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One Last Time Travel Post…Maybe

By imfromthepast,

  Filed under: Lost News
  Comments: 17

Season 5, the time travel season is over, and we have a long wait ahead of us. While it was on, it spawned quite a few lively discussions, most notably about the conflict between free will and fate.

Since we do have some time on our hands now, and to pass the time, I thought I would stir the pot a little, and offer a chance to discuss the topic once more. But this time, using a nonLOST Story that I will post here.

I came up with this creepy little scenario a while back:


Two nerds were arguing the merits of time travel, as nerds have always done. The only difference was these two nerds had an actual working time machine.
The gist of the argument was that one nerd (we’ll call him Bob) believed that time travel does not allow for the exercise of free will, while the other (we’ll call him Mortimer) believed free will is hampered not at all by time travel.
The argument was going nowhere, armed as they are by mere words, and so a decision was made to use the time machine at their disposal to perform an experiment.
Bob said, “I say Mortimer, prepare for your arguments to melt before the intense heat of experiment! I will turn this time machine on and set it for exactly ten minutes into the past. Thus whatever is sent into it will come out of it ten minutes before entering. To put it in terms that your feeble mind can grasp, an object will exit this time machine and due to the all powerful laws of causality (which supersede your laughable notions of free will), ten minutes later we will have no choice but to put that object into the time machine.”
Mortimer was unimpressed, confident as he was in the inevitable triumph of free will. “Very well, Bob. I accept your terms. But what shall we send through? It must be something instantly recognisable so that there will be no schenannigans, temporal or otherwise.”
“Agreed,” replied Bob, “In that case I nominate my hand. I will pass my hand through. When this happens I will shake hands with myself, and then ten minutes later I will pass my hands through and repeat the performance, but this time from the other side.”
“Then it is agreed.”
Bob powered up the time machine and set it on the table. The two friends watched the little machine intently, waiting for Bob’s hand to emerge.
Before long, a finger tip poked out, hesitantly at first but then suddenly and forcefully, knocking the time machine over in its struggle. Bob jumped forward and placed the machine back on its stand. He could see his hand poking from the portal, but it was not the relaxed friendly appendage he had expected to see. It was flailing to and fro, as if struggling to retract back into the machine.
This was rather disconcerting and Bob, his attention seized by the writhing digits, asked Mortimer, “Why do you suppose that’s happening?”
Mortimer’s answer came quickly, as if the question was expected, “Because you know I’m about to do this!”
And Mortimer impaled the hand to the table with a large knife. Bob’s scream was echoed by a shrill outburst that emanated from the time machine.
Bob lurched forward, shoving Mortimer aside, and yanked the knife free. The bleeding hand was immediately yanked into the time machine and vanished.
Bob wheeled around to confront Mortimer, “What the hell did you do that for!?” he shrieked.
Mortimer was laughing, “To give you the chance to put your money where your mouth is.” A sly grin slid across his face, “Or should I say your hand? Look, according to you, in about ten minutes time, you will put your hand into that machine, knowing full well the outcome if you do. According to you, despite every reason not to, causality will force you to do it. I say it’s poppycock. You won’t do it.”
The blood drained from Bob’s face as the reality of his situation sunk in. Mortimer was right, if he didn’t put his hand in the portal, what would happen? Would the universe implode? Would a parallel universe be born? His mind balked at the scenario, but it was inescapable. He was going to do it.
All the while that Bob struggled with the cruelty of his fate, its perpetrator sat there, smug, basking in his cleverness, not a shred of remorse in evidence. He sat there watching Bob, enjoying the agony he had wrought.
Disgusted, Bob turned away and looked at the time machine. It sat there.
Mortimer laughed again.
Bob had had enough. He would not let that pompous windbag win. Without clearly thinking his sudden idea through, lest he change his mind, Bob turned back and pounced on Mortimer.
“You think this is funny don’t you! You think this is all a big joke.”
Bob grabbed Mortimer and wrestled him to the ground. He got a grip on the other’s right wrist and pulled him to his feet.
“Well, I think you missed the real punchline my friend.”
Bob forced Mortimer toward the table where the time machine still waited.
Mortimer tried to break free of Bob’s grasp, but in vain. Bob pushed his captive into the side of the table, knocking the wind and most of the fight out of him. With the resistance slakened, Bob forced Mortimer’s hand into the time machine.
The full realization of his predicament seized Mortimer and he took up the struggle anew, but still Bob held tight.
Suddenly Mortimer screamed.
Bob slackened his grip and watched in horror as Mortimer writhed in pain.
Suddenly he jerked his hand free of the portal and doubled over on the ground under the table. Bob immediately called an ambulance.
Guilt overcame his anger and he crouched beside his victim, hoping to console him. Bob was shocked to find Mortimer laughing.
Mortimer turned to look at Bob, his face streaming with tears, but still he laughed. “I was right. You were wrong.” He laughed.
“You’re in shock. The paramedics are on their way. Look, I know this will sound lame, but I’m sorry. I – I wasn’t thinking clearly. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. I’ll do anything.”
“Admit you were wrong.”
Mortimer looked at Bob again and grabbed his lapel with his uninjured hand, staining it with his blood, “You were wrong, admit it.”
“Come now, Mortimer! This is madness! You’re in shock, we don’t-”
“You were wrong! You used your free will! Despite the obvious outcome, despite seeing your hand come out of the portal, despite seeing it stabbed, you used your free will to change things. You put my hand through instead. Your free will triumphed, admit it!”
Bob though hard. “No Mortimer. I didn’t change anything. It was your hand that came through. Remember? It was struggling, it knocked the time machine over, because I-” Bob swallowed hard, “because I was forcing your hand into the machine. The events acted out exactly as they always did, I changed nothing.”
Mortimer wasn’t listening. His breathing was shallow. Bob felt his pulse it was fading.
“Mortimer! Mortimer!”
“Mortimer! You were right! I was wrong! Mortimer!”
Mortimer’s eye’s flew open and he sprang up gleefully, “I knew you would see it my way!” He went into the kitchen to bandage his hand, leaving a befuddled Bob sitting under the table with his blood-stained lapel.

