Subject: Temporal Anomalies Page
Date: Tue., 17 Mar 1998 16:52:00-0500
From: Doctor TOC (whose e-mail address is withheld out of courtesy, but is available at his web site)
...Being a long time fan of time travel fiction, I was intrigued to discover your excellent page....You've also managed to arouse my curiosity about "Multiverser"....
I was interested by your explanation of the events of "12 Monkeys". Your explanation of the movie hinged on the fact that history can be altered. However, the point of the film was that it can't be changed. This was stated at a number of points in the film. The movie's take on temporal physics was that there is no free will, that events occur as they always have done and always will. Therefore, there are no altered timelines, and the film is set in a Minkowskian block universe.
That aside, I enjoyed your page greatly....Is there a chance that you will...include selected time travel literature?
all the best....
The Reverend Doctor "The Other Chris"
"The pen is mightier than the sword...especially when shot from a high powered air-rifle"....
Thanks for your encouraging letter about the temporal anomalies web site. I'm glad someone out there is enjoying it.
My explanation of 12 Monkeys does suggest that history can be changed. I am not at all sure whether the film's own theory about itself is consistent or inconsistent with that. However, there are a few things I note in this regard. One is that the woman who appears to be one of the chief scientists through the majority of the film is in fact introduced to us (at the end of the film) as an insurance person, possibly a salesperson, so we hardly expect her to fully understand either what she has said or done with any degree of scientific understanding. Second, Cole himself, from whom we obtain most of our impression of these theories, was an 8 year old boy at the point at which his education ground to a halt as the world ended. He cannot be expected to fully understand even what they have told him about time travel, and they will not have attempted to explain it fully. Further, it is clear that whether or not they believe the past can be changed, they are trying to change it. The changes they intend are extremely small (at least in the beginning), but they do seem to expand as the movie progresses. They are injecting someone from the future into the past; and they are trying to cause someone in the past to send information from the past to the future. Cole's decision to swallow the spider was an intentional change of the past: that spider is dead. In terms of human history, that might be of little consequence; but it is a clear change in history. However, I understand the author's perspective: he would have us believe that there is a single time line, and that all of the events which happen on it are fixed; that if someone goes into the past and causes something, he was destined to do so, and cannot be prevented from doing so. It is not at all clear, as I say, that this is the perspective of the scientists. If it is the perspective of James Cole, we must forgive his failure to comprehend the meaning of the words, for he is trying to change the past, even if only by removing a quantity of virus from it.
This single timeline view is more consistent with a non-linear approach to time. There are those who would suggest that since God knows the end from the beginning, all of time and all that happens within it is much like a movie. We experience it sequentially, but the events which run from the beginning to the end all exist simultaneously, in a non-temporal sense. As the Multiverser rules say in several contexts, time in the spiritual world is multidimensional in ways which go far beyond our limited concepts of forward, backward, and sideways. However, there is a problem in this non-linear approach to time which evolves from what becomes the illusion of causation. We perceive that certain events which occur have other consequent events. It is the basis of our science; but it is more than that: it is the conceptualization of our existence. We put water in a pot, put it on a stove, and turn on the heat. We expect that the water will boil because of the heat. But the water will not boil before the heat is applied. The problem created by time travel results from the observation that events in the future can cause events in their own past. If this is so, it appears that events in the future could cause themselves; or conversely that events in the future could prevent themselves. But the 12 Monkeys static time line theory cannot escape this problem; nor does it escape. There is at least one glaring error made by the scientists in the future which demonstrates that they neither understand nor believe what is claimed in the film. They send Jose back to Cole to give him a gun. They must have intended that he kill someone, most likely the lab assistant carrying the virus; they must have intended that by doing so he would prevent the plague which wiped out the world. Of course, he failed to do so; but that does not alter the fact that those in the future attempted to change the past.
I gave a lot of consideration to the static timeline theory of time; however, there are plausible time travel events (many covered in films) which cannot be possible under that theory. The classic puzzle of the man becoming his own grandfather, or that of the object which is passed from the owner in the future to the owner in the past from whom he would ultimately receive it, cannot be explained. The sci-fi standard of the individual who goes back in time and changes the past so that the future will be different is also impossible on this conception, as is the notion that a person going back in time could accidentally do something which would prevent his own birth. With the static timeline theory, we must either presume that time travel is utterly impossible and always will be (which might be the case, but does not make good fiction), or that Providence is so deeply involved in controlling events that our entire science and perception of the universe is illusory. The water does not boil because we put it on the heat, but because it is time for the water to boil; we put it on the heat before that, because it was time to put it on the heat. It is part of the illusion of our world that there is causation, that if we apply heat to a pot of water, it will boil, instead of that the water will boil on schedule, and we will put it on the heat on schedule, as two unrelated events which give us the illusion of causality. If all of time is fixed, like the movie, then there is no real causation. C.S. Lewis observed that in asking why Shakespeare's Ophelia drowns, you could suggest that it is because the branch broke, or that it is because help does not arrive in time, and you can argue about which is the true cause of her death; but the true cause of her death is that Shakespeare killed her, and neither a stronger branch nor an earlier arrival of help could have saved her. In that sense, causality is illusory in our fiction. Is it also illusory in our reality? Although there is no way to prove the question, if we were to accept that causality is illusory, we would logically have to abandon all scientific inquiry, since causation is the essence of contemporary science. But if we did so, would it not evince the conclusion that our revised understanding of the illusory nature of causation caused us so to do? The fixed timeline theory leaves us a fatalism so thick that the determinism of Calvin--even those Calvinists who fall down stairs, brush themselves off, and say, "Thank God that's over"--seems an Arminian freedom by contrast; and it deprives us of any reason to do anything, or to refrain from anything. With such a view, we could not live.
