The Time Traveler Problem

Here is an interesting issue for you to ponder. For the lack of better name I decided to call it the time traveler problem. Recently I reviewed The Butterfly Effect which sort of touched upon this issue.

I found the method of time travel in that movie very intriguing. It is never explained how exactly does it work, but it is quite interesting. The hero has holes in his memory – periods of time he has blacked out and could not retrieve even under hypnosis. At some point he finds a way to retrieve these lost memories. They come back to him as very lucid flashbacks during which he is taken back to his childhood body but he retains his adult mind and can act accordingly. The actions he takes during these flashbacks affect his present. For example when he burns himself with a cigarette during a flashback, he discovers a healed burn scar on his body that was not there before.

The movie depicts reality as entirely subjective experience. The world as we know it, seems to exists entirely in the heroes head and as his memories change so does his world. Was the scar really new or was it always there? We can never be sure. It is very existential approach to time travel. Reality and time are malleable illusions based on imperfect memory. Is the hero really modifying the time line? Or are all the alternate realities merely delusions he fabricated in his mind? It is unconventional approach to time travel, and possibly the strongest point of the movie.

A similar approach to time travel can be seen in 12 Monkeys where the depiction time travel is a bit more conventional (ie. there seems to be some sort of time machine in use). However we still see the interesting psychological effects that moving back in time has on the traveler. In the movie, Bruce Willis returns from dystopian, post-apocalyptic future to stop a deadly plague only to be institutionalized in an insane asylum. Since he has no artifacts, futuristic gadgets and only hazy memory of the period’s history (most historical records were lost during the plague) he actually starts to doubt that the future he remembers actually exists. He has no tangible proof that he is actually a time traveler and he comes to term with the possibility that most of his memories are schizophrenic delusions.

Let’s assume that time travel exists today, and that it is possible to go back into the past and change the future (hopefully for the better). Let’s also assume that it is not trivial (ie. the hardware is much more complex than a Delorian + Plutonium). Let’s say there is one – maybe two machines in existence, and access to them is strictly controlled to avoid paradoxes and time based shenanigans.

Lets’ say you have been chosen to go back in past with an important mission. Maybe you need to prevent an outbreak of a plague. Maybe you need to stop an assassination of some prominent public figure. Maybe you are being sent to undo 9/11. Or maybe you are simply a historian whose task is to observe but not interfere. Whatever it is, you are not going back to the dark ages or ancient Rome. You are going back only 30-40 years.

The rules are strictly enforced. You cannot take anything with you. They will issue you with the periods clothing. They will re-create your dental work using the periods technology, remove your tattoos and etc. You never know what could trigger unforeseen time ripples and paradoxes. Back to the Future has shown us that losing a silly sports almanac in the past could completely derail a time line. Imagine what would happen if you brought an iPod or a Kindle loaded with the full contents of Wikipedia with you. Total chaos.

In addition, you are not going back blindly. You will be extensively trained on the specifics of the period you will be visiting. You will learn to use appropriate expressions, and references. You will be required to memorize the popular movies, books and music that was popular at that time. You will also have a convincing and verifiable fake identity – a drivers license, social security, a place to stay, employment history, school records and etc – all potentially lifted from some archival records. You may even get a reconstructive plastic surgery to look like the person you will be pretending to be.

If I was running a secret governmental time travel program, this is the sort of preparations I would make. I would keep it low key – making a naked dude appear in the middle of Times Square yelling “I am from the future” would be a horrible idea. I would want my time traveler to blend into the society and avoid unwanted attention.

In any case it would be a long term mission. Perhaps time travel only works one way. If not, your mission will take several years where you are required to maintain your secret identity. Maybe it is possible to extract you, but it will be done only after you accomplish your mission. Or perhaps the extraction window opens every 12 years. Whatever it is, you will be living in the past for a long time.

Here is a question: how long will you last until you will start question your sanity. Remember you have no proof that you actually came from the future, and your assumed identity is very, very convincing. It has been designed to stand up to high level of scrutiny – so background checks or even a police investigation will fail to dig up anything interesting.

Not only that, but you can’t even exploit your knowledge of the future. Remember that you are only few dozen years back so it’s not like you can impress the people of the past by making gunpowder or whatever other gimmick time travelers use when they go back to medieval times. You could try to pitch cool ideas to various companies ahead of their time – stuff like cell phones, laptops, the walkman – but you are not an engineer. You can’t build a prototype and you don’t really know how exactly these things are made.

How long will it take, until you come to a conclusion that your “mission” is a delusion? How long until you abandon it and try to live a normal life (get married, have kids, start your own business, etc)? How long until you seek professional help?

I would venture a guess that staying in the past for an extended period of time will usually lead to this type of mindset. As the memory of the future slowly fades away a time traveler will become more grounded in the current period and more attached to it. After 10-15 years most time travelers will simply abandon their assigned task and come to a conclusion that they just imagined all that future stuff.

Memory is a malleable thing and it will conform to that worldview. They may even be able to create fake alternate memories of their childhood and adolescence – just like the hero of Butterfly Effect did each time he changed the past.

What do you think?

