Consistent Versus Inconsistent Causal Loops

Physicist Paul Davies gives a good example of a consistent causal loop in his book "How to Build a Time Machine." A mathematics professor uses a time machine to travel forward in time, where he discovers a new theorem. He returns back to the time he came from and gives one of his particularly gifted students the idea for that theorem. The student goes on to publish the theorem, and it turns out that it was this very student's work that the professor perused during his journey to the future. The narrative here is consistent.

On the other hand, with the grandfather paradox, a time traveler goes back in time and kills his grandfather. But if the time traveler's grandfather dies before the time traveler is born, how can he or she exist at all? And if the time traveler doesn't exist, how could he or she travel back in time to kill granddad?

Possibilities and Paradoxes of Time Travel

Imagine sending a time traveling astronaut 100 years into the future. The time traveler could witness technological advancements that we can only dream of today, much as people at the turn of the 20th century likely couldn't imagine the items we take for granted in 2010, such as iPods or laptop computers. The time traveler could also gain insight into medical advancements, such as new medicines, treatments and surgical techniques. If the time traveler could bring this knowledge backward in time to the present, the time from which he or she came, society could effectively leap forward in terms of its technical and scientific knowledge.

The futuristic time traveler could also bring back knowledge of what lay ahead for the world. He or she could warn of natural disasters, geopolitical conflicts, epidemics and other events of worldwide importance. This knowledge could potentially change the very way we operate. For example, what if a time traveler journeyed into the future and literally saw the effects that automobiles would eventually have on our planet? What if the time traveler witnessed an environment so polluted and damaged that it's unrecognizable? How might that change our willingness to use alternative forms of transportation?

Imagine that time travel became less restricted and more available to a larger population. Perhaps travel into the future would be exploited for personal gain. A futuristic time traveler could draw on knowledge of the stock market to guide his or her investment decisions, effectively using the granddaddy of all insider information to amass a fortune. Militaries might rely on time travel to gain valuable knowledge about the enemy's positioning and resources in future battles. Terrorists could use time travel to scout out the scenes of future attacks, allowing them to carefully plan with precise knowledge of future conditions.

The potential effects seem equally limitless in terms of the less likely possibility of time travel into the past. History books would no longer be based solely on exhaustive research and interpretation of ancient materials. Time travelers could resolve historical debates and verify how things did or didn't happen in the past. Imagine how different our understanding of the world might be if we could say definitively, for example, whether Moses actually parted the Red Sea or whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing John F. Kennedy. A journey into the past could prove or disprove religious beliefs or result in face-to-face encounters with people such as Jesus, Buddha, Napoleon or Cleopatra -- or even the time traveler's former self. Perhaps time travelers could even bring back from the past things that had been lost, such as extinct species or dead and long-forgotten languages.

But here it's very important to raise the issue of self-consistent narratives and paradoxes. The concept of self-consistent narratives tells us that anything a time traveler would alter or affect in the past would have to remain consistent with the future from which he or she journeyed. Changing the past would effectively change the future, creating a causal loop. But such causal loops would only pose inherent problems if changes to the past resulted in a future different from the one the time traveler came from.

But perhaps the question of how time travel would affect life as we know it goes deeper than even a discussion of potential paradoxes and causal loops. Perhaps a discussion of specific effects of consequences on life as we know it makes little sense when faced with something that could change everything about the way in which we perceive our world.