PDA

View Full Version : Ethics of Precognition



Tog
2006-Jun-27, 09:13 AM
::Warning:: Woo ahead. And a spoiler of sorts in the first pargraph.

Probably one of the best Episodes of Star Trek, at least from a story view, was "City on the Edge of Forever". There is a portal that pulls McCoy back to Earth circa mid 1930's. He prevents a woman from getting killed in a traffic accident and this allows Germany to win WWII. Kirk goes back to a point slightly before McCoy, and knowig what must happen to preserve the timeline, allows the woman to be killed by stopping McCoy from saving her.


Since then, the preservation of the timeline has popped up... a lot would be an understatement... in Trek. They go back in time more often than I go to the store. Now flash over to The Dead Zone. I saw the movie, but have never seen the series. The premise looks the same though. A man gets hurt in an accident and goes into a coma for several years. When he comes out, he learns that he has opened up a part of the brain that generally goes unused. This dead zone in the brain allows him to see the future of a person when he touches them. In the move, he shook hands with an up and comming politician and saw that the man would become President, and start a nuclear (or nu-cue-lar if it's said by Jack Bauer) war. He asks his friend and Dr if he met Hitler in 1930, and knew what he would do 10 years later, what he would do. The Dr. replied with something like, "Being a doctor, and dedicated to easing suffering and protecting life, I'd have no choice but to kill the (forum rules violaion and Blake Edwards' movie)".

My question here is: How is this different? If a person can see the future with 100% accuracy, and is in a position to change it, wouldn't that be considered altering the time line the same as if a person who remembers it as history goes back in time and changes it?

I'm mainly looking for opinions. It's for a story idea, and right now, I'm leaning toward yes, it would be an ethical violation to alter a future event.

gwiz
2006-Jun-27, 09:37 AM
If time travel is possible, there's no fixed future to preserve, it's not a timeline so much as a tangled web.

If it's not possible, no problem.

mid
2006-Jun-27, 10:12 AM
You don't even need time travel, though. If the precognitive person performs acts based on their vision of the future, they are either capable of altering that future, in which case it's a really complex mess to get involved in, or they can't, in which case it's all ineviatable.

Fiction, however, teaches us that if we use our knowledge of the future to try to prevent it, those are precisely the actions that will cause it nine times out of ten. (obviously I won't give examples, as they would be gigantic spoilers for the films and novels concerned).

Gillianren
2006-Jun-27, 10:35 AM
Actually, I'm pretty sure that in the book, the doctor said he wouldn't do it because it wouldn't do any good, but my copy's in the living room and there's someone asleep on my couch. The doctor's reasoning (it might've been someone else's somewhere else; I haven't read The Dead Zone in a while, I don't much watch the TV show, and I've never seen the movie) was that killing Hitler in and of itself would not necessarily solve anything, given the political and socioeconomic situation of the time.

Which I think is a decent point. There are so many factors leading up to any one event that we tend to just kind of pick one as being it cause; see Archduke Franz Ferdinand and WWI.

Romanus
2006-Jun-27, 04:16 PM
<<My question here is: How is this different? If a person can see the future with 100% accuracy, and is in a position to change it, wouldn't that be considered altering the time line the same as if a person who remembers it as history goes back in time and changes it?>>

Not really, IMO. A person who sees the future and is in a position to change it is only in the realm of potential, not actuality. The person who goes back in time to actually change past events, is working in actuality and not potential. In short, the "prophet" sees but does not necessarily do, while the time traveler sees *and* does. Of course, there is the thorny question of whether the prophet is even capable of altering the future; if he sees it, hasn't it already come to pass?

stutefish
2006-Jun-27, 08:39 PM
My twofold theory of the time continuum is this:

1. Attempts to change the past must result in future history substantially identical to the original history.

Example: I desire to go back in time and kill Hitler, for obvious reasons. However, this desire arises only because Hitler was not, in fact, killed. Therefore, I conclude that all attempts to kill Hitler have only conspired to keep him alive and set him on the course charted by history.

2. But that's all moot anyway, as "time" isn't really a "dimension" or a "continuum" so much as it is an idea, a tool for measuring state changes.

Thus, "going back in time" isn't like "going down a road". Rather, it's more like "resetting the state of everything in the universe to some earlier configuration, at which point everything will be as it was n seconds ago, and you can then try to alter the sequence of state changes yet to come".

Since the ability to change the state of every quantum in the universe (and to know with exactitude all the earlier states of all the quantum) strikes me as a truly godlike power, beyond even the most advanced non-deity civilizations ever conceived in fiction, I conclude that time travel is not, in fact, possible.