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9 Responses to The Time Traveler Problem

  1. Nathan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I think that the knowledge of future events would keep time travelers sane. If I started to doubt my memories, I would just wait for some event that I knew would occur, like the outcome of a presidential election. As part of the time traveler’s preparation, presumably there would be some “touchstones” they would remember, like the winner of the Super Bowl or the World Cup for each year they’re going to be there. This knowledge of the future would serve to convince me that I’m not insane and focus me on my mission.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Nathan: True, but if we count in the “Butterfly Effect” thing your mere presence in the past could potentially alter these “touchstones”.

    Lets say you one day you bump into a high school kid at the street. Because of this you nudge him a minute or two from his previous schedule. In the original time line, successfully crosses the street 20 minutes later. A drunk driver runs the red light after he is safely on the other side. Now that you nudged him over, the car clips him, breaks his leg, fractures his hip and etc.

    The drunk driver is so shaken by this incident that he cleans up, and decides to turn his life around completely deviating from the original time line where he stays a drunk till hi dies due to a liver failure.

    That kid was on his way to a football game where he got discovered by an NFL scout. 10 years later this kid became a famous quarterback and threw a legendary pass that won the Superbowl for his team.

    Now he missed that game, he never got discovered, and due to his injuries he must end his Football career before it even started. As a result some other team wins the Superbowl that year.

    Oh, and that drunk guy? He becomes a prominent political leader and launches his presidential campaign. He doesn’t win but his influence causes some changes on the political scene and a different person gets his party’s nomination. As a result, someone else becomes the president.

    Yes, this is a little far fetched scenario – it sounds like something that would happen in a movie. But it is not out of the question.

    My point is that relying on the “touchstones” may not be 100% reliable. Especially if your primary mission is something like “Prevent World War 3 by causing a major paradigm shift in US politics”. Or something like that.

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  3. Yeah, knowing specifics seems like it would keep you sane. E.g., if you’re a big football buff and know who wins which games by how much or when X player hits 3,000 career yards, etc., you could be pretty sure you’re not too crazy. If you go back to 1997 and start to question yourself, having 9/11 happen a few years later is going to be a pretty clear indicator. The only way to make you question yourself significantly would be if a side effect of the travel is to make your memories fuzzy. I can’t remember specifics of most things 10+ years ago, so if all my memory seemed that old, questioning myself would be more likely. What if you could only go back to the time you were born and only for ten years? Most people are unlikely to recall many details from that period of time.

    Also, an interesting question is that if you can travel back in time (for yourself, not the government or another organization), what benefit could it have? Money, sure, but you’re probably pretty wealthy if you can actually build a time machine (assuming that’s the vehicle of travel).

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  4. copperfish Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    The even more freaky thing is trying to convince yourself that what you are doing even matters. If time is so “fragile” to changes, is anything you do going to matter? Throw in a “multiverse” vs a “universe” view of time and things get even messier. Its all very well if you assume a single “river of time” where you effectively hop in upstream or downstream. Its even worse if every time you time travel you branch off another river i.e. another universe. Every jump is almost like starting a new life – in either case – everything is either too fragile or too different.

    I always liked the Quantum Leap TV series approach – you never physically traveled, you just “borrowed” a real person’s body for the time you were there. Thus no obvious paradoxes – just one person behaving really strangely for a period of time.

    Still I think you’re right – retaining sanity and all the anchors to our reality we rely on must be really hard for anyone undergoing time travel.

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  5. Kevin Benko UNITED STATES Konqueror Linux says:

    I think that one of Larry Niven’s earlier short story collections dealt with time-travel-related short stories, paradoxes, and multiverse explanations.

    I would like to believe that IF time travel were a possibility, then if Tim [sic] Traveler went back in time, the past time-line would have already included Tim having traveled back to that time.

    Hence, if Tim decided to attempt to change the events of the past, since the past already included some schmuck of a Time Traveler coming back and trying to mess things up, nothing would change since it had already happened that way.

    I would think that the universe would be immune to paradoxes.

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  6. icebrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    That would defeat any kind of hope for human free will: if Tim decides to change the past, the past already has himself trying to change stuff. By that order of thoughts, the “universe” already knows what Tim’s going to do, as the “past” events already happened before he entered the machine.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Kevin Benko: What you are talking about here is the Novikov Self Consistency Principle and yes – this is a valid interpretation.

    Still even in that universe you could lose yourself in time. I mean, let’s face it – you may know who wins the Superbowl a given year, and who becomes the president. But then again, anyone can guess those things.

    Tragic unforeseen events such as 9/11 would be good touch stones, but chances are that no such events occur during your mission. It has been proven in clinical trials that it is extremely easy to create fake memories that are distinguishable from the real ones. Over time the memories of the “future” would fade. On the other hand, the constant repetition and reinforcement of your “cover” story (after all you have a alternate story of your life – where you went to school, where you worked) may seem more and more real.

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  8. chris GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    i have nothing to add to this discussion, but i want to recommend you to read mark twains “a connecticut yankee in king arthurs court” if you haven’t already.

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  9. Eli UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    @ Nathan:
    We are presuming that is possible to change the past (although, technically that concept doesn’t even make sense) or at least cause a branching of the timeline. What if your very presence caused things to start occurring differently from how you remembered them?

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