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The Time Traveler's Life - Part One

By Allan Eastman

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Some believe that time travel can have a profound effect on the future where one small difference in the past may produce large consequences in the future.

Time Travel, Philosophies and the Arts

One objection you hear to the idea of Time Travel is “Well, if there is Time Travel, where are the Time Travelers? Why haven’t they visited us?” Some take this as proof that it is impossible. But the counter argument goes something like this. We haven’t met the Time Travelers because Time Travel has not been invented yet. When it is, at some point in the future, then Time Travelers will begin to travel in Time and then they will arrive back here with us, thus creating a different historical time line.

You can see that language will need some new and very fancy verb tenses to deal with these kinds of situations. And here we begin to deal with what the actual nature of Time may be and we begin to open up the Pandora’s Box of paradox that seems to accompany it.

The so called “Grandfather Paradox” is the main philosophical tool of the Time Travel sceptics. It states - more or less - that if you invent a time machine and then travel back in time and kill your Grandfather before he sires your Father, then you yourself cannot ever be born and therefore, you will never invent the time machine.

A corollary to this is that a person could never meet themselves in another time because the laws of Nature do not allow the simultaneous existence of the same entity at the same moment.

But is the nature of Time flexible or not?

The counter argument to the above is that such things are possible because the logic of a personal time line is observed. You could travel back to kill your Grandfather because you already exist. If you did kill him, world history would eventually show that you were never born but nevertheless, there you are because you were “already” born, invented a time machine and did the deed that changed things. You would exist without a history to support it. The events that exist in your memory would never occur in the new time line that you had created. Talk about being a stranger in a strange land.

Similarly, you could meet yourself in the past (or future) because the person you are is a different, later (earlier) version of the one that you are meeting.

Time Travel is a major feature of Science Fiction of course and many of its practitioners have thought about these issues in a way that is complimentary to the work of philosophers. Ray Bradbury, in his story A Sound of Thunder, thinks that the tiniest change in the past can create a profound effect on the future, causing an ever expanding ripple of changes as Time passes. After one small change - killing a butterfly in Bradbury’s story - one would return to a present (future) radically different from the one you departed.


In Poul Anderson’s popular Guardians of Time series, Time is made of sterner stuff. The author’s metaphor for Time is an infinitely long bundle of tough, interlaced elastic bands which tend to snap back into their “original” time line, despite minor changes of details within its history.  It takes a radical change at a critical point in history, a crux, to cause major changes. From this crux point, many of his best stories – like Delenda Est - evolve.

The problem is that we really still don’t know what Time actually is, despite our millennia-long thinking about it and studying it. Is it a dimension? Is it a condition? Does it flow or is that a human illusion? Does it even exist? Time intrigues and baffles us even as it escapes our grasp.

That’s another question that bedevils the whole Time Travel debate. Are the past and the future “real”? Do they even exist?

We think we know the present exists. It is what we are experiencing. But research has shown that in the human consciousness, the present actually has a duration of about 3 seconds. Our brain uses memories of the last few seconds to create motion in what we experience, to give meaning to what we are perceiving. This is the actual reality we are living in.

But where is the past? We all know that humans landed on the Moon on 20 July, 1969. History tells us so but history is really just a collection of memories preserved by our civilizations as being important. But does that date exist anywhere where we could travel to and watch Neil Armstrong’s one small step live again?

And where is the future? We see it as being “up ahead” somewhere even though we are mostly uncertain about what it will consist of.

Do they have reality? Again, opinion is divided. Some still see Time as a Newtonian continuum – a river of moments flowing through Space-Time on which definite points can be delineated so it is theoretically possible to travel to them once we have the means to do so. Others understand Time as a kind of timelessness – a collection of Nows that exist somewhen in the Universe. If true, there should be a particular Now that we could travel to, if we had the means to do so.

Others maintain that it is all hopeless. The Past is gone. We may know a lot about Ancient Greece or the 18th Century but they do not exist any longer. The Future has not happened yet, it has not come into being so there is nowhere to go to there, as well.

You have to make up your own mind what to believe on the subject.

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