HenrikOlsen
2006-Jun-28, 03:09 AM
You don't even need time travel, though. If the precognitive person performs acts based on their vision of the future, they are either capable of altering that future, in which case it's a really complex mess to get involved in, or they can't, in which case it's all ineviatable.

Fiction, however, teaches us that if we use our knowledge of the future to try to prevent it, those are precisely the actions that will cause it nine times out of ten. (obviously I won't give examples, as they would be gigantic spoilers for the films and novels concerned).
Precognition requires information to travel back in time, thus prequires timetravel.

Ara Pacis
2006-Jun-28, 03:10 AM
It depends on your ethics (they are a dime a dozen). Killing Hitler before he commits a crime would be a crime itself. But, other forms of changing history may be ethical if they favor free will, such as persuading hitler to follow another course of action.

Seeing the future probably has fewer ethical issues since there is not really a paradox in that frame of reference. A future changer is a participant instead of an interloper.

HenrikOlsen
2006-Jun-28, 03:28 AM
Just buying a couple of his paintings to stop him from hating everything might do the trick. :)

Inferno
2006-Jun-28, 03:34 AM
Interesing idea. Guess the difference is that the time traveller knows how history turns out. The precognitive person now matter how much the believe in their powers can still never be 100% confident that what they see will come to pass.

Ara Pacis
2006-Jun-28, 06:56 AM
A precognitive person may not have a paradox but they might may have a conundrum because, like inferno suggested, they will never know if their power is true. This is because their actions may actually prevent the event that would have occured without their interaction. But then you need to wonder about what type of interaction the precognition had with the person and what interaction the person had with the event. Maybe the Uncertainty Principle or Chaos Theory makes the act of knowing the future enough to preclude it. It may be that the more truly precognitive a person is the less accurate they actually are.

There may be a few equally woo hypothesis that are somewhat more plausible. Instead of sensing the future directly, it may be mere clairvoyance of intentions of other humans (like telepathy). Clairvoyance of this kind would not work with inanimate objects, like asteroid impacts.

Another possibility is that the precognitive person is actually pre-remembering ("premembering") actual events that person will later experience. If you've ever read Heinlein's "Lifeline" you might get an idea of the concept, if not the actual mechanism. In my limited experience with prima facie precognition anecdotes, the more credible claims seem to have a pre-visual element. This means that people see or sense something that they will later actually see or sense in the first person instead of seeing it from a 2nd or 3rd person point of view. Tele-precognition, seeing things in the future far away, sometimes even take the form of a TV visual, thus, explaining some of the pseudo 3rd person (so-called god-like) perspectives. Of course this is all hypothetical and unproven.

Ronald Brak
2006-Jun-28, 07:27 AM
My theory is that you can go back in time and kill your parents before you were born because the universe doesn't really care what stupid primates do to each other.

Mellow
2006-Jul-05, 08:34 AM
I think Gillianren has it right....


Actually, I'm pretty sure that in the book, the doctor said he wouldn't do it because it wouldn't do any good, but my copy's in the living room and there's someone asleep on my couch. The doctor's reasoning (it might've been someone else's somewhere else; I haven't read The Dead Zone in a while, I don't much watch the TV show, and I've never seen the movie) was that killing Hitler in and of itself would not necessarily solve anything, given the political and socioeconomic situation of the time.

Which I think is a decent point. There are so many factors leading up to any one event that we tend to just kind of pick one as being it cause; see Archduke Franz Ferdinand and WWI.

people think that making one change affects history, try reading "The Science of Discworld III - Darwins Watch" it deals with this very eloquently and with lots oftop quality science to boot!

Tog
2006-Jul-05, 08:54 AM
Oh, I won't doubt that Gilliamren is right about the book. I've never read it, and may have been changed for the movie. I recall the Drs line very clearly.

Thanks for the replies all. I've got an idea for a story that deals with precognition that I really like, but I can't think of anything to do with it.

Gillianren
2006-Jul-06, 01:03 AM
Oh, I won't doubt that Gilliamren is right about the book. I've never read it, and may have been changed for the movie. I recall the Drs line very clearly.

Um, "Gillianren," please. And if they changed it, that's yet another example of how Stephen King is often badly translated onto the screen, because the doctor had a valid point which is then obscured because it involves thinking.

Tog
2006-Jul-06, 06:35 AM
Um, "Gillianren," please. And if they changed it, that's yet another example of how Stephen King is often badly translated onto the screen, because the doctor had a valid point which is then obscured because it involves thinking.

