On Time Travel

A thought experiment. A time machine appears in your living room. A steam punk version, complete with flashing lights and polished metal. A cylinder with a chair inside and a cavalcade of buttons and knobs. You can sit in it, enter any date throughout all time, and it will rather quickly take you there.

What do you do?

It’s a tough question. My first inclination is to travel back to some important historical event – maybe Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Kennedy assassination. These are significant events in the history of mankind that any wise time traveler would of course want to witness in person. However, my mind wanders…

Historical events are interesting, but I don’t have any personal connection to them. Visiting them will satisfy my intellectual curiosity, but won’t hit me at a deeper level. Yet, what if I could travel into my own past? What if I could visit places that don’t exist anymore, people as they were when I was young, even people that have since passed away? The thought of that is very alluring.

However, time traveling into one’s own past raises a multitude of issues. One of the biggest problems is your past self will be there; if you go back to your own childhood, there will the younger version of yourself hanging about. He will be there at the very moments you want to visit, the one’s that affected you so deeply. How can you sustain having two separate versions of yourself? What would you say to him? Would you merely hide from him in the background and observe the past or would you interact?

Even if you went to visit people when your past self wasn’t around, how would you explain your future self? You would be this strange older version of the person they know. Maybe you could explain you are a time traveler and people would accept that, but maybe not. Your future self would be too much of a shock for most to handle in any rational way. Most likely you’d end up being arrested or placed in some type of mental institution.

Maybe if technology advanced to the point a person could transfer their consciousness into another person, then you could transfer your mind into your past self’s physical body. That is what most would really want, not just a simple time machine, but a way to literally become one’s past self again. You could then right all the wrongs that occurred, fix your mistakes, do things right this time. But maybe that would never work, and things would turn into some horrible Pottersville like nightmare.1

All this also ignores the countless time travel paradoxes that could occur. Changing even an atom in the past could have untold consequences on the future, even making your future self cease to exist (a la Marty McFly at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance). You might even change things to such an extent that you destroy the very fabric of space and time, causing the universe to simply cease to exist. That would not be an ideal situation for a time traveler.

So, in light of all that, should one ever time travel into one’s own past?

Maybe not, maybe the consequences are too severe and the way it would unfold would never be as one imagined. One’s past is one’s past, and will always be one’s past. There is no changing that, and the addition of a time machine would only destroy that past and create something new, something that would have no relation to the memories everyone keeps with them.

1. Also, would basically destroying your past self’s consciousness by replacing it with your future self be some form of murder?