Making Time Travel Sound Bad

This will be a slightly obscure post, but hopefully I will make it less obscure in the future.

In “The Self and the Future”, one of the nice things Bernard Williams does is show us how a relatively pleasant sounding story (I move into a nicer body and get given bunches of money) can be retold as a nightmare scenario (I will be tortured, but before that all my memories and dispositions will be wiped away, and the memories and dispositions of a vain jock written into my brain) by just changing the perspective a little.

Do you think there could be time travel stories that sound quite pleasant at first that could be retold as torture stories by a Williams-style translation? I’m trying to write up some classes on time travel and personal identity, and it will be fun if I can think of such stories. But I can’t immediately see how to write them.

Perhaps more to follow…

9 Replies to “Making Time Travel Sound Bad”

  1. Maybe it’s because I haven’t read “The Self and the Future”, but the nightmare part of the scenario for me begins and ends with “all my memories and dispositions will be wiped away.” Whether my body is subsequently inhabited by a vain jock, and whether he gets tortured, seems almost irrelevant. Heck, if he was responsible for my mindwipe I might even approve of his being tortured…IOW, under the circumstances “I will be tortured” seems to presume some theory of continuity of the self that I probably don’t buy.

  2. The William-style translation works because personal identity is at stake in ‘The Self and the Future’. So a time-travel story would have to be altered so that it essentially involved personal identity for an analogous move to be successful. It could be done, no doubt, but I suspect it would be at the expense of muddying the waters,

  3. I’ve been teaching time travel in an undergraduate course this semester (using Lewis’s paper, “the Paradoxes of Time Travel”). One of things I wanted to impress on the kids is that almost always, when you describe a time travel story that’s supposed to involve changing the past, you can either deduce a contradiction from it, or redescribe it so that it’s not a time travel story.

    For example, imagine that you find yourself having time travelled into the past. You’re about to pull the trigger on your grandfather (GF). To your surprise, you slip on no banana skin, kill GF, and live out your life in “the past”, finding that history is very different from the way you remember it.

    What have you discovered? Not that history is contradictory, but that your memories of being a time traveller are false. You’re not Tim, the time travelling grand-parricide, but Tom, the unwitting dupe of some wholly past conspiracy to kill GF.

    Is that the sort of thing you’re after?

  4. I’m a little puzzled, just like Neil, about what you’re looking for. I can think of time travel cases that have both good and bad descriptions, but not necessarily in an analogous sense. Take example (1) You find out that you can go back in time and get a fake identity as a successful businessman, and have a beautfiul, sophisticated wife (suppose you want all these things and are a failure at your own business). But, you were adopted, not having known your parents. Of course, you find out you are your own father, and that you will develop progressive mental illness due to genetic deficiency. Case (2), which assumes a branching model(I’m not sure about branching time). You find out you can go far into the past, have a happy life, and live it out as some rich baron or somesuch. But, your activities will contribute causally in a long chain to the gradually increasing suffering of humanity, with your future counterpart and counterpart family along another branch actualized who have to endure horrible, holocaust like scenarios. But, like I’m said, I’m not really sure if this is what you’re after…and some people would say not that these have both good and bad descriptions, but rather that, with the full quota of information, it’s just plain bad. But, the same goes for Williams and his cases, given his views of personal identity. Ok,

  5. My memories of the Williams piece are hazy or non-existent (that is, I can’t remember whether I’ve read it), but I think the story you’re looking for might go like this:

    Description 1: You are born in 2100. At age 22, you step into a time machine and are transported to a warehouse in Brooklyn in the late ’90s. Since you know when the stock market bubble bursts, you short-sell Enron (etc.), make a pile of money, and live your life in luxury, dying happy in 2080. You knew all along this was going to happen, since your exploits are recorded in history.