Sorry... I'd like to claim that one was a typo but a lot of times when I type, I get letters mixed in completely at random. B and P get confused a lot and there is no way to blame that on fat fingers. I do try to be more careful when using a specific name. My apologies.

I had never read a King Book or even story until very recently, mainly because I had seen a lot of the movies and most of them were really bad. It left me with no desire to read them. The GF was a huge fan (until the last Dark Tower book) and got me to read a few of the short stories, most of which I really liked.

Gillianren
2006-Jul-06, 07:48 AM
I had never read a King Book or even story until very recently, mainly because I had seen a lot of the movies and most of them were really bad. It left me with no desire to read them. The GF was a huge fan (until the last Dark Tower book) and got me to read a few of the short stories, most of which I really liked.

Well, the movies do tend to suck, yes. That's why you should read the books instead. (Now, I admit I do know people who don't like Stephen King's books, but even they acknowledge that the books are way better than almost all the movies.) I mean, for heaven's sake, the man sued to get his name taken off The Lawnmower Man because it had literally nothing to do with his original (six-page) story.

eburacum45
2006-Jul-06, 10:29 AM
The idea of precognition and any moral responsibility attached to it is fascinating one.
One simple scenario could be as follows;

Person A starts getting visions of the future. She finds out that they are accurate by comparing the visions to the subsequent events. As an experiment she attempts to change the course of future events, and finds that this is possible.
Let’s say that she finds that she is 100% accurate in her precognition in every case except those in which she acts to change the course of events.

This places a heavy moral responsibility on Person A’s shoulders, as she can act to avert any bad event which she has precognition of. This is something like the responsibility everybody has to try to diminish the possibility of danger in everyday life. Two factors complicate this responsibility; one it that Person A might try to avert a bad event and fail, and feel guilt for this failure; another factor is the possibility that the precognition might be false despite her previous experiences.

Now how would the precognition work from a physical point of view? If real information is passing from the future to the past, that would explain the accuracy of the precognition. But it wouldn’t explain the fact that Person A has the ability to change events such that they differ from the information sent back from the future.

If the information sent back was originally accurate, that means that the ‘timeline’ has been changed by Person A’s actions; the original timeline (in which the events predicted did occur) has branched off and now exists only as a source of the original message. This could either be part of a myriad branching ‘multiple worlds’ or ‘Many Worlds’ scenario, where every action with more than one possible outcome creates a new timeline; or it could possibly be that the original branch simply ceases to exist except for the forlorn messages that were sent back in the first place. Messages from a future which never happened.

An alternative possibility is that the precognition was predictive, rather than sent as a message back in time. A massively powerful computer might predict all the events in the physical world with such accuracy that it can give an account of future events beforehand. This computer could transmit the results of its prognostications to Person A as visions. In this case there is no reversal of time, or of causality, and there is no paradox if Person A acts on this knowledge to change future events.
But such a computer could not possibly exist, events in the physical world are too complex, and are governed at least partly by the Uncertainty Principle which precludes such prediction.
Or could it? The most powerful processing device known to humanity is the human brain; this appears to operate at least partly on a quantum level. Perhaps the task of accurate prediction is not entirely beyond the human brain in some (as yet unguessed) fashion.
Just a handwavy argument to explain something that probably could never happen.

So with a predictive vision of the future, dredged up by whatever means from the depths of the human mind, Person A would have freedom to change the future without fear of changing or destroying timelines, although the weight of responsibility would still be there.

SeanF
2006-Jul-06, 01:26 PM
You know, I never watched the show Early Edition (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115163/), but I can't help wondering if it ever dealt with this particular moral issue.

Ara Pacis
2006-Jul-06, 06:30 PM
And sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. Imagine a world where someone succeeds in going back in time and killing Hitler before he became chancellor. Imagine if his sucessor had also become chancellor but was less crazy and didn't scare away the physicists and they stayed and built nuclear bombs and V2 rockets before the new guy started invading the rest of europe.

Gillianren
2006-Jul-06, 08:30 PM
You know, I never watched the show Early Edition (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115163/), but I can't help wondering if it ever dealt with this particular moral issue.

I'm pretty sure it did, but I'd have to ask my boyfriend, who's the one who watched it.

Chuck
2006-Jul-06, 10:50 PM
In Early Edition, Gary Hobson was mostly stopping obvious tragedies from occurring. It's like if I saw a pregnant woman about to step in front of a car. Should I warn her or keep my mouth shut because she might give birth to the next Hitler? Hobson's information came from a day ahead but I don't see that as being fundamentally different. If I interfere with an immediate tragedy I might be making things worse for a lot of people in the long run but there's just as much chance that I'd be making things better. Life is too complex to make any sort of long range prediction. Without knowing, all I can do is deal with the immediate problem.

