Did you ever say to yourself, “If only I had known then what I know now?”
Say it’s Tuesday night and you have an English test coming up Wednesday morning. You know you should study for it, but you’re a good English student, so you figure, “I’ll do ok whether I study or not. And besides, there’s other stuff I’d rather be doing than studying.”
Next day, you get the test and, OMG, the questions are a lot harder than you expected. Then on Thursday, when you get your test back, there’s a great big red D in the upper right hand corner. “If only I had studied!”
But what if you still could? Knowing what you know now (Thursday), what if you could send a message back in time, a message you’d get on Tuesday? “Better study!” According to the X-Men movie, Days of Future Past, you can do just exactly that.
In fact, in this X-Men movie, Wolverine goes back more than 40 years to try to stop a 1973 murder that led to a terrible war between “mutants and the humans who dared to help them” and a race of killer machines known as Sentinels.
Wolverine’s body does not go back 40 years, just his mind. Wolverine’s 2014 mind communicates with his 1973 mind. It tells him all about the terrible fate that awaits Planet Earth and what he must do to stop it from happening. For a short period of time, Wolverine’s 2014 mind and his 1973 mind exist together in his 1973 body.
Is such a thing even possible? According to a number of famous 20th and 21st century thinkers, it is!
Meet the famous American physicist, Henry Stapp. In a recent article, Stapp proposed that the mind may be able to function independently of the body. Normally, one mind is tied to one body. But if the bond between the two is broken (for example, by death…or by time travel), the mind may be able to function without a body, or it may even be able to latch on to another body.
I doubt Henry Stapp learned his physics in a movie theater, and I doubt he’s ever even seen Days of Future Past. But what he is saying is just exactly what the movie says.
But how could such things possibly be? The answer lies in Quantum Mechanics (QM). According to Stapp’s understanding of QM, every event naturally has a physical part and a mental part. The physical part is made up of the past (all of history leading up to the event) and the future (all the different shapes the event might take). The mental part is the choice of a specific history and a specific shape for this event.
The physical part is governed by the law of cause and effect and by statistics. The mental part is not governed by any known law; it is purely a matter of ‘free choice’. More on this later!
But what about times when there aren’t any minds around? What about the early universe…and other the times and places where no one and no thing is looking? How do events happen then? Stapp figures that there must be situations when purely physical events can take place.
But if purely physical events are possible, then purely mental events should be possible too. What if the mind becomes its own history (memory) and its own future (imagination)? In that case, who needs a body…or anything physical? According to Stapp, Mental events, like physical events, can just happen, all by themselves. There is no unbreakable bond between your brain (physical) and your mind (mental). Your brain can stay in one place at one time but your mind can travel.
So what about Stapp’s ‘free choice’? It all seems a little vague and abstract. To understand it in more human terms, we need to introduce 20th century French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, the high priest of Existentialism. Sartre observed that there is nothing that makes us do the things we do: not the way we were born, not the way we were raised, not society’s rules, not orders from authority figures, not even the man in the shadows with a loaded gun pointed at my head. We may be influenced by these things but in the end we are totally and completely free to make whatever decision we choose, to act in any way we want.
We take our so-called ‘free will’ for granted but if you think about it, this is every bit as fantastic as time travel itself. If nothing makes us do the things we do, how is it that we do one thing and not another. I could have studied for the test…or not. Nobody ‘made me study’ but nobody stood in my way either. I made a choice…but how? How did I make that choice? Sure, I can give all sorts of reasons but reasons are just excuses made up after the fact; they don’t really explain how I came to do what I did.
The British mathematician and philosopher, Roger Penrose, a close friend and colleague of Stephen Hawking, bridges the gap between Sartre’s human observations and Stapp’s scientific theories. Penrose believes that human consciousness itself is actually Quantum Mechanical by nature. According to Penrose, QM is not just an aspect of consciousness, it is consciousness.
Roger Penrose explains Sartre’s absolute freedom using Quantum Mechanics. According to QM, nothing is caused by anything else. Every event begins as a range of choices. The choices include everything that can possibly happen. Some things may be more likely to happen than others and some things may happen more often than other things, but for any one event, any one choice, there is no way to predict (or control) the outcome.
This is the way the world works on the scale of ultra-tiny elementary particles called quanta. It is also how the world works on the scale of human consciousness. Roger Penrose connects the two: the human mind is Quantum Mechanics in action!
