Innovation. Ideas. Insight.

Terminator, Star Trek, The Watchmen: Can Free Will OR Fate exist in a Time Travel Universe?

In Ideas, Innovation on May 26, 2009 at 8:45 am
I totally knew that was going to happen

I totally knew that was going to happen

This has already been a good year for Science Fiction fans at the movies as The Watchmen hit the big screen, Star Trek got a reboot and The Terminator made its return, this time with Christian Bale. While they may not be Academy Award-winners, they were all fun enough. But in one manner or another, all three touched upon some deeper issues.

ALERT 1: This isn’t a normal Eyecube marketing post, so if that’s what you’re looking for, take a look around the archives. Today I’m unleashing my inner-nerd, but in a thought-provoking way (at least I hope).

ALERT 2: There will be what could be considered spoilers, so if you are planning on seeing these movies, be careful reading this post. Consider yourself warned.

Let’s talk about time travel. But not the way it’s usually debated. People smarter than me can explain black holes and worm holes, string theory, etc. Go read Godel, Escher, Bach if you want to try to figure out the ‘how’ of time travel. And for some mind-bending fun on multiple dimensions, watch this video:

Let’s, for the sake of argument, agree that time travel is possible. You have to if you are planning on seeing movies like The Terminator as the whole mythology of the story revolves around time travel. All these movies ask us to willingly suspend our disbelief and I’m going to as well. So, yes, time travel is possible. But I think that if we are playing along,  there are bigger ramifications here than just the ability to go back in time and put $10,000 on Google’s IPO. I think believing in time travel means the whole argument of fate (or determinism) v. free will is rendered moot.

First, you have to accept a different notion of time, and of how it is experienced. We tend to think of time as a singular point along a line that we experience as the ‘now.’ But with time travel you have to take a much broader view. Rather than looking at a timeline through a key hole, imagine being able to see all time – past, present and future – simultaneously. That’s what time travel would allow, for if future already exists, then the past must all be currently happening. But beyond that even, you would also have to accept that there are an infinite number of ‘nows’ and ‘future’ and ‘pasts.’  Not only is any event possible with time travel, every event is possible. Actually, it is bey0nd possible, even beyond probable, everything is actual.

Free Will

Let’s use the example of The Terminator movies as they provide the best platform from which to discuss this. The general premise is that killer robots from the future are sent back in time (to roughly our present) to kill someone who in the future who will defeat these evil robots. That’s not a bad plan if you are the robots – the ultimate pre-emptive strike if you will. But let’s look a little more closely: If you know robots from the future are sent to kill you, so you don’t kill them when you grow up, then you must be alive in the future and therefore are not in mortal danger right now.

After all, if the robots did kill you in your present, the future (their present) would potentially be so radically different that they (the robots) probably wouldn’t exist at all. And that takes us to our theory of time with an infinite number of timelines. 

In Terminator 4 the pretzel logic is taken to an even greater extreme. The hero, John Connor, is in his mid/late-30s. A subplot involves his desperate attemp to save Kyle Reese (who appears to be in his late-teens, early 20s). Those of us familiar with The Terminator movies know that Kyle Reese is later (in the Terminator timeline) sent back to the past (Terminator 1) to save John Connor’s mother. Reese goes on to become the father of John Connor.  If Connor doesn’t save his future father, does he (John Connor) just go “poof” in a puff of white smoke and disappear? Again, I’d argue that forces beyond his control govern his actions and the actions of those he engages with.

SIDEBAR: I know I said I wouldn’t get in to the weeds on time travel, but it’s funny when John Connor in T4 is freaked out by advancements in Terminator technology that are small potatoes when compared to the Terminators he saw in T2 and T3.


If John Connor actions didn’t really matter, then it must be fate? Not so fast. Once you have the ability to time travel you really start going down a slippery slope. If your plan to change the present by altering the past doesn’t work today, you can just time travel again tomorrow, and just go back an extra day (or week, or year) earlier. Now, again, we have to deal with the notion of infinite realities.  And in one (some? many?) of those realities the robots do kill John Connor. Can fate exist in multiple options? Sometimes it’s fate that he lives, and sometimes it’s fate that he doesn’t? That seems to go against the very notion of fate. If it is beyond our control, why would both options still be possible? For what ‘greater purpose?’

