Monday, April 13, 2009

Determinism, alternate possibilities, and the grandfather paradox

Davis Lewis once wrote an article on the coherence of time-travel. My immediate interest is not in his defense of time-travel. Rather, what's interesting is his analysis of the ambiguities concerning what an agent can or cannot do. In that respect, his discussion is applicable to the debate between libertarians and compatibilists. Here is part of what he said:


I have argued so far that what goes on in a time travel story may be a possible pattern of events in four-dimensional space-time with no extra time dimension; that it may be correct to regard the scattered stages of the alleged time traveler as comprising a single person; and that we may legitimately assign to those stages and their surroundings a personal time order that disagrees sometimes with their order in external time. Some might concede all this, but protest that the impossibility of time travel is revealed after all when we ask not what the time traveler does, but what he could do. Could a time traveler change the past? It seems not: the events of a past moment could no more change than numbers could. Yet it seems that he would be as able as anyone to do things that would change the past if he did them. If a time traveler visiting the past both could and couldn’t do something that would change it, then there cannot possibly be such a time traveler.

Consider Tim. He detests his grandfather, whose success in the munitions trade built the family fortune that paid for Tim’s time machine. Tim would like nothing so much as to kill Grandfather, but alas he is too late. Grandfather died in his bed in 1957, while Tim was a young boy. But when Tim has built his time machine and traveled to 1920, suddenly he realizes that he is not too late after all. He buys a rifle; he spends long hours in target practice; he shadows Grandfather to learn the route of his daily walk to the munitions works; he rents a room along the route; and there he lurks, one winter day in 1921, rifle loaded, hate in his heart, as Grandfather walks closer, closer,. . . .

Tim can kill Grandfather. He has what it takes. Conditions are perfect in every way: the best rifle money could buy, Grandfather an easy target only twenty yards away, not a breeze, door securely locked against intruders. Tim a good shot to begin with and now at the peak of training, and so on. What’s to stop him? The forces of logic will not stay his hand! No powerful chaperone stands by to defend the past from interference. (To imagine such a chaperone, as some authors do, is a boring evasion, not needed to make Tim’s story consistent.) In short, Tim is as much able to kill Grandfather as anyone ever is to kill anyone. Suppose that down the street another sniper, Tom, lurks waiting for another victim, Grandfather’s partner. Tom is not a time traveler, but otherwise he is just like Tim: same make of rifle, same murderous intent, same everything. We can even suppose that Tom, like Tim, believes himself to be a time traveler. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to deceive Tom into thinking so. There’s no doubt that Tom can kill his victim; and Tim has everything going for him that Tom does. By any ordinary standards of ability, Tim can kill Grandfather.

Tim cannot kill Grandfather. Grandfather lived, so to kill him would be to change the past. But the events of a past moment are not subdivisible into temporal parts and therefore cannot change. Either the events of 1921 timelessly do include Tim’s killing of Grandfather, or else they timelessly don’t. We may be tempted to speak of the “original” 1921 that lies in Tim’s personal past, many years before his birth, in which Grandfather lived; and of the “new” 1921 in which Tim now finds himself waiting in ambush to kill Grandfather. But if we do speak so, we merely confer two names on one thing. The events of 1921 are doubly located in Tim’s (extended) personal time, like the trestle on the railway, but the “original” 1921 and the “new” 1921 are one and the same. If Tim did not kill Grandfather in the “original” 1921, then if he does kill Grandfather in the “new” 1921, he must both kill and not kill Grandfather in 1921—in the one and only 1921, which is both the “new” and the “original” 1921. It is logically impossible that Tim should change the past by killing Grandfather in 1921. So Tim cannot kill Grandfather.

We have this seeming contradiction: “Tim doesn’t, but can, because he has what it takes” versus “Tim doesn’t, and can’t, because it’s logically impossible to change the past.” I reply that there is no contradiction. Both conclusions are true, and for the reasons given. They are compatible because “can” is equivocal. To say that something can happen means that its happening is compossible with certain facts. Which facts? That is determined, but sometimes not determined well enough, by context. An ape can’t speak a human language—say, Finnish—but I can. Facts about the anatomy and operation of the ape’s larynx and nervous system are not compossible with his speaking Finnish. The corresponding facts about my larynx and nervous system are compossible with my speaking Finnish. But don’t take me along to Helsinki as your interpreter: I can’t speak Finnish. My speaking Finnish is compossible with the facts considered so far, but not with further facts about my lack of training. What I can do, relative to one set of facts, I cannot do, relative to another, more inclusive, set. Whenever the context leaves it open which facts are to count as relevant, it is possible to equivocate about whether I can speak Finnish. It is likewise possible to equivocate about whether it is possible for me to speak Finnish, or whether I am able to, or whether I have the ability or capacity or power or potentiality to. Our many words for much the same thing are little help since they do not seem to correspond to different fixed delineations of the relevant facts.

Tim’s killing Grandfather that day in 1921 is compossible with a fairly rich set of facts: the facts about his rifle, his skill and training, the unobstructed line of fire, the locked door and the absence of any chaperone to defend the past, and so on. Indeed it is compossible with all the facts of the sorts we would ordinarily count as relevant is saying what someone can do. It is compossible with all the facts corresponding to those we deem relevant in Tom’s case. Relative to these facts, Tim can kill Grandfather. But his killing Grandfather is not compossible with another, more inclusive set of facts. There is the simple fact that Grandfather was not killed. Also there are various other facts about Grandfather’s doings after 1921 and their effects: Grandfather begat Father in 1922 and Father begat Tim in 1949. Relative to these facts, Tim cannot kill Grandfather. He can and he can’t, but under different delineations of the relevant facts. You can reasonably choose the narrower delineation, and say that he can; or the wider delineation, and say that he can’t. But choose. What you mustn’t do is waver, say in the same breath that he both can and can’t, and then claim that this contradiction proves that time travel is impossible.


  1. Hello,

    Um, so...the reason Tim can't kill his Grandfather is because he can't?

    This is certainly a refutation of one kind of time travel, but there are other versions that are casually dismissed by the following: "We may be tempted to speak of the “original” 1921 that lies in Tim’s personal past, many years before his birth, in which Grandfather lived; and of the “new” 1921 in which Tim now finds himself waiting in ambush to kill Grandfather. But if we do speak so, we merely confer two names on one thing."[emphasis mine] That's just an assertion. It in no way proves time travel doesn't involve a second time axis where there is an original 1921 and there is a new 1921 the instant Tim stepped into what he may have thought was the old one (example).

    As for the mind/body problem, I'm not really even sure how this particular selection/example applies. Help? Does the libertine free will version lock up because it knows it mysteriously "can't" kill Grandfather? Why would a computer brain be any different in the scenario?

    Hope you don't mind random comments. :D


  2. Good considerations. To be sure, we are traveling through time in one direction according to our perceptions that follow a pattern of cause and effect unidirectionally. According to time dilation it is possible to travel very quickly into the future relative to some local environment. However, since our physical construct is a pattern of cause and effect, then our existence as effect cannot precede the total historical cause. The matter and energy that comprise us cannot go back and coexist with itself as part of the cause even if on another planet in another galaxy where the apparent effect is virtually nil.

    Scientists have discovered the possibility of sending particles back in time by virtue of some mechanical construct. However, the particles can only go back in time as long as the machine was activated in contiguous temporality. But this plays on some characteristics of quantum mechanics that are not necessarily analogous to large-scale physics.

    All this aside, all things are possible with God. Inasmuch as the physical world is a manifestation of spiritual truth, God can break the laws of physics (and even bivalent logic) if he desires in order to accomplish his purposes.