beccaelizabeth: my Watcher tattoo in blue, plus Be in red Buffy style font (Default)
[personal profile] beccaelizabeth
I've been watching Continuum and Doctor Who, and reading about Legends of Tomorrow and The Flash, so I've been thinking about time travel morality.

And it absolutely depends on the physics of time travel, in ways that seem sincerely difficult to determine for certain sure.

It's always about free will and self determination vs assorted definitions of the greatest good for the greatest number.

Say you're a time traveller who wants to protect someone. You can go back infinite times and never get any pushback from the universe. So you play guardian angel. You save their life whenever relevant. But that means whenever they or someone else make a choice that leads to their death, you unmake it, and force a different choice. The only one with free will in this story is you, everyone else is going to bounce off this safety fence you've established.

So then the moral question is, do you have the right to make all the choices, even if the goal is preservation?

But it's pretty easy to fold it so you run out of choices too - say the one you're protecting is going to save your life when they're over a century old. Arranging that becomes necessary to you.

There may be no fate but what we make, but we kind of have to exist to make it.

Once all the choice is taken out of the equation though it's not morality any more. so the physics of it gets essential. Can you in fact create a paradox? If you only know about danger points from seeing them once, how do you exist to go back and fix them? How does knowledge of what never was even persist for time travellers to act upon?

The most boring of course is the fixed loop, where time travellers always already happened. Your actions matter in that they create the world you started from. But you can easily read it as nobody in the time traveller's loop era has free choice. Which, you know, sucks. And if that's a condition that only applies within time loops then a time travel ban is one logical solution, to enable at least an illusion of free will. If you don't know for sure what's going to happen you can figure you're freely choosing it.

But you could never prove that's how the universe worked, just that you personally had not managed to sway history from its course yet. Even the exciting looking bits where things look like they wobbled off track could just be in the difference between history and time.

You'd pretty much have to act as if all choices matter because the fail mode is catastrophic. But people who did what they wanted and still didn't budge anything wouldn't actually prove you could do what you like.

Time travel couldn't be proven to do much to morality one way or the other. And it wouldn't matter if it were moral or not to kill someone for what he hasn't done yet, if nobody could actually do it.

Not a fascinating set of possible stories there. Single timeline, probably no branches.

So another set of answers has to do with the multiverse. In an infinite possible multiverse everything that can happen does happen, just not necessarily here. (And depending on how you define possible, there is no fiction, but that's not today's playground.)

So maybe there is no time travel, just crossing to a universe which started a second or century behind and gives the appearance of time travel. Or maybe it's a trousers of time situation, where both the branches of possible always already existed, and you simply navigate between them by your choices. In either version it's impossible to change your own past and your travel removes you from your original context. But you might not ever have evidence of that, since someone almost identical to you could arrive in the way you would expect from simple time travel, having 'changed' something and arrived in the 'future' of that change. You'd get an infinite series whose only clue to the nature of their multiverse would be a single universe on each end where someone left without arriving, and arrived without leaving. Except of course there's so many ways to leave without arriving back, you'd really only have the one clue, and they'd look identical to a version of yourselves arriving slightly before you left in a minimally revised single timeline.

In the most rigid of these multiverse cases, you don't actually change anything. The matrix of possibility exists, you just bounce around in it.

But. What if. The trousers of time were more of a sock, until a choice is there to be made?

As far as physics is concerned that 'choice' is where a subatomic whatsit is or isn't, but to human observation that's weird spontaneous natural causes variation, and we're mostly interested in human choice. Morality requires a mind to make the choices.

So imagine a branching timeline where each branch is a conscious human decision point.

The problem with that one in terms of physics is the mind boggling opportunity of it too: an entire universe gets created every time we make a choice.

If we stop and wonder where the energy comes from it all gets quantum and I wouldn't understand the answers anyway.

But! If we're actually crating universes by our choices? We have an absolute moral responsibility to time travel as irresponsibly and paradoxically as possible.

Reverse Flash treating time as a playground is the beginning of creation, from this perspective.

