J.K. Rowling's philosophy of time

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This entry will spoil one of the major plot elements of the new Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban (and I assume the book too, though I haven't read it), so don't read any further if you don't want to ruin it. It might also ruin my favorite episode of Andromeda and one of the most interesting elements of Babylon 5, but you can avoid that by skipping the last part (when I address other movies and TV shows) if you just want to read what I have to say about Harry Potter and the philosophy of time involved.

The major plot device of the film is a time travel sequence that took what seemed to me to be about the last half hour. Harry and Hermione traveled back to an early point in the story and went through a number of events that had happened earlier. J.K. Rowling shows that she understands the metaphysics of time far better than most science fiction authors, since the result is a completely consistent story with all the loose ends tied up at the end. Everything Harry and Hermione do had already happened, and you can rewatch the movie and see how it all fits with everything we'd seen before. You didn't know what was really going on the first time, but nothing changed. We just saw it from a different perspective, and there were two Harrys and Hermiones during that segment of time.

The main issue here is that the past already happened and can't be changed. If you're changing it, it's not the past that you're changing. What you're doing is creating (or just going to) an alternate past of another timeline. In other words, you're simply doing what they did in Sliders but moving to an earlier time as well. That's not time travel. With real time travel, what would happen is that you would go back and fulfill what you already did (but that the earlier version of you may not have known it happened or may not have known it was you doing it, which was one of the key features of the Harry Potter story). It's already true that it happened once you begin your trip back. It's just that you haven't done it yet in your own personal timeline.

My primary premise here is that you can't change the past any more than you can change the future, but you can't change the future. You can cause things to happen in the future, but that doesn't change it. It brings it about. It's not as if the future, which hasn't happened yet, was one way, and then you did something to change it. You can also cause things to happen in the past (if time travel is possible or if God, who knows the future, responds to your prayer for something to have happened in the past that you don't yet know about and causes something to happen in the past). Causing something to happen in the past doesn't change the past. It brings it about, just as causing something in the future brings it about.

I've only seen a few other cases where this is done right. One was Terry Gilliam's (of Monty Python fame) Twelve Monkeys. Gilliam and co. played up most of the interesting aspects of the correct metaphysics of time, but saying anything else would seriously ruin the story. Babylon 5, of course, had the famous time travel story that spanned three seasons. In the second half of the third season, some characters went back to the events of a first season episode, and we saw the other side of what seemed really strange at the time. Then one major character realized he was a major figure in the history of one of the civilizations in the story from 1000 years back, and he went back in time to fulifll his destiny and become the legend he (and we) had been hearing about for years. When Andromeda was still under the helm of Robert Hewitt Wolfe before the idiots who own the show fired him and destroyed it completely, they had one absolutely brilliant time travel story in which they go back to Dylan's time and fulfill the past that Tyr had remembered from his childhood by destroying most of the Nietzschean fleet, and they had another that was also consistent, I think. There was a fun one later on that still was all wrong, and they've done some pretty dumb things with time in later seasons also. Stargate SG-1 had one episode that did it absolutely right, and then they ruined it with a followup that made no sense metaphysically speaking (but was still a great episode). I'm pretty sure both Bill and Ted movies turned out ok. Isn't it great that those are in the group that did it right?

To this date, the only Star Trek story that I know of (and I've seen most of what they've put forth) that gets the metaphysics right is Star Trek IV. Well over half of the other time travel stories (and there are many) are really fun, but Star Trek writers tend to be metaphysically incompetent when it comes to time travel. Some of their other stories have some great philosophical stuff, but not these. The X-Files only tried it once and failed miserably. The same is true of Farscape. The first four Planet of the Apes movies were fine, but the fifth, I think, led to trouble, depending on how you take the very end. The reworking with Marky Mark seemed to me to be fine until the end, which I still can't make any sense of on any theory of time. I think the first Terminator movie might be ok, but the second and third failed miserably in terms of their metaphysics.

Back to the Future is just awful, and the second and third movies are even worse (though very, very fun). Timecop is similar. At least Quantum Leap didn't contradict itself all the time or leave all sorts of things unexplained, though the main premise has problems. Depending on your interpretation of how things worked, Minority Report was either totally awful (if it involves libertarian freedom and changing the future, which is impossible) or excellent on almost everything (if it involves a fixed future that the precogs are fallible in predicting) except with one time loop with no explanation for why it should be there (a common problem in Star Trek). The latter interpretation is less common, but I prefer it.

