How I Solved the Predestination Paradox

None of this ever happened, and we’re coming to confiscate your DVDs to prove that it never happened.

by MATT STOKES | MARCH 10, 2010

I did that thing last night that all college students do, where I make a bargain with myself:

“Self,” says I, “if you go to bed right now, you’ll be able to wake up real early tomorrow morning, and then you can study.”

A brilliant plan, to be sure, except for the part where it then takes me five hours to get to sleep, while if I had stayed up studying for my midterms I’d have passed out on my desk in eight minutes.

So to try making myself fall asleep, I did what we all do in that situation: I tried to solve the Predestination Paradox in hypothetical time travel.

I was thinking specifically of this season of Lost, and tried to figure out exactly what this alternate reality they keep showing us is and how it came about. And whether or not we should care.

They say the problem with stories about time travel and parallel universes is that the action has no real consequence—if, for example, the main character dies, it doesn’t matter, because it’s a development within one alternative future, or something. This is what some people have taken issue with in this season of Lost, that, because time travel and alternate realities have been brought into the equation, we now have to wonder whether or not we should care about what happens to the characters.

Are these not characters with lives, loves, histories, passions? This is what I thought after seeing the new Star Trek movie a year ago, where the time travel events in the movie erased the entire timeline that produced the Star Trek franchise (If I remember correctly, something about anti-matter destroying Spock’s home planet altering the course of history.)—everything from the original Star Trek TV show and its sequels had essentially been erased, paving the way for a new generation of stories and beaucoup money for Paramount Pictures. “Should Star Trek fans be bothered by this?” I wondered. “They just said 40+ years of Star Trek doesn’t exist. What will the Trekkies do now?”

Thinking that led me to wonder why a hardcore Trekkie should care anyway; within the “canon” of the series, the original storylines may have been erased, but it’s not like in our world the DVD box sets of these shows aren’t around. They still exist. But they kind of don’t.

ANYWAY, the conclusion of season five of Lost had the main characters (who had traveled back in time to the 1970s) detonate an atomic bomb, destroying that infernal Island, and negating the possibility of their crash-landing that started the series, and thus wiping out five seasons of stories. Now, true students of time travel/losers will be the first to spout off about the so-called Grandfather Paradox, wherein anybody who travels back in time to change something effectively eliminates her need for time travel. And when that person changes what she wants to change, a paradoxical situation emerges: The traveler effected change, but also took away the reason for traveling to effect the change, therefore she never traveled back in time, therefore the change never took place, therefore she had to travel back in time to make the change, and so on…

I thought the Grandfather Paradox might come into play on the new season of Lost, that because Jack Shepherd and co. had enacted a temporal paradox, the universe would be ripped apart, and suddenly all these bizarre things are going on in a world in which the island doesn’t exist to the heroes of the show. And that’s pretty much what has been going on; the main characters exist simultaneously on the Island, and also back on land in a universe in which none have met and they never crash-landed. These two parallel realities are, I think, destined to collide, not unlike when Star Trek had its parallel universes, where Evil Spock was distinguished by his Evil Goatee.

So that’s where I was until last night, when I watched an old episode of Lost, “The Constant,” that I hadn’t seen since it aired two years ago. I didn’t understand it at the time, but watching it again the episode makes it pretty clear how time travel within the series works. In Lost, time is inflexible; the character Daniel Faraday states it quite plainly in the episode: “You can’t change the future.” This means Lost subscribes to the Predestination Paradox (or Causal Loop), which would mean the Grandfather Paradox is not in play. The Predestination Paradox states that any actions a time traveler performs while in the past always occurred, that any change he thinks he is effecting is actually only causing the reality he has always known. We see this at the end of the episode, when Faraday reads a journal of notes he had taken years earlier, and on one page is written: “If anything goes wrong, Desmond Hume will be my constant.” The episode is set up to make the audience believe that Hume’s travels through the past will cause a change in the future, but in reality, they merely set up the future as it always existed.

So if you were to ever travel back in time, the first question you would have to ask is what kind of rules apply. Is it Back to the Future Part II rules, where the future is unwritten and the present can be rewritten, or is it Lost rules, where the universe never changes? This is important stuff. When Homer Simpson travels to the time of dinosaurs using his toaster, will stepping on a bug wipe out the human race, or will it cause the human race to develop as it ending up developing, and without his stepping on a bug there would be no human race?

They call it the Predestination Paradox for a reason, however. If, for example, the virtuoso guitarist John Mayer traveled ten years back in time to visit his budding younger self, and said to his old self, “Self,” says he, “I want to teach you how to play this wonderful song called ‘Your Body is a Wonderland,'” and young Mayer learned the song and recorded it and it became a huge smash hit years before the real Mayer ever actually wrote the song… then who wrote the song? Young Mayer didn’t write it, but he learned it and grew into the old Mayer who would have had no reason to write the song in the first place. This is seemingly an example of Predestination, and yet we have the core element of the scenario that disappears in the shuffle.

This is a question people have been asking forever. The idea is called determinism, and it questions the viability of human free will in a universe where every event is written and every decision has already been made.I)Religious philosophers debate the question as: If God knows everything that will ever happen and has control over every event for the rest of time, does that mean human beings really do have free choice? So if Lost subscribes to universal determinism, then the decisions of the characters are not really decisions at all; the question becomes: Should this make us care less about the show? Drama is supposed to emerge from character conflict, but if the characters can’t solve their problems, is that really compelling drama? When this kind of thing happens they call it a deus ex machina ending, where the gods basically descend from Mount Olympus to solve all the conflicts.

I’m not sure I buy this rule. Really, how could Lost not resort to deus ex machina? Jack, the show’s hero, is going to do some heroic deed which solves everyone’s problems? It wouldn’t even matter if he did, not really, because of the alternate reality component. And similarly, if a character like Juliet dies, should we care about her death when we know that she’s probably coming back in another reality?

Why should we care anyway? She’s just a character on a TV show, no? How much does her death affect our lives? And how much will our lives change if we know what the Numbers mean, or what Ben Linus’s true intentions are, or what the hell that smoke monster is? Hopefully, not much. We’ll talk about it for a few minutes, maybe even think about it as we’re going to sleep, but other than that, our lives will remain the same.

And yet I think it’s good that people can go up in arms about their beloved characters not receiving their due. The fates of fictional characters have no real world value, sure, but I believe there is an illusion we buy into when we watch a TV show that there is a relationship between viewer and show that matters. We acknowledge it’s an illusion, just as we do with our favorite sports teams, but that illusion is important to us.

So if Lost is changing up its own history, fine. And if it’s not, double fine. I’ve still got those old DVDs on my shelf, and you can’t tell me they don’t exist.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

I. Religious philosophers debate the question as: If God knows everything that will ever happen and has control over every event for the rest of time, does that mean human beings really do have free choice?