Eternalism & Time Travel

One of my writing works-in-progress is a time travel novel called Breathing Ghosts.  It’s interesting writing it, because I’m getting to explore my real, actual beliefs regarding time travel – and time itself.

I’m an Eternalist.  I believe that time is a dimension, the same as space is a dimension, and that all points of time (the past, present, and future) exist simultaneously.  Theoretically, according to Einstein’s Law of Relativity, this makes time travel possible.  The only catch is that, this also makes time travel fairly pointless –  if the whole reason you want to time travel at all is to change something from your past.  I’ll talk about that later; first I want to explain time as a dimension.

Everyone accepts that space is a dimension, and that all points of space exist together, and simultaneously.  The fact that you might be living in New York  doesn’t mean that Cairo, Russia, and Milwaukee don’t exist.  You can’t see or experience those cities  from your New York apartment, but if you hopped a plane, you could change your location to wherever you wanted to be.

If time is a dimension, then all moments in time exist at the same “moment” – no matter whether you can see or experience any other moment but the one you’re experiencing now.  The day you are born (Paris) is as current as the day you die (Cairo), and so is every other moment of your life.  If you had a machine that could transport you, you could travel back and forth between moments, and each and every one would be “now” for you.  There is no logical reason (other than our subject “feeling”) that any one moment in your life is more current or “valid” than any other.  Every moment you live feels to you at that moment as the “real” moment.

So let’s say you have that time machine, and now can travel between moments as easily as you can travel between places.  And let’s also say, that, like the main character in my book, something terrible happened to your parents when you were five.  Can you go “back” in time and save your parents?  Let’s say you can.  Presto, your parents live, and nothing traumatizing happens to you.  So, if nothing happened, why would you later go back and try to stop it?  There would be nothing to stop.  So of course you wouldn’t go back, and since you didn’t, who saved your parents?  That’s a time paradox, most commonly referred to as “The Grandfather Paradox“.

The Eternalism view prevents time travel paradoxes.  If all moments in time exist simultaneously, than all moments are happening simultaneously.  Right now, you are being born, visiting the dentist for the first time (and every time – scary thought!) attending school, reading this blog, and dying.  Everything that has or will happen to you is happening to you now.  We can only experience one single second of it, but just like Paris is existing through we can’t see it, the past and future is happening, although we can’t experience it.

And because time is happening all at once, all of our decisions, all of our free will, is happening all at once, too.  We are deciding to run that red light three years ago.  We are deciding to continue reading this blog (or not!).  We are attending the Olympics in 2014.  We are putting on the socks we are wearing tomorrow, and we are going to bed last night.  It’s all now.

We know our past.  We know the date we were born, we know the things we remember really happened.  We don’t fear that suddenly the facts of our lives will scramble, that suddenly instead of going to public school, we’ll be homeschooled, or that we’ll suddenly own a dog instead of a cat.  The past doesn’t change.  However much we wish we could go back and erase that time we embarrassed ourselves in public, it’s never erased.  It always happens, because it did happen.  If Eternalism is correct, what we call the “future” works the same.  What “will” happen, has happened – it’s just that the “you” reading this blog doesn’t remember it, because that “you” is always trapped in the moment you’re living.  The future only seems full of endless possibility because you can’t see it, or remember the decisions you’re going to make.    You can tell yourself that you could win the lottery tomorrow, and find that a comforting thought, but in reality, you have already either won or lost.  I think that’s why we were created not to able to remember the future as we do the past – if we knew the entirety of our lives from beginning to end, how could we have any drive to live them?  Knowing how we either succeed or fail would mean that we wouldn’t take the chances that would create that success or dare the risks that sometimes lead to failure.  And that, folks, could create a whole SLEW of paradoxes.  Time only works if we have this linear impression of it, of time “passing” from past to future.

Everything that has happened, or will happen, is happening.  You can’t go back and kill Hitler before he killed anyone, because those people did die.  You can’t go forward and kill (unknown horrible person) before (unknown horrible thing happens) because that horrible person is already alive and because that horrible thing is already happening.  On the other hand, it’s possible you did go back and kill Richard Snodgrass Baudelaire’s mother, before he could be born, grow up, and kill fifteen innocent people.  Who’s Richard Snodgrass Baudelaire, and who are the people he would have killed?  Since you killed his mother before he could be born, we’ll never know.  He never existed, he never happened.  There’s only one way history – either of the “past” or the “future” – can be affected, and that’s through your normal everyday decisions.

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8 responses to “Eternalism & Time Travel

  1. ms at Vienna university he might have been known for painting or some famous buildings rather than what he eventually became. What you’re saying is that his fate or life path was already with him, that eternalism with him was based on some pretty bad decisions he made early on in his life.Am I correct in that assumption?

    • It would appear that some of my comments were lost. I was trying to say that if Hitler had passed the entrance examinations to the university in Vienna in either art or architecture instead of being the idle,disagreeable, conniving liar that he was, he might have been known for painting or great buildings which might still be standing. What you’re saying, I think, is that his fate or life path was already with him, that eternalism with him was based on some pretty bad decisions he made early on in his life. Am I correct in that assumption? Don’t confuse this with his so-called DESTINY.regards, Bruce Ghent

  2. Hi Bruce,
    Yes, I was a little confused as to what you were trying to say, thanks for reposting. Here’s what I believe: all time (and all the events of our lives) is happened now, in one moment. What we call the ‘past’ and ‘future’ are actually just as ‘present’ as what we conceive as ‘now’. Hitler’s future wasn’t set in stone by his past – it’s not that he was forced to live out a future that he couldn’t escape from or change. Destiny isn’t something you are forced into; you always have free will, and you can always change the path you are on. Hitler could have changed his. But he didn’t. He chose to become who he was, he chose his life, and thus, his end. Let’s say that you are God, and you live outside of time. If time is happening all in one moment, you could see Hitler’s past, present, and future as if they were a series of snapshots laid out on a desk. You would be able to see all his life decisions, everything he chose to do and become. But he can’t, because for him, everything is happening as it happens. His decisions create everything, whether it happens in a past-to-future time stream, or in one single moment.

    • You clearlg have a very strong understanding of Eternalism, well written.

      The time paradoxes inherent in presentism are so elegantly solved if you view time as static. Of course that then raises the question of how exactly do we feel time if we’re just static, but that’s an entirely different question (with good answers too IMO).

  3. It’s only in this insipid land that we don’t have forward memory.In wonderland the memory works forward as well as back ward but it still is not perfect.In some land the memory also works sideways,this place is known as slanderland.

  4. Love this explanation – I didn’t realise it was called “eternalism”, and certainly a cunning way to avoid those pesky time travel paradoxes!

    I think it was Plato who asked why he couldn’t remember the future, so it sounds like he was an eternalist too?

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