    Description 2: In the late ’90s, a full-grown adult mysteriously materializes in a warehouse in Brooklyn. Somehow he is able to get his hands on some capital and make a pile of money in the stock market, thanks to his accurate prediction of the stock-market crash. Yet he suffers from the delusion that he was born in 2100 and travelled back in time; still, since he’s rich, he avoids getting institutionalized, and dies happy in 2080. (On this description, the guy’s a swampman. I’m assuming that after a year or so, swampman has mental attitudes, so the rest of the story makes sense. Don’t think it matters much, though.)

    Later, you are born in 2100. You learn of this guy, who sounds remarkably similar to you. At age 22, you step into a “time machine” and are instantly annihilated. The inventor of this “time machine” spends his life in prison for murder.

    Um, is that it?

  6. Here was the kind of thing I was working with – I think Matt’s is the closest. (In fact his gets some other bad things I could have included.)

    Story One
    One sunny afternoon God offers you a chance to travel in time back to ancient Athens. (If you don’t know ancient Greek, make it some interesting time where they speak a language you do know.) You leap at the opportunity, and soon you’re yucking it up with Socrates, Plato and this whipper-snapper Aristotle all through the day. It’s all an excellent life, and soon you get married, settle down and have children. Once Socrates is executed things get a little less pleasant, and soon after that your wife and children die in an epidemic sweeping through. As much as you’ve loved Ancient Greece, you decide it’s time to head back, so after 20 years you return to the same afternoon in 2003 you ‘just’ left.

    Story Two
    So God walks up to you one sunny afternoon in 2003 and says something very surprising is going to happen. Before you go to sleep that night, you’ll have aged 20 years, put on the suitable amount of weight, lost the suitable amount of mental and physical agility, and so on. You’re not at all happy about this.

    He then says that once you age you’ll mostly feel depressed about the deaths of a few people in ancient Athens 2500 years ago. This does not make things better.

    He adds that you’ll have some pleasant ‘memories’ of being back there (God doing finger quotes is a pretty wild sight, by the way) but mostly you’ll just miss the people you think you’ve left behind.

    The Problem of Evil is looming large by now.

    God adds, almost as an afterthought, that the reason he’s making all these changes is because there was someone way back then who materialised, looking a lot like you do now, lived for 20 years, ending up with how you will look this evening, and living through the things you’ll ‘remember’.

    Does this make things better? Well, it’s not so clear. Maybe you think it’s now Story One, and while that wasn’t an unvarnished comedy, it seemed like it could have been a good story. I assume that you’re interested enough in Ancient Greece that spending 20 years there in the thick of things is considered a good thing, in story one that is. But of course we’re now back to having just about described story one, and it’s not clear what we said that made things better.

    It’s far from a perfect analogy, but I think the issue is in part whether it’s really you back then. And highlighting different aspects of the story can change your initial judgments on that. (We learn that from Williams, right?)

    Story 2 might sound worse if it’s not Athens, but some civ on the other side of the universe you go to. After all, if the universe is big enough God can be pretty confident that there will be someone with something like those qualities somewhere.

  7. Borges. Definitely, you should read Borges, who said he regarded metaphysics as a branch of fantastic literature.

  8. I’m not convinced that time travel is playing an essential role in Brian’s story. Suppose you live alone on an idyllic desert island where (the important point) there are no public markers of the passage of time. Perhaps you shared the island with your beloved, who died a year ago. For 20 years you were deliriously happy. One day, God comes to you and tells that in fact 21 years have not passed since you came to the island. In fact, only one night has passed, but while you slept you aged 21 years. Just the same scenario Brian envisages (so far as I can see) except without the time travel (except of the usual, one second-per-second, sort).

  9. Brian—
    It seems to me that you should change the beginning of story one to “God sends you to Athens, adding that you can come back whenever you want to.” There’s a prima facie difference between Story One, in which you have a choice to travel back, and Story Two, in which you don’t. I can’t figure out how to fix this by changing Story Two—presumably, if I could, I would be sending off papers to journals entitled “All the problems of time travel solved in one fell swoop.”

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