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The Time Frontier

SP Hofrichter examines the differing conceptions of time found in science fiction works as varied as Doctor Who and Groundhog Day.

The View from the C-Series: Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life"

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If I were to say to you that the extinction of feudalism led to the pandemic of the Bubonic Plague, you would tell me that I was wrong and that I had gotten my facts backward: the outbreak of the Plague led to the eventual extinction of feudalism and the invention of a middle class. You would, of course, be correct, assuming we exist in a universe where only the A-series and the B-series are valid perceptions of events in Time.
However, McTaggart, who coined the terms A-series and B-series in his essay “The Unreality of Time” also briefly mentioned the C-series. He described it thus:

But this other series – let us call it the C series – is not temporal, for it involves no change, but only an order. Events have an order. They are, let us say, in the order M, N, O, P. And they are therefore not in the order M, O, N, P, or O, N, M, P, or in any other possible order… And the C series, while it determines the order, does not determine the direction. (461-2)

If I were to attempt to put his ideas graphically, it might look like this:
Past___M___N___O___P___Future (A-series)
Earlier___M___N___O___P___Later (B-series)
___M___N___O___P___ (C-series)
___P___O___N___M___ (Also C-series)
In other words, while both the A-series and the B-series rely on previous events and their effects on later events, the C-series is under no such constraints. In a C-series understanding of the universe, World War I and World War II are related, but neither was the cause nor effect of the other. They simply exist in an order; things like “before” and “after” depend on which side of the event line you are looking from.
Great, you say. But that doesn’t really matter, because in the real world, cause leads to effect. The C-series is an interesting thought experiment, but has no bearing on reality.
The C-series makes a case for humans imposing a timeline, a sense of cause and effect on an otherwise random set of events. Consider this scenario: Someone asks you to recall a very specific Christmas, say the one when you were twelve years old. You go back and think. When you were twelve, you loved Transformers. Your Grandma Monica always gave you a framed poster of your favourite movies for Christmas, but that year, for some reason, Grandma Monica wasn’t at your family’s Christmas party. You remember that, sometime in your early adolescence, your Grandma Monica died in a car accident. You assume that her absence means that she had died before that Christmas occurred, when, in fact, she’d decided on a whim to go on a cruise with her new boyfriend that year. Her death wouldn’t occur until the following February. Grandma Monica’s absence caused a great deal of scandal amongst your aunts and uncles, but you don’t remember that; you have created a series of causes and effects that make sense to you: Grandma Monica always gave you a poster for Christmas; Grandma Monica was not there for that Christmas; Grandma Monica died around that time in your life; Grandma Monica must have been dead for that Christmas.
This holds true with what psychologists have discovered about human memory – that when we pull a memory file to examine, we recreate it from scratch. Every time we try to recall something, we are creating a copy of a copy of the original event. As anyone who has ever tried to make copies of copies of paperwork can tell you, after a certain number of iterations, the copy is completely illegible and nothing like the original.
In fact, psychologists use this fact to help people who suffer from PTSD. By having their patients recall a traumatic memory while in an opposite emotional state, the psychologists are able to recalibrate the neurons associated with that memory, turning the memory from traumatic to manageable. The original event hasn’t changed—only the patient’s experience and memory of it.
Later, you go and ask your mother when your Grandma Monica died. She verifies that Grandma Monica died two months after your twelfth Christmas. She reminds you of Grandma Monica’s boyfriend at the time. You remember, now, your pre-adolescent confusion about Grandma Monica’s absence; you remember the tension around the dinner table. You remember that the following Valentine’s Day was a somber event, because of the car accident.
The C-series is a difficult concept to grasp initially, because we rely so heavily on cause → effect. Sometimes, the best way to understand a difficult concept is to apply it to an enjoyable medium, such as fiction. Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, upon which the film The Arrival was based, is one of the best examples of the C-series idea in science fiction literature. Linguistics! Physics! Aliens! Philosophy of Time! This story has everything science fiction could possibly need, without becoming overwhelming.
The story follows a linguist who has been called upon to interact with an alien species that has landed on Earth. She spends months and months learning how to communicate with them, learning their language and writing system, to the point that she is able to think in their language. It affects the way she understands the universe, leading to beautiful sentences like this:

I remember when you’ll be a month old, and I’ll stumble out of bed to give you your 2:00 am feeding.