The “Poof” Corollary of Multiple Realities

So, you say, there aren’t multiple possibilities, just one possible timeline. Well, here’s another reason there must be multiple, infinite actually, realities. I’m going to call it The “Poof” Corollary of Multiple Realities. If there was just one possible timeline along which the universe flows, and if going back in time to change the future (or present, depending on your perspective) were possible, then there would be a lot of “poofing” going on. Here’s what I mean:

Let’s say 20 years from now time travel is possible. My future self then goes back in time to 1989, the year I met my wife. But, future Rick monkees with something in 1989 and I don’t meet my wife. Now, jump back to 2009 and my five-year old son enters the room. But wait, I never met his mother: “Poof,” he disappears. Think of all the “poofs” there would be if time travel were possible (and we operated in a single timeline). So, if you are buying in to the concept of time travel, I think you have to acknowledge the existence of infinite realities. Either that or accept that your existence would consist of – and be subject to – a lot of potential ‘poofing’

Spock, you’re in violation of the Prime Directive!

Spock - Pleased to meet me

Spock - Pleased to meet me

Let’s jump over for a moment to our friends at Star Fleet. In this summer’s Star Trek, Spock, that Vulcan logician, appears twice: As a youngster, the chronological equivalent of his peers in the film; and as an older Spock – the one we know from the original TV series, movies, etc. (In fact, the older Spock is played by Leonard Nimoy, so we know it’s really the original Sp0ck).  Now here J.J. Abrams, producer of the film, really plays (I would say messes with) two really important issues: First, on the meta level, he allows the two Spocks to interact with each other. Maybe there are other examples, but that sort of thing seems to me to be a pretty big no-no in the world of Sci Fi. Coming in contact with your future self would so dramatically change the course of events, you’d pretty much rip apart the time/space continuum. And in the movie, as I recall, they even kind of ‘wink, wink’ this issue in the dialogue.

Now, from a Star Trek perspective, I have an even larger issue with Spock encountering himself (as well as a younger Captain Kirk). What about the Prime Directive? And I quote (from Wikipedia):

In the fictional universe of Star Trek, the Prime Directive, Starfleet‘s General Order #1, is the most prominent guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets. The Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the internal affairs of other civilizations, consistent with the historical real world concept of Westphalian sovereignty.

Now of course you can argue that even being an observer can change reality (see: Observer effect from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), but we’ll take the Prime Directive to cover intervention (direct or otherwise), not observation.

And yet there’s (old) Spock, dramatically – if indirectly – affecting the outcome of events for young Spock and Kirk. But wait, it gets worse. There is in fact a portion of the Prime Directive specifically about time travel:

The Temporal Prime Directive is intended to prevent a time traveler from interfering in the natural development of a timeline. The TPD was formally created by the 29th Century, and was enforced through an agency of Starfleet called the Temporal Integrity Commission, which monitored and restricted deviations from the natural flow of history.[8]

As 31st Century time traveler Daniels revealed to Captain Jonathan Archer in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Cold Front“, as time travel technology became practical, the Temporal Accords were established sometime significantly prior to the 31st Century, in order to allow the use of time travel for the purposes of studying history, while prohibiting the use of it to alter history. Some factions rejected the Accords, leading to the Temporal Cold War that served as a recurring storyline during the first three seasons of that series.

For the nitpickers out there, my hunch is you can say that the Star Trek time frame would put the creation of the Temporal Prime Directive after the events of this movie. Now we can get into an argument over what constitutes canon in the Star Trek Universe, but let’s not go there.

