Month: June 2020

On Time Travel

Someone on Quora asked, “If time travel were possible, is it recommended to meet the “past self” (or the “future self”) or can this cause some kind of a paradox?” Here’s my answer, which gets into the possibility of time travel in general.

Any amount of interaction with the past on the same timeline would eventually, per the butterfly effect if nothing else, either slightly or substantially change the state you were in when you traveled back into the past, which would change your effect on the past, which would slightly or substantially change the state you were in when you went back into the past, etc. etc., causing a paradox.

Nature wouldn’t have an arbitrary threshold by which it says, “ok, if you change your past self more than THIS much, I’ll cause a paradox.” There would always be a paradox. And paradoxes don’t exist in nature, of course, only in thought experiments (otherwise the entire universe would disappear in a puff of ex contradictione quodlibet, or in a puff of logic as Douglas Adams would say).

If you really could change the past, which changes your state when you go into the past, which changes the past, which changes your state when you go into the past, which changes the past, etc., the timeline itself would change an infinite number of times, and at what rate? Infinity times per second?

And time as we know it is (whether in actuality or just in our models—either way) progression along a timeline.. so to change the timeline itself would imply a second dimension to (otherwise linear) time that we know nothing about and have never detected. And if there’s a second dimension to time, it should be there under all circumstances, not just when somebody decides to travel back in time on their own timeline..

(Not that I’m saying the existence of a second dimension to time would make time travel into the past on your own timeline possible.. it would still be the case that, because the change would be in an endless loop, the timeline would have to change an infinite number of times (in other words, it would never stop changing, as infinity is by definition never reached), before the conclusion of what happened as a result of you going back into the past is resolved.)

So, this leaves two possible options for traveling back in time:

  1. When you travel back in time, you actually travel to an alternate timeline, i.e. a parallel universe, whose present corresponds to your past.

    (It couldn’t be that its present corresponds to your present but you actually travel backward to its past, because then if there’s any interaction at all between that universe and ours, including but not limited to that of multiple time travelers traveling between them, then a causal paradox would arise as described above.

    It can’t be that the two universes have no temporal relationship to each other either, because then either (a) you’d never be able to get to it, or (b) you could pick any point of time to travel to within the other timeline that you want and likewise a traveler from there to here could pick any point on this timeline they want, so again, causal paradoxes would arise.)
  2. Any effect you have while traveling backward in time on the same timeline actually fulfills the past rather than changes it. This possibility seems unlikely to me, since it would put obvious restrictions on what you’re able to do when you’re in the past, such as killing your past self. And how would those restrictions be put into place? What would stop you from doing such a thing? Serendipity? Who would orchestrate such serendipity?

While either of those two modes of time travel may be possible, in neither case does it matter at all how you interact with yourself: in the first case because it’s not on the same timeline so it won’t affect the same you that went back into the past, and in the second case because any way you can possibly affect yourself will actually fulfill the past rather than change it.

So, my conclusion is that either (a) time travel is categorically impossible, or (b) you can travel in time, but there’s no possibility of causing a paradox so it doesn’t matter what you do.

One thing I didn’t go into in my Quora post is the possibility that the progression of time is not a strict mechanical phenomenon that can be understood, or in-principle simulated, from the bottom up, but rather a kind of abstract, dynamic weave or tapestry that’s self-healing and can efficiently absorb small paradoxes, but can be significantly disturbed by more stark paradoxes causing causal rifts of some kind.

To give a sense of this time-weave’s dynamicism / organicalness, one thing I’ve read about it is that it can be locally, temporarily sped up to force an issue and predict the future but without 100% accuracy / probability of accuracy.

It seems that this view of time’s progression would be especially compatible with a brain- or mind-like model of the universe. I make a rational argument for idealism (as in the metaphysical philosophy) here.

In addition, I’ve had many experiences that seemed to indicate a mental or psychological characteristic to reality. For example, I was once working on a short Python program that had a bug. I identified the bug and fixed it, but the program still wouldn’t work right. So, I only added some print statements strictly for the purpose of debugging / proving to myself that the program should work correctly, and then it worked. Then I took out the debugging statements so that I had the same program again that I had before I added the debug statements that wasn’t working, and it still worked. I believe software engineers weren’t kidding (except inasmuch as they refuse to believe their own experiences because they violate the modern mechanistic story we tell ourselves about the universe) when they coined the term “Schrodinbug” (defined here).

What Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

There are three possible ways to answer this.

