As physicist Paul Davies describes it, unrestricted time travel -- meaning time travel that could form a complete loop to both the past and future -- would ultimately lead to total mayhem. In his words, "Time travel opens a view of the world that is a sort of madhouse where the rational order of things would no longer work. Under those circumstances, it's very hard to see how ordinary human life could continue."
In a world where the relationship between past, present and future is turned on its head, we would transcend the things that define our lives today. We would lose our notion of how time works, which could be so fundamentally damaging to our worldview that we would no longer care as much about the things that matter to us today: work, finances, making plans with friends and family, shopping -- you name it. These things just wouldn't be relevant in this crazy new world because we'd have a newfound preoccupation with simply making sense of a world without a set chronology -- we wouldn't know the order in which things occur.
It may be beside the point, then, to talk about resolving historical debates, saving endangered species or gaining technological, financial or military insight because those things might very likely fall by the wayside in the strange world that would follow the advent of unrestricted time travel.
As Davies makes clear, none of this fallout would occur from one-way travel. Hitching a one-way ride to the future or even the past (assuming we stick with self-consistent narratives) wouldn't cause this kind of profound reordering of the world as we currently experience it. But closing that loop of travel could be, in a word, disastrous.
Davies points out that science fiction normally focuses on the novelty aspect of time travel. But according to him, "It's not a novelty or a curiosity, it's something that strikes at the very rational basis of how we live and function. It's really hard to imagine that anything could be the same again." In his view, unrestricted time travel could change life as we know it so dramatically that we wouldn't even recognize it. Because chronology would have no meaning, we couldn't easily tell if something happened before or after, was a cause or an effect, and we would lose the ability to predict rationally the outcomes of our actions. In essence, it would be as though we had all gone insane.
These sobering potential effects of time travel have caused some scientists to wonder whether a principle exists in nature that would actually prevent unrestricted time travel, such as Stephen Hawking's "chronology protection hypothesis." This type of "theory of everything" might provide a scientific explanation as to why we could never unhinge the universe as we know it by making unrestricted time travel a reality. Scientists have yet to discover such a theory, but hearing Davies' take on the frightening effects of time travel makes one hope that they find it soon -- even if it means that we won't ever know for sure who killed JFK.
More Great Links
- ABC Science Online. "The Big Questions: The Riddle of Time." Jan. 17, 2002. (Oct. 7, 2010) http://www.abc.net.au/science/bigquestions/s460740.htm
- Davies, Paul. "How to Build a Time Machine." Penguin Books. 2002.
- Davies, Paul. Personal interview. Oct. 13, 2010.
- PBS Nova. "Sagan on Time Travel." October 1999. (Oct. 7, 2010) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/time/sagan.html
- Pickover, Clifford. "Time: a traveler's guide." Oxford University Press. 1999.