Star Trek is a worldwide phenomenon. StarTrek.com frequently presents excerpts from the latest issue of Star Trek Magazine, which is published out of England and available internationally. And, as readers know, we’re now running occasional theme pieces and interviews as they appeared in Inside Star Trek Magazine, the official Star Trek magazine of Italy. Today’s piece is a feature by Claudio Signorini that explores the concept of “Future Is Freedom.” The story below has been translated from Italian into English by the magazine’s editors, and we’ve lightly edited it further with an eye toward retaining their original tone and rhythm.
In the middle of Napoleonic Time, Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) wrote: “We must therefore consider the present state of the universe as an effect of its former state and cause of its future state. An intelligence that, for a given moment, would know all the forces that animates Nature and the relative situation in which are the beings in it, if this intelligence could be vast enough to analyze these data would embrace in its formula the motions of the biggest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom: for it nothing would be uncertain, and the future and the past would be in front of its eyes.” (Laplace, Essai philosophique sur les probabilités, 1812)
This is probably the most famous definition of determinism, the philosophical doctrine according to which everything that exists and happens, including human thoughts and actions, is determined casually. As a consequence, in this doctrine the free will is an illusion.
In Star Trek the free will issue is dealt explicitly with regard to the problem of good and evil (“The Return of the Archons,” TOS) and the artificial intelligence (“The Measure of a Man,” TNG), but never in opposition to determinism: it seems on the contrary that it is taken for granted the fact that sentient beings have freedom of thoughts and action. Sometimes, though, determinism seems to peep in, especially when some time travel effects (believed to be paradoxes) come into play. I stumbled into an example analyzing Star Trek: Voyager third season’s episode “Future’s End.”
Voyager is under an unexplainable attack by a ship that came out from an artificial temporal fissure. Stopped in his first assault, the attacker introduces himself as Captain Braxton of the Federal timeship Aeon, coming from the 29th century Earth. The captain accuses Voyager to be responsible of the destruction of the solar system in his century: his mission is to avoid such a disaster and to do so he must destroy Voyager in the 24th century. Braxton attacks again and the battle pushes both Aeon and Voyager on the Earth of the past. Aeon arrives in 1967 where Henry Starling stole it and used its technology to found a breakthrough computer house: Chronowerx. Voyager arrives in 1996. Captain Braxton and Captain Janeway meet again in Los Angeles and Braxton introduces the key to read the events and the entire episode:
JANEWAY: You said Voyager caused the explosion.
BRAXTON: Yes... No... Er... Yes. This is the paradox, my dear. A leads to B, that leads to C, that leads to A. [...] A: there is an explosion in the 29th century, some Voyager debris are found, I go back in time to destroy you. B: you try to stop me, manage to put my weapon off line and push me here in the twentieth century. C: someone in this century steals my timeship and launches it, it goes into the future and once there it commits a terrible mistake, provoking a temporal explosion that brings us back to A: an explosion in the 29th century. The causality loop is complete.
This is the first time that there is such a specific and explicit explanation of causality loops. But we can see them in other episodes: among the most representative there are TNG “Cause and Effect” and TOS “Assignment: Earth.”
Talking about causality we risk introducing the idea of determinism. If everything was causal and this causality allowed us to draw certain conclusions, then it would be safe to say that everything is determined. So, if we want to preserve Man (and other sentient beings) free will we should assume the existence of metaphysical entities that are independent of the causal laws governing the universe.
Before continuing with our reasoning, it’s worth the effort to remember how modern philosophy is questioning the principle of causality. Since the discovery of Heisenberg uncertainty principle we cannot think about the universe as a system ruled by deterministic laws anymore - laws that stated that you just need to know the initial condition to know how it will evolve - but we need to think at the universe exclusively in probabilistic terms.
This has caused an epistemological (that is of the philosophy dealing with the knowledge) reassessment of the value of scientific laws in general and the causality principle in particular: those principles would have no place in explaining phenomena, but only in describing them as they are perceived by human experience. We would move from universality to practicality and the question “why?” would remain unanswered.
Back to Star Trek, we cannot say what will be the scientific and philosophical knowledge of the 24th or the 29th century, but if Braxton is talking about causality we too have to reason on causality and its consequences.
Star Trek philosophy, without taking religious position, does not rule out beforehand the existence of metaphysical and spiritual beings. Such realities could be the ones that allow beings to be free and independents, so we can assume that causality and determinism can coexist with free will.
But Braxton’s explanation forces us to further consideration. What happens to the cause-effect relationship in a world where time travel is possible? We can make a reasoning based on the three assumptions proposed by Max Born in his book Natural Philosophy of Cause and Chance:
- Causality postulates that there are laws so that if a B entity of a certain class occurs, this depends on whether an A entity of another class occurs, where the word “entity” stands for any physical object, phenomena, situation or event. A is called the cause, B the effect;
- Precedence postulates that the cause must precede, or occur at the same time, to the effect;
- Contiguity postulates that cause and effect must be in spatial contact or connected by a chain of in-between entities each in contact with the other.
