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Everything is Permanent
editorial by Robert P. Switzer
Suppose you woke up this morning with an inexplicable yet earnest desire to see the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno burned at the stake, an event which you immediately recall took place on February 17, 1600. That's fine. You run outside to your backyard, hop inside your brand new time machine, set the appropriate space-time coordinates, and off you go.
Question: How do you know that what you're looking for is there? Your history books tell you that this event really did occur, but four hundred years have passed, so how do you know that it's all still there? How can you be certain that some kind of temporal disintegration hasn't occurred? Isn't it possible that when your time machine hits the year 1600, you will discover that there's nothing left, that it's all been erased?
Apparently you have assumed that history has all been somehow neatly recorded, perhaps recorded by the universe itself, and can be viewed at any time by any individual fortunate enough to possess a time machine. You have assumed, apparently, that everything is permanent.
Of course, looking at the world from within the stream of time, it does not appear as though everything is permanent. Only upon stepping outside of the space-time continuum will the permanence of everything become evident. Fortunately, outside the space-time continuum is exactly where your time machine takes you.
So what do you see as you sit outside of space-time? Does the past still exist, or not?
Well, I'm not with you in your little time machine, on the outside looking in, but I'm willing to bet that the past is still there, right where we left it. After all, where could it go? Nothing can happen to people or places that time has left behind. Our memories and our perceptions of the past are what disintegrate and change; the events themselves do not.
So you arrive at your destination just in time to see them light the fire beneath Giordano Bruno, and you stand there for a moment, contemplating all the injustices of the world, and then you climb back into your vehicle and come home.
Suppose you immediately have another one of your famous inexplicable yet earnest urges, and this time it's to find out what kind of lives your great-great-grandchildren will make for themselves. Back into your time machine you go, setting new space-time coordinates, and blasting into the future.
Is it there? There are no history books or hazy memories describing it, but is the future somehow already there? Just like before, you must assume that there is something there, that once again you will be able to land your vehicle amidst events that have been painstakingly recorded. You must assume that the future is as permanent as the past.
Is this a reasonable assumption? You're back on the outside looking in. What do you see?
My guess is that you see the inexorable future. Standing back here in the present, I certainly don't have a very clear view of that future, but sitting outside of the space-time continuum, you can see exactly what it's like. Choices will be made and roads will be taken that will lead into and beyond this fated future. Looking back, you see these choices and roads as inevitable, and thus the circumstances of the future moment that you have chosen to visit are also inevitable, and permanent.
You land your time machine and go in search for your great-great-grandchildren. You find them easily enough, observe them until you are satisfied that they're doing quite well for themselves, then once again you climb into the time machine and fly home.
You've visited the past and the future. Everything is permanent. That's fine. So what?
So lots of things. Your discovery that everything is permanent is actually very good news. One interesting implication of this discovery is that now you know that you're immortal.
Your life is being recorded, not just what can be seen from the outside, but also all that is inside you, your thoughts, your ideas, your beliefs. Everything that makes you who you are at this moment in time will always be a part of this moment. From outside the space-time continuum, you can look at your entire life, at all of the little frozen moments that add up to this life, and you can know that you will always exist, that nothing can ever change the fact that your life took place during this time.
Alas, I cannot bring back the dead. However, all that they achieved, and all that they dreamed of achieving, has been recorded. Here in the stream of time, it seems as though those who have died are truly lost. We slowly forget them. And we suspect that when we die, we too will be slowly forgotten. But in fact none of our lives will ever be erased. The universe keeps perfect records; nothing is ever lost. Anyone who has ever used a time machine realizes that since everything is permanent, we are all immortal.
Well, I can tell that you're the sort of person who believes that every piece of good news deserves an accompanying piece of bad news. And then it comes to you. What about all of the really stupid things that you've ever done? Is it such a happy day when you hear that they've all been recorded?
Actually, yes. You can't change the fact that you've done a lot of foolish, human things, but you can take comfort in the knowledge that all of your reasons for doing those things have been recorded. Just how much you regret these incidents has also been recorded, as well as the fact that you learned from them. And this really is good news, for it means that you don't have to keep reliving your mistakes, bottling up this unnecessary guilt inside you. The universe knows how you feel. The truth is out there -- permanently.
Still you suspect that there's something not good about everything being permanent. A permanent past you can accept, but there's something unpleasant about the notion of a permanent future. If all your choices are set in stone, if the path that you will take is predetermined and inevitable, then what's the point in struggling with any decisions? What's the point in doing anything, if it turns out that free will is just an illusion?
The problem is that it seems as though free will and determinism are incompatible. From your trip outside of space-time, however, it should be clear that there is nothing paradoxical about a universe that contains both free will and determinism. The determinism of the universe is only evident when you are outside of space-time. Looking in, you can see all of the reasons, all of the explanations, all of the causes and effects. Having access to all the information in the universe, you can see that nothing ever happens randomly or chaotically.
Back inside the stream of time, though, we have access to very little of this cosmic knowledge. Thus we really do struggle with the decisions that we have to make, and it really is us who must make them. Maybe a being sitting outside of space-time knew ahead of time what choice we would make, but that doesn't change the fact that we made it. Our free will is guided by deterministic laws, but this does not displace any of the decision-making power from our hands. Just because the future is permanent does not mean that we aren't the ones building it.
Could I have argued any differently? Everything is permanent, but -- good news -- it is still possible to challenge your destiny.
Robert P. Switzer has degrees in Mathematics and Philosophy from the University of Waterloo. In addition to co-editing Challenging Destiny, he's working on getting his own writing career off the ground.
Last modified: December 21, 2008
Copyright © 1998 Robert P. Switzer