Continuum and Philosophy
The Lessons of Time Travel
By Roger Hunt
I’m willing to throw it out there that the TV show Continuum, if as successful a program as it should be, will affect our understanding of the lessons of time travel at the level of HG Wells’ The Time Machine and Spielberg’s Back to the Future Series. Notice that I said “the lessons of time travel” rather than time travel itself. Whether or not time travel is possible, when popular media explores it, we get the opportunity to think about our effect on the future and the past’s effect on us. So, questions about time travel’s possibility aside, stories of time travel give us serious moral questions to consider.
Exactly what moral questions a time travel story raises is—perhaps ironically—dependent upon when it is written. In The Time Machine, the search for knowledge is the moral reason for the time traveler. In the late 19th and early 20th century, this epistemic imperative towards enlightenment justified a wide range of human activities including the industrial revolution, global colonization, and even World War I (if we understand WWI as a struggle between monarchical traditionalism and democratic progressivism). The focus was on bringing the human species into the future, and we justified our actions by appealing to concepts like “growth,” “discovery,” and “development.”
Later, in the 1980’s, while many philosophers were still looking towards the future (think Fukuyama’s The End of History), many others were thinking about the tragedies of the past such as the Great Depression, chemical warfare, the Holocaust, the Manhattan Project, and the Vietnam War. We began to recognize the moral bankruptcy of progress for progress sake, and instead thought about how we might learn from history. We justified our actions in the name of not repeating the mistakes of the past. Reaganomics was specifically designed to avoid what we thought had caused the Great Depression and we were constantly on the look out for the next Hitler. We even sought to restore traditional values to save us from the dangers of existential liberation and self expression. In Back to the Future, in an effort to protect the events of the past, and his own existence, Marty ends up correcting the mistakes of the past and greatly improving the lives of his entire family. If only we could have gone back in time to correct our own mistakes, right!
Continuum continues this trend of exploring our cultural moral thinking. Nowadays, our moral justifications are not “for the sake of progress” or “in the name of avoiding previous mistakes,” but rather “for the sake of future generations.” Our last four presidents—Bush, Clinton, Bush, and only a few months ago Obama—instigated unique military operations in Iraq, and each of them cited “the benefit to future generations” in their appeals for public support. We of course hear this line everywhere: invest in education for future generations; combat climate change for future generations; make high calorie sodas illegal for future generations. We no longer invest in grand scientific projects, nor do we focus too much on the past; rather we justify our actions to ensure benefits for future generations…or so we hope.
Continuum looks at the premise of taking action to benefit future generations from a variety of perspectives. Liber8, a terrorist organization from 2077 thinks that the Corporate Congress of 2077 has unduly restricted freedom. Liber8 is fighting the Corporate Congress of 2077 to ensure that future generations will have access to all of the freedoms and rights we enjoy in our current 2014 time. Conversely, the elder Alec Sadler of 2077 works to create a world of technology because of the kind of freedom he thinks it brings. However (and this is where things get messy), the elder Sadler suspects that ” Liber8 is a manifestation of his conscience,” and in order to remedy his concerns, he designs (or does he find?) a time travel device to send Liber8 members and an unwitting Kiera Cameron back in time to fight against himself as a young man in the hopes that the young Alec Sadler will not “go down the wrong path.”
The time travel ethics of both The Time Machine and Back to the Future are prevalent here. Sadler’s original vision was based in the ethics of the early twentieth century: progress at all costs. Then he uses the Back to the Future reasoning, and tries to correct his mistakes. But while Sadler engages in the former kinds of time travel reasoning, he can’t comprehend the “for the sake of future generations” reasoning. Because of this, we see his story line fade from both the future and history, in favor of those committed to creating a future that benefits future generations—in favor of those committed to the contemporary ethic.
Sadler’s story, while thrilling, is only a minor part of the program’s narrative. There is another set of time travelers, the Freelancers. When Kiera is being recruited by the Freelancers, we see one form of our contemporary ethic. The Freelancer’s mission is to ensure the stability of the time continuum; they only travel in time to make corrections, not to accomplish individual goals or to correct what are, only in hindsight, historical mistakes. Instead, they only ensure that certain paradoxes of time travel, or deviations from the designed path, are fixed (normally by imprisoning or killing the time travelers who created such rifts).
This is their way of protecting future generations, but it differs from Liber8’s way of doing so. Liber8 went back in time to ensure the Corporate Congress would not be created because they believed that doing so would preserve freedom and happiness for future generations. The Freelancers, on the other hand, want to ensure that there actually is a future for there to be future generations at all; in their view, there is only one stable timeline. So Liber8 wants to change the future for the better, while the Freelancers want to protect the future that already exists.
This raises a philosophical question about moral reasoning based on future generations, and our duties to those future generations—both hot topics in contemporary philosophy circles. On one hand, we might think we should do whatever we can to create the best future possible, in whatever form we think that might be. For Liber8, this means being truly free, a lofty goal. Perhaps we are talking about a perfect utopia with no war and no poverty. However, in the past making decisions based on the prospect of a perfect utopia hasn’t worked out very well. Think about the mass suicide at Jonestown, where over a thousand Americans traveled to South America to live independently, only to end up murdering a US Senator, reporters, hundreds of children, and each other. The problem with making decisions to create the best possible world is that we might not know what the best possible world is like—and even if we did, we may not have the intelligence and ingenuity to make such a world a reality. As Travis says: “the mission concept is flawed.”
Some philosophers think about making decisions based on future generations in terms of mitigating harm, rather than creating the best possible world. For example, maybe creating a future where everyone only eats a nourishing gruel, rather than fast food is ideal, but creating such a world is a little too ambitious. Instead, we try to mitigate the harm of junk food and soda by introducing limits to lessen the effects of over consumption. So we still allow harm to come to those who partake, but the harm is at least mitigated. That way, we have at least done something and also avoided any kind of utopian fallacy.
Unfortunately the distinction between creating the best possible world and mitigating harm is rarely clear cut, especially in the moment. In one of the most riveting scenes of the show, Cameron is forced to decide whether or not to kill Julian, aka 2077 Theseus, in the woods. This is a version of the classic thought experiment: if you could have killed Hitler before he rose to power, would you? Instinctively, most of us would probably say “yes of course!” And we might even castigate anyone who hesitates to agree. But things are not so clear cut for Cameron. Does she kill Theseus before he can kill tens of thousands, or does she allow Julian, a teenager on his knees, to survive? It’s a choice between shooting for utopia (a world where she believes those tens of thousands of murders will not happen) and mitigating harm (letting him live and trying to correct his path). It’s far from clear which is the morally best option.
(The decision is further complicated by the fact that in order for her timeline, where her husband and son are alive, to exist, she has to let him live. So does she effectively sacrifice those tens of thousands of people so she can be with her son again? Or even worse, do those tens of thousands of people die because her interaction with Julian motivated him to become Theseus!? But those are different issues entirely…)
Unfortunately, Cameron embarks upon another journey, and it’s left to Finegra to correct Julian’s path…we will see how he does in Season 4…if *spoiler alert* any of this is still relevant given those awesome HALO troopers that showed up!
On the face of it, making decisions with future generations in mind seems intuitive: Of course that’s what we should do! But just remember, that way of thinking has not always seemed wise, and we have to be careful to recognize what kind of future those who appeal to future generations are thinking about.
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