Tag Archives: Time travel

An Army of One

Thanks to movies and TV shows such as the Time Machine, Dr. Who and Back to the Future, it is easy to picture what time travel might look like: a person or people get into a machine, some cool stuff happens (coolness is proportional to the special effects budget) and the machine vanishes. It then reappears in the past or the future (without all that tedious mucking about in the time between now and then).

Thanks to philosophers, science fiction writers and scientists, there are enough problems and paradoxes regarding time travel to keep thinkers pontificating until after the end of time. I will not endeavor to solve any of these problems or paradoxes here. Rather, I will present yet another time travel scenario to the stack.

Imagine that a human research team has found a time gate on a desolate alien world. The scientists have figured out how to use the gate, at least well enough to send people back and forth through time. They also learned that the gate compensates for motion of the planet in space, thus preventing potentially fatal displacements.

As is always the case, there are nefarious beings who wish to seize the gate for their own diabolical purposes. Perhaps they want to go and change the time line so that rather than one really good Terminator movie and a second decent one were made, there are many very bad terminator movies in the new timeline. Or perhaps that want to do even worse deeds.

Unfortunately for the good guys, the small expedition has only one trained soldier, Sergeant Vasquez, and she has only a limited supply of combat gear. While the other team members will fight bravely, they know they would be no match for the nefarious beings. What they need is an army, but all they have is a time gate and one soldier.

The scientists consider using the gate to go far back in time in the hopes of recruiting aid from the original inhabitants of the world. Obvious objections are raised against this proposal, such as the concern that the original inhabitants might be worse than the nefarious beings or the possibility that the time travelers might simply be arrested and locked up.

Just as all seemed lost, the team historian recalled an ancient marketing slogan, “Army of One.” He realized that this silly marketing tool could be made into a useful reality. The time gate could be used to multiply the soldier into a true army of one. The team philosopher raised the objection that this sort of thing should not be possible, since it would require that a particular being, namely Vasquez, be multiply located. That is, she would be in different places at the same time. That sort of madness, the philosopher pointed out, was something only metaphysical universals could pull off. One of the scientists pointed out that they had used the gate to send things back and forth in time, which resulted in just that sort of multiple location. After all, a can of soda sent back in time twenty days would be a certain distance from that same soda of twenty days ago. So, multiple location was obviously something that particulars could do—otherwise time travel would be impossible. Which it clearly was not.

The team philosopher, fuming a bit, raised the objection that this was all well and good with cans of soda, because they were not people. Having the same person multiply located would presumably do irreversible damage to most theories of personal identity. The team HR expert cleared her throat and brought up the practical matter of paychecks, benefits, insurance and other such concerns. Vasquez’s husband was caught smiling a mysterious smile, which he quickly wiped of his face when he noticed other team members noticing. The philosopher then played a final card: if we had sent Vasquez back repeatedly in time, we’d have our army of one right now. I don’t see that army. So it can’t work.

Vasquez, a practical soldier, settled the matter—she told the head scientist to set the gate to take her well back before the expedition arrived.  She would then use the gate to “meet herself” repeatedly until she had a big enough army to wipe out the invaders.

As she headed towards the gate with her gear, she said “I’ll go hide someplace so you won’t see me. Then I’ll ambush the nefarious invaders. We can sort things out afterwards.” The philosopher muttered, but secretly thought it was a pretty good idea.

The team members were very worried when the nefarious invaders arrived but were very glad to see an army of Vasquez rush from hiding to shoot the hell out of them.  After cleaning up the mess, one of the Vasquez asked “so what do I do now? There is an army of me and a couple of me got killed in the fight. Do I try to sort it out by going back through the gate one me at a time or what?”

The HR expert looked very worried—it had been great when the army of one showed up, but the budget would not cover paying the army. But, thought the expert, Vasquez is still technically and legally one person. She could make it work…unless Vasquez got mad enough to shoot her.

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Is the Flash as Bad as the Reverse Flash?

Professor Zoom

Professor Zoom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

-Spoiler Alert: Details of the Season 1 Finale of  The Flash are revealed in this post.