Who was right?

From TVFrenzy:

  • Shift

    Bob, obviously. It was never his hand that went through; it was always Mortimer’s being forced in.

    • dp2

      But what caused Mortimer’s hand to come through?

  • mindstorm

    They both think they’re right.

    That’s what important.

    Free will nourishes causality/destiny as much as causality/destiny nourishes free will.

    There are no bad guys in the Lost world. Only people believing they are doing the right thing according to their school of thought.

    In the end, the stakes don’t lie with who’s right, but who is more convincing (meaning who has the advantage).

    That’s what I think. But I know nothing.

    (Or Mortimer planned everything from the moment he decided to be right about his theory?)

    • illegibleg

      I fully agree. Every time Lost inspired me to believe that a character is somehow truly “right”, they are shown to be driven by personal needs or desires. (Man, was my ego deflated when you know who’s “magical” harmonizing with the island turned out to be just another agenda!)

      And I especially agree on your last point about having the advantage. In the Lost universe and beyond…

  • illegibleg

    I officially deem you The Douglas Hoffstader of the Lost Webiverse!

    I like to think I’d be able to recognize my own hand if I saw it. But I get the idea. I also like to think Bob is correct, because I really dig irony.

    My big, fat, uneducated, Amerrikun view of free-will is that it only becomes relevant when thinking – fantasizing – about this idea we call “the universe.” And, since “the universe” is, for me, a construction of language, it only leads back to language. I can infer, or generalize, or analogize, or symbolize, extrapolate, predict. but “everything” is truly beyond my ken.

    I think of “free will” as the microcosm, and “destiny” as the macrocosm. We can’t know the macrocosm. We can only know it linearly, retroactively, in bits and pieces. I don’t mind that my microcosmic choices might be part a larger “plan,” or that I might be a “pawn,” in some godly gamesomness. There’s not much I can do about it anyhow. Call me Ishmael.

    • Douglas Hofstadter?

      Hmmm, I just read his wikipedia entry, and I still don’t know if that was that an insult or not.

      Interesting side note: Hofstadter was married in Ann Arbor!

