X-Men and Philosophy
The Metaphysical Daze of Future Past?
The newest installment in the X-Men movie franchise, X-Men: Days of Future Past, presents us with a classic philosophical conundrum: time travel. This go-round, though, instead of time traveling bodies, we’re treated to a time traveling consciousness. Wolverine’s body stays put in the present (which for much of the film is actually the future—it’s all relative anyway, right?) while Kitty Pryde sends Logan’s consciousness back to 1973. What I’ll explore in this blog post is whether the philosophy of time suggested by the film is a plausible theory or should be tossed into the trash bin of history.
Just so we’re all on the same page as far as the plot points and set up goes: At some date in the future (future to our present), mutantkind and the humans who stood with them have been all but obliterated by the sentinel army. These sentinels of the future have the ability to adapt to any mutant’s abilities, replicate them, and use them as offensive weapons against the mutants. We see an example of this early on in the film when Iceman is killed after a sentinel absorbs Sunspot’s fire abilities and turns them against Iceman. In fact, in that first tense scene, everyone except Bishop and Kitty dies. Of course, we learn soon enough that something very much like this has happened before, again and again.
Kitty has been using her psychic abilities to transport Bishop’s consciousness back in time a few days to warn their past selves about the coming sentinel attack so they can prepare to make a stand… which they always lose. So, Kitty sends Bishop back another couple days, and he warns the X-Men’s past selves, who prepare to die. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Only this time, Professor X manages to lock on to their spatial location in a cliffside Buddhist temple. Along with Magneto, Storm, and Wolverine, the Professor arrives at the temple with a plan to save them all and, in the process, mutantkind. The plan is to use Kitty’s powers to send someone back to the fateful day that led to ruin, the day Mystique killed Bolivar Trask and was caught, after which her DNA was used to enhance the sentinel army.
Simple enough, except that Kitty has only been sending Bishop’s consciousness back in time by a few days; Mystique was captured some 50 years in the past. Kitty is afraid that the Professor’s mind couldn’t survive the plan—what they need is someone who heals almost as quickly as he’s injured. And, of course, Logan is that man. (Oh, the travails of being a virtually invincible hero… sigh.) All he has to do is pop back to 1973, find Raven, and stop her from killing Trask (and getting caught afterwards). If she’s never caught, then—so the theory goes—Trask won’t be able to use her DNA to create the version of the sentinels that have nearly exterminated mutantkind.
What does this tell us about the philosophy of time implicit in the film? Sure, it sounds reasonable enough: Trask is able to develop the devastating sentinel army by extracting DNA from Raven and coding it into the technology of the sentinels. Therefore, if he never came into possession of that DNA, then he couldn’t use it to create that version of the sentinels—and history would have taken a very different path. In that case, however, there would never have been a point in the time-stream where our intrepid adventurers find themselves in the risky position of having to travel back in time to prevent their imminent demise. In other words, if the X-Men of the future travel back in time and undo the time-stream that actually led to them existing, then they will never reach the point in that time-stream at which they travel back in time, because that time-stream simply doesn’t exist!
If thinking about this twists you into a philosophical knot, it’s likely not because the concept is difficult to understand. No, it’s more likely the very basic knack that humans have for detecting contradiction (even if they can’t quite put their finger on it, much less spell it out explicitly). A contradiction, in philosophical parlance, is the logical incompatibility between two or more propositions. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle put it this way with his law of non-contradiction: “One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.” So, what’s the contradiction in the time travel case? That the time-stream containing the future X-Men has to exist in order to allow them to change history so it doesn’t exist—but if it doesn’t exist, they couldn’t go back in time to stop it from existing. (Feel the knot tightening?)
Look at it this way: if you could travel back in time, then you could kill your mother before you were ever conceived; after all, what’s to stop you? But, if you killed your mother before you were conceived, then you would never be conceived and won’t ever have existed, and that means you couldn’t have traveled back in time and killed your mother before you were conceived. The act of time travel (in this case, at least) undoes the very time-stream that led to the time travel in the first place. The time-stream would therefore have to both exist and not exist. But, that’s just not possible. That’s the contradiction. The conclusion many philosophers (and deep thinking science fiction fans) have drawn, then, is that time travel just isn’t logically or metaphysically possible—even though scientists tell us that, as a matter of the laws of physics, time travel is possible).
But what if some things are fixed in time? For example, we could say something like the following. If you could travel back in time, then you must exist in the time from which you travel back. Therefore, you simply can’t kill your mother because you must be conceived in order to exist in the future. Another way to put this is to say that certain facts about the present prevent the changing of certain facts about the past. Some things, in other words, are inevitable; however, we may have no way of knowing which things are inevitable.
Furthermore, even if a critical event is prevented in the past, another event may occur to bring about the inevitable future event (usually the one the time-traveler is trying so hard to prevent!). In the movie, Beast and the others change the time-stream by being present at the Peace Conference and preventing Trask’s death. Even though Raven isn’t caught, Trask Industries still manages to acquire Raven’s DNA through a blood sample found in the courtyard as a result of Magneto’s attempt to kill her. A different time-stream is created that still leads to the development of the advanced sentinel army—and even worse, it gives the powers that be more reason to pursue Trask’s experimental program to eliminate the “mutant threat.” This view of time seems to give us a way out of the philosophical conundrum, and it only requires that we admit that some things are fixed in time, inevitable events that dot the web of time-streams like nodes in the immense weave of space and time. From node to node, though, things could go a variety of different ways, culminating ultimately in the next node in the fabric of space-time. In other words, there are lots of ways to get from A to B, but you still make it to B.
And what do we make of the new time-stream created by the time-traveling Wolverine and his cohorts in 1973? Trask lives but goes to prison. The sentinel program is shut down although the machines are still enhanced by Raven’s DNA. Most important, the events at the Buddhist temple never happened. I repeat: the very events that precipitated the time travel in the first place never happened. But if they never happened, then there never could have been a Wolverine whose consciousness was sent zipping through time by Kitty. We haven’t solved the time paradox by appeal to the thesis that some things are fixed, because the one thing we need to be fixed is, well… “fixed” in the sense of “changed,” which makes the whole thing seem impossible. Just as you cannot go back in time and kill your mother, Wolverine cannot go back in time and “kill” the thing that caused him to be in that temple. But that’s precisely what happens, and that’s why that final scene in the temple is a great vanishing act, with Wolverine waking up at Professor X’s School for Gifted Youngsters, fully staffed by all those who had fallen in the Mutant Wars. It never happened and yet it must have happened… there’s that contradiction again.”
The only way to avoid the contradiction seems to be one hell of a bullet to bite: the unavoidable rise of the advanced sentinel army and the subsequent slaughter of Logan and the others in that cliffside temple… sometime. All we know is that what happens in that cliffside temple has to happen, because that is where the alteration of the time-stream begins. How they get there, even when they get there, is not fixed. So Wolverine wakes up at Xavier’s school, full of the memories of what happened, having only postponed the inevitable. He changed the past and altered the time-stream, but he did not unhinge that fixed point—and at some time in the future, by whatever circuitous path this new time-stream takes, a decimated band of mutant heroes will still make their final stand at that temple.
Christian Cotton currently teaches courses in philosophy and religion at Piedmont College in northeast Georgia. He has written chapters for Homeland and Philosophy and Justified and Philosophy. His interests lie primarily in moral and political philosophy, but he does love a good metaphysical romp now and again…and again.
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