For the first assumption there should not be problems. Contiguity, in the case of time travelling, is granted by the technology used for travelling. The problem is clearly the second assumption, which is too connected to the concept of time and its linear nature. In particular we have to take into consideration the fact that, as Captain Janeway says in “Parallax,” “the consequences could precede the causes.”
To solve this problem we could substitute the precedence assumption with the axiom that causality is a strict order. An example of such a relationship is the mathematical sign of “lesser” (<); from the formal point of view such relationship
are defined by the antisymmetric property (if A < B then it’s not true that B < A; if A causes B then B cannot cause A) and by the transitive property (if A < B and B < C then A < C; if A causes B and B causes C, then A causes C). These properties, even though they eliminate the bond of temporal precedence, reflect the common idea of cause-effect.
But causality as Braxton explained does not abide to such an axiom: if A causes B and B causes C then, for the transitive property, A causes C and, for the antisymmetric property, C cannot causes A. “Braxton causality” is on the other hand a large order relationship, like “lesser or equal.” The problem, from the logical point of view, is that in such relations the reflexive property counts too, that states that A ≤ A, that is A causes A: so any event could happen simply because it is the cause of itself, with no correlation with the set of previous conditions. If on one hand this vision is somehow unnatural, from the narrative point of view is very interesting: for example, the time machine could invent itself, as in the novel By His Bootstraps, 1941, by Robert Anson Heinlein. Now, if this circularity of causes and effects can truly exist, whatever the number of elements composing it, we have to think that it is impossible to go out of it.
Still using Braxton’s example, A was caused by C, by the fact that Henry Starling’s stealing of Aeon in the 20th century necessarily causes an explosion in the 29th century. The determinism is back in full force and imposes itself on any free choice of the characters: the facts cannot be in any other way. In the history of the universe a strong element of static condition is introduced and nothing, or at least what is subject to a causality loop, can be changed.
An example is the computer science arriving on Earth. Analyzing the actions of Starling, Captain Janeway and Chakotay conclude that the computer would not be invented in our time if Starling had not stolen the Aeon.
JANEWAY: Are you thinking what I think, Chakotay?
CHAKOTAY: I wish I wasn’t!
JANEWAY:The computer era of the 20th century...
CHAKOTAY: ... should never have happened...
JANEWAY: ... but there was and it became part of our history. All because of that timeship.
So, if we do the reasoning the other way, if Braxton had not ended in the 20th century, humans would have seen the first chip in one of the next centuries. But the free will does not exist anymore: every action was already determined. Starling, after he saw the Aeon, could not refrain from stealing it: if he had he would have not set up the Chronowerx and the technology progress would have not occurred, the same progress that, invention after invention, brought the Aeon itself to travel in time. So, the explosion in the 29th century, the future’s end of the title predicted by Braxton the hobo, is it really unavoidable?
TUVOK: The events are evolving like Captain Braxton had foretold. The disaster could be unavoidable.
CHAKOTAY: Destiny, Tuvok? I cannot accept this.
No, Chakotay, it is not destiny. How can the strictly logical Tuvok think of something so spiritual like fate? It is a necessity, determined by the causality cycle.
But the events do not unravel this way. Captain Janeway decides to send a torpedo with the manual control in the launch bay... and the audience remains in doubt until the very last moment: the explosion in the 29th century was caused by Starling’s inexperience or by the torpedo? The Aeon is hit before it enters the temporal rift. Voyager and the solar system in the future are saved. Everything can be put back in its place by another Captain Braxton, in full obedience of the temporal directive. Well... not everything. There was a computer revolution and on board Voyager the mobile holographic emitter remains: a 29th century technology now owned by the Emergency Medical Holographic program.
So there is an error! Apparently Braxton didn’t understand anything about time travels mechanics. He called for an assumed causal circularity that it’s not there and cannot be there, because
we got out of it. So, if the shown causality does not exist, why was Voyager’s debris in the 29th century? Were they there for other reasons? And the computer revolution? Is this the umpteenth YATI in Star Trek?
Star Trek episodes often include little scenes that are apparently just fillers, but they are indeed interpretation keys. In “Future’s end,” before the temporal rift opens, we see Captain Janeway training for a tennis game. This sport is often shown in episodes of several series, so the scene can appear absolutely incidental. Proof of its importance is the fact that in Voyager’s fifth-season episode “Relativity,” too – which revolves around time travels and sees Captain Braxton again - there is tennis... specifically table-tennis.
Let’s imagine we are surfing television channels and we end up on a channel airing a tennis match. In our urge to find some interesting program we skip the channel after having seen only a couple of rallies between players. If this was our only knowledge of the sport we might think that it is an infinite sport: there no beginning and no end. The two players could be there since ages, rallying the ball forever in this boring game. We might get the impression that this is a causality loop: player A throws the ball to player B who throws back to A who throws back to B who... For a tennis fan, on the other hand, it’s clear that things are not so. The players begin with a throw and, sooner or later, the different ability of one of the players conquers the point of the game. This can be the possible interpretation. We are not Starfleet officers, we live in neither century and we did not attend courses in temporal mechanics, so when we hear talking about a “causality loop” we think it is something infinite, with no beginning and no end.
