Most people regard time travel as pure science fiction. I used to be one of them, I’ll admit. To a certain extent, I still am one of those people. But I don’t want to get into whether or not we will be able to do this; I’ll leave that up to those who truly want to achieve this sort of travel (or don’t want to). What I want to talk about is the merits of time travel.
Now, before you turn away from a philosophical discussion that you believe probably may not concern you, I’d like for you to see and understand the bigger picture, that time travel, whether forwards or backwards, is a means of acquiring knowledge. And we’ve all heard the adage that knowledge is power. But the question is, should we be allowed to be privy to that sort of knowledge? It’s the sort of stuff that could change timelines.
But first, what exactly qualifies as time travel? According to Wikipedia:
Time travel is the concept of movement (such as by a human) between certain points in time, analogous to movement between different points in space, typically using a hypothetical device known as a time machine, in the form of a vehicle or of a portal connecting distant points in time.
Now that we’ve established that, we can understand what our options are in terms of direction. According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, time is the fourth-dimensional point, providing direction. It usually moves forward. Space is three-dimensional with length, width, and height. And depending on how fast you’re going relative to some other point, time either slows down or speeds up. This highly-informative article goes into a little more detail: here.
For our discussion, we’ll stick to hypotheticals.
Generally, we can go to the past:
Here, according to IMDb, “A young man is accidentally sent thirty years into the past in a time-traveling DeLorean invented by his friend, Dr. Emmett Brown, and must make sure his high-school-age parents unite in order to save his own existence.”
Or we can go to the future:
According to IMDb, “After visiting 2015, Marty McFly must repeat his visit to 1955 to prevent disastrous changes to 1985… without interfering with his first trip.” Lots of past and future time travel here, it seems.
I argue there’s three things that you can do, whether you go to the future or the past: you can watch it as one might watch a movie, interact with it and end up changing the timeline, or interact with it and have it revert to its normal state as soon as you stopped interacting with it and left.
If you went just to watch the past, you would feel like you’d be watching a 4D movie. That sounds awesome! The same would apply for the future. The knowledge you’d have would change your future, though, and this can, for various reasons, be a good or bad thing. Sometimes the truth can cause trauma, and because of that, some information is better left lost to the past, if said trauma would not be able to be handled by an individual. The ending of the novel, Heart of Darkness, specifically discusses this, but I don’t want to spoil it in case you’d like to read it. However, if you went to the past, you could find the identities of murderers, and others committing serious crimes. This would, in turn, scare people in the future and prevent them from committing crimes because of the ease in getting caught. You could learn history and understand why people did the things they did.
If you could go back, interact with the past, and change the timeline, you could change the state of the future. You could prevent genocides and evil regimes, and save so many people. You could save all those people from experiencing trauma as well. But you would also prevent lessons from being learned of the depravity of humankind, which doesn’t entirely sound like a bad thing. But if we don’t learn the lessons, then how likely are we to do something depraved in the future? Would we be doomed to repeat our mistakes? I’d argue that wisdom depends on experience, whether it’s your own or learning of someone else’s. There’d be less wisdom, wouldn’t there? And we would be undoing a lot of our understanding, leaving it to be re-understood in the future and essentially, wasting precious time. But, as mentioned earlier, you would have saved lives. What are you to choose, especially between such difficult choices?
If you could go back, interact with the past, and have the timeline revert to its natural state after you left, you would have to live with the knowledge you’ve learned from those moments and realize that no matter how hard you try, you cannot change the timeline. This could be wholly frustrating for many, that what you want (to change things) is so close, but unreachable. You would still learn things, the way you would by watching the past, but I’d argue you could learn more because you can change the variables i.e. change parts of the situation. But this would also provide an interesting exercise space, in that one can attempt different scenarios and understand how each would play out. It’s like that movie, Groundhog Day:
He relives the same day over and over again, changing parts of his day until he comes to a realization. I won’t spoil that realization if you haven’t already seen it.
Now, if you go to the future just to observe it, you might learn things that once you apply to your own present might change that future or (set it to become that future). You could check by then going back to the future to see what occurred, but if you continued to do this, you would spend your life in between time by shuffling back and forth and not truly living. Changing the future without affecting its timeline would give the same results as mentioned above for the past, that you could exercise different scenarios. If you change the future and its timeline, you would be changing the future of that future, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on how you change it. Or it can again set the future to become what it’s supposed to be. And then comes the discussion of well, what’s the future supposed to be? And what is the past supposed to be? Are they just the timelines that have occurred and will occur, meaning that they are already written? Does the future change based on the decisions you make?
That becomes a little too theological for my liking, but these are just some of things that I think about on a daily basis. And to think, it all started out for me–the discussion of the time travel to the past and future anyway–when my RA put up a question card on a board on my dorm floor asking, “Would you rather change the past or know the future?”
My answer? Neither.