Tuesday 26 January 2010

My Time-Travelling Son

It is rumoured that my son can, or rather has, travelled in time.

(Certainly, the first thing that gets sticky is tense. English is notoriously Chauvinistic when it comes to accommodating temporally wobbly states of action like would be ifs, could dids, or any of the various clades of feasibly constricted co-probabilities you might encounter in a day to day chat occurring in a chronologically nonlinear context. Like a café, maybe.)

It hasn't happened yet, of course, and it likely won't. My son is just three years old. As far as I'm concerned, the only direction through time he falls is forward. He does so in the proper, traditional way: one Planck after another, positive T.

If he does make the odd nonlinear excursion, he does so in such tiny increments as to be beneath the threshold of detection for macroscopic objects like gold bullion, the Hamburglar or myself. I am reasonably satisfied in concluding that my son is not routinely skipping entire moments, or even seconds. (Beyond that I'm uncertain.)

The point is that it is extraordinarily likely that my three-year-old really is not travelling through time in any but the conventional sense. Never the less, the rumour persists.

Don't ask him about it. If you want to pin him down, if you ask, "Do you travel in time?" you won't like the answer.

"No," he'll say. And just when you're about to relax and smile he adds, "Not now."

You furrow your brow. "What do you mean?"

"I do it when I'm a teenager," he says, turning back to his toys.

There's an accident, naturally. It's a skateboarding accident. My teenage son is trying to impress his droogs at the skate park by nailing the half-pipe; he falls. He's wearing padding but he still takes an awkward blow to the head. "It's blooding," he tells me seriously. "My head bloods when I'm a teenager at the skate park."

I ask him, "Have you ever seen the movie Donnie Darko?"

"No," he replies carelessly. "But I got Backyardigans on Mama's iPod. Watch this: my truck can fly."

I am not concerned. As a parent, I accept that there are some aspects of my son's life over which I have no control; I can no more stop him from becoming unglued in time than I can unilaterally decide his university major or force his taste in music to conform to my own. I mean, face it: sometimes kids pursue a general liberal arts degree or worship terrible music or rebel against the geometry of spacetime. If you're lucky, it's just a phase.

Another reason I am not concerned is because I believe it is well nigh impossible. I don't mean that to sound closed-minded, but there you have it. When it comes to translating across time via unconventional vectors, I'm a sceptic. (Extraordinary claims, et cetera.)

Now, don't get me wrong: I enjoy a good time-travel yarn as much as the next fellow. Isaac Asimov's seminal The End of Eternity, Robert Zemeckis' zany Back to the Future, Terry Gilliam's visionary Time Bandits -- each of them choc-a-bloc with predestined paradox pretzels, comic causal inversions and at least a dash of historical hanky-panky. You'll get no argument from me that time-travel is a good bit of fun.

Also fun: fire-breathing dragons, spaceships that rumble through a vacuum, gamma rays that confer superpowers. Telekinesis, prophetic visions, talking animals. Atlantis. Ultima Thule. Planet X. Shangri-La.

Fun fictions. Imaginative inventions. Harmless poppycock, and -- as a science-fiction story wallah -- my stock in trade.

But not real.

My son is not a time-traveller, but he might be a natural-born storyteller. Like all children he is a keen observer of adult reactions. It is not lost on him that his superstitious Old World grandparents take his observations from the future very seriously.

I see the grin threatening to curl the sides of his mouth. He's not temporal flotsam, he's an imp. He works to hide it, his face pinched and resolute as he lets drop with apparent reluctance just one more highly ambiguous tidbit about his future self. His grandparents go wild.

"Zhis is a big deal, ja -- it could be a varning!" declares his grandfather.

"He's definitely connected to something beyond the physical plane," reasons his grandmother. "That's clear. I've read all about it. Cases just like this, where children know things they couldn't possibly know any other way."

I shrug. "You think there's no other way for him to guess that he might have a skateboard when he's a teenager?"

"It's not what he knows, it's how sure he is about it."


"It's the details," she insists. "No child would just invent details like that for no reason."

Grandfather nods. "He is my father reincarnated, ja. Of zhis zhere can be no doubts, no. The proof? When he talks in his sleep his mumbles are in Latvian."

"He could have no way of knowing Latvian," opines Grandmother.

"But you speak Latvian around the child all the time," I point out.

"No no no," says Grandfather, shaking his head. "He doesn't understand a word of it."

