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Grandfather paradox

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The grandfather paradox is a proposed paradox of time travel first described by the science fiction writer Nathaniel Schachner in his short story Ancestral Voices[1] and by René Barjavel in his 1943 book Future Times Three.[2] The paradox is described as follows: the time traveller goes back in time and kills his grandfather before his grandfather meets his grandmother. As a result, the time traveller is never born. But, if he was never born, then he is unable to travel through time and kill his grandfather, which means the traveller would then be born after all, and so on.

Despite the name, the grandfather paradox does not exclusively regard the impossibility of one's own birth. Rather, it regards any action that eliminates the cause or means of traveling back in time. The paradox's namesake example is merely the most commonly thought of when one considers the whole range of possible actions. Another example would be using scientific knowledge to invent a time machine, then going back in time and (whether through murder or otherwise) impeding a scientist's work that would eventually lead to the invention of the time machine. An equivalent paradox is known (in philosophy) as autoinfanticide, going back in time and killing oneself as a baby.[3]

Assuming the causal link between the time traveller's present and future, the grandfather paradox that disrupts that link may be regarded as impossible (thus precluding the arbitrary alteration of one's fate). However, a number of hypotheses have been postulated[citation needed] to avoid the paradox, such as the idea that the past is unchangeable, so the grandfather must have already survived the attempted killing (as stated earlier); or the time traveller creates—or joins—an alternate timeline or parallel universe[4] in which the traveller was never born.

A variant of the grandfather paradox is the Hitler paradox or Hitler's murder paradox,[5] a fairly frequent trope in science fiction, in which the protagonist travels back in time to murder Adolf Hitler before he can instigate World War II. Rather than necessarily physically preventing time travel, the action removes any reason for the travel, along with any knowledge that the reason ever existed, thus removing any point in travelling in time in the first place.[6] Additionally, the consequences of Hitler's existence are so monumental and all-encompassing that for anyone born in the decades after World War II, it is likely that the grandfather paradox would directly apply in some way.[7]

Scientific theories[edit]

Novikov self-consistency principle[edit]

The Novikov self-consistency principle expresses one view on how backwards time travel could be possible without a danger of paradoxes. According to this hypothesis, the only possible time lines are those entirely self-consistent—so anything a time traveller does in the past must have been part of history all along, and the time traveller can never do anything to prevent the trip back in time from happening, since this would represent an inconsistency. Nicholas J. J. Smith argues, for example, that if some time traveller killed the child who lived at his old address, this would ipso facto necessitate that the child was not the time traveller's younger self, nor the younger self of anyone alive in the time frame that the time traveller came from. This could be extrapolated further into the possibility that the child's death led to the family moving away, which in turn led to the time traveller's family moving into the house guaranteeing that the house later became the home the time traveller would then grow up in, forming a predestination paradox.

Seth Lloyd and other researchers at MIT have proposed an expanded version of the Novikov principle, according to which probability bends to prevent paradoxes from occurring. Outcomes would become stranger as one approaches a forbidden act, as the universe must favor improbable events to prevent impossible ones.[8][9]

It might be argued that the ordinary concept of human "free will" is equivalent to this sort of time-travel paradox, for if one could travel back in time to change a future relative to that past space time interval, then how would that be distinguishable, in principle, from the everyday choices and decisions considered to be freely made within any space time frame taken as the "present"?

One might build a more plausible case for the prohibition of classical time-travel simply by considering how it might violate several conservation laws by the duplication of matter along a single space time line and perhaps require a near-universal redistribution of mass-energy.

Parallel universes[edit]

There could be "an ensemble of parallel universes" such that when the traveller kills the grandfather, the act took place in (or resulted in the creation of) a parallel universe where the traveller's counterpart never exists as a result. However, his prior existence in the original universe is unaltered. Succinctly, this explanation states that: if time travel is possible, then multiple versions of the future exist in parallel universes. This theory would also apply if a person went back in time to shoot himself, because in the past he would be dead as in the future he would be alive and well.

Examples of parallel universes postulated in physics are:

  • In quantum mechanics, the many-worlds interpretation suggests that every seemingly random quantum event with a non-zero probability actually occurs in all possible ways in different "worlds", so that history is constantly branching into different alternatives. The physicist David Deutsch has argued that if backwards time travel is possible, it should result in the traveller ending up in a different branch of history than the one he departed from.[10] In 2014, researchers published a simulation validating Deutsch's model with photons.[11] Tim Ralph, one of the authors, explained that in the closed timelike curve (CTC) simulation, "The state we got at our output, the second photon at the simulated exit of the CTC, was the same as that of our input, the first encoded photon at the CTC entrance."[12] See also quantum suicide and immortality.
  • M-theory is put forward as a hypothetical master theory that unifies the six superstring theories, although at present it is largely incomplete. One possible consequence of ideas drawn from M-theory is that multiple universes in the form of 3-Dimensional membranes known as branes could exist side-by-side in a fourth large spatial dimension (which is distinct from the concept of time as a fourth dimension)—see Brane cosmology. However, there is currently no argument from physics that there would be one brane for each physically possible version of history as in the many-worlds interpretation, nor is there any argument that time travel would take one to a different brane.

