In the middle ages people believed that the earth was in the centre of the universe. All sorts of machinations were developed, epicycles and such, to explain the motions of things in the sky. Then Copernicus wondered what would happen if you put the Sun in the middle. Suddenly everything else made a lot more sense. The motions of things in the sky were simpler. It worked better. In the 19th century people assumed that speeds were additive. No matter how fast your ship was going if you fired a gun the bullet would be going at its speed plus the speed of the ship. Einstein wondered what would happen if the speed of light was fixed, was an absolute maximum. How would that impact the rest of the universe? The result was all of Relativity and the world we live in today. Both of them stepped out of the standard way of thinking and proposed a different paradigm. This is what Kepler, and Darwin, and Newton did.
And that is what I am attempting to do as well.
Currently temporal models are based on the idea that individual particles, electrons, rocks, dinosaurs, people, etc, influence the timeline. I’m asking what if individual particles are essentially unimportant. Particles impact their own neighbourhood both physically and temporally but it is the overall mass of particles that traces the line of history. This is how the physical world works. One electron is not a lightning bolt. One snowflake does not cause an avalanche. It is the result of trillions and if one were not there the result would be the same. I call this model the Sloppy Universe.
In the Sloppy Universe it is not the actions of individuals that make up the timeline. The timeline is the aggregate of the actions of all the particles. Atoms impact their own molecule. An individual impacts their own neighbourhood. Planets impact their own solar system. Stars impact their own stellar neighbourhood. Each particle (electron, atom, molecule, pebble, mouse, human, planet, star, or galaxy), impacts their own immediate area. Outside of that it’s groups of individuals that change the timeline. Atoms, rocks, solar systems, galaxies, clusters of galaxies and so fourth. If one bean were missing you’d still get your morning coffee. If the Milky Way were removed from the Universe the great galaxy cluster in Virgo would not even notice.
Let’s try a couple of thought experiments that will help to clarify what I mean by the Sloppy Universe. If you throw a stone in a pond it doesn’t leave a hole in the pond. The pond flows in, ripples die away, and all is as it was. Similarly no matter how you disturb the timeline, it will flow together again and restore itself. Just as there is now a stone on the bottom of the pond, there will be detail variations in the timeline but overall, all is as it was and will be. If you pour a dump truck of stones in the pond then there would be a noticeable impact. The basin is full of rocks and the pond is gone, but add or remove a single stone and the result is the same. The individual is not important to the big picture.
Look at the paintings of Seurat. Wonderful portraits and landscapes all done with single dots of colour. When he decided to put this dot there and not over here it had a local impact. Take a gun and shoot the canvas. There would then be one dot missing. Yes there would be a hole but the overall scene would be the same. Individual dots of paint, or individual organisms in an environment are not critical to the overall.
If I go back in time and kill a deer, will the cougar that was going to get that deer the next day starve? No it will find another deer to eat. Will lots of cougars starve in a few years because this deer wasn’t there to have babies? No other deer will have other fawns. Within a year or two the loss will be completely erased. If I go back and remove a large number of ceratopsian and hadrosaurid dinosaurs will the local T. Rex starve? It’s possible but that will have no impact on the populations across North America. Within a decade there will be more ceraptops and hadrosaurs and other T. Rex will have moved into the space. The timeline heals itself.
However what if we hunt something to extinction? The dodo and passenger pigeon are gone. They no longer exist. Isn’t that a change to the timeline? Yes it is but no one person killed them off. It was the actions of thousands of people over many years that killed them off. If one sailor decided to eat turtle rather than dodo in 1590, it would have made no difference to the birds fate. A closer example is climate change. This is clearly a huge shift in the fate of the earth. Yet, no one person is causing greenhouse gasses to climb. No one person switching to a bicycle from a car can stop it. All of humanity is causing the problem. All of humanity is guilty of the extinctions that are happening as a result of it. And all of humanity would have to work together to turn it around.
But, you might say, once you get into human history then individual decisions, choices, and actions are important. I pondered this for a long time. I finally realized that people are not any different from any other organism or particle. Circumstances lead to particular outcomes and the characters on the stage are just actors filling their roles. In Rome there was a generalized want for a leader to take charge. If Caesar had been killed in Gaul, then Anthony or someone else would have risen to power. Maybe Rome would have stayed a republic, in name only perhaps, but the overall arc of history would have stayed the same with Rome conquering and then finally being conquered. Caesar bedded many women. Presumably he had many children. Did that make any difference in the big picture? No. Was Mussolini his descendant? Only in his mind.
Individuals have a huge amount of control over their own lives, but overall the timeline is unaffected. Alexander set up Macedonian kings in the lands he conquered. They kept Macedonian habits but within a couple of generations their descendants had adopted Persian, or Egyptian, or Afghani, or Mogul habits and behaviours. They controlled their own lives but the overwhelming local culture swallowed them up. The same thing happened to the Romans that moved to Egypt, the Spanish that lived among the Inca, and my ancestors that moved from Italy and Norway to the US. Within a generation, my great great grandparents were indistinguishable from the citizens that had lived in the US since the revolution.
