The width of time

Screenshot anime Futakoi

If time were to restart, where would it take us? Life is not only short, it is also very narrow: You can only walk one single path, and it is hard to see far from it.

Today I will continue on the topic from my previous post about imaginary time travel of the mind. The main character leaves the present (which is fairly late in his life) and travels back to various points in the past, eventually to his teenage years, living through life again. Even before any other psychic powers manifest, the second iteration of life starts to diverge a great deal from the first. This is to be expected when you have decades of memories from the future. But the truth is that even with a much smaller and more vague core of memories, life would still have begun to take a different path. (I wrote “different past” here accidentally, but that’s not too far off either.)

Famously, biologist Stephen Jay Gould (of “punctuated equlibrium” fame) said that if we could rewind time to when life began, the lifeforms that would result would be completely different today. Meaning that there was so much randomness in the process that even if the circumstances were exactly the same, the outcome would still be different. There is some philosophical debate about whether the material universe really is non-deterministic, but what is clear is that it would take extremely little to change history if you intervened early enough.

In a similar way, if you could travel back in time to your childhood, it would take very little to change your fate, perhaps in a major way. A few words, perhaps even a smile or a frown, could have set you down a different path. Certainly some things are pretty much set in stone: Your height, your basic intelligence, your skin and hair color, and at least part of your sexuality. But many other things could end up very different. Your education, your job, the place you live, your spouse or lack thereof, even your weight.

So what I am saying is that even with the same body, we could each have lived a thousand different lives if we got to start over. All it would take to change our path would be the song of a little bird … or a vague sense of deja-vu.

***

But if we really do live our lives many times, we do not remember them. Scientists tell us that even deja-vu is not a paranormal thing, but a misfiring of the brain. I wonder about that: When the brain has an ability that is found in most people, it does not seem unlikely that it has some purpose. Whether you believe in creation or evolution or some combination of them, it seems suspicious that something as elaborate and expensive as the human brain should come with functions that have only negative value. (Remember, the brain uses about 20% of the body’s energy at rest … it is an obvious place to cut down if you don’t have unlimited calories, which only part of the world has even today, let alone in the past.)

Be that as it may, for us who don’t have the power of remembering multiple versions of our lives like fictional characters, I guess the closest we come is to get to know other people. They may not be us, exactly, but they tend to have a least some things in common with us, while other things are different. Well, if you want to try, there’s my archives from the years when I wrote a long entry every day. That should certainly be enough to get to know me better than eveb my own brothers do. Whether it is worth the time, though, I am not so sure. We are all different, but some are more different than others.

 

We want to live long…

Screenshot anime Erased

Screenshot from the anime “Erased”, in which the main character’s mind travels back to his childhood to change the past. Well, that’s one way of living long without growing old: Living the same time over and over… Of course, I thought of that years before the anime.

Thanks to the current ongoing Shellfish Festival here in Mandal, I get some free live music whether I want to or not. Today I caught a very catchy tune that has been around for a while here in Norway, “Vi vil level lenge” by Halvdan Sivertsen. There’s a YouTube clip for those who may want to listen to it, but it is in Norwegian. It is actually a song mocking cosmetic surgery mostly, but the recurring lyrics are some I can certainly identify with: We want to live long, but we never want to grow old.

Curiously this is the theme of my current main dicewriting project. Not the cosmetic surgery, but living long without growing old. It is a story about psychic time travel, in which the mind rather than the body travels back in time. You may remember one extreme instance of this as the movie Groundhog Day. I thought also reviewed the book The first fifteen lives of Harry August  by Claire North, but it seems this is one of the innumerable entries I have written and not uploaded? There are a number of related stories that largely fall in between these, featuring people whose minds are sent back in time (usually without their control) giving them the chance to “do over” some part of their life. It is something that I am sure a lot of us have thought about. It is a natural human trait to do this in our minds, although for me as a hyperlexic it is difficult to do so without something to write on.

So anyway in my Imaginary Random Psychic  series, the main character has the ability to travel at will into the past (although not before puberty) and stay there until he decides to leave, or until he catches up with the time he left. At that point, he returns to Real Time. The catch is, the timeline he was in disappear shortly after, like a dream. Even though it feels completely real while he is there, nothing of it remains when he returns. Nobody else remembers anything of it, and even his own memories soon become vague and dreamlike. Skills he has cultivated in the other timeline are reset, as is his health. Only a vague narrative remains. He is able to maintain a connection to a timeline for a couple minutes, allowing him to write brief diary entries during long stays in the past, but if he stays longer the timeline is lost in the swirl of All-Possibility.

The “imaginary psychic” part refers to a secondary effect of traveling through the fourth dimension of time: Gradually he starts to drift sideways in the fifth dimension and vertically in the sixth dimension, gaining supernatural powers. The powers of the fifth dimension augment his natural abilities, making him stronger, faster, more intelligent, resistant to damage and to ageing. The powers of the sixth dimension are indistinguishable from magic: Telepathy, telekinesis, healing, various forms of energy manipulation. But these abilities increase very slowly, rarely noticeable from year to year and hardly from decade to decade. It is only over centuries of living his life over and over that he gradually becomes aware of his supernatural powers and gets used to them. And like everything else, these abilities too fade when the returns to Real Time.

It seems like a slow and steady wish fulfillment fantasy, and I intend it as such too, but there is a subtle undercurrent that undermines that aspect of it: No matter what he achieves, it is un-achieved by time. If he finds love and a family, he is sure to lose them. If he makes friends, they are sure to forget him. Even when he gains some power to change the world for the better, the world forgets him and reverts to what it was. Even inside the story, all his triumphs are hollow from the start.

Of course, the same could be said for real life. “Futility! Futility! says the Preacher. Utter futility! All is in vain. What does a person gain from his labor that he strives with under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1, the Bible.) Or, to translate the Buddha’s partings words: “All things that have form are subject to decay.” We who have meditated for a while may actually have caught some glimpses of the fifth or sixth dimensions, but the truth is that even eternal time is not enough. Anything that can be accomplished within time is trapped within time. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, as the Americans say. Only the spirit can transcend the six dimensions of space and time.

We want to live long, but even then we will just as much be forgotten. Transhumanists want to reverse ageing or upload the mind to computer networks that can last for millions of years. Certainly that would be great, but even the stars fade and galaxies shatter. There is no escape hatch that can be opened from the inside of creation.