Feel free to challenge me on any of these claims or to seek clarification on my reasons for evaluating them this way. I'm just recording my conclusions at this point.

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At my blog Parablemania, I registered my endorsement of the "time travel on a fixed timeline" view (which assumes eternalism), and my co-blogger Wink followed up by raising the question of unexplained causal loops (which are internally explained, but n... Read More


I'm curious to know what you think about the final episode of Stak Trek: TNG, "All Good Things", where Picard goes back and forth across three time periods. He finds an anomaly that is larger in the past and discovers that it was caused in the future by himself. My favorite TNG episode.

It was definitely a fun episode, but it's not one of my more favorite Star Trek time travel stories for some reason. DS9 and Enterprise have had my most favorites.

I didn't get the sense that he was going into the real future or past but just one that Q had concocted as a test, but maybe they meant it as real time travel. That's never clear with Q. The Borg were real, but what he did in the first episode seemed to be illusion representing the Q council.

I think the biggest problem in All Good Things would be that somehow what Picard does in a future that gets averted (and thus never happens) causes something in the present. But then it never happens, so how could it have caused something in the present? That kind of unexplained effect is common in Star Trek. How can something that never will happen cause something?

Some discussion is now going on at my OrangePhilosophy link to this post and to Wink's followup, so I figured I should link to that discussion.

I haven't seen the new Potter movie yet but I'm happy to hear your analysis. I agree with you - in fact, I have a very rough draft of a talk tentatively titled "Time Travel for Screenwriters - Stop Screwing Up!" where I express the same view. (It's fun to brainstorm what good time travel plots would look like. Too often, it's used as a ploy to "undo" some dramatic Star Trek event so that they don't have to start the next week with a blown-up Enterprise. I hate "erasure" time travel plots!) My favorite academic paper on this is actually posted online: http://www.vuw.ac.nz/phil/njjs/bett.pdf

You might know it.

I'm not familiar with that paper. It looks interesting, but it must be good if it beats Lewis.

Anyone and everyone inteested in a hard core dose of time travel philosophy should see Donnie Darko.

What you said was really cool. My sister and I have talked about that Harry Potter sequence a lot. It's so trippy, but if you reason for long enough, it all makes sense. About the new Planet of the Apes, have you thought any more about that, I have been very confused ever since I watched it? I didn't understand at all how he got to Earth, because when Mark left, he was stuck in the ship thing. It just doesn't make any sense.

The director claims it makes sense. He says you just have to think about it, and you'll see that it does. It just shows that he didn't make it clear enough that some very smart people can't figure out what he could possibly be talking about. I haven't encountered anyone who understood what he was getting at. I was convinced for days afterward that he did something deliberately so as not to make sense, but he claims otherwise.

Star Trek did get it (kinda) right in Time's Arrow, a two-part season spanner mostly centering on Data. What they got right was Guinan. At the beginning of the eposide, she tells Picard that if doesn't go on this mission that they'll never meet, and at the end of the episode, she makes mention to Picard that this encounter in post-gold-rush California is actually what prompted her to join the crew of the Enterprise.

Beyond that, I think you're right: they screw it up all the time. The scenario for All Good Things was akin to the final episode of Voyager in which Janeway had to come back in time to persuade her past self to go through the Borg's super-warp conduits to get home. There was some sort of inverted shadow echo thing where they saw their ship deeper in the anomaly when they hadn't been there yet. Then later, when they were there, (interesting "here/now" concepts based on your Omniscience and Time posting) the saw themselves as they were before, which implied that there was a "time feedback loop" or something. Very strange.

I think everything in Time's Arrow was fine. That may be their best time travel episode. The most recent film is also all right on that front (even though it was a stupid story), because it does alt-reality travel rather than travel within one timeline, so the timeline they cause differences in always had those differences. It's not a changing of the past. From what I remember, Past Tense from DS9 was also fine if you assume there was never a change and Sisko was always the guy he impersonated.

There was a first-season Voyager episode that illustrates everything that's wrong with how they do time travel in Star Trek. It was called Time and Again. Not a bit of the episode ended up happening except a few minutes at the very beginning and end. All of the bits that didn't happen were totally internally-caused, such that they wouldn't have happened if they hadn't happened. But we watched them all happen anyway, and then we watched them cause further things that undid them, and none of it would have happened apart from the story that didn't happen, so why was it on the screen to begin with? At least with Year of Hell, there were independent events causing the timelines that didn't occur before Voyager even arrived. The metaphysical picture still makes no sense, but at least it made sense as a narrative. Time and Again was just dumb.

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