Philosophy: February 2009 Archives

Spock2.jpg

I was really looking forward to the eleventh Star Trek film, due out in a few months now. Casting Zachary Quinto as young Spock was brilliant, and I'll have to see the movie for that even if for no other reason, although I think loyalty to the franchise would be sufficient grounds to see it anyway. But I'm no longer holding my breath about whether it will be a good movie. If it is, I'll be pleasantly surprised, but I'm not expecting as much as I had. I was already a bit skeptical about a script written by the writers responsible for the recent Transformers movie, which was fun but was certainly not interesting script-wise. It was fun mostly because of the visuals. The main human character was painful to watch, and the storyline wasn't all that interesting given the richness of the Transformers material available in the comic books.

It was this interview with script writer Robert Orci that put a full stop to my optimism, though, for two reasons. The most important is that the assurances of producers that I've been seeing that it will be faithful to Trek canon for the fans while still doing something new for newcomers turn out to be a mere facade, given Orci's explanation of why he says it's faithful to canon. But I think the theory of time travel he endorses will also make the movie painful for me to watch, even if it won't be as painful as most Trek time travel stories are.

First, this is how Orci understands the time travel in this movie to work. He recognizes that there's a problem with any time travel theory that allows changing the past, although I don't think he makes it clear exactly why it's a problem. The real reason it's a problem is because if the past happened, then it follows that it didn't get changed, so when you go back you can't change it. If you can change it, then it's not the past. He gets into grandfather paradox issues, but I think those are derivative problems. The main reason is that it just makes no sense to think of changing the past. You can't make something that already was one way no longer be that way but be another way.

There's only one plausible way to interpret time travel stories that seem to change the past (other than the people didn't know what really happened and thus thought they changed something but actually only did what had already happened). If I travel back in time and do something that didn't happen, I must have traveled somewhere other than my past. If I ended up in an alternative time line somehow, then it makes sense to do what seems like changing the past. But the past of my time line doesn't change, and that time line continues on without me. The time line I entered always had me entering at that point and thinking I'd changed the past. This is the only way to make changing-the-past stories internally consistent, but it's still not a genuine change of the past, which the authors of those stories would usually not want.

So I applaud Orci for preferring this to the usual time travel approach. It's an improvement. There are still big problems with it, though. It would seem odd if time travel that doesn't change the past goes to our past and time travel when you do seem to change things ends up at other time lines. So a plausible version of this view must have every instance of time travel involve going to a similar time line, where it can generate a change that makes it diverge from the original one. The unwelcome consequence is that there isn't really anything that we can just flat-out call time travel. It's all Sliders-like world-jumping but with time travel too. You can never just time travel. That's an odd result.

Also, it does disastrous things to the fabric of a narrative in a fictional work that takes years and even decades to weave. Little did we know that the Star Trek canon time line isn't a constant world at all. Every time there's been time travel the characters have moved to a different world. We have no idea what happened after the events of City on the Edge of Forever in the time line that our characters began in. With such a view, it's not surprising that Orci wouldn't mind completely revising Star Trek history, because Spock of the TNG period going back to pre-TOS times and changing things would result in a different time line. That it violates canon is perfectly ok, even if the changes are drastic and far-reaching. It's a way to destroy the canon of Trek history while insisting that the original time line is untouched. It's crazy to think this won't anger fans who see Trek canon as something to build on, not to alter with impunity. It seems Orci wants to go by the letter of his time travel theory in good Pharisaical fashion to ignore the spirit of observing Star Trek canon while technically allowing it to remain in a time line that the movie doesn't follow (except to show that Spock and Nero will presumably never be in that time line again).

Worse still, Orci acts as if this theory of time travel is based on hard science, which just isn't true. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is certainly held by a handful of scientists working in the philosophical end of theoretical physics. It's a far cry from being the majority view, as far as I've been able to tell, though, and it's certainly nothing in the area of being demonstrable by experimentation. I think, in fact, that it's in principle completely impossible to verify or falsify it. There are several other interpretations of quantum mechanics, and the only reason I know of for preferring the many-worlds interpretation is that it avoids the most plausible fine-tuning arguments for an intelligent designer, not a very compelling scientific reason. If Orci is willing to reinterpret all of Trek canon because of misinformation about what science teaches, that's unfortunate. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm hardly confident with the future of the franchise resting partly in his hands, judging by what this interview reveals. I thought maybe they would finally have an odd movie better than some of the even movies. I'm not so sure now.

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