Philosophers often make use of fictional examples in order to discuss ethical issues. In some cases, this is because they are discussing hypotheticals and do not have real examples to discuss. For example, discussions of the ethics of utilizing artificial intelligences are currently purely hypothetical (as far as we know). In other cases, this is because a philosopher thinks that a fictional case is especially interesting or simply “cool.” For example, philosophers often enjoy writing about the moral problems in movies, books and TV shows.

The use of fictional examples can, of course, be criticized. One stock criticism is that there are a multitude of real moral examples (and problems) that should be addressed. Putting effort into fictional examples is a waste of time. To use an analogy, it would be like spending time worrying about getting more gold for a World of Warcraft character when one does not have enough real money to pay the bills.

Another standard criticism focuses on the fact that fictional examples are manufactured. Because they are made up rather than “naturally” occurring, there are obvious concerns about the usefulness of such examples and to what extent the scenario is created by fiat. For example, when philosophers create convoluted and bizarre moral puzzles, it is quite reasonable to consider whether or not such a situation is even possible.

Fortunately, a case can be made for the use of fictional examples in discussions about ethics. Examples involving what might be (such as artificial intelligence)  can be defended on the practical ground that it is preferable to discuss the matter before the problem arises rather than trying to catch up after the fact. After all, planning ahead is generally a good idea.

The use of fictional examples can also be justified on the same grounds that sports and games are justified—they might not be “useful” in a very limited and joyless sense of the term, but they can be quite fun. If poker, golf, or football can be justified on the basis of enjoyment, then so too can the use of fictional examples.

A third justification for the use of fictional examples is that they can allow the discussion of an issue in a more objective way. Since the example is fictional, it is less likely that a person will have a stake in the made-up example. Fictional examples can also allow the discussion to focus more on the issue as opposed to other factors, such as the emotions associated with an actual event. Of course, people can become emotionally involved in fictional examples. For example, fans of a particular movie character might be quite emotionally attached to that character.

A fourth reason is that a fictional example can be crafted to be an ideal example, to lay out the moral issue (or issues) clearly. Real examples are often less clear (though they do have the advantage of being real).

In light of the above, it seems reasonable to use fictional examples in discussing ethical issues. As such, I will move on to my main focus, which is discussing whether the Flash is morally worse than the Reverse Flash on CW’s show The Flash.

For those not familiar with the characters or the show, the Flash is a superhero whose power is the ability to move incredibly fast. While there have been several versions of the Flash, the Flash on the show is Barry Allen. As a superhero, the Flash has many enemies. One of his classic foes is the Reverse Flash. The Reverse Flash is also a speedster, but he is from the future (relative to the show’s main “present” timeline). Whereas the Flash’s costume is red with yellow markings, the Reverse Flash’s costume is yellow with red markings. While Barry is a good guy, Eobard Thawne (the Reverse Flash) is a super villain.

On the show, the Reverse Flash travels back in time to kill the young Barry before he becomes the Flash—with the intent of winning the battle before it even begins. However, the Flash also travels back in time to thwart the Reverse Flash and saves his past self. Out of anger, the Reverse Flash murders Barry’s mother but finds that he has lost his power. Using some creepy future technology, the Reverse Flash steals the life of the scientist Harrison Wells and takes on his identity. Using this identity, he builds the particle accelerator he needs to get back to the future and ends up, ironically, needing to create the Flash in order to get back home. The early and middle episodes of the show are about how Barry becomes the Flash and his early career in fighting crime and poor decision making.

In the later episodes, the secret of the Reverse Flash is revealed and Barry ends up defeating him in an epic battle. Before the battle, “Wells” makes the point that he has done nothing more and nothing less than what he has needed to do to get home. Interestingly, while the Reverse Flash is ruthless in achieving his goal of returning to his own time and regaining the friends, family and job he has lost, he is generally true to that claim and only harms people when he regards it as truly necessary. He even expresses what seems to be sincere regret when he decides to harm those he has befriended.

While the details are not made clear, he claims that the future Flash has wronged him terribly and he is acting from revenge, to undo the wrong and to return to his own time. While he does have a temper that drives him to senseless murder, when he is acting rationally he acts consistently with his claim: he does whatever it takes to advance his goals, but does not go beyond that.

