Rules for Time Travelers

Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:

With the new Star Trek out, it’s long past time (as it were) that we laid out the rules for would-be fictional time-travelers. (Spoiler: Spock travels to the past and is Kirk’s grandfather.) Not that we expect these rules to be obeyed; the dramatic demands of a work of fiction will always trump the desire to get things scientifically accurate, and Star Trek all by itself has foisted half a dozen mutually-inconsistent theories of time travel on us. But time travel isn’t magic; it may or may not be allowed by the laws of physics — we don’t know them well enough to be sure — but we do know enough to say that if time travel were possible, certain rules would have to be obeyed. And sometimes it’s more interesting to play by the rules. So if you wanted to create a fictional world involving travel through time, here are 10+1 rules by which you should try to play.

0. There are no paradoxes. This is the overarching rule, to which all other rules are subservient. It’s not a statement about physics; it’s simply a statement about logic. In the actual world, true paradoxes — events requiring decidable propositions to be simultaneously true and false — do not occur. Anything that looks like it would be a paradox if it happened indicates either that it won’t happen, or our understanding of the laws of nature is incomplete. Whatever laws of nature the builder of fictional worlds decides to abide by, they must not allow for true paradoxes.