If everyone lives linear, everyone gets all the choices they could possibly make, without the intervention of a time traveller. But if time travel is possible then a time traveller can introduce a whole new dimension of infinities, ones enabled by choosing to go back and have another go. The universe where even a single time traveller has different knowledge to make choices with? Has a whole new spread of possibilities.

So every single time you travel you create a whole new sheaf of universes that could not have existed without time travel. The paradoxical ones more so than most. So you'd go back a day and live it different than you know you did last time, and go back two days and make those different choices, and every time become a slightly different person with different possibilities, and create more universes.

Arsing about with history, temporal aberrations, becomes acts of creation.



But if you live in a single timeline that has some ability to survive paradox but can be overwhelmed? It's all acts of destruction.



Morality depends on physics.



And it's going to be an absolute arse to prove one way or another, because if you even have a multiverse, finding if it's tidy and well ordered and can be mistaken for time travel takes the kind of precision targetting that seems... seriously unlikely in infinities. I mean, maybe branching universes have some variety of 'closer' or 'further apart' in fancy math with extra dimensions. But maybe the tech to cross between them can't really focus close. You just get a universe. It might be a mirrorverse, or an elseworld, but it might be marvel instead of dc. And finding any of those doesn't say anything definitive about the status of time travel.



Of course there's the possibility that there is a multiverse, but it has nothing to do with branching choices. Maybe it's different solutions to the basic equations. Maybe there's more than one way to create a stable universe and they've all been tried somewhere. Maybe the laws of physics vary wildly.

Aaaaand that would mean that in each solution to the basic equations? There could be different laws of time travel.

Also, see 'stable' as an interesting parameter. In order for us to be around to observe it, the universe needs a set of laws of physics that allow the possibility of arriving at observed conditions after surviving this long. Some of the solutions might have instabilities where such survival is only one of many possibilities, and many legs of time's trousers are actually daisy dukes. Some other solutions wouldn't rule out time travellers running around with shears.



Pretty sure the destruction of entire timelines is immoral. Seeing as it's more death than we can conveniently get our heads around, and pretty close to infinity math again. Especially if all timelines could branch. All the lives in one timeline, times all the choices they could make, all gone, seems like mass murder.


But if timelines can be altered, if time's trousers aren't a real thing and it's just a slinky with occasional tangles, then many acts of destruction would in fact be creating anew.

Back to the question of choices. Under what circumstances does the time traveller have a moral right or requirement to take choice away from them as live linear?



So getting down to cases: The Flash.
It and its sister show Legends of Tomorrow don't seem to consult each other much on the laws of time, which are deliberately vague.
And then they ask us to make moral judgements about how a hero should conduct themselves.

But we just don't have enough data.



So, the Flash goes back in time to save his mother, finds out how that works out, decides to switch back to the original tragic history, finds out history doesn't actually switch that easy, ends up revising time over and over and over.

If he lives in a single timeline that he has been yanking hither and yon, making all the decisions for, and erasing at will? Very bad.

But remnants of other timelines can be sensed from the existing timeline. And it's possible to crash land in a future which is created by time travel someone else is still in the process of doing, but also possible that future can be erased, with probable negative consequences for travellers standing in it. It's a mess, but it possibly vaguely suggests Barry is creating new possibilities, without erasing the old. It might be a prof'igately branching act of multiple creation.

However it equally well could be time's slunky, where remnant loops of time exist in a can't get there from here state, and every time a traveller goes back they cut off all possible futures for that timeline. Then we're back to mass destruction.



In simplest form it comes down to: Does baby Sara still have a future elsewhere in time's trousers? Or was she destroyed?

The argument that baby John means it all comes out even anyway I find morally bankrupt, because destroying one baby and then having another is not the same as only having one in the first place.

But if baby Sara still exists with a future Barry just ran away from, then he simply created the possibility of baby John, or at worst bounced up the line of probability that led to him.



Stories ask us to evaluate actions by their consequences, but without knowing what the laws of time are in that story, we don't know what the consequences are.