After spending many months interacting with an alien species who fails to see the universe as a system of causes and effects, the narrator begins to remember things that have yet to occur. Whereas humans believe that M → N → O, the aliens determine O and extrapolate N → M. No cause or effect, simply an order. A true C-series explanation.
So did the Bubonic Plague lead to the death of feudalism and the birth of the middle class? Did it occur the other way around? Or did both events happen concurrently and historians simply decided that one must have affected the other?
Did Grandma Monica die before your twelfth Christmas, or your thirteenth?
In either case, it doesn’t matter. The Bubonic Plague hit England in 1348, and continued to ravage the island until the 17th century, well after the establishment of a middle class. The last Christmas you got to see Grandma Monica was when you were eleven. She never came to Christmas again. The reason why is irrelevant.
The brilliance of the C-series lies in its focus on how we interpret distant facts and memories. When faced with a set of discrete facts, the human mind goes and puts them in an A-series or B-series order. The C-series proves that humans thrive as long as we can understand Time as a linear progression of cause and effect, this leading to that.
It shows us that, while we cannot always separate cause from effect, we can impose them as needed to keep a steady understanding of the universe. And that’s a pretty neat trick.

The Time Traveller’s Perspective

In my last article about the Doctor Who universe, I asked the question “What is the point of Time Travel in an Eternalist universe where nothing can be changed because everything has already happened?” I wanted to briefly discuss one possible answer.
I mentioned in that article that the only way the Weeping Angels could have evolved is if they inhabited an inherently Eternalist universe, in which every point in time is a “fixed point in Time” – Past, Present, and Future – and thus, changing any event creates a timeline instability that the Angels feed upon. In such a universe, the Doctor serves as the Moving Spotlight, showing the Present to his companions (and thus the audience) as it is occurring; no matter what Time it is outside the TARDIS, the Doctor is the Present.
But if the Doctor is an Eternalist – if he understands that all points in Time are fixed and immutable – then why does he get upset about choices he’s made, such as destroying Gallifrey or allowing Davros to live? Choices which, according to the Eternalist framework under which he supposedly operates, were fixed and immutable by the time he had the opportunity to make them?
The answer, I think, lies in how the Doctor serves the narrative of the show. He doesn’t just act as the Moving Spotlight for his companions and the audience; no, he is a Moving Spotlight for his own Timeline. Within his Eternalist universe, the Doctor is an Egocentric Presentist.
Presentism is the logical opposite of Eternalism. Where Eternalism states that every moment in Time is real because it has already occurred, Presentism holds that only this exact moment right here is real, and everything else is either memory (Past) or deductive reasoning (Future). Egocentric Presentism is Presentism with a hint of Solipsistic Hedonism, however, which favours the subjective experience of Time (and, in the above linked article by Hare, avoidance of pain) over all else. It is the Philosophy of Time’s response to the Philosophy of Science’s “Perspectival Realism,” which argues that only objects that the subject witnesses are real. (Interestingly, both terms were coined by the same philosopher.)
Knowing what we do about the Doctor Who universe, we can see that having the Doctor be an Egocentric Presentist is the best answer to why Time Travel works (as a narrative technique, at least). His personal timeline is the only one that matters to the narrative and, of course, to him. He befriends his companions, helps them, and receives their help – but ultimately, he is the only character whose Past, Present, and Future are never manipulated or questioned. While, yes, this courtesy is nominally extended to some of his companions (such as when the Eleventh Doctor (played by Matt Smith) offers to return his companion to the night before her wedding so that they can go adventuring), it doesn’t fully apply. Companions will occasionally meet younger versions of themselves, or older versions of themselves; the Doctor will sometimes run into Past versions of his companions or alternate versions of his archenemy. However, with only one (thinly veiled) exception, the Doctor’s own timeline is untouchable. His timeline is the timeline around which all other story arcs, plot devices, and character development must revolve.
Which answers two questions in one go: Why does he put so much emphasis on predetermined (from the Eternalist viewpoint) tragedies? And, why does he bother Time Travelling at all?
Because, from his perspective – and from the perspective of the audience, the companions, and the universe at large – his Present is the only Real Present. Everything else is just supporting, background information.
In an Eternalist universe, the Perspectival Realist is king.

