(Spoiler alert: for those of you who have not seen the Back to the Future trilogy, particularly the second installment, reading this could potentially take some excitement out of watching it, but if that doesn’t bother you, read on!)
This past summer, my brother brought home his movie collection and one evening arbitrarily chose to put on Back to the Future II (BTTF II). Recognizing it as something I’d seen on TV years ago, I decided to watch it with him. I did enjoy it (though I wouldn’t recommend it without qualification), but, more importantly, it gave my mind something in which to delve; specifically, time travel itself.
This phenomenon has fascinated mankind in ages past, and continues to fascinate us today. Without a doubt, it is true that the idea of seeing what happened in the past or what will happen after we die is tantalizing. But, as yet, that does not seem plausible scientifically, or at least not to occur within our lifetimes. From a purely scientific standpoint, it simply appears to be something technology will be good enough to attain someday, like sending astronauts to Neptune. But, from a more encompassing perspective, particularly a Catholic one, there are actually some greater, deeper reasons for man’s apparent “temporary setback.”
Time Travel Used Clumsily
First, specifically in the Back to the Future movies, only two people were supposed to be aware that a time machine actually existed. Despite this precaution, there were complications created. For example, in the first movie, the main character, Marty McFly, after accidentally sending himself into the past, unwittingly prevents the first meeting of his parents, and then must go through a large set of unanticipated difficulties to ensure that they will meet and fall in love anyway, though in different circumstances. I find that enjoyable to watch on a screen, but, if it were anything more than a carefully orchestrated movie script, would many people really want to try to re-engineer the occurrences leading to something as important as their own birth? I know everyone’s opinion differs, but to me it sounds at least somewhat frightening, and certainly hard!
Time Travel Could Destroy the Future
Now, time travel into the future has a different difficulty. The Doc, inventor of the time machine himself, told Marty something about how it’s dangerous for a person to know too much about his own future. I have my own hypothesis for why this is: if we all knew how our futures would turn out in advance, we would be indifferent to our actions in the present, thinking the result would already be set in stone anyway. But, there’s a catch: what we do now actually determines our future. God almost never actually tells a living person whether he will go to Heaven or Hell, because if he knew ahead of time he most likely would not trouble himself to act for his own good future at all. That is why, for the sake of clarity, I preferred the plot device of a TV show I saw once where the characters had a predictor in which to see their futures, but at one time they could only see the one future contingent to the choices they were making right then (that is, the machine gave conditional results).
There’s also the added complication of being alive and in two places at once. In Back to the Future II there’s a scene where one character sees her future self without understanding what’s happening. She faints and then thinks it was a dream in the end, an easy resolution, but could it really be possible for the same person, body and soul, to exist twice at the same time? God can certainly do anything, but, if the character had realized it wasn’t a dream, that could have created a lot of confusion. Personally, it seems to me that one of two ways time travel into the future would be possible is if the traveler stopped existing for the years in between when he left time and when he re-entered it. This is along the same principles as going into space and experiencing slowed down time, therefore the traveler would be continuing with his life at a later time. This proposition, however, is probably something of a difference from what most people mean when they speak of “time travel.”
Time Travel Used for Evil
Another difficulty presented in BTTF II is when the time machine gets hijacked and the villain, shown as an old man in the year 2015, is able to go back to 1955 and give his equally evil younger self a future sports almanac that will make him rich through gambling, creating a new, terrible future that must be reversed. From this it’s obvious that, even though mankind does not yet have time travel, it could be used for very bad ends. There is the argument that time travel could, instead of being available to everyone, be intended as a powerful, even dangerous secret reserved for only those who were wise enough to use it well. However, even with such a provision, it would more than likely not remain so carefully guarded for long. (For instance, I read once that the recipe for chocolate was intended as a secret for royalty only… look how well that worked out.) Furthermore, there’s also the question of who would or wouldn’t be wise enough to use it, but I’ll leave that for another to discuss.
Additionally, there’s at least one further plot device the scriptwriters of Back to the Future II did not try to explain. After the evil alternate reality of Marty’s time is created, since the people in it are still the same, some remember him, particularly his mother. But, Marty’s memories of his time did not change to reflect that distorted reality, so how could he have existed in it beforehand, such that anyone would remember him? This isn’t that serious when compared to the other problems, but it continues to show a similar confusion.
Time Travel Makes Men Like God
I have one more example from BTTF II, and this one I find arguably the most telling of all. The culmination of the film is when Marty pulls out a match and burns the destructive sports almanac. As it burns, the film shows Marty looking at his matchbook and watching the company name on it morph. Then, the camera switches to a shot of Doc looking at newspapers from the future that had dismal headlines, but the headlines fade out and then come back positive as 1955, and therefore 1985, is changed. This aspect of newspapers and matchbooks morphing seems improbable enough to me, since I would think that it goes beyond the ordinary nature of paper, cardboard, and ink to revise themselves. That, however, is unimportant compared to the implication here, which the whole trilogy shares: the past can be changed, so the future and present are also fluid. Being Catholic, too, adds the question of how and why God would allow the control of something so vital as everything that ever happens or will happen to rest in the fallen wills of men.
Here, then, is the essence of the greatest inaccuracy I found in the BTTF films: time cannot be that fluid because then creatures would be able to play God. In fact, I don’t think we would be able to trust even the basic facts of sense data anymore, in a qualified sense. That is to say, I could trust that my fingers had right now been typing and stopped. But, how would I know that the universe in which I was typing had not just morphed from something radically different? This I can’t answer, other than by using the simple deduction of my personal opinion that God, in His infinite wisdom, would not allow time travel to work that way.
One Mostly Overlooked Idea
There is, however, one theoretical way in which I think travel into the past could work. Rather than have time and reality themselves be malleable, a person could travel back through time only if their influence had already happened in the past, such that no one would notice it. Additionally, it would have to be a point in their own life, since the only way they could return to normal time would be to live that period of time over again.
To give a rather mundane example, a person could travel back into the past to rescue a kitten stuck up a tree if it was done in such a way that the people in that time would think the kitten got down on its own, including the person who did it, as he first existed in that time (that is, when that time was “present” for him, he would have no way of knowing that his future self had traveled back to that time). This would still raise the complication I mentioned above, of the same person existing in two places at once, but at least the condition of time would stay unchanged. Nonetheless, I myself would guess that no one from the future has traveled back in time and is quietly and unnoticeably influencing the “now,” but I certainly do not pretend to state this as anything beyond individual opinion.
Therein are some of my own musings on time travel. However, I do wish to add the caveat that I am neither a scientist nor a trained theologian. This, and the difficulties of time travel overall notwithstanding, I still find it a fun premise to think about. Maybe humans will actually be able to see the past and future someday after all. Only time will tell…