While the case of the Reverse Flash is fictional, it does raise a real moral issue: is it morally right to harm people in order to achieve one’s goals? The answer depends, obviously, on such factors as the goals and what harms are inflicted on which people. While the wrong allegedly done to the Reverse Flash has not been revealed, he does seem to be acting selfishly. After all, he got stuck in the past because he came back to kill Barry and then murders people when he thinks he needs to do so to advance his plan of return. Kant would, obviously, regard the Reverse Flash as evil—he regularly treats other rational beings solely as means to achieving his ends. He also seems evil on utilitarian grounds—he ends numerous lives and creates considerable suffering so as to achieve his own happiness. But, this is to be expected: he is a supervillain. However, a case can be made that he is morally superior to the Flash.

In the season one finale, the Reverse Flash tells Barry how to travel back in time to save his mother—this involves using the particle accelerator. There are, however, some potential problems with the plan.

One problem is that if Barry does not run fast enough to open the wormhole to the past, he will die. Risking his own life to save his mother is certainly commendable.

A second problem is that if Barry does go back and succeed (or otherwise change things), then the timeline will be altered. The show has established that a change in the past rewrites history (although the time traveler remembers what occurred)—so going back could change the “present” in rather unpredictable ways. Rewriting the lives of people without their consent certainly seems morally problematic, even if it did not result in people being badly harmed or killed. Laying aside the time-travel aspect, the situation is one in which a person is willing to change, perhaps radically, the lives of many people (potentially everyone on the planet) without their consent just to possibly save one life. On the face of it, that seems morally wrong and rather selfish.

A third problem is that Barry has under two minutes to complete his mission and return, or a singularity will form. This singularity will, at the very least, destroy the entire city and could destroy the entire planet. So, while the Reverse Flash was willing to kill a few people to achieve his goal, the Flash is willing to risk killing everyone on earth to save his mother. On utilitarian grounds, that seems clearly wrong. Especially since even if he saved her, the singularity could just end up killing her when the “present” arrives.

Barry decides to go back to try to save his mother, but his future self directs him to not do so. Instead he says good-bye to his dying mother and returns to the “present” to fight the Reverse Flash. Unfortunately, something goes wrong and the city is being sucked up into a glowing hole in the sky. Since skyscrapers are being ripped apart and sucked up, presumably a lot of people are dying.

While the episode ends with the Flash trying to close the hole, it should be clear that he is at least as bad as the Reverse Flash, if not worse: he was willing to change, without their consent, the lives of many others and he was willing to risk killing everyone and everything on earth. This is hardly heroic. So, the Flash would seem to be rather evil—or at least horrible at making moral decisions.


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Philosophy & ESP

Daryl Bem became a minor media star recently with his paper on ESP. While his work has been subject to some rather serious criticism (mainly in regards to the methodology) it does raise some interesting matters.

Bem’s paper discusses nine experiments he has conducted over the past ten years.

In one experiment Bem had 100 students take a memory test and then had them practice the words they had used in the test. He claims that “The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words.”

In his famous porn experiment, the subjects were asked to pick which virtual curtain concealed an image on the computer. Once the choice was made, a program randomly “placed” an image “behind” one curtain or the other. According to Bem, the subjects were able to pick the curtain that “hid” an image 53% of the time when that image was erotic. They were able to pick non-erotic photos only 50% of the time. He claims that “What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos, but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”

While I am rather skeptical of his claims, I will assume (for the sake of the discussion that follows) that his results are statistically significant. On this assumption, some interesting issues in epistemology and metaphysics arise. At the core, the main matter is how information from the future would be “known” (epistemology) and what features reality would need in order for this to occur.

As noted above, Bem seems to take his tests as indicating some sort of backwards causation. Normal causation (if one dares to use such a phrase) involves time’s arrow always flying one way: towards the future and not back from the future. But, if the subjects “know” about the future or, more generally, that their present mental states are affected by future events, then it would seem that time’s arrow can fly both ways.

