A causal loop, in the context of time travel or retrocausality, is a sequence of events (actions, information, objects, people) in which an event is among the causes of another event, which in turn is among the causes of the first-mentioned event. Such causally-looped events then exist in spacetime, but their origin cannot be determined. A theorized example of a causality loop is given of a billiard ball striking its past self: the billiard ball moves in a path towards a time machine, and the future self of the billiard ball emerges from the time machine before its past self enters it, giving its past self a glancing blow, altering the past ball's path and causing it to enter the time machine at an angle that would cause its future self to strike its past self the very glancing blow that altered its path.
Terminology in physics, philosophy, and fiction
Backwards time travel would allow for causal loops involving events, information, or objects whose histories form a closed loop, and thus seem to "come from nowhere." The notion of objects or information which are "self-existing" in this way is often viewed as paradoxical, with several authors referring to a causal loop involving information or objects without origin as a bootstrap paradox, an information paradox, or an ontological paradox. The use of "bootstrap" in this context refers to the expression "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" and to Robert A. Heinlein's time travel story By His Bootstraps.
An example of this type of paradox involving information is given by Everett: suppose a time traveler copies a mathematical proof from a textbook, then travels back in time to meet the mathematician who first published the proof, at a date prior to publication, and allows the mathematician to simply copy the proof. In this case, the information in the proof has no origin. Everett gives the movies Somewhere in Time as an example involving an object with no origin: an old woman gives a watch to a playwright who later travels back in time and meets the same woman when she was young, and gives her the same watch that she will later give to him.
Krasnikov writes that these bootstrap paradoxes - information or an object looping through time - are the same; the primary apparent paradox is a physical system evolving into a state in a way that is not governed by its laws. He does not find this paradoxical, and attributes problems regarding the validity of time travel to other factors in the interpretation of general relativity.
A 1992 paper by physicists Andrei Lossev and Igor Novikov labeled such items without origin as Jinn, with the singular term Jinnee. This terminology was inspired by the Jinn of the Quran, which are described as leaving no trace when they disappear. Lossev and Novikov allowed the term "Jinn" to cover both objects and information with reflexive origin; they called the former "Jinn of the first kind", and the latter "Jinn of the second kind". They point out that an object making circular passage through time must be identical whenever it is brought back to the past, otherwise it would create an inconsistency; the second law of thermodynamics seems to require that the object become more disordered over the course of its history, and such objects that are identical in repeating points in their history seem to contradict this, but Lossev and Novikov argued that since the second law only requires disorder to increase in closed systems, a Jinnee could interact with its environment in such a way as to regain lost order. They emphasize that there is no "strict difference" between Jinn of the first and second kind. Krasnikov equivocates betwenn "Jinn", "self-sufficient loops", and "self-existing objects", calling them "lions" or "looping or intruding objects", and asserts that they are no less physical than conventional objects, "which, after all, also could appear only from either infinity, or a singularity."
The term predestination paradox is used in the Star Trek franchise to mean "a time loop in which a time traveler who has gone into the past causes an event that ultimately causes the original future version of the person to go back into the past." This use of the phrase was created for a sequence in a 1996 episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine titled "Trials and Tribble-ations", although the phrase had been used previously to refer to belief systems such as Calvinism and some forms of Marxism which encouraged followers to strive to produce certain outcomes while at the same time teaching that the outcomes were predetermined. Smeenk and Morgenstern use the term "predestination paradox" to refer specifically to situations in which a time traveler goes back in time to try to prevent some event in the past, but ends up helping to cause that same event.
A self-fulfilling prophecy may be a form of causality loop, only when the prophecy can be said to be truly known to occur, since only then events in the future will be causing effects in the past. Otherwise, it would be a simple case of events in the past causing events in the future. Predestination does not necessarily involve a supernatural power, and could be the result of other "infallible foreknowledge" mechanisms. Problems arising from infallibility and influencing the future are explored in Newcomb's paradox. A notable fictional example of a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs in classical play Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus becomes the king of Thebes, whilst in the process unwittingly fulfills a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The prophecy itself serves as the impetus for his actions, and thus it is self-fulfilling. The movie 12 Monkeys heavily deals with themes of predestination and the Cassandra complex, where the protagonist who travels back in time explains that he can't change the past.
Novikov self-consistency principle
General relativity permits some exact solutions that allow for time travel. Some of these exact solutions describe universes that contain closed timelike curves, or world lines that lead back to the same point in spacetime. Physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov discussed the possibility of closed timelike curves in his books in 1975 and 1983, offering the opinion that only self-consistent trips back in time would be permitted. In a 1990 paper by Novikov and several others, "Cauchy problem in spacetimes with closed timelike curves", the authors suggested the principle of self-consistency, which states that the only solutions to the laws of physics that can occur locally in the real Universe are those which are globally self-consistent. The authors later concluded that time travel need not lead to unresolvable paradoxes, regardless of what type of object was sent to the past.
Physicist Joseph Polchinski argued that one could avoid questions of free will by considering a potentially paradoxical situation involving a billiard ball sent back in time. In this scenario, the ball is fired into a wormhole at an angle such that, if it continues along that path, it will exit the wormhole in the past at just the right angle to collide with its earlier self, thereby knocking it off course and preventing it from entering the wormhole in the first place. Thorne deemed this problem "Polchinski's paradox". Two students at Caltech, Fernando Echeverria and Gunnar Klinkhammer, were able to find a solution beginning with the original billiard ball trajectory proposed by Polchinski which managed to avoid any inconsistencies. In this situation, the billiard ball emerges from the future at a different angle than the one used to generate the paradox, and delivers its past self a glancing blow instead of knocking it completely away from the wormhole, a blow which changes its trajectory in just the right way so that it will travel back in time with the angle required to deliver its younger self this glancing blow. Echeverria and Klinkhammer actually found that there was more than one self-consistent solution, with slightly different angles for the glancing blow in each case. Later analysis by Thorne and Robert Forward showed that for certain initial trajectories of the billiard ball, there could actually be an infinite number of self-consistent solutions.
Echeverria, Klinkhammer and Thorne published a paper discussing these results in 1991; in addition, they reported that they had tried to see if they could find any initial conditions for the billiard ball for which there were no self-consistent extensions, but were unable to do so. Thus it is plausible that there exist self-consistent extensions for every possible initial trajectory, although this has not been proven. This only applies to initial conditions which are outside of the chronology-violating region of spacetime, which is bounded by a Cauchy horizon. The authors of Cauchy problem in spacetimes with closed timelike curves write:
- The simplest way to impose the principle of self-consistency in quantum mechanics (in a classical space-time) is by a sum-over-histories formulation in which one includes all those, and only those, histories that are self-consistent. It turns out that, at least formally (modulo such issues as the convergence of the sum), for every choice of the billiard ball's initial, nonrelativistic wave function before the Cauchy horizon, such a sum over histories produces unique, self-consistent probabilities for the outcomes of all sets of subsequent measurements. ... We suspect, more generally, that for any quantum system in a classical wormhole spacetime with a stable Cauchy horizon, the sum over all self-consistent histories will give unique, self-consistent probabilities for the outcomes of all sets of measurements that one might choose to make.
Thus self-consist causal loops are suspected to be physically possible.
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