As I remember, some of his rescues did have undesirable side effects but he was always able to handle those too. The newspaper changed whenever he changed something. I think he basically decided that the unknown source of the newspaper was providing him with it for the good of humanity and he felt duty bound to save the victims that it reported. He had faith in a higher power.

Musashi
2006-Jul-09, 08:36 AM
Would that make it a Hobson's choice? ;)

Humots
2006-Jul-10, 12:28 AM
Just buying a couple of his paintings to stop him from hating everything might do the trick. :)

There is a novel by Robert Heinlein in which a group of time travellers is altering the past . A character says that when they want to get rid of someone like Hitler, nine times out of ten it is simply a matter of providing someone with a contraceptive at the right time.

Chuck
2006-Jul-10, 01:54 AM
They could also abduct Hitler from his trench in World War One when no one was watching and let him live out his days in the future. They'd have a version of him from before he committed any crimes so he could be employed as a historian or something. He might even approve if they tell him what would have happened otherwise.

Gillianren
2006-Jul-10, 02:44 AM
I wouldn't be too sure about that. I mean, it's impossible to know, of course, but he might have had serious mental health problems that would make him just as much a danger now as he was then.

ASEI
2006-Jul-10, 02:58 AM
Why is it almost universally assumed that knowledge of the future allows you to prevent/alter it from happening? (And that just invalidates your original knowledge of the future, considering it had to come from somewhere) And why this preferential treatment of the future? Why wouldn't knowledge of the past enable you to propogate alterations in the other direction?

Furthermore, why this preferential treatment of time travel vs. space travel? Just because information comes to you about an event at a distance, it doesn't put you in a "special" position to erase the occurence of the event. Why so when it comes to you from the future (or past)? For information about an event to reach you, the event has to occur.

Positing multiple universes and special roles for decisionmakers seems to me like a big fat target for a heat-seeking Occam's razor. :-P

Yoshua
2006-Jul-11, 12:41 AM
Why is it almost universally assumed that knowledge of the future allows you to prevent/alter it from happening? (And that just invalidates your original knowledge of the future, considering it had to come from somewhere) And why this preferential treatment of the future? Why wouldn't knowledge of the past enable you to propogate alterations in the other direction?

Furthermore, why this preferential treatment of time travel vs. space travel? Just because information comes to you about an event at a distance, it doesn't put you in a "special" position to erase the occurence of the event. Why so when it comes to you from the future (or past)? For information about an event to reach you, the event has to occur.

Positing multiple universes and special roles for decisionmakers seems to me like a big fat target for a heat-seeking Occam's razor. :-P

I thought about that too. If one could see future events and intervene, then shouldn't these precognitive episodes include the intervention, or attempted intervention? Otherwise it cannot be said that they see the future with 100% accuracy. If they do see themselves in these visions, do they really have a choice in the matter of to act or not to act?

I wonder how much confidence one could really have in such visions if they are constantly allowed to change things, but never are shown themselves affecting the outcome of future events. Or if they do see themselves affecting things, the sort of affect that would have on the person. I would not be a happy camper to learn that nothing I do is really of my own volition, but just following some preordained pattern.

Chuck
2006-Jul-11, 01:44 AM
If you can't change the future then the trick is to avoid seeing too much. If you see yourself being killed then it's all over for you. If all you see is your obituary in next week's newspaper then it's not certain that you actually died. You can submit the obituary yourself so it would have nothing to do with your actual living or dying.

HenrikOlsen
2006-Jul-12, 08:15 PM
I wouldn't be too sure about that. I mean, it's impossible to know, of course, but he might have had serious mental health problems that would make him just as much a danger now as he was then.
He'd be much more dangerous now than he was then, the way the media are monopolized with almost no regulation today would have Göbbles extatic with the propagada possibilities.

As for changing the past of other people, one of the stories I like had William Proxmire go back in the past to stop Heinlein becoming a science fiction writer, since he saw sf as the cause of all the stuff he was against, and Hewinlein as one of the chief exponents.
He did it by giving Heinlein a shot of penicillin so he wouldn't get disabled out of the navy.
The result was that when he got back America had had a permanent base on the moon for a decade, he himself had never been more than the ridiculed "cheese senator", and the russians where just starting to be allowed in space by paying their way with decommissioned nuclear warheads because "Admiral Heinlein hadn't allowed them to go before" :)