The timeline heals itself because of pressure from the mass of humanity. Particular points in time call for a particular role. If someone were to go back and kill Washington, someone else would have stepped up and done much the same thing as either of those individuals. Possibly Benedict Arnold would be the father of the Country, he certainly thought he should be. Situations bring about people in history, not the other way around. If Hitler had died in WWI the National Socialists would have found some other charismatic personality to lead them into the ’30s and ’40’s. If the war in North Africa had not been Patton vs Rommel then it would have been someone else vs someone else. Maybe World War 2 would have ended a few months earlier or later but the overall outcome would have been the same. History heals itself. If Einstein had not been born someone else would have discovered E=MC2. Maybe not on the same date but close enough to develop an atomic bomb in the mid ’40s. The state of knowledge at that point in time was leading to SOMEONE putting the pieces together. If I go back to the year 10AD and make a few changes the Pope may now be praying in St. Malcolm’s Cathedral but the rest of the structure and the bureaucracy would be more or less the same.
It’s also important to understand that while a few people are noted in history and they are replaceable, most people leave no mark at all. If you drive through a swarm of 50 mosquitos and kill half of them it does not make any difference in the big picture which 25 survive. The bat that comes by tomorrow night will still get a meal. However each of those mosquitos has a choice where it goes and when it will fly. In WWI millions were killed, and millions survived. In the 20s the survivors had children. In WW2 those children went to war. Which people survived WWI to produce kids was not really important. WWII happened anyway. It did not make any difference who lived and who died to the overall line of history. WWII happened to a great deal because of the mis handling of the Treaty of Versailles which was done for political reasons driven by masses of people. The Depression and rise of Fascism in a number of places around the world was not a single choice. It was the aggregate opinion of millions of people that wanted that kind of authoritarian government. Individual electrons, deer, or people, are unimportant on the grand scale. If Great Britain had sided with Germany and Italy with the Allies in WWII, the overall result likely would have been the same, with detailed differences. The movie Wonderful Life got it wrong. Society and culture and recorded history are the product of MASSES of people making decisions, not individuals. If Oswald had not killed Kennedy then Kennedy would have signed the Voting Rights Act, not Johnson, but it would have been signed. In the big picture it made no difference if it were Bush or Gore in the White House. If Obama had lost then McCain would have ended up doing more or less the same things. Whomever was president in 1941 would have lead the US into WWII. If Grant had died during the Civil War then history books would mention President Seymore but the US would be more or less the way it is now.
I want to make it clear that the timeline is not fixed. What will happen twenty or a hundred years from today is not written in some grand fixed universal script. A bunch of snowflakes will cause an avalanche, but the timing is not fixed. Japan decided to attack on December 7th. They could have chosen November 30 or December 14th just as well. If Britain had supported NAtionalist China better they might have driven the Japanese out and been able to deal with Mao Tse Tung. The timeline could have ended up different, but only if groups had been influanced to take a different path. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 could have just as easily happened in 1940 and the result would have dramatically changed Japan’s plans for war. Possibly they may never have attacked Pearl Harbour. This would have dramatically impacted the European war and the ripples would have continued down the time line. History is flexable and changeable, but individuals cannot change it.
Which brings us to time travel. The classic example of a timeline contradiction is if you went back and killed your own grandfather, you won’t be born so you can’t go back to do the deed. It ignores the fact that your grandmother would probably have married someone else. Someone more or less like you would still have been born. They would grow up in the same culture and familial environment so the you Mk-II would have more or less the same interests and would still want to go back and kill their own grandfather, or maybe they wouldn’t want to. Either way, the ripples would die out and overall the timeline would continue on.
So if you go back in time, don’t worry about changing history. It will heal itself.
Another aspect often used in Time Travel fiction is the idea of a Time Loop. The idea is that once you go back in time, you can change something that will cause you to, at a later point, go back and change the same thing. The idea is that once you are in a time loop you will go around forever, trapped in this cycle. The Sloppy Universe resolves this. First, because you are still living, each time you go through the loop you would be older than the last time. Eventually you would simply die, breaking the loop. However, on a deeper level, time loops are like perpetual motion; entropy and thermodynamics keep them from running forever. Each time you go through, the loop would be a little different. There would be more and more deviation from the original line until eventually the loop will break of its own accord.
A Sloppy Universe would allow for time travel because time travel would not produce contradictions. The timeline would heal itself. A Sloppy Universe is not strictly deterministic because you do have free will to impact you and your life, it’s just that the further away something is from whatever you do, the less impact your actions will have. A butterfly cannot flap it’s wings in Tokyo and cause a hurricane in Florida. Charles Manson had virtually no impact on rural Thailand. Individual particles or organisms only impact their local. A Sloppy Universe would mean that there is one timeline that you could theoretically travel up and down without worrying about messing up the future. If you were to meet yourself, so what? You can cause local perturbations but not impact the overall structure.You can decide to hide in your basement and try to live for as long as possible or you can go walking on the freeway this afternoon and end it all today. It does not matter because individual organisms, systems, or particles only have a local impact. Groups of Organisms or particles or objects have a larger impact proportional to their size and reach. However no particle causes the reaction, no person causes the revolution, no planet breaks up the solar system, no exploding star destroys the galexy.
The Universe is a sloppy place that does not hang on the fate of any single particle.
In Part three we’ll look at the implications of a Sloppy Universe