  • spinflip

    I think one has to introduce the concept of frames of reference (FOR) here. In the FOR of somebody living through linear time there is free will, a coin toss will be random. In the FOR of a time traveller who goes into the past there is no free will, he will be able to exactly predict a coin toss result if he has future information of its outcome.
    A big mistake for a time traveller to make is to consider oneself put into the FOR of someone who has not travelled and assume that he has free will to change things, just because he is in the same timeline. Which is exactly what the Losties have done.

    • A very astute observation. This is my favorite post of the day.
      Speaking of coins, I tend to see the free will/fate debate as two sides of the same coin. It is a matter of perspective.
      However, that being said, my personal feelings on the matter is that time travel is intrinsically impossible, and since the concept of fate relies on the POV of a time traveler, free will wins.

  • Silvertouch

    The best explanation I’ve ever read was actually in a book by a Professor who specialised in Time Travel. He stated that even in a world where free will exists, we are not omnipotent in our free will. We don’t have the freedom to turn into an elephant no matter how hard we want to. Nor does our free will allow us to fly. Similarly, we do not have the free will to go back in time and alter the past because that is just as impossible as those other two scenarios. Free will and Determinism co-exist.

  • Devin

    This is exactly what I mean when I try and explain that free will and destiny aren’t incompatible. No matter how many choices you have, based on what choices are made, there is one exact way things will eventually play out. Destiny can be a result of free will.

  • To Silvertouch & Devin:
    I always say that time travel only lets you see the result of free will.

  • They’reNotDead

    I hope this isn’t the last time travel article. We have 8 months to continue arguing about destiny vs. free will in terms of time travel. Great story Keep it up!!!

  • Baalzak

    Great story!

    Eight months is a long time to wait…

  • MaxVelocity

    To stir things up a bit let’s re-write the story a little bit. Starting from the point where they are waiting for the hand to appear:

    “Before long, a finger tip poked out, hesitantly at first but then suddenly and forcefully, knocking the time machine over in its struggle. Upon hitting the floor, the time machine’s fail safe button accidentally got pressed and the machine exploded into a million pieces with a loud BOOM! Bob and Mortimer stared in surprise and shock at the disintegrated machine. Finally, with shaking voice Bob broke the silence ‘Well, who’s hand was that?'”

    Indeed, how did this transpire?

    • But it didn’t.

      Might as well write a story about a man that spontaneously turned into a chicken, and then ask how it happened.

      • MaxVelocity

        No, I don’t think you are correct there. Your chicken example is silly, whereas this is something you would have to ponder in a time travel gedanken experiment.

        In effect you have three options

        1) Whatever happened, happened. Free will is somewhat restrained as per the previous discussions above. As soon as you see something coming out of the time machine (assuming we know it can only come from the future), the fail safe button is unpressable and the machine indestructible. No matter what anyone tries to do nothing can disrupt the flow of events that eventually will lead to somebody sticking his hand into the (fully operational) machine. In this scenario, my changed story can never play out the way I wrote it, but it fully supports your original story.

        2) Things can be changed. Free will is fully operational as we would expect, but instead we have to have a way to explain apparent paradoxes as in my story above.

        3) Travel back in time is forbidden by the laws of physics. Both our stories are invalid and cannot happen.

        Actually, whichever option you buy into (except the third one) there are consequences that make your nose bleed and turns on your ‘no way!’ reflexes.

        In option 2 you must account for the fact that things happen without a causal reason. Hands appear from nowhere (it cannot come from the future, since the machine does not exist then), and accidentally destroys the machine.

        In Option 1 you have to have a mechanism to prevent certain events from ever taking place, which for thinking beings seems to limit their free will. In this case, as soon as something appears from the machine, it renders the machine indestructible. Effectively, the same goes for the objects that appear from the machine if they exist in both time periods. Let’s say it was Mortimer that briefly stuck his head through the machine, and said “Hello, everything is ok in 10 minutes, bye!”. This would make Mortimer indestructible during these 10 minutes, and also force him with 100% certainty to actually stay put to shove his head through the machine 10 minutes later. No matter how you twist it, this is a real problem for free will.

        These are the options at hand, if you want to chose a side then alternative 1-3 is what you have to select from, and you have to be prepared to answer to the difficulties they imply.