Why the concept of time travel is more useful than the actual thing
Since H.G. Wells’ book The Time Machine, first published in 1895, authors, philosophers, and scientists alike have been obsessed with the notion of travelling through time. The writers are the beneficiaries; the concept has been incorporated into thousands of books in the last 100 or so years, with billions made from books centred around time travel. Not just books, but also films and TV shows such as Doctor Who. This show receives huge global attention — it is licensed to 189 countries worldwide and takes around £14 million profit per year for the BBC. Yet, the most useful arm of the time travel octopus is the philosophical, moral, and scientific thinking that can be done around it, and the things this can reveal to us about human instincts, how we should lead our lives, and our mistakes in the past.
One of the most well-known conundrums of the time travel universe (or, perhaps more fittingly, multiverse — there are theories that time travel may be possible if you travelled to a certain point in time in a different dimension and changed the course of events there) is the ‘Would you kill baby Hitler?’ or ‘Kidler’ question. In making the decision, several things must be taken into account; some subjective, some objective.
One consideration is scientific: how would your killing of Hitler affect the future? The obvious answer is that the genocide of 6 million Jews, 4 million others, and WWII wouldn’t have happened. But why then, would you have even bothered to go back and kill him? By removing Hitler, you remove your motive, and thus a loop is created. However, the loop is technically broken after your motive is removed, and so we end up with two realities merging into one dimension, which obviously can’t happen. So, have we ended up with one of the two realities? Is the second one, with no Hitler, the real one, or a simulation? Or are there now two dimensions for each of the realities? If so, did the second already exist, or was it created after your decision to alter the past? The possibilities are almost endless, if, of course, you believe that time travel is at all possible.
Clearly, the science is dubious at best, but just thinking about the mechanisms and workings of such a concept forces hard, critical thought and consideration, and is significantly enriching. So too are the philosophical questions, because these tell us about our regrets from the past, and where our moral compass currently lies. Suppose time travel with intent to change, not just observe, the past was possible, the question is often boiled down to ‘Should you kill one person to save millions of others in the future?’. It shouldn’t be. While this is the most important philosophical issue, there is another important consideration. This is about whether or not humanity needed to learn the lesson about anti-Semitism, and genocide on such a scale, in order to never commit such atrocities again. In addition, many argue that, as the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights followed the war and the Holocaust, we have had less suffering and fewer wars since WWII.
However, with regard to the earlier question that essentially pits Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism (that an action is judged by its consequences) against Emmanuel Kant’s ethics (that an action is judged by whether or not it compromises our moral duty — he wrote extensively on what this is). I must land on the side of Bentham — it is better for one person to die than millions — , but that does not change my belief that killing Hitler is a fundamentally flawed idea. And this is just one example of the huge questions that time travel can pose for us, and how this can improve our understanding of how we should act, and the morality of different actions. George Santayana said that “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, but time travel is even more powerful than simply history itself. If we don’t like something that happened in the past, then we can make sure we don’t do it again. But if we can see the positive consequences of a catastrophic event (by examining time travel conundrums), then we understand how to react to turn future atrocities into positives.
It is this that makes thinking about travelling through time more powerful a tool than actually doing it. According to all logic, time travel is impossible. Even if it were, however, the ability to change the past may be incredibly limited, and the infinite loops that could be created mean that changing something may do nothing in practice. So think not about the practicalities of time travel, but rather what we can learn from the concept itself.