  1. In the evolutionary lineage of chickens, there is, of course, a continuum of forms of chickens and chicken egg, ranging seamlessly from non-chickens to chickens. Where you conceptually draw the line between “chicken” and “non-chicken” or “chicken egg and “non-chicken egg” in that lineage is obviously arbitrary, but wherever you draw it, if you draw the line on the basis of DNA patterns (as you probably should, as DNA is the blueprint of an organism, determining its every aspect, and it offers a convenient, linear and discrete way to make objective lineal differentiations down to the most minute detail), the first entity to have that DNA pattern would have to be an egg, not a chicken, since the DNA only mutates and recombines from one generation to the next during the creation of the zygote, or egg.

    Or you could say that it’s impossible, or ad hoc/arbitrary at best, to make such a precise definition of chicken or chicken egg that you can delineate exactly where in the evolutionary lineage one entity was a chicken or chicken egg while its progeny wasn’t; but even then, perhaps you can say that, because if you did have a definition that precise then the chicken egg would necessarily come first, it logically follows that the chicken egg must have come first, or at least that the egg is the one that came first insofar as there is any logical answer to the question.
  2. One thing people don’t seem to think of when considering this classic question is that, at least the way it’s worded, it doesn’t actually specify that the egg in question is a chicken egg; it gives a choice between “the chicken” and “the egg.” Eggs are much more general concept than chicken eggs specifically (e.g., even lizards have eggs), and whatever species the chicken evolved from obviously must have laid eggs, therefore the egg came first.
  3. You eat eggs for breakfast and chicken for dinner, therefore eggs come first.

So, as you can see, the egg comes first in all possible ways of looking at it. =P

My Answer to the Quora Question, “Can we rationalize everything?”

The mind has many faculties of perception, intuition, and so on that are beyond the faculty of rationalization or reason. Reasoning is very limited; it only relies on facts that are obvious enough to be known to the analytical mind, as opposed to facets of a situation that are known only liminally, and it cannot “process” or work in a holistic manner. Consider the fact that artificial neural networks, a type of computer artificial intelligence, don’t work via a process of rationalization at all and yet are able to identify patterns with amazing success, and they are modeled after biological brains. And that’s to say nothing of the possibility that mind and its intuition and such come from more sources than just the neurological! (That’s a whole other subject, though. See Richard A. Nichols III’s answer to Is there a relationship between heart transplantation and recipient*s emotions and personality?)

Either way, just try completely rationalizing your emotional interactions with other humans.. you’ll come to a dead end fast!

The other factor to consider is that the universe is not necessarily completely mechanistic or otherwise straightforwardly comprehensible as rationalization would require. Nature is probably way too amazing, mysterious, enigmatic, magical and ineffable to fit into the box that analytical reasoning would like to put it in.

Why? Because for any frame of mechanism or causality you can put it in, that frame is probably open-ended and connected to higher, more meta frames (or potentially imaginable frames/models) because there’s no principle that would limit it. The universe is like an onion with unlimited layers to peel away to get to the center, just like the answering question of why some facet of physics operates the way it does can only lead to more questions, and asking why the universe even came into existence requires answering within the context of some larger field of existence.

To illustrate the part about answering a question only leading to more questions, say you want to know why things fall to the ground instead of rise into space. You may figure out that masses attract other masses with a force proportional to their mass and inversely proportional to the square of their distance. Then the question is why does it do that? Say you answer that with relativity, combining gravitational attraction with the concept of inertia and postulating that mass-energy bends space-time around it, thus changing the “world line” or quickest inertial route from one place to another. Why does it do that? Nobody knows. Some people have attempted to reduce gravity to a side-effect of the electromagnetic force. Why does the electromagnetic force exist? Nobody knows. If somebody did know what causes it to exist, the next step could only be to ask why those things that cause it to exist are as they are.

Or let’s say we figure out why two substances when mixed together create a third, completely different substance after releasing some smoke. We may explain that with the idea of atoms and chemistry. Why are atoms made the way they are and why do they behave as they do? We could explain that with the Standard Model, but why is the standard model the way it is? Nobody knows. If somebody did know why the Standard Model is as it is, the next step could only be to ask why those things that cause it to be the way it is are as they are.

Say you want to know where the universe came from or why it exists. Well, now we have the Big Bang to explain it. But why did the Big Bang happen? We could postulate, for example, the Eternal Inflation model, or some other model of a multiverse, or maybe just some kind of proto-time and “random” quantum fluctuations that happened before the Big Bang, but why did those things exist? The questions never end.

This is all just to point out that the universe is necessarily a never-ending field of Russian dolls, and the mechanics each doll (inasmuch as they even are mechanical) contains hints or implications of the nature of its containing doll and the doll(s) it contains, etc. (Of course, even the separation of the universe into discrete layers of dolls may itself be merely arbitrary, but the principle holds either way.)