On the one hand, this seems to be rather implausible. After all, the general consensus among layman and experts would seem to be that time is a one way sort of thing and that causation does not work backwards in time.

On the other hand, time is a rather odd sort of thing and it would be hasty to assume that our assumption about time being one way is correct. After all, time travel certainly has a lot of appeal and it can be argued that it is at least possible. As such, perhaps it is not impossible for events of the future to have an impact on peoples’ mental states in the relative past. This, of course, would require that people have some seemingly unusually epistemic capabilities, but that is what ESP is all about.

Of course, it does seem somewhat extreme to conclude that our concepts of time and causation are fundamentally wrong and to embrace some rather dubious epistemology because some college students appear to be marginally better at picking out the porn. As such, it would seem sensible to consider some alternatives.

Since I recently taught about Hobbes and I am currently teaching about Spinoza, one possibility that occurred to me is that a deterministic universe could be used to explain these results without a need for any change in our concepts of causation, time or epistemology. If the events of the future follow of necessity from the events of the past, then sensing the future would not need to be a matter of the future somehow causing effects in the past. Rather, a person could predict the future based on what they know (or believe) about the present and the past. Since our epistemic abilities are rather limited, then our predictions would tend to be rather limited as well.

Speaking of dead European philosophers, Leibniz seems to provide a metaphysical system that would allow for the sort of ESP that Bem seems to be discussing.

Leibniz claims that the world is composed of monads and that each monad mirrors or represents the entire world. Crudely put, each of us is a monad (or rather the dominant monad in a collection of monads). Leibniz famously claimed that the monads have no windows-nothing comes out of or goes into the monads. This raises the obvious problem about how you, for example, can read this blog. Leibniz’s answer is that each monad mirrors or represents the entire world-though the clarity varies. As he sees it, when God created the universe, he created all the monads and each monad has all its experiences “placed” within it. To use a crude analogy, the movie that is your life is placed on a DVD that is placed within your mind. It plays and thus you have the experiences you do. As such, when you read this blog, your inner DVD is playing that experience for you.
Fortunately God has synced up all our inner DVDs so that they play in pre-established harmony. So, for example, if my inner DVD is playing so that I am “hearing” you speak, your inner DVD is at the point where you are “speaking” to me. Since each of us contains within us all our experiences, it would thus seem possible for people to “skip ahead” a bit and “see” events that have not yet happened. While this would seem like seeing the future, it would simply be like seeing what is on the DVD by skipping around in the scenes rather than playing the movie out normally. Thus, the students who were able to pick out the porn could have “skipped” ahead to see the porn on their inner DVD and thus known what to pick “ahead” of time.

Leibniz also claims that “each body feels all that happens in the universe, so he who sees all, might read in each what happens everywhere.” This would seem to allow for the possibility of the sort of ESP Bem is discussing.

In addition to his monads, Leibniz is also known for his claims about possible worlds, namely this being the best of the lot. Another philosopher who is well known for his work on possible worlds is the American philosopher David Lewis. In his On The Plurality of Worlds Lewis presents the hypothesis that possible worlds are real and that we, in fact, inhabit one. Of course, our world is the actual world to us. He even discusses the epistemological implications of such worlds and considers that they could be epistemically or doxastically accessible to us. Interestingly enough, Lewis’ possible worlds would seem to provide a metaphysical basis for ESP.

In terms of how this would work, one merely needs to assume that there are possible worlds, that we have epistemic access to them (that is, we can know about them or at least have warranted beliefs about their content), and that there are worlds whose timeline is ahead of our own (that is, their present is our future).

This all works out in the following manner. Suppose that Jack is a subject in Bem’s porn experiment. Sitting at the computer, he somehow accesses possible worlds (I’ll just help myself to Lewis’ arguments about how this works). In some of these worlds there are counterparts to Jack who are also involved in experiments being run by Bem’s counterpart. Crudely put, a counterpart to the actual Jack (the Jack in our possible world or Jack@thisworld) is whatever most resembles Jack in another possible world (such a Jack would be Jack@thatworld). In some of these worlds, the Jack counterparts are ahead of Jack@thisworld in the experiment, so that they have seen the results of their picks. In some cases the picks yield porn and in other cases they do not. Since Jack wants to see the porn, he will presumably make his choice based on the results experienced by the other Jacks. Given that Jack presumably has, at best, “fuzzy” access to these possible worlds and that the worlds would not be exactly like this world, the minor increase in correct picks is easily explained. Really.

