Milky Way

The free lecture on the Great Courses site last month was David Kyle Johnson of King’s College discussing science fiction as philosophy – is time travel possible. He looked at various popular works such as Quantum Leap, Back to the Future, Star Trek, Dr. Who, and others and talked about whether physics would allow for the time travel method used. The one he found closest to science was the movie “Interstellar.” He also mentioned H. G. Wells’s book The Time Machine, but not a couple of modern novels and their feasibility. I am thinking of two science fiction works that are also counterfactual histories – Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South and Lightning, by Dean Koontz. In Guns of the South, white South Africans travel back to save Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederacy by supplying them with AK-47s and other technology. Koontz has time traveling Nazis. Both are interesting reads with their own travel adaptations for travel and the time line.

I think the fascination with time travel is often a desire to change the past and perhaps to see what the future holds. We can also learn by speculating on what might have been had something, even something small, occurred differently – chaos theory in history. We can’t do those double-blind experiments in life to see which path is the best. Every moment, every choice, every action, is a crossing of our own personal Rubicon. Interstellar took care not to have those paradoxes that vex the idea of time travel, like the grandfather paradox. What if you go back in time and do something (like killing your grandfather or some other ancestor) which prevents you from being born. In that case you are not born and can’t go back in time and prevent your birth so then you are born then go back in time and prevent your birth, but then… You are caught in an unending time loop. In physics, theoretically time can go both forwards and backwards, but we experience time in a linear fashion. I think the Canadian series Continuum had issues like this, like having two of the same person in the same place and time. But if there are time travelers from the future, they would have at some point visited us in our present, but there is no evidence of this (at least that we can perceive) so that would lead one to believe that travel backwards doesn’t happen at some point from the future. As for visiting the future, how do you travel to a place that doesn’t exist yet?

I think of time travel as more of a transcendental experience, like Joseph Campbell talked about in the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers a few decades back. (Media does allow us to travel back in a virtual way.) He said that the life everlasting in the Coptic experience was not necessarily going to some supernatural place but experiencing eternity in the moment. It is that mindful place of feeling at one with everything and with all time. You are that everchanging stardust that always has been and always will be.

I do like the speculation of counterfactual history and science fiction. You get an idea of just how fragile a moment is and how there are almost infinite possibilities in each and every one. My favorite Star Trek series was Deep Space 9, and my favorite captain was Sisko. At the end, he explained human’s experience of linear time to the Prophets.