Time Travel, Prophecy and Free Will in Fiction

Reviewing Wings Unseen in my last post, I articulated my feelings about time travel and prophecy in speculative fiction: “Two strong themes in this novel are rarely to my liking: (1) an emphatic good and evil binary, and (2) prophecy or destiny as a plot driver … Prophecy is like time travel for me: it’s a threat to a linear story in which decisions matter.” So I don’t go out of my way looking for these themes. Yet despite my sentiment, I’ve enjoyed quite a few stories like this.

For a time travel story to work, the paradoxes can’t fall apart right away.

In The Time Traveler’s Wife, the problem was simply solved by declaring that Henry did not have free will. Whether or not everyone else has free will, or whether it’s an illusion only Henry can see through, is immaterial. He can’t even try to prevent 9-11, for example, so paradoxes are avoided. Perhaps because it is for a literary audience, it functions without revolving around a major decision.

In Heinlein’s novella “By His Bootstraps,” by the end it doesn’t quite make sense; Bob only gets to the future via his time traveling future self, who got there via his future self … He only has access to the time machine via his future self. But the story is crafted well enough with all sorts of ingenious surprises that I’m too entertained to process paradoxes until I’m long done reading.

The free will problem is often avoided via creation of alternate realities. In Woman on the Edge of Time, Connie can choose wrong and the good future won’t exist, but then the visitors from the future will be from an alternate future (or would that mean she imagined them all along?).

There are, of course, lots of mediocre time travel stories. I read some in critique workshops, and mediocre stories are constantly published when they roll with a trend or other silly reasons. They can’t bug me as much as a McDonald’s commercial I saw as a child. The McDonaldland characters travel forward on a time machine. They meet the future Mayor McCheese who says, “Here in the Future …”

“Arrgh!” went little Steve. “It’s the Present for Mayor McCheese!”

Prophecy, more common in fantasy (though time travel, even when sold as sci-fi is mostly fantasy), is a similar message from the future.

One would think prophecy would be less of a threat to free will than time travel. Just because you know what I’m going to choose doesn’t mean I don’t have a choice. But traditionally, as in mythology, it’s seen as stifling to freedom. Perhaps Oedipus freely chose his actions, but his intentions to avoid his embarrassing fate are doomed in the face of prophecy.

In novels, more commonly, the prophecy is that someone will come along and do something great, but the hero still has to prove their worth for the prophecy to be fulfilled. The hero has to succeed when failure is possible, make good choices when bad choices are possible. While it’s possible these are free choices but the oracles know what will be chosen, it’s hard for me to feel suspense unless a reasonable number of prophecies turn out to wrong, apparently due to unworthy protagonists. Yet enough prophecies have to come true for prophecies to matter; thus a lack of competent heroes can debunk the prophets, negate the collective ethos, and destroy society.

I’m not the sort of reader who would care about all of this. I’m not a character person; I like to like characters, but I’m not all about the protagonist’s “transformation” along their “journey.” But the character people who think that way are unburdened by stress about about freedom and free will. How’s that? Maybe they don’t have a mechanism for free will in mind like I do. Even unexplained, the idea of free will gives meaning to life, their own life and the lives of protagonists. Life must make sense, so they lose track of what a remarkable hypothesis free will is.

Or is it that remarkable a hypothesis? The answer may depend on quantum mechanics, neurology, and existentialism.

QUANTUM—We often imagine a free being as a soul, even if we don’t believe in that, the Little Special Spark idea runs deep. I once imagined that abstract “I” interfering with chemical brain reactions that would otherwise be determinate, in order to make myself carry out my decisions.

Nowadays, the best shortcut around determinism is new age interpretations of probability in quantum mechanics. Perhaps we could cause waveform collapse with our “consciousness.” Even better: in a many-worlds interpretation, could be somehow decide which reality to experience?

NEUROLOGY—Some neurologists claim to have shown that we make our decisions before we are aware of making them. Although it’s conceivable we could make intentional even if we are unaware of them. But the idea doesn’t feel right:

“It’s a subtle thing, freedom. It takes effort; it takes attention and focus not to act something like an automaton. Although we do have freedom, we exercise it only when we strive for awareness, when we are conscious not just of the content of the mind but also of the mind itself as a process.”

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, UCLA Psychiatrist, quoted by Gabor Maté, In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts

Fortunately, new age quantum nonsense explains free decisions we don’t know about yet. If the universe is a hologram and the product of our consciousnesses, our true minds exist outside the spacetime continuum. It matters neither when the decision is made nor when the decider is aware.

Avoiding the time shift problem is Gabor Mate’s suggestion (in the same book), which he attributes to Richard Gregory at the University of Bristol, that rather than free will, we really have Free Won’t. Freedom is not in the formation of the idea of action, a moment detected by the neurologists. The moment we show our character is when we choose whether to veto the action. And that is a conscious moment. Practice makes for a wise and easy use of this veto skill—segue to mindfulness.

EXISTENTIALISM—Regardless of whether the freedom is a cosmic function of reality or an illusion, we seem to get more of it through mindfulness: paying attention to our decisions and not getting fooled easy. Even the most scientifically rigid study of mindfulness references Buddhism, which asserts anatman: the rejection of the idea of an abiding self, that Little Special Spark.

When dabbling in Zen, I don’t take that too literally. Even if a Little Special Spark exists, though, the path to freedom may best be found not thinking in those terms. This suggests a freedom that does not depend on literal free will. Instead, “freedom” in existentialism is about the ability to act with full responsibility. Meaning isn’t given to us by a universe that makes each of us, essentially, a subatomic particle of true freedom that acts on synapses. Instead, we are accidents of physics that assign meaning to accidents.

This third category may be the best way to describe how readers find meaning in the decisions of protagonists who apparently lack free will. Even if their life is predestined, a fictional character unfolds. Evolves. In ye olde hero’s journey, the hero can just go along for the ride. A skilled writer can make me forget or not care that their character has no Little Special Spark. But I like it when I’m convinced they DO have a spark, whether it’s true or not.

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