Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Billy Pilgrim’s (modified) theory of time ...

Slaughterhouse No 5 is absolutely incredible novel. It is the second novel in my life (after Zusak’sThe Book Thief”) that I reread again almost immediately after the first reading.

So it went.

I did it on the trip to Paris, and finished it at the CDG airport before the flight to London.

I want to shed some light on the theory of time that is embedded in the book. Traditional view on the time assumes that only present truly exists. Past does not, because it has just past and is not there anymore. Future does not because it is not there yet. According to Billy Pilgrim (the novel main character), or rather to his teachers on planet Tralfamadore, the time exists in its full reality:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

In the novel, Billy travels in time, back and forward, essentially abolishing the faith and the need for free will – because the future is as rigid and unchangeable as is the past. No one can do anything about it.


Would-would you mind telling me,' he said to the guide, much deflated, 'what was so stupid about that?' 'We know how the Universe ends,' said the guide, 'and Earth has nothing to do with it, except that it gets wiped out, too.' 'How-how does the Universe end?' said Billy. 'We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears.' So it goes. "If You know this," said Billy, 'isn't there some way you can prevent it?
Can't you keep the pilot from pressing the button?' 'He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.

However, even knowing this from his teachers, “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time”. Billy finally grasped the idea of time and acquired the ability to perceive the time in the new way, after he was taught how primitive his earthling notion of time was:

There was a lot that Billy said that was gibberish to the Tralfamadorians, too. They couldn't imagine what time looked like to him. Billy had given up on explaining that. The guide outside had to explain as best he could. The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe. This was only the beginning of Billy's miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, And there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the dot at the end of the pipe. He didn't know he was on a flatcar, didn't even know there was anything peculiar about his situation. The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped-went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, 'That's life.'

Now, let me for a bit of more serious thought...

I don’t like the idea of total determinism and a negation of free will. I think, it is exactly for the human free will, that we cannot travel into the future. There are also serious physical arguments against such ideas, all of them having roots in the third law of thermodynamics — in the very notion of entropy.

But I like the idea of the past having its existence. The past, all the events of yesterday, last year, last century last era – simply exist. The nature of its existance is, of course, different from the existence of this table or of ourselves, but it still has many enduring existential attributes.

The past events are petrified, trapped like bugs in an amber, in some mysterious fabric called “the past”.
For ages, equipped only with our memory, we did not have means to see it, but today we have. It probably started with photography and evolved through movies to Flicker’s shots, Youtube’s reels and Twitter’s tweets. More and more we have means to go back and to see clearly, to contemplate all the moments of the past, as they were, and – as they are – unchangeable, trapped like in amber, but ... no less beautiful than the present....

Time can be visualized as unfolding dynamic tree. At present, as “a fork” it bifurcates into zillions of branches, each branch being a different possibility for events to happen, words to utter, gestures to make, steps to walk... But once this fork moves forward, the branch becomes like a fossil, petrified and impossible to change.

I guess one could even built morality and ethics on this concept of time. No one wants to have his bad deeds and bad decisions recorded and permanently available for reading. But, like it or not, they are. There is no escape from this. So, one should try to have only good deeds of his to stay trapped in the amber of the past. That’s the simple base for morality.

Is it ?

Written in London at 4.35 AM on November 9th – during a sleepless night. Unstuck in time....


  1. Fabulous concept, Mirek. I've read many science fiction involving time and time travel but none of them sounded as wonderful as you present it in this review. Why don't you try your hand at writing a book along the line?

  2. Amila, thanks for the words. See I philosophize from time to time, but 'm not yet ready to write a book. Maybe when I finish the technical one I write ... I've been doing it for last 3 years and I still do not see the end... :-)

    But this concept of time is indeed interesting - isn't it ?

  3. This is very deep, and very thought provoking, and very touching - all at once. Amila is right, you have a gift here, Mirek.

  4. all of this is so deep that it's hard to even contemplate on it or try to comprehend the past-present-future issue. at last i find it almost impossible because all our reflexions are just assumptions which may sound reasonable or senseless to different people... however i guess it's actually the present that is most difficult to understand. we like the word 'present' but do we actually know its meaning? you know, present may be today, 11th november 2009, but it can also be this particular second when i write these words. and after a few seconds the second i mentioned is already becoming the past. so there is such a thin line between what's gone and what is _right now_ that i just can't understand how people can say that only present counts... i remember one of Wislawa Szymborska's poems which dealt with this topic. i will try to find this one and send it to you.

  5. oh yeah. its "trzy słowa najdziwniejsze" and it's actually a very short poem

  6. Indeed, this poem is all about these miracles:

    The Three Oddest Words

    When I pronounce the word Future,
    the first syllable already belongs to the past.

    When I pronounce the word Silence,
    I destroy it.

    When I pronounce the word Nothing,
    I make something no non-being can hold.

  7. Anonymous11:20 PM

    a nice moral implication of the problem. as for time itself, 1) I have to read the whole book to comment in its context 2) On ontology, time will be discussed at the end of the semester :))). That's why it's hard for me to form any insightful comments... This is a difficult and *time*-consuming issue :) By the way: the more I think about determinism, the more I believe it is the way things are ordered. The only notion that prevents me from accepting it as a whole is this ephemeral idea of the human will, without which everything would make sesne (yeah). And I don't want the world to make sense.

  8. Riven aka Anonymous :-) :

    I will wait till you end the book. I must say that the second reading revealed to me even more thoughts than in the first...

    I do not know how did you get to the thinking of determinism as you did. Free will of humans, multiplied by 6.67 bilion gives such increadible amount of indeterminism that I marvel how you could think this way?

    Similar lesson comes from physiscs - it was maybe in Newton and Liebniz times when people believed they one day could COMPUTE the next stage of universe. What happened later, was the discovery (well before quantum theory came into picture), that even if motion of individual particle is completely deterministic, the behavior of bilions of bilions of them - is NOT.
    Later, Quantum theory has broken the another pillar of determinism - the tenant of deterministic behavior of individual atom...

    So - why determinism ?

    And - why you don't want the world to make sense?

  9. I do sense that there is a great sci fi author trapped inside you, wanting to come out. Release him!

  10. Anonymous4:38 AM

    I believe there are four aspects or vertices of time. The past, the present, the future, and the eternal within the present. The past can be accessed through rational consciousness, the future through imaginal consciousness, the present through perceptual consciousness, and the eternal in the present through intuitive consciousness. Most academic disciplines because they are rational deal only with the historicity of the past. The works of Eckhart Tolle deal with the eternal in the present moment which he calls the Power of Now.

  11. Anonymous :-)

    Thanks for interesting comment. I must explore this fourth dimension of time.
    Thanks for pointing to Echart Tolle writings... Seem interesting ...

    It would be nice to know - who are you ?


  12. Anonymous2:45 PM

    Mirek - My name is Raymond Harrison and we exchanged comments the other evening on David Weinberger's blog concerning Umberto Eco and lists as the origin of culture. I tried to figure out how to identify myself using my e-mail address but I was asked for url. How can I identify myself on your blog. I have no blog of my own.

  13. I see, I just don't know why this Blogspot software does not allow for mails or just names - I guess its hidden add to create a blog with blogspot :-)


    BTW, I put Tolle's "Power of Now" on my Next Listen list...