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Alien Scientist: Back To The Future

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: September 2002, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

The ancient Greeks believed that time flowed from the unseen future behind them to the past laid out in front of them.

You can experience this when you travel on a train with your back to the direction of travel. You can see anything out towards the back of the train, or in line with you, but nothing 'behind you' towards the front of the train. The landscape nearby you see in some detail, while the things further away become less distinct, though retaining their basic shape. You may not remember everything you did a decade ago as clearly as you remember yesterday, but you recall the rough outline, the general shades of light and dark.

You cannot see behind you into the future, though you can guess a little what might come next. If you have been passing through a town, you might expect to see more town; if the mountains are closing in around you, you might anticipate a tunnel, though you would not be able to tell for sure until it went dark. It sometimes seems easy to anticipate the future with reasonable certainty (night will follow day, dogs chase sticks, children grow up not down) - though you can never be certain what will happen in detail. The future mugs you from behind every time.

So what would it be like to have the benefit of foresight? Imagine that on this train you meet someone with a different perspective - say some alien from another dimension comes along and sits down right opposite you. What does the alien see? Your alien is entirely looking ahead, calmly surveying the plains and prospects of the future. In a kind of mirror image of what you see, the alien perceives the about-to-happen things nearby in some detail, and the things further away in broader but vaguer outline. It might be the same kind of landscape, but reversed in time. How wonderful it must be to see the future unfold - if only one could relate this future to what had already happened! For, just as you see only the past while guessing the future, this time-mirrored alien sees only the future and has to guess the past. As it travels, the view of the distant future gradually improves and eventually resolves itself into a vivid but all too disposable present - its memory is lost as soon as the present instant is past.

The alien cannot remember anything, even an instant after it has happened - its past is as inaccessible to it as your future is to you. It is no more sure of what came before the tunnel than you are of what will come after it. Perhaps the future-sighted alien is as phlegmatic about its foreknowledge of the future as it is unfussed about the loss of its past.

In fact, the alien's future-gazing experience of life would be just like our own experience if the train were to go into reverse.

If you were to imagine playing your life backwards, then your memory at any point would contain foreknowledge of things to come. That is, at any instant in time, your mind would have stored information about events still to be played.

As you travelled back into your unfolding past, you would look forward to your youth with certainty - but forget your adulthood. You would experience effects with the knowledge of the causes to come, but by the time you reached the causes, you would have forgotten their effects. So, an alien with foreknowledge would not seem to be gaining anything, simply by facing forward.

The trick would have to be if we could see both ways - a certain species of alien with eyes in the back of its head could see everything ahead and behind.

But this vision makes us realise that our train must be travelling though a fixed landscape of events, following a track of fate already laid out for us. In this case it would hardly matter which way we faced, as the destination must be the same.

If we find that prospect too unpalatable, we have to imagine instead that as our train of events moves forward, the track and the very ground underneath it are not already in place, but are rolled out right in front of it as it goes along.

But then there would be no landscape of the future ahead for any forward-looking alien to see. So after all, we might be content with our worldview of hindsight: to sit with our backs to the future may be as good a way to go as any.

Stephen Marshall

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