Time Travel and Trolley Dilemmas

Shortly after publishing this I learned of Stephen Hawking’s death. The world of time travel would not be the same without his contributions to theoretical physics and cosmology. The universe has gained a bright star tonight.

Happy Pi Day, everyone! Even though my first love is biology, I love mathematics and a good irrational number as much as anybody else. In honor of all things mathematical and scientific, let’s take a deep dive into the science, science fiction, and the moral ramifications of Outlander, Season Two. Grab some coffee, because if you think about any of this stuff for too long your head will hurt.


Okay. So there are a few different theories of time-travel. The first one involves…

1. The Predestination Paradox. This theory basically purports that time-travel essentially exists in a closed loop. Whatever has happened will happen and when you go back to the past as a time traveler you are helping create the future as you have already known it.

Say there’s a giant pothole on your street that has been there for as long as you can remember. One day you stumble upon a time machine and travel back to your street fifty years in the past. When your time machine lands it creates the giant pothole. You don’t end up fixing it (maybe even despite trying) and when you return to your present (the future) the pothole is still there- as it always has been- because you put it there.

When Claire shows Brianna her signature on the Deed of Sasine this could arguably be evidence of the predestination paradox in Outlander; we don’t know for sure but we could probably assume that the Deed of Sasine existed with her signature on it prior to 1945.

20A99233-C345-4939-9E86-91E11FCB5ED5This also supports the “Brianna Will You Please Calm Down” Paradox.

What’s an even bigger supporter of the predestination paradox in the series is Jamie and Claire’s inability to stop the Jacobite uprising and Battle of Culloden. What has happened has already happened; they were already a part of history before Claire even time traveled. When Claire returns to 1948 the world- and its history as she has known it- are unchanged.

This guy had no idea when he woke up this morning that he would be quizzed on the Battle of Culloden. Let this be a lesson to all of us to brush up on our history. The time travelers we meet will be counting on us.

One of the other competing main theories of time travel is that of…

2. Parallel universes. Here the predestination paradox doesn’t matter because when you time travel to the past, you are merely time-traveling to a copy of your past. Changes you make in this past will affect the future because there are infinite futures available to go back to; universes exist in parallels. For every decision we make there are multiple choices that each has its own butterfly effect, resulting in different futures for each .

Somewhere in the twentieth century Frank is wearing a turtleneck and has no idea he might suddenly vanish in some parallel universe.

Back to our original example. Let’s say you travel to the past and you decide whether or not to fix the pothole. In one universe the pothole is fixed, in another it isn’t. In one universe the pothole creates car accidents and a number of other problems. In another universe it’s just a boring street. Each universe is radically different, based on decisions made in the past, but they both exist. This is the quantum mechanics model of time travel.

In my parallel universe everyone has a Coco.

So far we haven’t seen too much in the way of evidence to support parallel universes in Outlander. Novel readers know that later there is an important date that ends up being changed due to the actions of time-travelers, but we are a few seasons away from that in the series. (No spoilers, please)

Claire wishes she had awakened in a parallel universe where she was dressed more warmly.

So why does it matter?

Well, because it brings up questions of ethics and morality. If one could change the past (and therefore the future), would you? Perhaps you have heard of the…

3. Baby Hitler Dilemma, which asks this: If you could go back in time to 19th century Austria-Hungary, could you murder baby Hitler in order to prevent WWII and the Holocaust? The New York Times Magazine put this question to its readers a few years ago, with pretty split responses. I think most people in this world would agree that any means of stopping the Holocaust is justifiable, but what of stopping WWII? As Matt Ford wrote in The Atlantic in 2015, WWII was arguably responsible for the rise of the USA and USSR as superpowers, the emergence of the middle class, the influx of scientists into the United States escaping from Europe, the Space Race, etc. Would those have been worth sacrificing as well?

Claire would no doubt have her own opinions about Baby Hitler.

