", in the time line we see, James Cole mentions the name to Jeffery Goines, who later names his group of a dozen radicals with that name. But it is not impossible that in the original history, before Cole came back, Goines or one of his eleven companions came up with the name independently. The fact that Cole gives it to Goines destroys the original source of the idea, and perhaps alters the time line in some ways--but it doesn't create a serious problem, since no matter where the name originally came from, Cole could still discover it and take it back, and Goines could still use it. It would be the same with a device, or an invention--if I take something back in time, there will now be two of them back there; however, there are some sticky issues which are created if I find the one I took back--after all, with each repeat of the timeline, the object will be older; I take it back a year, it is now a year older, and so I have taken back an older object, which is older with each time that I take it back--a sawtooth snap which ends when the object decays from age. But the device was once invented. And even if I pull the stunt of taking inventions back and inventing them before they were invented--if I decide, for example, to create all of Edison's inventions a few years ahead of him--I have altered history, in that Edison will not be known; but I will not have eliminated the inventions themselves. As long as the me in the future for whom Edison doesn't exist decides to go back and invent the same devices, time should continue undamaged.
As I explained in Millennium, the only way that movie works is if in the original history, the people on the planes were killed in the crash. If that is the case, then the replacement bodies contain molecules drawn from the world around them. None of the molecules are without origin; the origin may eventually become obscured, and the way they deal with history is extremely risky--but your paradox is an illusion.
I've written quite a bit about my problems with the multiple timelines theory on Chuck Buckley's time travel web site--it's linked from my home page, and is also on my GeoTour. I don't think that all possible worlds exist; it's both intellectually absurd and morally repugnant. I think it's a device created to try to solve the paradox problem in ongoing stories about time travel; it does this poorly. After all, give it some thought. Let us suppose that I decide to go back and kill Hitler, cripple the German Nazi party, and stop the Second World War; let us suppose, as unlikely as it seems, that I am successful. By your view, I have done nothing at all--I've merely stepped out of my world, in which all of those things continue to exist as historic facts for all the people I will never see again, and into a different world, in which those things never happened because someone prevented them. You are so fatalistic, that nothing I do--or don't do--will ever matter. I will starve tomorrow if that's my destiny, and no amount of food that I eat today will prevent it. No, you've taken away our ability to affect reality--cause no longer matters.
You suggest that timelines could converge; I disagree. As I see it, one of the facts about reality is its history; even if that history is not known, the history of each particle of matter is intrinsic to its reality. Thus, even if all particles of matter in two different worlds were to move to the same relative locations, because they had different histories, they would be different universes.
I hope this makes sense to you; perhaps I'll read it through and add it to the web site (with your letter)--I don't know yet; but your ideas have been challenging. Let me know what else you think of mine.