John C. Wright on Time Travel: An Absurdity Wrapped in a Non-Starter

It’s a longish post, but well worth your time.

In science fiction stories, there are a limited number of ways to explain the conundrum of how time travel can work in a world where there is both the appearance of free will and the appearance of cause and effect.

I doubt I can list all the various answers of the various imaginative authors who have attempted in an entertaining way to address the paradox. It makes for entertaining bull sessions by college students and philosophers, however.

But I can mention some basics:

In effect, the effort is to see how you can keep one or both of the appearances of cause and effect and of free will.

Wright mentions a number of methods (he calls them “options”) for dealing with the paradox:

  1. Free Will Doesn’t Exist (You can go back in time, but you will do exactly what you did, because that is what happened. This is the Slaughterhouse Five answer. “The Moment is Structured That Way” say the Tralfalmadorians).
  2. Cause and Effect Doesn’t Exist (You can go back in time, but in changing the past you only eliminate yourself).
  3. The Universe Doesn’t Like Things Changed (You can go back in time, and change the past, but the universe will order itself so that it gets the desired result in spite of your actions. This is the Tralfalmadorians-on-Steroids).
  4. Time Travel is Just a Scene-Change Device (Dr. Who, Quantum Leap, etc.)
  5. Multiple Time Lines Without Consequence (the easiest solution, in which no matter how much mucking about you do, the only changes will be cosmetic, and you can always go back and re-do it, and you will discover that you in fact, already have)
  6. Time is a Hard Drive Being Overwritten (By changing the past, you destroy the original timeline in which time travel was invented. So time-travel has the result of eliminating time-travel)

It’s great fun to consider, and I’ve always admired the Back the Future precisely because it makes Time Travel very difficult. You’ve got to have a Flux Capacitor and you’ve got to have 1.21 jiggiwatts of electricity and you’ve got to get that car up to 88 mph. Miss either one of these, and the time travel won’t happen.

I also especially enjoy the second movie because the plot takes it back inside the structure of the first movie, and revisits the exact same scenes without disturbing any of them, or indeed having anyone in those scenes notice that they’re being observed. It fascinates me. I’ve never seen a sequel deconstruct the first movie so entertainingly.

John C. Wright Brings Rousseau and Virgil into Conan

Robert E. Howard was, I am coming to understand, a master of his craft.

What is the difference between a real savage and a noble savage? Let us look into the iron shadows of the moonlight for an answer.

This story is well suited to the question, for it just so happens to have a lovely, half-clad and large-eyed  brunette in distress; a highly civilized oriental aristocrat bent on her dishonor; a rough and semi-civilized pirate chief who hates Conan with hot passion (and wants him hanged on a hook); eldritch monuments from a forgotten civilization, haunted perhaps with the ghosts of an accursed peoples; and an apelike monstrosity equally likely to originate from the darkness of prehistory as the darkness of the netherworld.

In other words, we have one antagonist from each season of the rise and fall of cultures from primitive to civilized to decadent to dark ages and back to prehistory again.

As they say, Read the Whole Thing. And I have further contrasts of Conan with more modern fiction here, if you’re into that sort of thing.

John C. Wright Hates the Last Jedi

He hates it soo much

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…that he devotes a series of posts at his block to smashing it into tiny bits, and then jumping on those bits. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty amusing. But in one of these bromides, he does kind of gloss over some stuff that I think would merit a more thorough discussion:

Hotshot Pilot, now demoted to Dogcatcher, goes to the new commanding officer, who is not fan favorite Admiral Ackbar, but instead is a thin-faced crone in a sadly sagging evening dress with brightly-dyed purple hair, hereafter called Girl-General Gender Studies van Grievance.

He politely asks her what plan he and his men should be following to preserve their besieged and dying flotilla from the hot pursuit at that moment shooting at them. She replies by telling him men are the inferior sex, and are not allowed to hear plans invented by Gender Studies crones with purple hair.

He must obey orders without question, mechanically and mindlessly. After all, that is the principle and the philosophy the rebellion has stood for during the entire Star Wars canon of films, novels, and comics: The Empire stands for freedom and initiative, and the Rebels are fighting to bring about a regime based on perfect mindless obedience of authority. How clear. How reasonable.

