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Why Time Travel is a Fool's Errand

Cautionary note: readers who detest the taint of spoilers might want to read Crowley's Great Work of Time before reading this post, although not too much is given away here I hope. There is something to be said for discovering the time travel idea of the story oneself.  Hopefully, one's interest might be merely whetted instead, by the information following, which contains none of the tale's lyricism.  And of course, I may have gotten it all wrong....

In John Crowley's  Great Work of Time is found material that should convince most prospective time travelers to have second thoughts if they think they can improve the present by going back and modifying the past.  Although the best minds in the story attempt to apply a science of orthogonal thinking to the problem of time travel-- it doesn't seem to work.  If, as some theorize, reality, or our universe,  breaks instant by instant into many, or an infinite number of parallel universes, therein lies the rub. It might prove relatively easy to return back to the past along a single "reality line" that you are already a part of-- but once you turn around and attempt to travel the other way to the future-- well, the possibilities become endless; meaning, you are lucky even to return to a future in which you have had a previous existence(true if you go back farther than the time you were born).  Also, for every instant  you are in the past, you would be generating all sorts of variant universes that did not happen, would not have happened, if you had not visited. That is more to the point of ethics of the tale.

Bottom line: though the story's mathematicians attempt to get "orthogonally close" in their returns to the future, unfortunately for the British, even the best of possible new realities are not close enough at all.
At least there are cigars.

All this in a tale that makes no reference to how the travel is actually accomplished!  Well, Einstein did not need actual clocks either.

One nice thing about the story is that the reader is above and beyond the constraints that confine the participants in the tale.  If something exists beyond our universe that we can never know because our existence is locked into a holographic replay, then this type of fiction is the only way we can get out.

That leads me to a curious point about myth, narrative, and science.  We made the myths and narratives initially to stand in for our very limited knowledge. Then came more knowledge, better methods, science.  But eventually we will hit (or some of us are already there?), the wall of "not-knowing" because our science cannot proceed outside our "local system."  So, really nothing has changed. Only narrative can take us beyond.  I like the new talk about conservation of information, because it suggests that the universe itself exists at least in part, as a story-- not just the atoms, the worlds upon worlds--  but the sum of the narratives it contains.

And of course we realize that although humans love their beginnings and endings-- it's just a species thing, and not necessarily physics.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 27th, 2008 03:04 pm (UTC)
Actually the idea of "parallel universes" is critiqued here, supplanted with "orthogonal time lines." It may indeed be that the word "parallel," though sounding ok, has nothing to do with the way universes diverge. Are the universes all bundled neatly into parallel running conduit, implying a compartmentalization, or encasement, as though they might be accessible just beyond the wall of the room we inhabit? So in a vague sense (perhaps nonsensical vague-ness) I would question how divergent time lines, or universes (the matter in the time) should have been sloppily labeled parallel in the first place, if in fact, they are different universes that are diverging?

Thus an orthogonal system seems a logical or semantic improvement, even if it isn't really knowable whether it is the right one.

It gives me a concept for a new story. Suppose these divergent physical universes somehow bang into each other, cross, reverberate, create a cascade of effects? Time and reality shifts coming to us as an unpredictable act of physics may have a greater chance of happening than us manipulating physics to go somewhere else? Well, and stories of that ilk already exist.

I guess I am just offering the image of two time lines, like a kite cutting contest, whipping into each other, weirding-out the souls aboard.

Sep. 28th, 2008 06:59 am (UTC)
I think whoever coined the term meant that such universes were parallel along the time axis, that they had parallel history lines. Such universes would be the answers to questions of the kind: What would the world be like right now if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? (God forbid). If parallel universes have four dimensions, then they need to be placed on different points along the axis of a fifth dimension, which would of course be orthogonal to the other four. Otherwise the universes would superimpose.

I like the idea that narrative can take us beyond the limits imposed on knowledge, I'd never thought about it that way. But be warned, narrative is limited also, it cannot describe everything that can be conceived of. For example, you cannot make a list of all irrational numbers. Not because it would take forever, I would concede that given infinite time you could write an infinite list, but because as Cantor proved, there are more irrational numbers than there can be words.
Sep. 28th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Parallel.
A list of irrational numbers would make a dull narrative, but I get your point. I guess with in a human lifespan we do not have to worry about various sized infinities too much. Bumping up against the unknowable seems like where poetry comes from? Our minds seem attracted to impossibilities like moths to the flame.

Isn't it significant that human art attempts to define a subset of the universe and achieve some sort of closure, even though it may be only in our own minds-- not out in the universe at all-- just in us. Which then, mysteriously, brings something new into being in the universe?

Thank you for taking up this "parallel" topic. I think our views are "fairly parallel." It's just that, in common usage "parallel" seems more often to mean "tending in the same direction." That, of course, is not what Euclid means. Then too, is "parallel" more of a 2d concept not suited for universal, multi-dimensional thinking?

I am suggesting our inability to experience, to think in extra dimensions inhibits (it must) our ability to produce meaningful discourse on 4d and beyond subjects? Despite that, I think we should try, and maybe narratives like GWOT take us closer?

I am perfectly comfortable discussing "parallel universes" as universes similar, but apart from ours. I recognize the convention, but doubt the physics is sound. Be aware, however, that I absolutely know my grasp of physics is not sound!

Robert Musil also was not a physicist, but went on at length on the topic of "Pseudoreality Prevails." I can say only that I am similarly skeptical about our attempts for closure being very close to the truth.

A quote of Musil's 38th chapter title from A Man Without Qualities, and then I am done.

"Thanks to the above-mentioned principle, the Parallel Campaign becomes a tangible reality before anyone knows what it is."
Sep. 30th, 2008 07:11 pm (UTC)
Re: Parallel.
But can't words be put into infinite combinations even when discussing the irrationals? How about the sentence: "3.1415 is different than 3.14159." It seems that could go on as long as you like. But is that also narrative?
Maybe, but no closure. The worst possible run-on list.

I would say that our word system is actually the biggest closed system of our reality, simply because it's all we have to work with(I would include symbols, math). Our science is actually a subset of our words, and even though we are free to describe bigger systems-- we still just have a word description of those systems. Mathematicians might not agree with me.

So words are alpha and omega. Bigger than science. Bigger than reality.
In the beginning was the word...

And it seems to me that the set of words is also infinitely expandable. New words, new meanings for any newly discriminated thing. So maybe I would say now that narrative does not go beyond knowledge-- but extends it.

I guess I would also say that on the one hand anything we can conceive of is, by definition, already described, and yet, paradoxically, we can still somehow talk of conceiving something that cannot be described. Thus the power of words again. Having it both ways. Parallel worlds again.

I am now reduced to a stupor...

Oct. 3rd, 2008 09:03 am (UTC)
Re: Parallel.
Kafka's messenger can never physically arrive, but somehow the thought of him does.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Cydonia photo: ESA

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