Sunday, July 5, 2015

Terminator Genisys: Part Two: Genisys is Not About Time Travel

In Part One, I argued that time travel to the future is both logically and physically possible, while time travel to the past is at least logically possible.  Now I want to argue that Terminator Genisys isn’t really about time travel.
Arnold trying to smile
Philosophical views on time? Don't ask.

Before diving in, it helps to ask, what is time?  As Augustine famously noted, “When no one asks me, I know.  If I want to explain it to someone who asks me, I do not know” (Confessions, 11, 14).  But not knowing never stopped anyone from thinking, so people have developed three basic views on time: Presentism, Possibilism, and Eternalism.

Presentism says that only the present exists.  If this is true, then there would be simply “now” and there would be no past or future to which to travel!  I think this is the theory of time endorsed by one of my favorite movies, Spaceballs (1987).

Possibilism, on the other hand, says that the past and present exist, but not the future, so you could travel backwards in time, but not forward.  Eternalism (or “block time”) says that the past, present, and future all exist equally, which seems like the best way to go for aspiring time travelers, since they have someplace to go (or somewhen to go!).  This was roughly the view of an ancient Indian Buddhist philosophical school called Sarvāstivāda (the name of their school means "everything- exists-ism" referring to past, present, and future).  Just for the sake of thinking that time travel is cool, let’s assume that Eternalism is true.

Time travel versus alternate universe travel

If we assume that Eternalism is true, is there room for the multiple time lines of Terminator Genisys and so many other alleged time travel movies?  (See this excellent attempt to sort out the timelines of the whole series).

Answering this question would require deep and controversial answers about the nature of determinism, human freedom, causation, interpretations of quantum physics, and more.  My point is simply this: even if there are other possible pasts, presents, and futures within the eternal block of time, none of those would be our pasts, presents, and futures.  They would instead be different possible worlds or alternate universes.

(For my purposes here, nothing much hinges on the terminology of possible worlds, alternate universes, bizarro worlds, or parallel universes/dimensions, etc., so I use these terms interchangeably.  I'm talking about another realm of existence that could be similar to or different from the world we live in and may or may not be causally related to our world, but is nonetheless not tightly connected, such that alternate universe bizarro me doesn't get full when I eat lunch!).

When I was about 15 I remember thinking something like the following (probably after watching Terminator 2).  Say you went back in time to tell your seven-year-old self that Terminator 2 was a totally awesome movie.  You might have a memory right now of being seven when some crazy older stranger who kind of looks like you told you about some totally awesome movie, because it happened in your past.  I agree with David Lewis (as discussed in Part One) that no matter how much you try to change the past, you can’t, because anything you do there will have already happened from the vantage point of your present.  That is, you might discover that you or some other time traveler already meddled with the past, thus creating the present as we now know it, but you could never actually change the past.  Of course, it’s logically possible that you could go to the past and do all sorts of stuff, even create causal loops, but all that stuff is already part of your past before you get naked and jump in the time displacement device.

If you emerge in a past where you are Arnold Schwarzenegger's best friend or the Nazis won WWII, you haven't really gone into the (i.e., your) past; instead, you have left your own universe and traveled to another.

So what’s going on in Terminator Genisys? (SPOILERS AHEAD) 

When Kyle Reese goes to 1984 in Genisys, he's not traveling in time so much as he's traveling to an alternate universe in which a Terminator has already been there since 1973 acting as a surrogate father for Sarah.  She even calls him "Pops!"  When they stop the 1997 Judgment Day, they're in a different possible world than Terminator 2, which is in turn a different world than the first Terminator movie.  (Incidentally, the first one was the only film in the series with a coherent time travel story not involving alternate universes, which puts it in an exclusive club with the unmurdered, unparadoxical grandparent of all time travel science fiction, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells.)  So, the Terminator series starting with Terminator 2 involves a rather tangled cluster of different worlds rather than time travel per se.
Family portrait
What’s going on in other stories about changing the past, like Back to the Future or Looper?  (Doctor Who is way too complicated and “timey wimey” for non-Time Lords like me to understand, so I’ll leave it out of this).  None of these stories are primarily about time travel.  They involve travel to similar, but different, possible worlds or alternate universes.

Therefore, most of what passes for time travel in science fiction is actually just a version of another classic science fiction trope: travel between alternate universes (as in some of my favorites, The Lathe of Heaven and Fringe).  They may also involve travel to different times within those alternate universes, but they are not primarily about time travel.

Why does this matter?

Aside from a geeky penchant for cataloging my science fiction tropes correctly, I think this matters if we want to avoid conceptual sloppiness that conflates several different philosophical issues.  For instance, the Terminator movies starting with Terminator 2 move away from classic time travel issues and delve more into determinism and freedom, encouraging what I’ve called the “Holly-worldview” (see my chapter in Philip K. Dick and Philosophy).  According to this view, we all make our own destiny, fates be damned, through sheer gumption and raw belief (especially if we’re white American male leaders like John Connor). 

I suppose this view is empowering to some, but I prefer the view of the Stoics that it is precisely because we realize that the past and present could be no other way than they are that we can accept ourselves for who we are.  We can simultaneously understand that our actions have a part in making the future what it will be.  Doing so doesn’t require jumping to alternate universes or a heroic defiance of causality, just normal old cause and effect here in the universe we call home.

Don’t get me wrong, I love thinking about alternate universes and the Terminator movies are a lot of fun to watch and to think about.  But I think we’ll get a lot more out of the series, both science fictionally and philosophically, if we understand it correctly.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I really appreciate the kind of topics you post here. Thanks for sharing us a great information that is actually helpful. Good day!

    1. Thank you for your kind comment. I appreciate it!