In the recent Academy Award-winning movie Arrival, one character asks another a compelling question: If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you make different choices?
Being able to see the future, or to go back in time to rearrange the past (which can amount to the same thing), is a staple of science fiction—from H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine to the Back to the Future trilogy.
“Time paradoxes”—Can you really change the course of history, or is there only one path, one fate?—show up in movies as diverse as 13 Monkeys, Source Code and Deja Vu, and the answers vary from “yes” to “maybe” to “no.”
Not all of us share a taste for such fictional fare, but almost all of us raise the same issue. “If I only knew!” we say when facing a tough decision—about employment, or romance, or parenting. We think—How could we not?—that if we could only see clearly into the future, we would make much better decisions than we can as we actually exist: backing into the future, knowing only the past, and that only sketchily.
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