Other considerations[edit]

Consideration of the grandfather paradox has led some to the idea that time travel is by its very nature paradoxical and therefore logically impossible, on the same order as round squares. For example, the philosopher Bradley Dowden made this sort of argument in the textbook Logical Reasoning, where he wrote:

But, some philosophers and scientists believe that time travel into the past need not be logically impossible provided that there is no possibility of changing the past, as suggested, for example, by the Novikov self-consistency principle. Bradley Dowden himself revised the view above after being convinced of this in an exchange with the philosopher Norman Swartz.[13]

Consideration of the possibility of backwards time travel in a hypothetical universe described by a Gödel metric led famed logician Kurt Gödel to assert that time might itself be a sort of illusion.[14][15] He seems to have been suggesting something along the lines of the block time view in which time does not really "flow" but is just another dimension like space, with all events at all times being fixed within this 4-dimensional "block".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schachner, Nathaniel (December 1933), "Ancestral Voices", Astounding Stories (Street & Smith Publications, Inc.), VOLUME XII, NUMBER 4 ; actually, the story refers to an ancestor of the time traveller not his grandfather.
  2. ^ Barjavel, René (1943). Le voyageur imprudent ("The imprudent traveller"). ; actually, the book refers to an ancestor of the time traveller not his grandfather.
  3. ^ Horwich, Paul (1987). Asymmetries in Time. Cambridge, MIT Press. p. 116. 
    When the term was coined[citation needed] by Paul Horwich, he used the term autofanticide.
  4. ^ See also Alfred Bester, The Men Who Murdered Mohammed, published in 1958, just the year following Everett's Ph.D thesis
  5. ^ Eugenia Williamson (6 April 2013). "Book review : Life after Life’ by Kate Atkinson". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 9 August 2013. Google the phrase “go back in time and,” and the search engine will suggest completing the phrase with a simple directive: “kill Hitler.” The appeal of murdering the Nazi dictator is so great that it has its own subgenre within speculative fiction, a trope known as “Hitler’s murder paradox” in which a time traveller journeys back far enough to nip the leader — and World War II — in the bud, typically with unexpected consequences. 
  6. ^ Brennan, J. (2002). Time Travel: A New Perspective. Llewellyn Publications. p. 23. ISBN 9781567180855. A variation on the grandfather paradox . . . is the Hitler paradox. In this one you travel back in time to murder Hitler before he starts the Second World War, thus saving millions of lives. But if you murder Hitler in, say, 1938, then the Second World War will never come about and you will have no reason to travel back in time to murder Hitler! 
  7. ^ Esther Inglis-Arkell (2012). "Are we running out of time to kill Hitler via time travel?". io9. Retrieved 2013-08-12. 
  8. ^ Laura Sanders, "Physicists Tame Time Travel by Forbidding You to Kill Your Grandfather", Wired, 20 July 2010. "But this dictum against paradoxical events causes possible unlikely events to happen more frequently. 'If you make a slight change in the initial conditions, the paradoxical situation won’t happen. That looks like a good thing, but what it means is that if you’re very near the paradoxical condition, then slight differences will be extremely amplified,' says Charles Bennett of IBM’s Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York."
  9. ^ Seth Lloyd et al., "The quantum mechanics of time travel through post-selected teleportation",, submitted 15 July 2010, revised 19 July 2010.
  10. ^ Deutsch, David (1991). "Quantum mechanics near closed timeline curves". Physical Review D 44 (10): 3197–3217. Bibcode:1991PhRvD..44.3197D. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.44.3197. 
  11. ^ Martin Ringbauer; Matthew A. Broome; Casey R. Myers; Andrew G. White; Timothy C. Ralph (19 Jun 2014). "Experimental simulation of closed timelike curves". Nature Communications 5. arXiv:1501.05014. Bibcode:2014NatCo...5E4145R. doi:10.1038/ncomms5145. 
  12. ^ Lee Billings (2 Sep 2014). "Time Travel Simulation Resolves 'Grandfather Paradox'". Scientific American. Retrieved 24 September 2014. 
  13. ^ "Dowden-Swartz Exchange". 
  14. ^ Yourgrau, Palle (2004). A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy Of Godel And Einstein. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-09293-4. 
  15. ^ Holt, Jim (2005-02-21). "Time Bandits". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2006-10-19. 

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