Wibbly-Wobbly Stuff: Doctor Who and the Case for Eternalism

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One of the most iconic episodes in the recent Doctor Who reboot is season 3’s “Blink.” In this episode, the Doctor and his companion, Martha, are the supporting characters, trying to assist one-off character Sally Sparrow, even though they are trapped 38 years in Sally’s past. The complicating factor here is the Weeping Angels, a race of quantum-locked villains (they don’t exist when they’re being observed), which this episode introduces into the series.
Leaving physics aside for a moment, this episode asks a whole (angelic?) host of questions regarding how Time actually works in the Doctor Who universe. Between the Doctor’s unusual role as Cassandra when dictating to Billy the exact moment of his death, and the culinary preferences of the Weeping Angels, this episode seems to make the argument that all events in Time are inherently immutable – they are all “fixed points in Time.” Which, as any fan knows, flies in the face of the argument made by many Doctors in the last twelve years.
Let’s start with the most famous line from the episode:

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a nonlinear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.

Here, the Doctor has put on his Philosophy Professor hat and is trying to educate his hapless helpers via a cleverly-timed one-sided video conversation. But what he is saying is nonsense, isn’t it?

  • A strict progression of cause to effect. Although his main thesis is that Time is not linear, everything he does in the episode relies on the intimate relationship between cause and effect. He manipulates things such that the end result – the desired “effect” – is caused by, well, something he caused. If cause and effect really were not related, as he posits, then he would be stuck forever in 1969, because nothing would affect anything in any meaningful way.
  • Nonlinear, non-subjective viewpoint. We are never told whose viewpoint this is, but it doesn’t matter anyway because this statement is absolute nonsense. A point of view requires a subject to hold it. Viewpoints are, by their very nature, subjective.
  • Big ball of wibbly-wobbly, Timey-wimey stuff. With this line, one might imagine a tangled skein of yarn, or a bowl of spaghetti. He is claiming that Time does not exist in a line, but rather, Time is a scattershot of events that humans sort of force into a line in order to keep from going mad. Which is a nice thought that builds on the ‘nonlinear, non-subjective’ argument, except that even he doesn’t buy it.

Okay, so now that we’ve set up the science fiction, let’s look at the philosophy aspect.
In Philosophy of Time, there exist two major theories of how Time is experienced, and proponents of each theory tend to be adamant that their theory is the correct theory. These theories are cleverly called “A Series” and “B Series.” The A Series assumes that the way humans experience Time is constantly changing: along a timeline, there exist events M, N, O, and P. At any given moment, N will be the Present, which means M is in the Past and O is in the Future. But the next moment, O will be the Present, and so on. The A Series explains our experience of time as “Past, Present, and Future,” which means it is mutable.
The B Series, on the other hand, says that Time is immutable and fixed: along that same timeline, M is earlier than N, O is later than N. Because the B Series states the experience of Time is a series of relationships (earlier vs later), they will never change. Put another way, Queen Elizabeth I’s birth will always antedate Sir Isaac Newton’s, the same way 1901 will always come before 2001. (There are several assumptions here that I will not be unpacking because if I tried, we would never, ever get back to Doctor Who.)
Now, what McTaggart asserts in his 1908 essay “The Unreality of Time” (linked above) is that humans use both the A Series and the B Series when experiencing and describing Time. However, the two Series are mutually exclusive – Time cannot be both constantly changing and permanently immutable. Because Aristotle determined that Time is a measurement of Change, the A Series is a given. Which means that if the B Series is also legitimate, then Time cannot be real.
One popular idea that accompanied the B Series in the early 20th century was that of the Moving Spotlight, which was a subset of the theory of Eternalism. Eternalism states that all points in Time are equally valid, because everything that has happened or ever will happen is already on the metaphorical timeline. It is the opposite of the A Series’ Presentism, which states that the only Reality is the immediately Present moment. The Moving Spotlight Theory, which fell out of favour amongst Philosophers of Time in the later 20th century, argues for a preferential perspective (arguably the Present), which happens to “light up” the already pre-existing events on the timeline – like a roving police spotlight.
Several times in the episode, the Doctor plays the role of Cassandra – Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam who was cursed by Apollo to always prophesy the truth and never be believed, because her prophecies were horrible. She was very popular at parties. The Doctor channels this seeress when he tells Billy that he will meet Sally Sparrow again on the day that he dies. He goes one step further, and mentions that he, Billy, won’t pass until “the rain stops.” Similarly, at the climax of the episode, Sally and her friend, Larry, are having a “conversation” with the Doctor, via pre-recorded one-sided speeches on an unlikely collection of DVDs. Larry begins to transcribe Sally’s half of the conversation, leading to a transcript that looks like a genuine back-and-forth talk.
At this point, Sally asks, “How can you have a copy of the transcript? It’s still being written!”
And the Doctor replies: “I’m a Time Traveller. I got it from the future.”
Later, after everything is resolved, Sally sees the Doctor and Martha in the flesh, and runs out to greet them. Sally is a bit put out when they don’t recognise her, and we, as the audience, can understand why: She’s just been through some very unpleasant events, including the death of her best friend; she nearly died helping the Doctor and Martha; and she had a pretty huge violation of privacy in the course of events – the unlikely collection of DVDs on which the one-sided conversations were recorded were the only seventeen DVDs Sally Sparrow owned. After all that, these people dare to pretend that they don’t know who she is?
The Doctor pauses and explains: “Things don’t always happen to me in the right order.”
And Sally realises that she is the initial vector for the information for the rest of the episode, hands over everything she’s collected, and goes off to start a relationship with Larry.
So, what are we seeing in this episode?