In this scenario, the future is not causing anything in the past. Rather, Jack is merely accessing a possible world whose present is a counterpart of our future. Nothing could be more sensible.

While this is interesting, it is not without its problems. One obvious problem is that this is rather weird and mysterious. Another problem is that if future possibilities are grounded in the presents of possible worlds, then there would need to be a world for each world’s possible future, thus creating what would seem to be a rather unfortunate infinite regress. But, that seems to be a small price to pay for an account of ESP.

One final thought is maybe we are in an eternally recurring world and a bit sticks from the last time around (like gum on a shoe). So maybe the kids keep getting a bit better at picking out the porn. Who knows, a few million more times around and they will pick porn at 100%.

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God and Time Travel

stargate universe logo
Image via Wikipedia

Like most philosophers, I like science fiction and stories about time travel. Recently I watched the episode Time of the SyFy  seriesStargate Universe. This episode got me thinking about time travel and God, oddly enough.

Imagine, if you will, the following science fiction situation. Sally is working on a time travel project and during one experiment, her own smartphone appears in the lab. Startled, she checks her pocket and finds that her phone is there. Yet it also appears to be on the table. Picking it up, she finds that video has been recorded on it. Much to her horror and dismay, it seems to be a video of her saying that she has killed her husband for having an affair with her friend, only to find out after that she was wrong.  In the video, she can she the body of what seems to be her dead husband. The video closes with her future self saying that she is sending back the phone to tell her past self to not kill her husband; future Sally then shoots herself in the head as the phone is being sent into the past.

Being something of a skeptic, Sally checks the phones carefully and finds that (aside from some blood on the future phone that matches her husband’s blood type) the two are identical. This convinces Sally and she does not kill her husband.

Now, let God be brought into the picture, at least hypothetically. If one prefers to leave God out of this game, then an omniscient observer who judges people for their deeds and misdeeds can be used in His place.

In this scenario, what would God actually “see” and how would He judge?

On one hand, the future Sally did kill her husband and send the phone back. After all, without those events, then the phone would not have the video recorded on it and would not have been sent back As such, God would judge that Sally was guilty of suicide and murder, hence worthy of divine punishment. Also, both Sally and her husband would be dead and thus would have gone off to the relevant afterlife (assuming there is such a thing).

On the other hand, the time traveling phone prevented Sally from killing her husband and committing suicide. Thus, Sally would not be judged for these deeds. Also, neither Sally nor her husband would be dead. In effect, that future event never will be, although it must have been (otherwise there would be no phone).

One easy way out of the problem is to follow John Locke’s approach in his discussion of personal identity: since God is good, he would not allow such confusing events (in this case, time travel) to come to pass. Of course, this is not very satisfying as an answer.

Another easy way out is to deny the entire scenario and say that time travel is impossible because of exactly this sort of nonsense. But, where is the fun in that?

Another way out is to use the branching worlds approach: what seems to be time travel is actually travel between possible worlds. So, the phone did not come from Sally’s future. Rather, it is from a possible world in which Sally did kill her husband. So, the Sally of that world is a killer and a suicide; but her actions saved her counterpart Sally from her fate.  So, God takes care of the killer Sally and the lucky Sally avoids her fate. Hardly fair, but that is nothing new.

But, let us suppose that the scenario happens as described. From God’s perspective, it would seem that time travel would create all these loops and changes throughout time. Or perhaps not. One classic view of God and time is that God perceives all of time “at once.’ To use an analogy, God’s perspective is like being able to see the entire filmstrip of a movie at once. The past, present and future are just positions on the strip relative to a specific film cell. Hence, He does not see any changes in the past-He merely sees as the events that did occur, shall occur and are occurring all “at once.”  So, God would “see” the phone appear from a future that never was to save Sally from committing a murder that never will be.

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