Paging Dr. Manhattan

If I hurry, I can catch the 7:30 train... Oh, nevermind

If I hurry, I can catch the 7:30 train... Oh, nevermind

Now, a quik side trip to The Watchmen. Not surprisingly, Alan Moore, creator of one of Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 novels captures it beautifully. The most controversial character is probably Dr. Manhattan. It’s interesting to note (again from Wikipedia):

Moore sought to delve into nuclear physics and quantum physics in constructing the character of Dr. Manhattan. The writer believed that a character living in a quantum universe would not perceive time with a linear perspective, which would influence the character’s perception of human affairs.

One of the things that most clearly separates Dr. Manhattan from the other characters is his perspective on time:

After his transformation, Jon begins to experience time in a non-linear, “quantum” fashion. His already weak will becomes sublimated further during this time. It is implied that he does not so much perceive the past or future as directly experience them. He increasingly has difficulty acting in what those around him consider the present moment. This leads to many accusations and even the public perception that he is emotionless. However, during the course of Watchmen he displays powerful emotion several times. His apparent lack of sentiment is more a

Alan Moore - What time is it?

Alan Moore - What time is it?

matter of radically altered priorities.

Now see how this perspective of time alters his perception of all matters:

His precognition does not allow him to change events. He believes he has no choices for the large part of Watchmen. His total determinism of action and the implied amorality of such a position is strongly contrasted with his ability to do almost anything. In some sense, unlimited power has come at the cost of the total absence of responsibility. During the period where he fights crime, because his government told him to, he states that the morality of the activities escapes him. From his radically altered perspective, almost all human concerns appear pointless to him. This growing sense of disconnection is marked by his use of clothing which over the years gradually shrinks until he is naked by the 1980s.

His ability to see time from a larger perspective in part disconnects him from the free will v. determinism argument!

Unified Theory of Sci-Fi Time Travel

Back to The Terminator, John Connor dying as a teenager (in T2) would prohibit his older self from sending his father back in time to save his mother (inT1), rendering him ‘unborn.’ To me, that eliminates true choice (free will) from his actions. No matter what John did or what happened to him in T2, he was going to live. Otherwise there is no T2. Therefore he simply couldn’t have been in mortal danger. With iminent death bearing down on him, he could have calmly grabbed a cheeseburger. Someone or something was going to intervene on his behalf.

On the other side, we’ve created the “poof theory” so there must be multiple realities. And if everything can, and does, happen fate is really out of the equation, merely sitting on the sidelines.

But these two theories don’t currently disprove each other. What we need here is a Unified Theory of Sci-Fi Time Travel vis a vis the Free Will v. Determinism argument.

Ok, here’s the best I can do:

In fictional universes in which time travel exists, neither free will nor fate rules that universe. Rather, all possibilities exist across infinite, non-parellel, non-mutually exclusive universes.

The key here is that these multiple universes are not discreet. They do at times, to borrow a phrase from Ghostbusters, cross streams. These universes actually cross over each other quite often. Some differ for an hour or a minute or a second, then overlap again. In one I go to Wendy’s for a frosty, in another I don’t. But a few minutes later they are back together. In a third I’m in a car crash on my way to Wendy’s and in a fourth I get a salad instead of the Frosty, and in a fifth…

So, yes, John Connor can makes choices, but it doesn’t matter, because in fact he has made both choices – or both choices have been made for him.

I’d love to hear from experts and Sci-Fi fans alike on this, please share your thoughts.

  1. You’re comparing apples and muons.

    The differing mechanisms and justifications for time travel are not meant to be compatible. For instance, you have Star Trek produced by JJ Abrams, whose LOST series now has a pocketwatch with no origin, traveling in its own strange closed loop between Locke and Alpert.

    One day, one of these writers will clear things up by defining Free Will as a function of quantum electrical activity in the brain, and how human beings are the static that can escape determinism. The explanation will re-open the door for alternate realities, and in one of those realities, the writer will drown inside a giant Frosty.

