Theological Implications of Time Travel

The usual plaintive queries regarding God’s whereabouts have followed the Virginia Tech massacre. How could a loving God permit such horror and injustice? The standard answers are offered: God has a plan, the victims are in heaven now, and we need better gun control. Such bromides provide little comfort and less illumination. Far greater intellects than those given voice in the mainstream media have confronted the problem of evil, or theodicy, for centuries, and the best answer they’ve come up with is this: God has granted us free will. Interference by God would restrict our freedom to choose between right and wrong. For whatever reason, this is how the universe is designed.

This answer may not be comforting, but it is logical. The argument that God should intervene to prevent evil begs a multitude of questions. Should God prevent all violence? How about suicide? How about bungee jumping and mountain climbing — activities that can harm not only voluntary practitioners but their innocent friends and families as well? Should we be guaranteed a peaceful death in our sleep on our 75th birthday? The notion of God as a cosmic crossing guard seems a bit ridiculous.

To be sure, many religious folks are willing to give God credit for an occasional intervention: the vest pocket Bible that stops a bullet; the serendipitous ledge that stops the climber’s fall; the spontaneous remission of illness. Folks even pray for such interventions. They are called miracles, and perhaps they happen, but such events occur so inconsistently that they are indistinguishable from dumb luck. The fact remains that the Virginia Tech killer was permitted to accomplish exactly what he set out to do. His guns didn’t jam and he did not keel over suddenly from a brain embolism. Innocents died.

So what does this have to do with time travel?

The recent movie Deja Vu, starring Denzel Washington, explores the issue of free will in an action/adventure format. (Warning: mild plot spoilers follow). Washington plays an ATF agent named Doug Carlin who is dispatched to investigate a terrorist bombing of a ferry in New Orleans. Carlin is teamed with other government agents who are ostensibly using a plethora of remote sensing satellite data streams to reconstruct events that transpired four days in the past (that being the fastest the data can be integrated). Inconsistencies in the information lead Carlin to discover that they are actually looking into the past via an Einstein-Rosen bridge, or wormhole, and that there may be a possibility of influencing past events to prevent the disaster. He has himself sent back in time.

The usual time-travel paradoxes are dealt with in an amusing fashion; Carlin receives messages from an alternate version of himself and battles against the forces of destiny with apparent futility. One of the scientists says that Carlin’s efforts to change the past are analogous to changing the course of the Mississippi, and the protagonist’s struggles seem exactly that hopeless. It’s an exciting story, once you buy the premise.

After watching the video, my wife and kids tried to untangle the plot and explain apparent holes in it. I pointed out that time travel will probably never be invented because of the apparent dearth of time traveling tourists. Dramatic historical events, such as the JFK assassination or 911, should have attracted huge, popcorn-crunching crowds, including folks from the far future with large, bald heads and six fingers. One of my kids suggested that perhaps time-travel is carefully regulated to restrict tourism. Another pointed out the impracticality of such regulation being consistently enforced for millions of years. My wife, ever logical, pointed out another possibility: time travel may not have time to be invented. Our civilization — and perhaps our species — may not survive long enough. Even if another intelligent species were to arise 100 million years down the line, they would be unlikely to either know or care about our historical turning points.

This cast a pall over the conversation, and we went to bed. It got me to thinking, though. The absence of time travel is perfectly consistent with consensus theodicy. Just as intervention by God would restrict free will, so would time travel.

Does the absence of time travelers suggest that God exists, or that the future doesn’t?

NOTE (posted July 9, 2007) — I just stumbled on an interesting debate between Philip E. Graves of the Department of Economics at the University of Colorado and a devout atheist named Vexen Crabtree in the U.K. that touches on many of these points.

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