The Novikov self-consistency principle and calculations by Kip S. Thorne indicate that simple masses passing through time travel wormholes could never engender paradoxes—there are no initial conditions that lead to paradox once time travel is introduced. If his results can be generalized, they would suggest, curiously, that none of the supposed paradoxes formulated in time travel stories can actually be formulated at a precise physical level: that is, that any situation you can set up in a time travel story turns out to permit many consistent solutions. The circumstances might, however, turn out to be almost unbelievably strange.
Parallel universes might provide a way out of paradoxes. Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests that all possible quantum events can occur in mutually exclusive histories. These alternate, or parallel, histories would form a branching tree symbolizing all possible outcomes of any interaction. If all possibilities exist, any paradoxes could be explained by having the paradoxical events happening in a different universe. This concept is most often used in science-fiction, but some physicists such as David Deutsch have suggested that if time travel is possible and the many-worlds interpretation is correct, then a time traveler should indeed end up in a different history than the one he started from. On the other hand, Stephen Hawking has argued that even if the many-worlds interpretation is correct, we should expect each time traveler to experience a single self-consistent timeline, so that time travelers remain within their own world rather than traveling to a different one.
Daniel Greenberger and Karl Svozil proposed that quantum theory gives a model for time travel without paradoxes. In quantum theory observation causes possible states to ‘collapse’ into one measured state; hence, the past observed from the present is deterministic (it has only one possible state), but the present observed from the past has many possible states until our actions cause it to collapse into one state. Our actions will then be seen to have been inevitable.
Philosophical understandings of time travel
Theories of time travel are riddled with questions about causality and paradoxes. Compared to other fundamental concepts in modern physics, time is still not understood very well. Philosophers have been theorizing about the nature of time since the era of the ancient Greek philosophers and earlier (See the main article on Philosophy of space and time). Some philosophers and physicists who study the nature of time also study the possibility of time travel and its logical implications. The probability of paradoxes and their possible solutions are often considered.
For more information on the philosophical considerations of time travel, consult the work of David Lewis or Ted Sider. For more information on physics-related theories of time travel, consider the work of Kurt Gödel (especially his theorized universe) and Lawrence Sklar.
Presentism vs. eternalism
The relativity of simultaneity in modern physics favors the philosophical view known as eternalism or four dimensionalism (Sider, 2001), in which physical objects are either temporally extended space-time worms, or space-time worm stages, and this view would be favored further by the possibility of time travel (Sider, 2001). Eternalism, also sometimes known as “block universe theory”, builds on a standard method of modeling time as a dimension in physics, to give time a similar ontology to that of space (Sider, 2001). This would mean that time is just another dimension, that future events are “already there”, and that there is no objective flow of time. This view is disputed by Tim Maudlin in his The Metaphysics Within Physics.
Presentism is a school of philosophy that holds that neither the future nor the past exist, and there are no non-present objects. In this view, time travel is impossible because there is no future or past to travel to. However, some 21st century presentists have argued that although past and future objects do not exist, there can still be definite truths about past and future events, and thus it is possible that a future truth about a time traveler deciding to appear in the present could explain the time traveler’s actual existence in the present.
The grandfather paradox
One subject often brought up in philosophical discussion of time is the idea that, if one were to go back in time, paradoxes could ensue if the time traveler were to change things. The best examples of this are the grandfather paradox and the idea of autoinfanticide. The grandfather paradox is a hypothetical situation in which a time traveler goes back in time and attempts to kill his grandfather at a time before his grandfather met his grandmother. If he did so, then his father never would have been born, and neither would the time traveler himself, in which case the time traveler never would have gone back in time to kill his grandfather.
Autoinfanticide works the same way, where a traveler goes back and attempts to kill himself as an infant. If he were to do so, he never would have grown up to go back in time to kill himself as an infant.
This discussion is important to the philosophy of time travel because philosophers question whether these paradoxes make time travel impossible. Some philosophers answer the paradoxes by arguing that it might be the case that backwards time travel could be possible but that it would be impossible to actually change the past in any way, an idea similar to the proposed Novikov self-consistency principle in physics.
Theory of compossibility
David Lewis’ analysis of compossibility and the implications of changing the past is meant to account for the possibilities of time travel in a one-dimensional conception of time without creating logical paradoxes. Consider Lewis’ example of Tim. Tim hates his grandfather and would like nothing more than to kill him. The only problem for Tim is that his grandfather died years ago. Tim wants so badly to kill his grandfather himself that he constructs a time machine to travel back to 1955 when his grandfather was young and kill him then. Assuming that Tim can travel to a time when his grandfather is still alive, the question must then be raised; Can Tim kill his grandfather?
For Lewis, the answer lies within the context of the usage of the word “can”. Lewis explains that the word “can” must be viewed against the context of pertinent facts relating to the situation. Suppose that Tim has a rifle, years of rifle training, a straight shot on a clear day and no outside force to restrain Tim’s trigger finger. Can Tim shoot his grandfather? Considering these facts, it would appear that Tim can in fact kill his grandfather. In other words, all of the contextual facts are compossible with Tim killing his grandfather. However, when reflecting on the compossibility of a given situation, we must gather the most inclusive set of facts that we are able to.
