A Philosopher's Blog

God & Time Travel

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on June 24, 2010
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Like most philosophers, I like science fiction and stories about time travel. Recently I watched the episode Time of the SyFy  series Stargate Universe. This episode got me thinking about time travel and God, oddly enough.

Imagine, if you will, the following science fiction situation. Sally is working on a time travel project and during one experiment, her own smartphone appears in the lab. Startled, she checks her pocket and finds that her phone is there. Yet it also appears to be on the table. Picking it up, she finds that video has been recorded on it. Much to her horror and dismay, it seems to be a video of her saying that she has killed her husband for having an affair with her friend, only to find out after that she was wrong.  In the video, she can she the body of what seems to be her dead husband. The video closes with her future self saying that she is sending back the phone to tell her past self to not kill her husband; future Sally then shoots herself in the head as the phone is being sent into the past.

Being something of a skeptic, Sally checks the phones carefully and finds that (aside from some blood on the future phone that matches her husband’s blood type) the two are identical. This convinces Sally and she does not kill her husband.

Now, let God be brought into the picture, at least hypothetically. If one prefers to leave God out of this game, then an omniscient observer who judges people for their deeds and misdeeds can be used in His place.

In this scenario, what would God actually “see” and how would He judge?

On one hand, the future Sally did kill her husband and send the phone back. After all, without those events, then the phone would not have the video recorded on it and would not have been sent back As such, God would judge that Sally was guilty of suicide and murder, hence worthy of divine punishment. Also, both Sally and her husband would be dead and thus would have gone off to the relevant afterlife (assuming there is such a thing).

On the other hand, the time traveling phone prevented Sally from killing her husband and committing suicide. Thus, Sally would not be judged for these deeds. Also, neither Sally nor her husband would be dead. In effect, that future event never will be, although it must have been (otherwise there would be no phone).

One easy way out of the problem is to follow John Locke’s approach in his discussion of personal identity: since God is good, he would not allow such confusing events (in this case, time travel) to come to pass. Of course, this is not very satisfying as an answer.

Another easy way out is to deny the entire scenario and say that time travel is impossible because of exactly this sort of nonsense. But, where is the fun in that?

Another way out is to use the branching worlds approach: what seems to be time travel is actually travel between possible worlds. So, the phone did not come from Sally’s future. Rather, it is from a possible world in which Sally did kill her husband. So, the Sally of that world is a killer and a suicide; but her actions saved her counterpart Sally from her fate.  So, God takes care of the killer Sally and the lucky Sally avoids her fate. Hardly fair, but that is nothing new.

But, let us suppose that the scenario happens as described. From God’s perspective, it would seem that time travel would create all these loops and changes throughout time. Or perhaps not. One classic view of God and time is that God perceives all of time “at once.’ To use an analogy, God’s perspective is like being able to see the entire filmstrip of a movie at once. The past, present and future are just positions on the strip relative to a specific film cell. Hence, He does not see any changes in the past-He merely sees as the events that did occur, shall occur and are occurring all “at once.”  So, God would “see” the phone appear from a future that never was to save Sally from committing a murder that never will be.

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5 Responses

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  1. A J MacDonald Jr said, on June 24, 2010 at 10:06 am

    I think this particular time travel story assumes the existence of linear time. Therefore it would seem that, since the future Sally was able to send the phone back through time, which allowed the present Sally to not kill her husband, the murder of Sally’s husband never took place in time at all. If, as I said, we’re assuming a linear theory of time.

    This story is very reminiscent of the film: Premonition

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0477071/

    • Asur said, on June 24, 2010 at 2:09 pm

      If the future event never happened, how do you account for the presence of the phone?

      It would seem to require that the phone arrived ex nihilo, which would turn both science and society on their heads.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 26, 2010 at 11:22 am

      Time seems linear, at least as we experience it. But perhaps this is just a result of our perceptions.

  2. Asur said, on June 24, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Clearly, in His omniscience, God judges you not by what you have done (the human standard), but by everything you would do in every possible circumstance you could have encountered — regardless of whether or not you actually ever did.

    As you can see, simply avoiding temptation is a poor strategy to get to Heaven; if you would do it if you could, God knows, and it is as if you already had.

    • Kernunos said, on June 24, 2010 at 5:38 pm

      Now I have to figure out how I’ll convince St. Peter that I am the GOOD Kernunos.


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