Okay. A couple of things on the Vice-Admiral Hole-Card Super-Secret Escape Plan:

  • In the military, you don’t have any right to have your orders explained to you, or your superiors plans laid out for discussion. Ours is not to wonder why, ours is but to do and die. So I’m completely fine with Hole-Card not explaining things to Captain Jump-Into-An-X-Wing. At first.
  • However, there’s a scene later on, when Jumpy emits a J’Accuse at Hole-Card, and names her a Coward and Traitor, in full view of everyone on the bridge. In every navy that has ever sailed, this constitutes mutiny. So Hole-Card has one of two options:
    1. Pack him off to the brig and let him cool his heels while they get out of this situation, whereupon he can answer to a court-martial,
    2. Take him aside and Explain Her Stupid Plan to him.
    3. Why not Do Both of those?
  • Instead, she does neither, and carps at him to leave the bridge, as if that’s going to solve the problem, and has the nerve to look surprised when he tells her he’s cooked up his own scheme to save the day, which he is prepared to back up with Non-Technical Mutiny. You’ve got a guy you’ve sussed out as being Dangerous and Hot-Headed, who just got a stripe ripped off for pushing the envelope, and all he wants from you, is BEGGING for from you, is to know what you’ve got in mind that isn’t Wait for the First Order to Blow Us All To Hell. And you’re Surprised that he wasn’t content to sit on his hands while his comrades were dying?
  • Because, while an admiral doesn’t have to explain her orders, it’s generally a good idea to build consensus among officers, to have them point out potential pitfalls, to allow them to keep morale up among the ranks. This is called Good Leadership, and it makes following orders you don’t agree with easier. When you know the plan, and get a chance to get heard, you tend to accept the decision better, even if you really think it’s the wrong call. Militaries at the upper echelon do operate that way.
  • It’s kind of a clever plan, except for the fact that it has no flexibility. It depends on a surmisal of First Order operations, which is to say, it depends upon your enemy doing something one way and not another, when you have no means of influencing that. And once committed, you have no backup plan. You’re in these lifeboats that have no hyperdrive, shields or weapons, and you’re sitting ducks, and the only thing that has to turn this from Clever to Nightmare is one First Order officer saying to himself “any chance they loaded up escape pods and headed over to the salt planet?” I dunno, I feel like Sun Tzu would have had a problem with this.

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John C. Wright on the Genius of Robert E. Howard

Fascinating essay:

Conan is somewhat more deep and complex than the cartoon image of a brute in a bearskin loincloth found the popular imagination, with a dancing girl clutching his brawny thigh and a devil-beast dying under his bloody ax. The theme and philosophy he represents is not the product of adolescent neurosis (as certain bitter critics would have us believe) but of somber, even cynical, reflection on the age of the world, the costs of civilization, and the frailty of man.

You really have to read the original Conan stories to understand what there was about the character and the stories he enlivened to make him still a household name, 80 years later. For my part, the more I have read them, the more I have come to appreciate the vitality of them, and the flexibility of the character:

Conan is, in Wright’s estimation, a product of Theosophy’s pagan theories of eternal recursion:

the world of successive cataclysms captures the grim mood of the Hindu mystic, where a Kali Yuga routinely wipes out all life in the universe, only to have it start again. The Ecpyrosis of the Roman Stoics was the same idea, and said the whole cosmos periodically burned to ash and was reborn. And the successive destructions whispered in Aztec legends, where different generations of man and god alike are obliterated, all these and others capture the pagan spirit and atmosphere needed for the Hyborian Age of Conan.

In this way, Conan is something like an avatar of Shiva, or at the very least of Ares, the Greek troublemaker and brawler.

I recently picked up Wright’s Count to a Trillion, the start of one of his spacefaring trilogies. I haven’t cracked it open yet, but I hope to soon.

Read the Whole Thing, obviously

The Meaninglessness of Probability

Interesting discussion by John C. Wright:

It is a meaningful sentence to say that the chance of a balanced coin landing headsup is fifty times out of a hundred because and only because the shape of the coin (it has only two sides) is known, and the factors that determine the fall of the coin (the impulse of the thumb) is unknown, but the thumb is known to exist.

Here we do not know how many other outcomes are possible because we do not know what causes the cosmological constants to be what they are. We do not know what would change any of those constants if any of them can be. We do not know if even a single other universe is possible aside from the one in which we live.

So the number produced by any so called physicist claiming our universe is unlikely or likely or inevitable or nearly impossible is utterly meaningless and nonsensical.

We do not know what we do not know. This is why, no matter how many times people are told that the odds of them winning the lottery (the parameters of which are known) are prohibitive, people keep playing it. Because someone will win it, and there’s no reason that said someone can’t be me.