Nov 28, 2006

Rehistory--Why Not?

The proposed story of The Sugar Ant Particle introduces the idea of Rehistory. This post addresses why cutting and revising the string of time in a sci-fi story is not an acceptable idea.

Genesis proclaims God created man in His own image—man has been given free will. Man’s free will means he is allowed to write history in his lifetime by his good, bad, and morally indifferent choices. ‘Forward history’ is written by man making choices (e.g., man selects a spouse, gets a job, is virtuous, commits sin). Man assists in writing history in time, a dimension that is one of God’s creations.

'Forward history' is governed by cause and effect (God may intervene through a miracle; then He is the direct cause). Man lives in the sequential timeframe of ‘before, now, and after.’ For example, man did not eat in the past day, man now eats to satisfy his hunger, and man will be satiated for a time. Of course, hunger is not deterministic and a man can choose not to eat, and thus effect a different timeline of events.

If man can affect ‘forward history,’ can man also affect ‘backward history,’ such as by revising a physical environment in the past? Let's assume the answer is 'yes' so that we can see potential dead ends--irrational or erroneous conclusions. The figure below shows forward and backward histories as two time paths.

Figure 1. Rehistory Events and Paths

The top part of Figure 1 contains the original events that end when a rehistory event is generated. At this point, the original events (within the blue box) are deleted. All environments and people and activities no longer exist after the timepoint when rehistory begins to take effect. Time restarts with no memory of the original events—which never happened!

It isn’t as if events in the top blue box are changed. Both virtuous and sinful actions never occurred. Christ’s birth and redemptive act never occurred. Yet, as the author of time, God could still insert the Incarnation of His Son. This instance shows that rehistory means that God would be at the service of man who would control time and history, to which God must adjust. This is obviously a grievously defective conclusion.

The principle of cause and effect also is affected because rehistory is a cause that is out of order—it exists in the future rather than the past. Common understanding is that a cause must precede an effect, so a potential contradiction appears.

A former Jesuit priest once described God as holding the string of time in his hands. The string of history has a beginning and an end. God is outside of time and so he can ‘touch’ the string of time at any time and any point in the universe. He knows the beginning and he knows the end. That is why God is “I Am.” Is man prohibited from ‘touching’ the string of time? If man attempts to touch the string, does he also claim to be “I Am”?

Can man influence the string? Yes, he controls history by his actions. But can man cut the string, discard sections, and manufacture a new string? Is time able to be manipulated as man manipulates objects in space? If man controls the string of time, does that make man a competitor to God? Is time a dimension that is necessarily the province of God only? Is rehistory, because of violating cause and effect, a contradiction and a lie?

Is the Rehistory story of The Sugar Ant Particle potentially very interesting? Perhaps, but unless the above discussion precedes the story to show the philosophical difficulties, the story should probably not be written.


Elliot said...

Very interesting! Though my brain hurts just thinking about it. I think that a lot of 'alternate history' science fiction has arrived at similar conclusions, though not expressed in theological language. The lesson of such stories often is "Meddling with the past only brings disaster."
So I agree that actually trying to change history would be wrong, though I think that writing alternate history stories can be a constructive act of imagination. It has its pitfalls - some authors, it's true, use the format for wildly self-indulgent expression of their own biases. Others are more careful and even-handed.

Catholic sf author Tim Powers recently talked about alternate histories in an interview - his latest book, Three Days To Never, centres around people who are trying to revise the past. He also has a story in his Strange Intineraries collection about a Catholic priest and a ghost which has some interesting ideas about time and quantum uncertainty.

I'm also reminded of Connie Willis' sf novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, which has people blundering around the past, trying to rejig history - she seems to suggest that there is a Providential order to history that humans can't alter for very long.

Dust I Am said...

Thanks for your comments and references. When you say the story could be a 'constructive act of the imagination,' I'm not clear how it can be constructive. Can you elucidate?

Perhaps God does allow man to control all dimensions--including time. Except that if man knows when the end of time is to come, he could constantly delay it.

With regard to man controlling God, the priest can choose to consecrate or not to consecrate the body and blood of Jesus Christ. God Himself is under the control of a man.

Maybe I'm treading where no man should tread.

Elliot said...

I guess by 'constructive' I mean that a writer can imagine what the world would be like if history had been slightly different, without actually wanting things to BE different, and give us a cautionary tale. For example, I remember reading a story about a bleak future in which the Jews had never gone back to Israel from Babylon, and Christianity never got its start. I don't think the author was a Christian, but my impression was that he was saying "Look what a sorry world this would be without Judaism and Christianity."

The same thing happens in a lot of comic book stories - someone lashes out in anger and kills someone else, and then a horrible alternate future is spawned - the heroes of that time have to go back in time and try to stop it all from happening. The moral of the story is "don't lash out in anger and kill someone!" It's like imagining what the world would be like without the Fall, or Cain's murder of Abel - obviously we can't change those things, but it does help us realize that there are certain paths we really shouldn't go down. Writing about the vast consequences of changing small things in the past can remind us that exercising our God-given freedom in the present will have vast consequences in the future.

Dust I Am said...

Your answer on 're-do's' that should {but cannot) be done makes sense. I've never been a fan of fantasy s-f, but may take a look at Tim Powers latest book.

Most of my interest is in what the real world will look like in 100 to 1000 years from now. I expect more of the same--sin, valor, cowardice, generous sacrifice, etc.--but in very different environments.

cranky said...

You are one very deep lady.

Patrick Kinsale said...

I believe Ray Bradbury also covered this in a short story that was made into an unpopular movie a year or so ago, about hunters who went back in time to hunt dinsaurs. One strayed off the path and killed a butterfly, which changed all history. Forget the name of the story.

Dust I Am said...

Ray Bradbury's story of time travel, A Sound of Thunder, was originally published in the June 28 1952 edition of Collier's magazine.

Thanks for making me search on Bradbury's short story, because I also found other interesting items on the science and other issues related to time travel.

However, there may be a big difference between traveling back in time (described in many sci-fi stories), and simply changing physical phenomena in the past (my story). For one, concurrency issues are avoided.

I'm trying to work out some of the philosophical issues by placing limits on the the Sugar Ant Particle effect. For example, assume the effect has an asymptotic limit sometime in the past (say 2,000 years), prior to which the environment cannot be affected, no matter how much energy is used.