So you see it really is very easy to find evidence of what you want to believe, so long as your standards of evidence aren't terribly strict. To be sure the picture is clear to those who want to be seduced by the story. They are mystified that I do not share their thrill. "You are an imaginative man, ja," Grandfather says to me, "so I cannot understand vhy you persist in being so closed-minded about zhings vhich are really quite obwious."

I'm forced to wonder: is imagination the same as open-mindedness? Is my reluctance to believe in this story simply a biproduct of an inability to properly conceptualize it? Why is a creative personality also assumed to be a credulous one?

From the corner of my eye I see my son stir. "When I'm a teenager," he announces, "I drink beer."

"Teenagers aren't supposed to drink beer," says Grandmother.

"I know," he agrees. "That's why I got in big trouble, and had to do a punishment, and couldn't ride my skateboard at the skate park because I was bad and drank beer even though I was just a teenager. But that was before I hurt myself and started blooding on cement."

I watch him relish their anxiety. He's the star of a very dramatic one man show.

At Christmas I tell the story to my own father. "Have you heard how Mr. Three has come unstuck in time?" I ask, aping Kurt Vonnegut's famous description of Billy Pilgrim's temporal predicament in Slaughterhouse-Five since my father understands most history, politics and science exclusively through the lens of speculative fiction. "He's haunted by memories from the moment of his death," I explain. "It's like The Reincarnation of Peter Proud except without Margot Kidder."

"That's weird," says my dad.

"I'm fairly sure that it isn't," I reply. "He's just playing with them. He's an imp. After all, it's not like he's actually receiving knowledge from the future."

My dad raises his brow and then gives me a strange sort of wink. "But he could be. Right?"

"Well, we can pretend," I concede. "For shits and giggles."

"But it could be true," he presses, giving me that strange wink again. "I mean, you never know. Right?"

I cock my head and frown. "I'm being serious."

"So am I," he says. "Nobody really understands enough about this universe to say with any authority what is and is not possible. Anything is possible."

"But not probable," I parry; "Occam's Razor, Dad. What do we gain by entertaining absurdly improbable explanations when much more probable -- maybe even testable -- explanations exist?"

"It's important to be open-minded," he tells me.

It is at this point that is begins to dawn on me that in our contemporary Western culture uncertainty is a virtue. North Americans especially have become deeply suspicious of anyone who seems too confident in their grasp of a subject, especially if the subject is a complex one that may seem esoteric or even bizarre to the uninitiated (like, say, Special Relativity). So averse to even the scent of dogma is the modern Western individualist that it seems safer to sit on the fence in most cases -- in this view, the wise man draws no conclusions. It's Socrates turned inside out by hyperbole.

Science becomes confounded with sophistry, and critical thinking becomes a self-serving exercise undertaken only by sad, lonely people with no appreciation of wonder, magic or exultation. The incredulous. The closed-minded. The party-poopers. Those who would deny themselves the transcendant epiphanies to be found on all sides when one cultivates a willing sense of giddy mystery.

Being "open-minded" in this sense is synonymous with being uncritical. Even the most ridiculous idea is par for the course so long as one can find the room to insert the narrowest edge of an epistemelogically greased wedge, the mantra of the anti-intellectual: proof exists only in mathematics.

(...Which is true, strictly speaking. But seldom helpful.)

If we're to define the terms according to usage in the herd, I have no doubt that being closed-minded (dogmatic, inflexible, impervious to new data) has negative ramifications, but no less so than the examples of open-mindedness I've seen (gullible, unnuanced, laid bare to manipulation). It seems to me one would be better off failing to believe in ghosts than credulously putting stock in snake-oil and spiritual scams.

The self-described open-minded people I know are the same people who routinely get suckered by abject bunk: dietary supplements with no nutritional value, magic belts and insoles that heal via the invisible powers of magnetism, biologically meaningless detoxification regimens, chocolates that cure cancer, nightmarish myths about the dangers of microwaves, vaccination, aluminium and milk. They believe violent crime is on the rise, and that the theory of evolution teeters on the precipice of collapse. They think Nostradamus knew things.

And they are convinced that my son is a time-traveller, propelled out of spacetime by the tragedy of his own untimely death.

A living omen. A message from the other side.

Is this what happens when there's no central authority guiding popular notions of the afterlife? Would these people be so willing to believe in hookum if they had a spiritual leader to remind them that souls don't just drop out of Heaven willy-nilly, invading the corporeal realm with their destiny-thwarting whinges and forbidden knowledge? Has our civil-rights motivated desire not to discriminate caused us to inadvertently validate any and all worldviews, no matter how sloppy, unsavoury or unsound?