Captain Braxton and Captain Janeway, who are true experts of the subject, know perfectly well that each loop has a beginning and a potential end. After all, in our own century there are several phenomena that have causality loops, but they do not give us trouble with our scientific, technological or ethical knowledge. In general we might say that each recurrent event has a causality loop. Think about a pendulum: when it’s on one extreme of its path it is in a position of unsteadiness while when it reaches its stability point it has so much motion (or, correspondingly, kinetic energy) that it can reach a new position of instability.
In the electronic field, the best example is that of the flip-flop whose output state is, in turn, one of the input information, and it’s because of this arrangement that they can represent memory elements. Moving in a less scientific and more human field, we can have an example in trust. All of these examples have an initial condition: the pendulum must be placed in an unstable position before it could start to swing, the flip-flop must receive one first impulse to be able to stabilize on a reading, and trust needs a positive or altruistic final positions: the pendulum can be stopped, the flip-flop can be turned off, trust can be betrayed... attitude to be originated. And there are possible final positions: the pendulum can be stopped, the flip-flop can be turned off, trust can be betrayed...
Analyzing these and other similar cases, it’s obvious that the causality loop is more apparent than real. The state of the system is, in fact, a function of its preceding states, not the present state. We are thus not witnessing a true loop, but a long chain of events in which, periodically, some states with the same characteristics occur at different points in time.
All of this could help us to understand what happened in our episode. The three events, A, B and C, as Braxton introduced them, form a loop, but they can also be put onto a linear sequence where, every three position, the same event occurs. As to the example above, in this case there is a concurrence not only of the state, but also of the temporal moment in time when it happens: so there is no way to tell the two instances of the same event.
Anyway, as in the examples above and as all experts of temporal mechanics know, there must be an event that started the chain off. Once they begin, the events in the chain can repeat themselves more and more times, potentially going on forever, but only seeming without an end. There is always the possibility that an outside element, a disturbance, might cause to go out of the chain. And what better example of a disturbance, in a loop, than the unexpectedness of the free will? Maybe Man, in front of the same occurrences, can react in the same way ten, a hundred, a thousand times, but one day in some point of the chain, Man can change his mind.
Braxton is perfectly aware that there are certain conditions to go out the loop, but he also knows that those conditions are difficult to obtain. That’s why, in 1996 in Los Angeles, he invites Janeway to let go of Starling, thus trying to avoid the launch of the Aeon. But in this our captain is positively predictable... Braxton himself, during this and other situations, coins the words “Janeway factor.” Tuvok also knows it. He uses the conditional clause (“could be unavoidable”) and not the indicative form.
So we can try and write a more complete story, absolutely hypothetical but, as we understood so far, possible... One of the many temporal adventures of Voyager (which once too many is on the scanners of the timeship, as Lieutenant Ducane says in “Relativity”) pushes the ship in the 27th century and there it causes some damage. From its time, Captain Braxton goes back to the 24th century to warn (not attack) Captain Janeway saying what could happen, but he makes a mistake with the temporal matrix and finds himself in the 20th century with the Voyager. Starling steals the Aeon, founds the Chronowerx and attempts a time travel in the 29th century, but in turn he makes a mistake in the temporal matrix and causes an explosion. Then Captain Braxton, to prevent the explosion in the 29th century, goes to the 24th to attack Voyager. During the battle the two ships end up in the 20th century, Starling steals the Aeon and tries to travel in the 29th century. But now Janeway knows how to stop him and cannot do anything else but to follow him into the temporal rift. Now the loop is triggered and it repeats itself one, two, ten, a hundred times... an infinite number of times? No. Just until the decisive moment when Janeway decides to risk her life to manually launch the photon torpedo from the launch bay. Out of the loop. What we saw in the episode is just the last cycle of the loop, the definitive event, certainly the most interesting one: the one that allows us to go out.
The same goes for the computer revolution. The first Earth computer was invented (and not copied) in 2300 and this allowed the progress, in the thirtieth century, of timeships. But some got lost in the past and anticipated the invention in 2100, and the invention of the timeships in the 28th century. And so on, until we arrive at Starling. Maybe we are indeed in one of the in-between loops, when Starling is not around yet and in Chronowerx place we have several other computer brands.
All this saves the free will. Not only: it gives it the status of the better element to get out a causality loop. For example, if Starling in 1967 hadn’t stolen the Aeon and, instead, he drank a pint to forget the absurdity of what he just saw, nothing would have happened. The fact that the loop is repeating itself is not due to Man’s freedom, but to the predictability of His actions. Who knows how many times Janeway let Starling out into the temporal rift before she decided to take a dramatic action like a manual launch.
Science fiction writers can also learn a lot by these reasoning. Time traveling is certainly a stimulating element that allows us to create the most diverse stories. But the factor that you can play the most upon is the human behavior: often it’s predictable, but often is also fanciful. And this fact was well known to Gene Roddenberry.