  2. Wow, your post just made my head spin.

    For the most part, I like time travel scenarios, even though they’ve become overused by Hollywood. I’ve seen both the new Star Trek film and T4, along with countless other time-travel films including The Back to the Future series, The Time Machine, and countless Star Trek episodes. I’m not a hard core sci-fi fan, but have always been fascinated by the implications of time-travel scenarios. For me, these stories are most engaging when they keep the time travel science simple and focus on the human element — e.g., what would this character have been like if this event hadn’t happened, how much is anyone a product of their circumstances. In the first BTTF George McFly changes from doormat to confident, successful (sci-fi) author as a result of a chance encounter with a his tormentor, Biff Tannen. There’s also an excellent Star Trek: TNG episode called “Tapestry,” in which Captain Picard gets to explore a safer path not taken. His life is the same in that he’s still an officer on the Enterprise, but the best thing his superiors can say about him is that he’s punctual.

    Time travel plots can feel hollow when the science isn’t explained clearly for us lay viewers or worse, when it’s used as a deus ex machina by writers unable to come up with a better story.

    As for the concept of an infinite number of parallel universes, another TNG episode called “Parallels” is probably my favorite.

    Haven’t we all wondered if we had done one or two things differently where we’d be today? Let the fate versus free will debate continue.

  3. Larry, I love where you mention you’re not a hard core sci-fi fan, then describe in great detail scenes or episodes from all sorts of sci-fi.

    I agree that the best of the genre is about the stories, not the special effects.

  4. Well, actually, Star Trek fan with an incurable addiction to

  5. One idea that I find easy to swallow is introduced by The Oracle in Matrix: Reloaded. It addresses the assumption we generally make when we think of fate vs free will, that free will is something we execute immediately preceding any given event and is used to shape the outcome of the event in question.

    The Oracle asserts something like “the apparent conflict between fate and free will doesn’t actually exist, because the events that unfold in our lives in the future are determined by decisions made far, far in advance. The free will you exert today has intricate but necessary effects on the fate of tomorrow, and your decisions today are tied by fate to your decisions in the past. As such, our experience of ‘fate’ is the result of our understanding of why those choices were made.”

    Or something to that effect. There’s a lot to be explored, debated, refuted there as well.

    It’s somewhat chaos theory-esque. I’m tempted to believe that the way we experience any moment in the present is the result of an inevitable and irreplicable combination of the near-infinite number of decisions and actions made by every single thing acting upon this world, at every single moment leading up to it. Any change necessarily affects an infinite number of subsequent decisions and actions.

    Thanks for the great thoughts, Rick!

  6. Mmm, logic crunchies. My favorite.

    Fate vs Free Will. There are generally 2 types of events in our lives:

    1. Events we cannot control (9/11)
    2. Events we can control (getting angry at Iraq)

    Fate generally has the say in events we cannot control, but we have Free Will in choosing how to respond. Which view you take on this is decided by your endgame focus (if you have one).

    Speaking as a christian, I can tell you that the most important thing (which forms part of my endgame focus) is not so much what gets done to me in this life, but how I respond to these events – and the type of person it turns me into.

    How does time travel factor into it? Whether or not it is possible, whether or not there is 1 malleable universal timeline – or an infinite number of variations that are created when you traverse time – it has no real effect in the end.

    What is important is how you respond to those events, since that’s what you’ll be judged on eventually. That, of course, is the logic you’d apply if you believe in things like an afterlife.

    If you don’t, then it gets a lot more complicated.

    Assuming time can be represented by a line (which is a simplified representation of the procession of events), what happens when you go back in time?

    I’d like to think it can be represented like this (apologies for the low quality rough sketch):

    The horizontal line at the top is the current timeline as we know it. At the red dot, someone goes back in time to the green dot. Their arrival marks a change in the procession of events, and a new timeline is created.

    I’ve included two more timetravel events on that line to show how going back in time moves you further and further away from the base timeline.

    The question here is this: When someone goes back in time (red dot), what happens to the timeline _after_ that? Does it continue on without him, or does it disappear?

    If you believe in alternate realities, then the first is true, and going back in time doesn’t change anything in your reality – a new, alternate timeline is created, which carries on on its own.

    If you don’t believe in AR, then going back in time _does_ change your current reality, and so therefore time travel does have an effect on the procession of events – or Fate.

    As for Free Will? I don’t see how that’s affected – unless if you go back in time to enslave humanity, in which case it is.

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