To get back to the problem of whether the universe is even mechanistic or not (which the process of rationalizing it would desperately want it to be), science (as in, popular thinking among scientists) currently assumes that it is fully mechanistic, but there is no proof of this. We assume that it is because of the extreme efficacy of mechanical models in predicting and manipulating the world; however, these predictions are only effective in limited domains.

For example, we can very little predict specifically how someone will behave (even if you can, more or less, in some circumstances), how the weather will turn out, or which way a butterfly will fly in.. you can assume that this is all just the result of atoms bouncing around in a billiard-ball sense and its unpredictability is merely 100% the result of its immeasurable and incomputable complexity, but that would be begging the question: how do you know there are not non-mechanistic aspects to their behavior?

Also, if quantum mechanics has taught us anything it’s that events are fundamentally unpredictable, things just behave with relative predictability on the macroscopic scale when particles move in aggregate. We call quantum events “truly random,” but how do we know there is not a rhyme or reason to them that simply goes beyond our ability to model it, perhaps even our ability to rationalize about it?

Also, even if the universe is ultimately modellable with rationality, we’d be unlikely to have the proper rationality, or to use rationality in the proper way, to ultimately model it. That’s because rationalization carries with it many assumptions; it carries with it a certain worldview. For example, what if Berkeley’s idealism is correct and everything is ultimately mental, i.e., all there is is conscious beings interacting with each other? (See Entangling Conscious Agents, Donald Hoffman.) What if that means there are many principles of nature that thus work more like psychology, with all its inconsistency, its open-endedness, its free will, and its regular contingency upon interpretation, than clockwork? Common rationality would abhor this.

I say a lot of “what if”s and “probably”s, but I actually have no doubt that the universe is magical and not completely mechanistic; I just wanted to help lead others’ rationalities easily to my point of view by not confronting them with positive, likely objectionable claims, and the idea that the universe may be non-mechanistic, magical, psychological, or otherwise non-modellable to some degree is sufficient to raise doubt that we may not be able to rationalize everything.

“The man who listens to reason alone is lost; reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her.” -George Bernard Shaw

“A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.” -Rabindranath Tagore

Argumentum ad Absurdum re Physical Reductionism

If the brain can give rise to consciousness, then any matter can give rise to consciousness, because for any material system, there is some frame of reference, however arbitrary and complex and twisted (and all frames of reference are ultimately arbitrary), under which the physical system appears to behave exactly as a brain does.

All it takes is a possible frame of reference, because even the frame of reference that observes a brain behaving with the dynamic that it seems to is arbitrary, unless you want to say that a conscious being has to occupy the frame of reference, but then an argument that consciousness is an emergent property of material would be an infinite regress.

That is, if you assume that our frame of reference is the one necessarily by which a conscious dynamic must operate, then you are assuming that a consciousness must exist having that reference frame of observation, and that consciousness must in turn have a consciousness that exists to validate the frame of reference by which its internal dynamics render a phenomenology, ad infinitum.

(It cannot be the consciousness in question that validates its own reference frame, because that would be to cause oneself to exist, and also we do not observe the submolecular motion involved in our own brains, so it must be another’s consciousness that validates the reference frame. (Granted, the conscious entities (humans) that make the reference frame in which conscious humans are recognized don’t observe consciousness by observing submolecular action either, but by observing the physical dynamic on a more macroscopic scale—looking at faces, etc. However, reductionist theory does not say that consciousness is made up of the dynamic of observable motor command, which is why I appeal to a dynamic of subatomic particles wrt what composes consciousness.))

Of course, one could say that, in some equally strangely arranged frame of reference, a stereo system is a can opener. And yes, this would have little meaning because the stereo system could be anything from any arbitrarily arranged frame of reference, and we, in our frame of reference, cannot possibly use it as a can opener, or garage door opener, or whatever. However, when we say that this item can (according to some reference frame) act as a brain, we are saying (when we suppose that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain) that there is a phenomenology—a self—an experiencing entity—hidden in that stereo system—actually, a countless number of phenomenologies, and they don’t need relative observers to feel, know, desire, perceive, etc. (whereas, e.g. a fork can be defined completely on a functionalistic basis).

Conclusion: either consciousness is everywhere, or consciousness is not a function of the brain.

More specifically, it would not be a function of the brain because it would not be reducible at all.

Admittedly, I don’t know what the implications would be in regard to a non-reductionistic theory of mind being a function of the brain.