Consider now the fact that Tim’s grandfather died in 1993 and not in 1955. This new fact about Tim’s situation reveals that him killing his grandfather is not compossible with the current set of facts. Tim cannot kill his grandfather because his grandfather died in 1993 and not when he was young. Thus, Lewis concludes, the statements “Tim doesn’t but can, because he has what it takes,” and, “Tim doesn’t, and can’t, because it is logically impossible to change the past,” are not contradictions, they are both true given the relevant set of facts. The usage of the word “can” is equivocal: he “can” and “can not” under different relevant facts. So what must happen to Tim as he takes aim? Lewis believes that his gun will jam, a bird will fly in the way, or Tim simply slips on a banana peel. Either way, there will be some logical force of the universe that will prevent Tim every time from killing his grandfather.
In literature, there are two methods of time travel:
1. The most commonly used method of time travel in science fiction is the instantaneous movement from one point in time to another, like using the controls on a CD player to skip to a previous or next song, though in most cases, there is a machine of some sort, and some energy expended in order to make this happen (like the time-traveling De Lorean in Back to the Future or the phone booth that traveled through the “circuits of history” in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure). In some cases, there is not even the beginning of a scientific explanation for this kind of time travel; it’s popular probably because it is more spectacular and makes time travel easier. The “Universal Remote” used by Adam Sandler in the movie Click works in the same manner, although only in one direction, the future. While his character Michael Newman can travel back to a previous point it is merely a playback with which he cannot interact.
2. In The Time Machine, H.G. Wells explains that we are moving through time with a constant speed. Time travel then is, in Wells’ words, “stopping or accelerating one’s drift along the time-dimension, or even turning about and traveling the other way.” To expand on the audio playback analogy used above, this would be like rewinding or fast forwarding an analogue audio cassette and playing the tape at a chosen point. This method of gradual time travel is not as popular in modern science fiction. Perhaps the oldest example of this method of time travel is in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871): the White Queen is living backwards, hence her memory is working both ways. Her kind of time travel is uncontrolled: she moves through time with a constant speed of -1 and she cannot change it. T.H. White, in the first part of his Arthurian novel The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone (1938) used the same idea: the wizard Merlyn lives backward in time, because he was born “at the wrong end of time” and has to live backwards from the front. “Some people call it having second sight”, he says.
Time travel, or space-time travel?
An objection that is sometimes raised against the concept of time machines in science fiction is that they ignore the motion of the Earth between the date the time machine departs and the date it returns. The idea that a traveler can go into a machine that sends him or her to 1865 and step out into the exact same spot on Earth might be said to ignore the issue that Earth is moving through space around the Sun, which is moving in the galaxy, and so on, so that advocates of this argument imagine that “realistically” the time machine should actually reappear in space far away from the Earth’s position at that date. However, the theory of relativity rejects the idea of absolute time and space; in relativity there can be no universal truth about the spatial distance between events which occurred at different times (such as an event on Earth today and an event on Earth in 1865), and thus no objective truth about which point in space at one time is at the “same position” that the Earth was at another time. In the theory of special relativity, which deals with situations where gravity is negligible, the laws of physics work the same way in every inertial frame of reference and therefore no frame’s perspective is physically better than any other frame’s, and different frames disagree about whether two events at different times happened at the “same position” or “different positions”. In the theory of general relativity, which incorporates the effects of gravity, all coordinate systems are on equal footing because of a feature known as “diffeomorphism invariance”.
Nevertheless, the idea that the Earth moves away from the time traveler when he takes a trip through time has been used in a few science fiction stories, such as the 2000 AD comic Strontium Dog, in which Johnny Alpha uses “Time Bombs” to propel an enemy several seconds into the future, during which time the movement of the Earth causes the unfortunate victim to re-appear in space. Other science fiction stories try to anticipate this objection and offer a rationale for the fact that the traveler remains on Earth, such as the 1957 Robert Heinlein novel The Door into Summer where Heinlein essentially handwaved the issue with a single sentence: “You stay on the world line you were on.” In his 1980 novel The Number of the Beast a “continua device” allows the protagonists to dial in the six (not four!) co-ordinates of space and time and it instantly moves them there—without explaining how such a device might work.
In Clifford Simak’s 1950s short story “Mastodonia” (later broadcast on the X Minus One radio anthology show, and then significantly re-written into a longer novel of the same name) the protagonists are aware of the possibility of changes in ground level while traveling back in time to the same geographical coordinates and mount their time machine in a helicopter so as to not materialize underground. When the helicopter is damaged beyond repair while in the past, they then build a mound of rocks from which to launch their return to the present.
The television series Seven Days also dealt with this problem; when the chrononaut would be ‘rewinding’, he would also be propelling himself backwards around the Earth’s orbit, with the intention of landing at some chosen spatial location, though seldom hitting the mark precisely. In Piers Anthony’s Bearing an Hourglass, the potent Hourglass of the Incarnation of Time naturally moves the Incarnation in space according to the numerous movements of the globe through the solar system, the solar system through the galaxy, etc.; but by carefully negating some of the movements he can also travel in space within the limits of the planet. The television series Doctor Who cleverly avoided this issue by establishing early on in the series that the Doctor’s TARDIS is able to move about in space in addition to traveling in time.