Or is the converse true? Could this kind of fuzzy thinking be the result of gifting too much deference to existing spiritual authorities? Would it be a better world to live in if someone influential called a spade and spade and declared convictions rooted without evidence to be mere artifacts of our all-too-human cognitive biases?

"I can do big boy tricks on my skateboard when I'm a teenager," says my son, scooting his die-cast cars along the hardwood. "In the future that's when I do them, and my friends at the skate park say my tricks are awesome."

"What year is it in the future?"

"It's tomorrow."

"Do you have a job?"

"No. I just live with you and Mama and watch cartoons. Plus I can run really fast because I'm big, so I'm always like zooooom! I say that all the time in the future."

I pause, then venture, "What happens after you bump your head?"

"I just go in the bambulance and it takes me to a hospital and then the doctors give me ice cream."

I'm relieved. Was I worrying just a little? Surely not. Of course not. Naturally not. What, me? I ask him what flavour the ice cream is but he doesn't care anymore -- he's moved on to pretending the stairs are a series of cliffs. His die-cast cars tumble or leap depending on whether they're good guys or bad guys. "The bad guys aren't good drivers," he explains. "Because they're bad. Only good guys are good drivers."

"Is that why the Decepticons can never catch the Autobots?"

He nods. "Yup."

It's good to know there is an underlying order to it all.


Simon said...

As a thought experiment this is a very worthwhile venture, especially when it seems to come so ready-made from the mind of your unbiased son. Impish though he may be. And you had me thinking - really you did! - right up until you crossed the bounds with your stated skepticism regarding: "... chocolates that cure cancer, ..."

Because I totally refuse NOT to believe that.

Piciatus said...

The conversation with your father (anything is possible, but not probable) really makes me miss The Secret Mathematic. I long terribly to know Event Zero. Any news on it's completion timeline?

Mark said...

I never did well with the proofs in Geometry, so I'm not convinced that even math holds the only true claim on provability.

It's nice to see that even a boy being brought up in a secluded schoolhouse and taught at home is touched by diecast cars, "Backyardigans" on portable media devices, and Transformers. I don't feel so bad about having to bring my boy up in the suburbs.

As far as the rest goes... time travel may not be probable, and I often complain about time travel stories, but despite that I wrote a tale in that genre myself. Seems it's just too fascinating, no matter how frustrating.

Oh, and have you seen Primer? I watched it via Netflix streaming, but I believe there are other ways to see it.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Simon,

Rumour is that the side effects of the chocolates include fatness, lassitude and contentment. Consult your witch-doctor.

Dear Piciatus,

Dude, I just crawled out of a long, dark cave of serious enforced workaholism. I don't even know what day it is, let alone what happens next.

Cheeseburger Brown

gl. said...

fuzzy thinking makes my heart hurt. it was better when science & faith lived in different parallel realities, rather than this faith-as-science stuff.

Orick of Toronto said...

I thought this was a beginning of a new series for half of the story. Doesn't help that I have been only getting 4 hours of sleep due to the amount of work. That would make an interesting beginning of a story though.

What's this recession thing people keep talking about?

Side note, I once found a university text book about fuzzy logic from my father's briefcase that he takes to his lecture and finished it in a day for fun. Even manage to answer some questions. My parents were impressed (of course, they ARE my parents).

I was 9 then and now I wouldn't go near that stuff.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Ho, there, CBB! It's good to see that you're still with us... in one form or another. And with great subject matter, as usual :)

Your musings on the worship of uncertainty put me in mind of an exchange from The Great Divorce, by one of your colleagues (C.S. Lewis):

Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become a child again, even now...

Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.

Simon said...

Sheik, I cannot call into question any assertion that uses masturbation as a corollary.

That said, I will add that as much as masturbation has little to do with marriage, it can be argued that marriage has a lot to do with masturbation. Individuals' mileage may vary on that one though.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Hey, whatever it takes to float that boat of yours.

Seriously, though, it's a worthwhile read from one who understands the art of Story; not a bad way to spend a few dollars and a couple of hours. I always seem to take away more from Lewis' fiction than from his "reference" material anyway (though that may be nothing more than a testament to my own ephemeral attention span).

Also, what Pish said. Wishing for bags of money to spread around, as usual...