I’m working my way back to Outlander, I promise. But first we have to understand the Baby Hitler dilemma as essentially a different version of the more famous…

4. Trolley Dilemma, which is this: a trolley is hurling uncontrollably down the tracks, headed for five people who will be killed in its path. You have the option to change the track switch, and instead the trolley will change tracks and only kill one person in its way. What do you do? Do you sacrifice one person to save five? What if that one person would have ended up finding the cure for cancer? What if one of the five is a serial killer?

So it’s easy to see how time-travel and morality and ethics are all strangely and strongly intertwined. And this brings us back to Season Two of Outlander– the one season thus far that really deals with the ethical and future consequences of time-travel. Claire and Jamie work tirelessly to stop the Battle of Culloden. But what would have become of the world had they been able to stop it? Wouldn’t so much of Claire’s own life be totally different depending on the outcome of a war two hundred years prior? Wouldn’t the vastly different fates of England and Scotland affect twentieth century current events? Would WWII and Claire’s involvement in it even have happened?

Mark me. Why would we deny ourselves a future where this wax replica of Andrew Gower does not exist?

Furthermore, why stop this uprising when the huge one- that being of the French Revolution- is staring them right in the face during the whole first half of the season? Why was the Battle of Culloden worth stopping and not the French Revolution? Culloden is far more personal for Claire and Jamie, but do the lives of Jamie and his tenants matter more than those of Louise and her aristocratic friends? Thousands more people died during the French Revolution than during the Battle of Culloden- is one war more justifiable than the other? That’s for you guys to debate.

All of these people are doomed.

And on a smaller level, Claire is essentially dealing with her own version of the trolley dilemma in regards to Frank. She goes through a ton of hoops in Season Two to ensure Frank’s eventual existence. But of what consequence? How does Claire reconcile trying to save the future life of one man (Frank) when she and Jamie are potentially trying to change the futures of hundreds of thousands of people by stopping Culloden? Is one life worth more than others? Could you risk one to save many? Or could you risk many to save one?

Thankfully, Outlander doesn’t dwell too much on the ethical hypotheticals. This is, after all, a romance and fantasy at its core. Where does Herself- Diana Gabaldon- stand on the concepts of free will and time travel? In An Outlandish Companion she proposes The Central Postulate of The Gabaldon Theory of Time Travel:

A time-traveler has free choice and individual power of action; however, he or she has no more power of action than is allowed by the traveler’s personal circumstances.

A Corollary:
Most notable historical events (those affecting large numbers of people and thus likely to be recorded) are the result of the collective actions of many people.

Killing baby Hitler, by this postulate, would be unlikely to stop WWII. The war was a collective consequence of the actions of many people and the global rise of fascism and nationalism. Applying this theory to Season Two, Claire and Jamie would be unlikely to stop the Battle of Culloden or the French Revolution.

My point?

No matter what theory of time travel you subscribe to, what I propose is this…

5. Treat every day like you have the potential to change the future. Such a cliché, I know, but still worthy of our efforts. Whether or not time exists in a closed loop or it exists with infinite parallel universes, the fact remains that we are currently living in our descendants’ past. What we do matters. So plant trees. Foster community. Visit loved ones. Realize that when we look at the night sky we are already looking back in time to stars that died years ago. Everything we do has consequences and someone’s future (and past) is depending on it.


5 thoughts on “Time Travel and Trolley Dilemmas”

  1. I hadn’t before considered that the time travel in Outlander may be due to Claire traveling between parallel universes per quantum theory. The stones may be an intersection point. Fascinating to consider!

    Wonderful and meaningful read, especially poignant today, as we mourn Stephen Hawking.

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] If you can’t send an actual Highland regiment in to bust someone out of prison, sending an army of Highland cattle might be the next best thing. I’m here for any livestock-related storyline, although why someone doesn’t stop to double check that BJR is actually dead is beyond me…it is one of the first rules of zombie slaying, after all. But then where would we be for all of Season 2 if we didn’t have to grapple with the complications and ramifications of of time travel? (p.p.p.s- I also previously wrote about that here) […]


  3. so speaking of time travel…who was it then that was spying on Clair in the window from the street in the first season…was that Jamie and did he time travel or was that another universe or ….help a gal out here

    Liked by 1 person

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