  1. We are seeing an episode that assumes Eternalism. As opposed to the entire second half of season 7, where some version of the companion Clara Oswald appears, helps the Doctor, and dies, only to reappear again – and each instance is, for her, the only instance of living – what “Blink” shows is a universe where everything that will happen has already happened, and the Doctor is playing the role of the Spotlight, shining light on events as they occur. Wherever the Doctor is is “the Present.”
  2. We are seeing evidence of a universe that assumes Time is linear. Despite the Doctor’s insistence that Time is actually a big ball of wibbly-wobbly Timey-wimey stuff, the way he lives his lives is with a Past, a Present, and a Future – along a line, in other words. His explanation to Sally further assumes a linear progression – “Things don’t always happen to me in the right order” – and from the way he seems to believe those events are permanently placed (whether they occur in the “right order” or not), we can assume that he is a B-Theorist, where N happens before O but after M, no matter what.
  3. We are also getting a hint at the power of historiography. Historiography is the writing of history – specifically, the study of written history. If that written history is inaccurate – or worse, is outright propaganda – then how will that affect future students who rely on these texts as factual sources of information? What if Larry had mis-transcribed something Sally said to the Doctor? What if he’d gotten bored, or his mind had begun to wander? What if Sally, typing up the conversation six months later, had misread something that Larry had written? How would that have affected the conversation that ultimately saved the Doctor, Martha, Larry, and Sally? We can’t assume that Sally has perfect recall, because psychologically speaking, no one does. Not even the Doctor. What if Sally’s best friend, Kathy, had misremembered the date or time of her encounter with the Weeping Angel? It had been sixty years, after all. In short, this episode requires good faith actions on the parts of everyone involved, and it has zero wiggle-room for clerical errors. And as anyone who has ever studied medieval manuscripts can tell you, clerical errors are the norm.

What about the Weeping Angels themselves? The Doctor tells us that they are “the only psychopaths to kill you nicely. No muss, no fuss, just zap you into the past and let you live to death.” They are a race of quantum-locked beings who can’t exist if they’re being observed. They survive by sending their victims into the past, and feeding on the victim’s “lost potential” in their erstwhile Present – which means a Time Machine like the TARDIS would be an all-you-can-eat buffet for them.
We see here that the existence of an Eternalist universe is the only way the Weeping Angels could have evolved. By thrusting their victims into a Past that they would have never otherwise inhabited, the Weeping Angels feed on the resulting chaos of an adulterated timeline. And if they thrive on that instability and that chaos, that means that there is already a set, dictated series of events that were meant to happen. “Fixed points in Time,” then, don’t just apply to Big Events, like the 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius or the nuclear explosion on Mars after the discovery of water there; every single person, place, and thing is a fixed point, that is supposed to have been there.
Which makes one wonder: if the Doctor has this understanding of Time, then why does he spend so much energy wringing his hands over silly things like allowing Davros to live or destroying Gallifrey? Those events, like literally everything else, were fixed on the timeline by some unknowable “objective observer” and could therefore never be manipulated or avoided.
What is the point of Time Travel in an Eternalist universe where nothing can be changed because everything has already happened?

