Time Travel and the Holy Trinity

Alec Merta Ponderables Leave a Comment

I am filing this post under the tag for philosophy even though it may be more apt to tag it as religion.  The trouble is, while I haven’t exactly figured out the point of this blog, I don’t want it to be one focused on such a divisive topic.  So, philosophy it is (until I can think of something better).

One of the most baffling philosophical concepts in Christianity is that of the Holy Trinity.  The Rev. William G. Most describes it as “Perhaps the deepest, the most profound of all mysteries[.]”  Briefly, and continuing to quote Rev. Most, the concept of the Trinity (in Catholicism at least) holds that only one deity exists, but that deity is comprised of three separate and distinct “persons,” namely the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  They are simultaneously one being and three beings.

There are no half-measures here either.  After all, this is described as a “mystery” for a reason.  Be clear: Christian dogma does not consider the Trinity a play on words or a convenient summing-up.  The very literal meaning of the Trinity mystery requires two seemingly incompatible concepts to be accepted.  One the one hand, there is a single God.  Period.  End of discussion.  If Christianity has D amount of deity in it, God represents 100% of D.  On the other hand, and just as accepted, there are three distinct “persons” who also represent 100% of D.  Given that you can’t have more than 100% of the amount of deity in the religion, this is a serious logical conundrum.

Many people have wrestled with this contradiction.  St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the “Doctors of the Church,” spent decades trying to figure out the Trinity, or at least to explain the concept in words that a human could understand.  As legend has it, Augustine was walking on the beach one day, lost in thought, when he saw a child using a seashell to transport water from the ocean to a hole in the sand.  Augustine asked the boy what he was doing, and the boy told him that he was trying to put the entire ocean into the small hole.

St. Augustine of Hippo possibly wondering how he got into this mess.

Augustine recognized the futility of such an endeavor and told the boy as much.  He said it was impossible to put all that water in the tiny hole.  As the story goes, the boy looked up at Augustine with “the eyes of a saint” and replied, “It is no more impossible than what you are trying to do – comprehend the immensity of the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your small intelligence.”

Setting aside for the moment weather Augustine had simply become fed up with his efforts to explain the Trinity and concocted a useful way out of the assignment, the legend of the boy on the beach brings into focus just how difficult the Trinity is to grasp with our “small” intelligences. 

Nevertheless, I think there is an answer.  At least, I think there is a way of unifying the Trinity precepts (both of them) by applying a little modern physics. 

Consider this thought exercsise.  Let’s say that you are a gifted physicist.  You have devised a way for humans to travel through time.  You hire your good friend Engineer to build a machine based upon your theories.  Once the machine is complete (I hope you filed for the right permits), Engineer offers to fire the machine up and let you take humanity’s first temporal vacation.

  You agree, but you specify that you want to get as much out of this trip as possible just in case the machine explodes.  You want to bring back proof that you’ve pulled this trick off.  So, you instruct engineer to send you on a trip twenty years into the past.  You will then return with proof of your visit and go on a second trip twenty years into the future for more proof of your genius.  You will return and present Engineer with both articles of evidence, thus cementing your chances of a Nobel Prize and countless lucrative grants.

Engineer exits the lab and goes into the control room (let’s assume that he cannot see what is going on when he is in the control room).  There he activates the machine.  His console soon indicates that you have gone to the past by exactly twenty years.  The console then tells him that you have returned.  After a moment, the console indicates your trip to the future.  Finally, Engineer lets out a sigh of relief when he hears you calling to him to come and see the proof you have retrieved.

Returning to the lab, Engineer is shocked to see three people in the room.  You, a child, and a middle-aged person.  You ask both of the newcomers to introduce themselves.  They do, and Engineer realizes that he is in the same room with himself from twenty years ago and himself from twenty years in the future.

Let’s disregard the many, many problems with time travel from both a relativistic and a quantum mechanical point of view.  Just assume that what is written above happened. 

Before he walked into the lab, Engineer was a single human being.  He was distinct and individual.  The thing is, after he entered the lab, he was still just a single human being.  He was distinct, and he was an individual.  But who are the people he meets inside the lab?  The child and the middle aged person are both individuals.  They are both separate and distinct individuals just as the Engineer is.

Note: This thought experiment is also compatible with chickens. 

Normally, that would not be in the slightest bit interesting.  Walk into a room with two strangers in it, and the number of people in the room is three.  But in this case, there is something very interesting going on.  Engineer, the child, and the middle aged person, are also the same person.  Each one of them is entirely Engineer.  No one in the room has a more valid claim to the title of Engineer.  So are there now three people who are Engineer?  Yes.  But also no, because they are all the same person.

Like the Trinity, two seemingly incompatible precepts exist without actually contradicting each other.  The only thing that had to be taken into account was the temporal dimension.  Time, when viewed as something that can be manipulated or traveled-through, provides a possible solution.

I accept that this does not “solve” the mystery of the Trinity.  But it does give rise to a notion I find more compelling every day.  Could it be that the “mystical” and “magical” aspects of religion, the mysteries that rationalists justifiably find upsetting, are merely failed human attempts to understand concepts that defy explanation without a thorough understanding of the physical universe?

Put another way, could the existence of a deity or the validity of a religion actually become more acceptable as knowledge of physics increases?   I am going to expand on this thought in subsequent pieces (although I really do not want this to become a religion blog).  For example, is the concept of transubstantiation merely a flawed attempt to understand something that could be better explained in terms of mass-energy equivalence?  If so, what are the implications?

I don’t know if anything written above is correct or even sensible.  I just enjoy thinking about it, and I hope it made you think about it also.  

I think I just figure out the point of this blog.