Now, in QM, there is something called Quantum Non-Locality (QNL). According to this strange idea, two elementary particles, two quanta, can be entangled at birth; and if they are, they can maintain a connection over apparently limitless expanses of space and time. For example, particles created around the time of the Big Bang may still be entangled with brother-sister particles in our region of space-time today. These particle pairs are ‘a thing’ even though the particles themselves are separated by billions of light years.
Particles have something called ‘spin’. When someone measures the spin of one entangled particle, it instantly tells us something about the spin of its twin, even though neither particle even had a definite spin before the first one was measured. That’s Quantum Mechanics for you!
It is tempting to compare entangled quanta with identical human twins. If one twin has red hair, we can be reasonably certain that the other twin has red hair too, even if one grew up in Asia and the other in North America. But in that case, both twins were born with red hair. In QNL, the two particles were not born with any definite spin. In fact, neither one adopts a definite spin until one of them is measured; but once the spin of one particle is measured, we immediately know what the spin of the other particle will be when it is measured.
QNL challenges the idea that to be ‘a thing’, you have to be in one place at one time. When someone tells you that she can be in two places at once, you call that ‘magic’ and you don’t believe her. But physics tells us that such things are possible.
So what does all this have to do with Days of Future Past? Since consciousness is Quantum Mechanical and since QM objects (quanta) can be entangled, is it possible that my mind at this present moment is entangled with my mind at some earlier, or later, moments? If so, then my mind could be ‘a thing’ apart from its current location in space-time. Maybe my mind has been and will be ‘a thing’ all the way from my birth to my death.
But wait, that’s not so far-fetched, is it? We think of ourselves as one person even though the person we are today is very different from the person we were when we were born. We know our body’s cells replace themselves on average every 7 years; but we don’t think of ourselves as new people every 7 years. We know there is something that connects the older us with the infant us but we can’t quite say what that is. Perhaps it’s QNL, quantum entanglement.
Back to X-Men! If Wolverine’s 2014 mind is entangled with his 1973 mind, then what he knows in 2014 could definitely impact the decisions he makes in 1973. If your Thursday mind is entangled with your Tuesday mind, then what you know on Thursday (“I should have studied”) could impact the decision you make on Tuesday (“I will study for my English test after all”).
But if this sort of ‘time travel’ is really possible, how come we don’t experience it every day? How come we still make bad choices and suffer the consequences. There are a number of possible answers to this:
(1) Maybe we haven’t learned the trick yet. Maybe we could be sending messages back to ourselves from the future but we just haven’t learned how. (You might want to give it a go the next time you get a D on an English test!)
(2) Or maybe some people can’t do it (yet)…but others can. Maybe this is what we mean when say that someone is wise, or spiritual, or even holy.
(3) Or maybe the attraction of the here and now is so strong for us that we mostly remain stuck in the present. Maybe it’s only in extreme situations that we can summon the motivation and the energy we need to ‘reach back’ to an earlier self. That’s pretty much the situation in Days of Future Past.
(4) Or maybe we are sending messages back to ourselves…all the time. Maybe the choices we’re making right now are the result of information sent back from our future selves. How would we know? We have no idea how we make decisions anyway so we might not have any way of knowing if we’re getting messages or not.
But there’s a problem with this; if we are getting these messages, why don’t we make better decisions? Two possibilities:
First, perhaps the decisions we make are the best possible decisions after all. Maybe we’d see that if we knew everything about everything…but of course we don’t. A German philosopher named Gottfried Leibniz thought this; he said that we live in “the best of all possible worlds”.
Second, perhaps we just don’t listen to our future selves. Wolverine 1973 could have ignored Wolverine 2014. And what about you? You knew on Tuesday that you should study for your English exam; perhaps you knew it because you had already received a message from your future self. But you didn’t study, did you? Perhaps you simply ignored the message. Fortunately for the future of mankind, Wolverine did not ignore his message!
Perhaps we’re all getting messages from the future all the time…and mostly ignoring them. If we assume that messages from the future are well intentioned, then we might think of these messages as something like the thing we call ‘conscience’.
Most of us think of conscience as a little voice inside us that tells us what’s right and what’s wrong, But Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, gave ‘conscience’ a bad name when he claimed it was nothing but the accumulated commands and taboos of parents and other authority figures.
But what if Freud was wrong? What if ‘conscience’ is really the accumulated wisdom of the future trying to influence our decisions today…but not always succeeding?