Time: The Final Frontier

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Time is one element that exists in every story we read, watch, or hear. It is so ubiquitous that we fail to notice its existence, unless the narrative forces us to focus on it. But what about assumptions we make about the nature of Time itself? Assumptions like:

  • Time is linear. We even have a compound word in common usage to reflect this assumption: timeline. The past is irretrievable, the future is unknowable, and once the present has passed, we will never revisit that moment again.
  • Time is uni-directional. Queen Elizabeth I was born a century before Sir Isaac Newton, and there is no way that the opposite will ever be true.
  • Time is a constant. Much the same way a kilogram is a kilogram (or 2.205 pounds), and much the same way a mile is a mile (or 5,280 feet), an hour is an hour, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity aside. If an event happens at 10:01pm and lasts for 60 seconds, then its very measurability makes it a fact.
  • Effects have causes. The widespread famine in Iceland in the 18th century was caused by the 1783 Laki eruption. Plants died from sulphuric acid rains and animals died from skeletal fluorosis after the eruption released these chemicals, not before. (See also: Time is uni-directional).

These are things we simply assume to be true of Time, until a story tells us otherwise. Doctor Who famously describes Time as not linear, but rather ‘a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff.’ Interstellar forces its audience to acknowledge that Time is not a constant, and that how quickly it passes can vary between two different points in space. The book series Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, argues that cause and effect are immutable forces of nature, which not even a Time Traveller can affect. The Hugo Award-winning novel Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, has an entire plotline surrounding a little girl who suffers Merlin’s Disease – that is, every day, she grows younger, moving closer to the day she no longer exists because she has not yet been born.
Of course, every work of fiction has a different take on and different rules for how Time works. Both Doctor Who and Outlander star Time Travellers, but the Doctor can bounce around Time at will while Claire can only go between two points: her past-present and her future-present, both of which march forward at the same rate. Both Doctor Strange and Phil Connors (Groundhog Day) get caught in Time loops, but the former can control his loop while the latter has to find a way to escape his. The Terminator’s sole purpose is to go back and eliminate a threat – changing the past to affect the future – while the hapless Sandy and Dennys Murry from Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters essentially float on the surface of events in antediluvian Israel, lacking any real power to change them.
Still other works consider aspects of Time and Time Travel not normally analysed. In Connie Willis’s award-winning Doomsday Book, a PhD candidate from 21st century Oxford spends several years learning Anglo-Saxon, Old French, and Middle English, as she prepares to jump back to the year 1320, only to arrive, incapable of understanding the spoken language at all. James SA Corey’s recent space opera series, The Expanse, considers the difficulties of having space battles when communication between the warships and the Command Headquarters can only travel at the speed of light – the difficulties, in other words, of reality happening at different speeds for the soldiers in the heat of battle and their commanders fifteen light-minutes away.
So what is the purpose of this column? To look at works of science fiction and determine how Time plays a role in them. What assumptions does the audience make? What assumptions do the writers manipulate? What difficulties arise from looking at Time in this universe in this way? How do Time Travellers, like the Doctor and his companions, determine what is Past or Future? What is their go-to starting point? How does memory function for them, if Time is neither constant, nor linear? What language barriers would they run up against in trying to verbalise those memories?
What about disease vectors? Travelling backwards in Time would be arguably safer, since humans today are the by-product of thousands of years of surviving plagues and developing immunities to fairly toxic elements. But what about travelling into the Future, where bacteria and viruses may have evolved a hundred times beyond what the Traveller’s immune system has experienced?
How can one define ‘simultaneity’ in deep space? What are the deeper implications of some films focusing on a preferential experience of Time (such as Groundhog Day, where everyone has to relive the same day repeatedly until Phil Connors figures out how to escape)? How does the recording of a past event (in text or video form, for example) affect the memory of that event and the language surrounding it going forward? What happens if that text or video becomes corrupted, or mistranslated? How does that change the memory, understanding, and discussion of the original event?
Each article in this column will look at some work of science fiction – whether a television show, a book, a graphic novel, or a film – and analyse it for its use (and possible abuse) of Time. We will look at how Time is described, how it is experienced (by both the audience and the protagonist), what rules have been put in place, and how it compares to what we normally assume when we think of ‘Time’ as an entity.
Hopefully, this column will encourage conversations and (friendly) debates, and I am always happy to discuss different interpretations of various works. Most of my philosophical enquiry will be informed by JME McTaggart’s 1908 essay ‘The Unreality of Time’, but this will likely evolve as time goes on.
Or doesn’t.
That’s part of the debate, isn’t it?