How to Avoid the Time Wars

May 19, 2021
IONS Fellow Julia Mossbridge, PhD

It was 1979, I was a precocious 10 year-old, and I was in love with Lewis Carroll’s Symbolic Logic and the Game of Logic; a purple-and-green paperback my parents had left lying around. These were actually two books bound as one. You could read one book at the front, and when you got stuck on a problem, you could read the other book at the back. By the time you came back to the book at the front, your earlier problem would be solved. Though I remember being irritated that the print wasn’t upside-down in the book at the back like the new Devo retrospective, what I loved was that the two books met at the middle, mimicking the way the future and past feel when they meet in the now. That feeling of “folded time” seemed to charm this book with a magical vibration, at least from my child-self’s viewpoint.

Aside from that magical book, I had many formative dreams that shaped my scientific career towards becoming a time travel researcher and technologist. Two I will share here, as they became especially relevant to my future. In one, I was 14, it was the 1980s, and I worried a lot about the threat of nuclear war.

I dreamed I was shown a room with a desk and a chair. A voiceover in the dream calmly told me, “Time is like a room. If you want to avoid bumping into the chair when walking across the room, you can do that — but you have to know that there is a chair and where that chair is in the room.”

After that, I was no longer afraid of nuclear war. The solution was easy. We already knew nuclear war was a risk, we just had to avoid the paths or timelines that would lead to it. Operationalizing the solution was hard, of course, but that’s beside the point.

That dream inspired me to take seriously Minkowski’s idea that time holds all physical events in perpetuity — all physical events in the past, present, and future co-exist in a “block-like” universe with no change or real movement. Well, the dream used Minkowski’s idea plus it also gave the suggestion that we can navigate a block of spacetime using information about the future, and offered the idea that this kind of spacetime might also hold possibilities as well as actual realized events. These follow-on ideas are common amongst science fiction fans, mystics, and fans of many-worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics, but you will be hard pressed to find a physicist who believes that both Minkowski spacetime and the ability to avoid future unwanted possibilities can co-exist as physical realities, largely because the ideas seem to be in conflict.

Minkowsi spacetime seems to suggest that physical events are static and those events include the paths of unique physical observers. In other words, the idea consistent with Minkowski spacetime, as I understand it, is that if I will bump into the chair in the future there’s no amount of attempting not to bump into it that I can do. It’ll happen.

But the incompatibility of these ideas did not concern me as a child, and it doesn’t concern me now. I’m not a physicist, for one, so that frees me up a bit since I don’t worry about violating the current-day rules that theoretical physicists set up and then inevitably, in the future, find they must break. The other reason I don’t worry about this incompatibility is that as smart as theoretical physicists are, I have inside knowledge about their ways.

Throughout my childhood I watched my father — a very smart theoretical physicist — struggle to account for everyday observations. For example, the morning after my mother saw lightning strike inside our house in a ball shape, we talked about it at the breakfast table. I could see the cognitive dissonance on my father’s face as she described what she saw. We knew lightning had struck — we heard it, and the TV set wouldn’t turn off even after we unplugged it (much to the delight of my sister and I, who were restricted to 30 minutes of TV a day). So there was evidence of lightning and electrical weirdness, but at that time ball lightning was thought to be impossible or a hallucination.

My father couldn’t figure it out how ball lightning worked, so he resolved his cognitive dissonance by proclaiming that my mother didn’t actually see it. Like an attempt at retrocausally influencing the past, the theory simply didn’t allow the observation to have occurred in the first place.

If we fast-forward to current-day non-family-argumentation-based scholarship, ball lightning has recently been documented as being observed by “trained professionals” (not “just” mothers) and theories about how it works are being put forward among physicists (not “just” families at the breakfast table). If the history of science is any guide, we now ought to be looking forward to the alternative energy applications that will arise from taking ball lightning seriously.

Back to time travel and that dream. It left me with the clear intuitive feeling that as a species we could work to avoid a particularly bad possible event or move toward a particularly good possible event, but we needed some intelligence about what those possibilities are and where/when they are in spacetime. This intuition led me to spend much of my adult life trying to understand the substance and nature of time and how to beneficially navigate it by experimenting with informational time travel.

Now the second dream. When I was 23 and struggling in graduate school with some family issues, I had this comforting, healing dream. In it, I was standing in the Illinois farmhouse where I grew up.

I saw all my younger past selves lined up in front of me, and all my older future selves were lined up behind me. Their hearts were lit with a powerful glowing light. When I invited them closer, we connected at the level of our hearts and they walked into me. I felt strong, whole, and fully myself, containing my own multitudes.

That dream, as well as my own waking mental connections with mental representations of my future and past selves, confirmed for me the idea that connecting with inner versions yourself over time is a healing, strengthening experience. Twenty-seven years later this dream came back, apparently to support me and my team at TILT in building and clinically testing a “time travel narrative” technology to support hope and resilience among under-resourced people, using one version of what I call mental time travel.

If you’re wondering about scientific validity, it’s easiest just to assume that no one in what is currently a nascent time travel field will agree with any of this, and they may not even think that they study time travel — and maybe they’re right. They also might deny these examples consist of time travel effects in the first place. There is a heavy bias in academia against the idea that anyone could study time travel and also be taken seriously, so that’s worth knowing.

I think it’s best to see what you think of all this yourself.

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