That said, let me suggest that perhaps those in the future in Twelve Monkeys didn't mean that you could not change the past at all, and that the movie may not have intended for us to believe this. Consider this alternate scenario. The world is destroyed by a virus in 1996. Knowing this, James Cole comes back from the future to determine how it happened, and to prevent it from happening. He discovers that Jeffry Goines is responsible for the release of the virus, and so he intervenes, perhaps killing Jeffry to prevent the release of the virus which will destroy his world. But now it is his very intent to change the future by changing the past. If he has been successful, then the future is changed, and the world was not destroyed by a virus in 1996. And if it was not so destroyed, then James Cole did not come back in time to find out why it was destroyed, and certainly did not come back to find out why it wasn't. But if he has not come back then he has not prevented the destruction. Therefore, you cannot successfully come from the future to change the past intentionally in specific ways. If you succeed, you destroy all the reason and information upon which your decision to do so was based, and you will not make the attempt. If you decided to prevent the holocaust by going back in time to before Hitler was in power and killing him, then either the holocaust will not occur, or it will occur without his involvement--and in either case, you would have no reason to kill him, causing time to revert to the original timeline in which he would be involved.
The timeline theory I developed while working on Multiverser explains how all of these stories are possible, what brings them about, and what consequences flow from them. It is deterministic in a limited sense, in that it suggests that whatever someone does at a given instant is what they would do at that moment in any history in which events causative of that action are unchanged. Thus if the pass Larry makes at Ginny causes Ginny to slap Larry across the face in a world in which Ted Kennedy is Senator from Massachusetts, that same pass will get the same slap in a world in which Bob Schwartz is Senator from Massachusetts, assuming that who the Senator from Massachusetts is has no effect on either Larry or Ginny relevant to their personalities or relationships.
But there is another sense in which the past cannot be changed which is intrinsic to my theory. It is commonly suggested in time travel movies that if the past is changed by a time traveler, the time traveler will know what it was before he changed it. I find this doubtful in the extreme. As you will note in my analysis of Back to the Future (Part I), although there is a Marty McFly who grew up under the roof of the George and Loraine McFly who met when her father hit him with the car, that Marty's history has ceased to exist when he returns to the future. He is replaced by the Marty McFly who grew up in the home of George McFly, science fiction author, and who knows nothing of that other Marty. If subsequent to the time travel event history is able to continue (not always possible), the only past known to anyone is the last past created.
As to expanding the page, your encouraging letter inspired me to ponder what other time travel movies were available. I am adding Flight of the Navigator at this time. If there's one you would especially like me to tackle, I would be glad to make the attempt. Books are a much more difficult venture. A movie I can watch half a dozen times absorbing the feel and the details through repetition, taking notes and reviewing them, mulling it over, and finding important details on the next viewing. I can rent a movie from the video store, and analyze it before it has to go back. A book requires that I focus my attention to reading it. It will take several hours to read once, and if it is not so good, it will take several days to read. To thoroughly comprehend it, I would have to read it several times, which would be time consuming. On top of this, books lack the wider audience of film. Even a relatively obscure time travel movie like Millennium has probably been seen by more people alive today than the number who have actually read The Time Machine, without doubt the best known time travel book (and an excellent story capturing social commentary within the framework of a futuristic society, as the best sci-fi so often does). To discuss the temporal anomalies in that book (which, incidentally, are minimal in the extreme) would be to create a page in the site without an audience. However, if you have a good sci-fi time travel book you would like me to consider, I might make a stab at finding it, "by special request", and including it on the site. After all, I haven't used up a third of the space GeoCities provides, and I'm running out of decent time travel movies.
I hope I haven't bored you with my reply. Again, thank you for your support and encouragement through your interest in the Temporal Anomalies site, and feel free to ask me any questions about it or any other site or page connected to me.
And let me add that I found your site interesting as well. I will be returning to attempt to absorb more of what is there; several of your interests are close to mine (as you undoubtedly know if you've looked at my web page writings index).
--M. Joseph Young