But the most likely looking best fit laws? Say Barry unmade a baby. And their universe rolls dice. So anyone born in the sixteen years he changed could also have been erased and will have been revised.

And weighing all that against his intent to save one life is just... he does not come out on the hero side.



But it also makes time travellers pretty damn immoral at all times, because the switch between two babies isn't a simple cause and effect thing, it's more like a random reroll. So any time a time traveller intervened they force a reroll on all of history after that point. Anything and everything could come out different. They should butterfly everything to unrecogniseability really, really often.

And they don't. So. The laws of time don't really fit together.

And we can't evaluate the morality of their actions.


Especially since on Legends we've got "time wants to happen" and some things being absolutely fixed and impossible to change no matter how hard you go at them. But they can presumably be unravelled with all the rest if enough of the world gets changed? And Barry saw such changes could happen, lived them, like Eobard Thawne did before/after. Soooo...

We can't know if the Legends are doing the right thing, or the only thing, by reference to laws of time we don't even know.

And that means we've got to fall back on common or garden everyday morality to evaluate actions like not saving your sister or sending your partner to his death

and funnily enough they don't come out light side.





That's a very long way to say it
but
if a story does not give us the rules of time travel, we can't tell if the consequences of a travellers actions are good or bad, and we can't evaluate them in a time travel context.

If the rules aren't consistent it gets worse.

And seeing as we don't have time travel or any ability to know what happens elsewhere in the multiverse, we're pretty likely to evaluate actions in a simple way, where saving people is a good thing.

Even if it overrides their choices.

Or might butterfly all of history so whole family trees don't get born.

We can't know all that, we can't even call it a short term long term problem, so we're just going to sit there and sulk that someone could be saved so they should have.




My favourite thing that Legends failed to do? The approach I'd take with that crew? Play as much as you can in the gap between history and happened. Treat all of time as a heist where you have to avoid the cameras. Steal people out from under. Crew a ship with ghosts, whose only impact on the timeline thereafter has to be just as secret as their rescue. Steal the Acheron and make the name mean something.

Then you consider changing history to be a risk, but changing time to be a challenge.




But there's also the time traveller's dilemma, Reverse Flash edition: history says you did it. Do you change things and risk a paradox, do you fight fate and find out the hard way how it herds you, or do you consider the record to be sufficient reason to go ahead and do it? When Barry asked Eobard why he killed his mother, logically he may not have created that outcome, but he made it possible it could become a stable loop. Thawne did it because his enemy said he already had. Then had to spend fifteen years climbing out of the consequences.

The structure of time travel makes a really big difference to if Reverse Flash is necessarily a bad guy.

... he is, because we always have a choice, and he chose to be a bastard, but still.

Within the options presented by the show, if someone turns up at a museum that shows them their whole future life as an essential part of the past, none of their choices are good.


But then if speedsters can revise their own pasts repeatedly like Barry did, Thawne isn't locked in, he's just facing a choice between creating the future he just left or borking it entirely by trying to be good. ... greatest good math comes up again. do the bad thing for the good reason?

or do the bad thing because the Flash has borked time so often you really sincerely hate him for it already?

I know the simplest answer is Eobard is the kind of guy to always blame someone else and to lash out when frustrated, but, the structure of time travel as presented there, and Eo!Wells' actions and self justifications, kind of complicate that. Which can be fun, but present a set of dilemmas we're not really going to face.



Time travel stories at the simplest ask: Even if we could know for absolutely certain what the consequences of our actions are, do the ends justify the means?

But time travel stories are not on the whole that simple.

So they pit free will against fate and choice against survival maths and generally get messy enough you can't tell if they've done good, and neither can they.

... putting them right back in the fog we linears have to live in anyways.





I get hung up on what we could go back and change, and should probably take a holiday from time machine stories to practice the here now a bit.

But they do allow explorations of possibilities not much available elsewise.
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beccaelizabeth: my Watcher tattoo in blue, plus Be in red Buffy style font (Default)
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