Monday, May 16, 2011

Recreating the Past from the Future

Alternate history is a popular genre of fiction consisting of stories that are set in a words where history has diverged from what actually happened. One of my favourite examples is the Robert Harris novel Fatherland, which the author creates an alternate history in which the Allied landings on D-Day failed, and by 1964 Hitler remained in power, locked in a stalemate with the USSR and a cold war with the United States.

But as much fun as it may be to read, or even to create, or it's all still fiction... right?

Well, maybe for us it is, but what about our descendants, far in the future (or perhaps not so far...), who may develop time travel?

The biggest problem with traveling backwards in time, as I pointed out yesterday, is what happens if you change something. Now, if you're going back solely as an observer, and could be certain that nothing would change (i.e. you couldn't actually interact with the people of the time period you were visiting or observing), then that's fine. But what if you wanted to interact, and change things? Well, you could, but then it would change your own reality, wouldn't it? Go back and kill your grandfather, and all of a sudden you don't exist.

Hence, the grandfather paradox. You can't travel back in time and change your own reality.

But what if you didn't want to change your reality; what if you wanted to create an entirely new reality?

That's a different story altogether. The branching universe hypothesis holds that there are infinite number of universes, all-together known as multiverse. If a person travels back in time and changes something, he would create a new reality, divorced from his own from that point in time onwards. Thus, in one world D-Day succeeds, and things play out as they have for us; in another, you could wind up with Harris' version of reality.

D-Day is set on a pretty big scope, however. That might be difficult to change (although perhaps not so difficult if the Germans could be convinced that the Allies were going to land in Normandy). Easier to influence would be single smaller events - what if, for example, you could prevent Lincoln's assassination? Or Kennedy's? Or what if Hitler had been killed during the Beer Hall Putsch? And so forth.

All of which leads one to consider the following question: are we living in one of those realities?

What if in the future, when time travel is achieved, our descendants, whether for amusement, or intellectual curiosity, or a combination of the two, decide to travel back in time and create new realities by changing key events, and then watching what happens?

Philosopher Nick Bostrom points out why an advanced civilization might engage in such an activity. Once we fix the world and remove all the things that we don't want, then we will have to find "something more inspiring", as Bostrom puts it, or something more challenging, as I might put it.

Now, Bostrom doesn't go as far into the future as I have in my speculation, to a world where time travel is possible. But the principle which he outlines is applicable.

Indeed, with the rise of interactive video games where the player can make more and more decisions, and therefore find more and more possible narrative outcomes, we're already seeing people in ever growing numbers in technologically advanced societies playing around with the idea of changing worlds.

Someday in the future, maybe that's exactly what people are doing. Perhaps they are changing our world all the time, and creating all sorts of new worlds. And while the pop histories tend to go for the big picture, so-called world historical figures, like Hitler, and Lincoln, and Caesar, maybe our future selves are more like those historians who concentrate on people's history, where you and I are just as interesting and important, in our own ways.

Would any of it matter to us?

Perhaps not, I suppose, because we wouldn't be aware of it. But it does make one think about the cherished notion of free will. Maybe things that happen to us, both big and small, really do happen for a reason, and we're all just NPCs in a real-life game of "change the world".

Whereas in Dungeons and Dragons, you can create and play a 8th level bard, or a 5th level mage, perhaps in the future, they can play "lawyer Paul", or "police officer Paul", or "historian Paul"... or any of the other paths I could have taken.

Maybe someone is "playing me" right now.

And maybe they're playing you too.

Paul Kimball

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1 comment:

Deirdre said...

These aren’t really points, but thoughts that came about after reading your posts, so I thought I’d add them.

If the theories proposed by super string research is true, and there are infinite ‘time-lines’, then all possible outcomes, no mater how preposterous, exist. This is often used to help explain problems with causality, in which paradoxes are avoided in travel to the past by the creation of (or the detour to) another timeline (like you’ve pointed out). One that contains the outcome of the change the traveler made in her/his own past. Or maybe even traveling backwards alone elicits such a transition, where one would not actually travel back in time in the conventional sense, but hop time-lines to another existing one, landing at a point identical to the traveler's past (that would eventually play out in whatever way was dictated by the interference, thereafter). Even without bringing time travel to the table, if an infinite ‘multi-verse’ exists, all possibilities would also exist, given that the chance of any one thing happening is then 100%. Maybe time travel won’t really be traveling backwards in time, as much as it will be traveling to another universe.

In either case, if all possibilities exist, then we very well could be living in one of those altered realities.

Touching on generated realities: It’s been considered that if a civilization is capable of reproducing an entirely realistic world, or a realistic reproduction of their own past, then the probability of it having happened already, is arguably great. This of course brings into question our own ‘real’ world and whether or not we are playing out the lives of characters who were pre-rolled, much like your Dungeons & Dragons analogy. Where there’s a Lawyer Paul, there’s a Sister Deirdre, and so on.

And would it matter to us if this were true? If the system continued regardless, probably not so much. There would be those who accepted it and those who would refute the idea, comfortably clinging to their notion of how things are. This would undoubtedly challenge atheistic beliefs of a creator-less existence, as it would prove that there in fact was/is a creator. Not a flaming bush, but 20-somethings feeding code into their laptops.

But then who, if anyone, created them -- and are they themselves computer models, a product of cosmic chance, or the children of one Flying Spaghetti Monster or another? And what are the true laws of the universe beyond the box we’re bound in? Those would be some of the next great questions of science and religion.