Owen Flanagan was on a quest to understand what it takes to live a good life. As he prepared an essay for the book How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy he tells the story of when he interviewed the Dalai Lama. Knowing that Buddhists consider resentment and anger as very bad, he asked the Dalai Lama if it would be wrong to want to go back in time and kill Hitler.
The Dalai Lama felt that it would be the right thing to do, go back in time and kill Hitler before WWII and end all the suffering and cruelty that entailed before it happened. He felt killing Hitler should be done with “martial fanfare” even.
If the goal is to reduce suffering, the Dalai Lama got the question wrong. To see why going back in time is the worst choice to right a wrong or to take a different course, we need to start closer to home. (We’ll address the Dalai Lama and the Hitler issue later.)
Going Back in Time to Fix a Mistake
Science fiction has made a subgenre out of time travel. The idea is we can “go back” and fix a wrong, right a mistake, take a different course.
Aside from the fact that travel back in time is impossible, as far as we know, there is one serious problem we can’t ignore. Travel back in time means we could kill our parents before we are born so we are never born to go back in time to. . . you know. (Causality Loop)
Astute readers might point out we can travel to the future using relativistic speed or a gravity well. True, but you can’t reverse the process. When you move forward you leave it all behind.
All this deep thinking on traveling back in time to fix a mistake or make a different life choice is counterproductive, regardless the science.
The assumption is that if you could travel back in time you could make a different choice. You would call a cab rather than drive while intoxicated. The person you killed, maybe even a family member, could be saved.
Late in life you might dream of starting over and taking a different career path. It is natural to think of the things that might have been. Maybe a different spouse. Or no significant other at all! Maybe start that business, write that book, see that exotic place.
Yet you forget one simple fact. If you “truly” go back in time and do it again you can’t take the current you—wisdom, experiences and all—with you. Going back in time means really going back. The you that goes back leaves all your experience and knowledge in the future. To do otherwise is to be the same you just spinning in a time loop. The first you, the you that is time traveling, still made the first error. Nothing has changed. Except for the guy that looks like in the other timeline you messed with.
If you had it all to do again the chances are you would make the same choices. Everything that made you you (before the event you wish to change) would be the same. Faced with the same facts and stimulus you are probably going to walk the same steps or nearly so.
You can’t send a warning back to the earlier you either. Causality problems prevent that. No sending today’s stock prices or the lottery numbers to yesterday’s you.
If you were to bring your experiences and knowledge with you it would not be traveling in time as much as traveling to a different timeline where things can be different. Unfortunately, for you, the you you are interested in, cannot escape the event you wished to change. Yes, on some other timeline your doppelganger might start that business you always wanted to. Yes, you could warn the other timeline you to hand the keys over to a friend to drive you home. The you in that timeline thanks you. Then you return home and the same you is still there, faults and all.
There are no Mulligan’s. You get one chance. You will make mistakes, plenty of them; that is life. Without mistakes you will never grow and learn.
Paying Hitler a visit to save the world brings out an even bigger problem.
Going Back in Time to Kill Hitler
Let’s say you can go back and redo the whole thing. You bring your knowledge of the future and experiences with you. You go back, set a different course for you and return to the current time. The old you would no longer exist. You took a different route so the results are different. You might be disappointed by the new end result, by the way. No guarantee in creating a better outcome.
Killing Hitler before he committed his crimes against humanity sounds so noble. But history unfolding as it did, with all the suffering, may have been the best, least suffering, course possible. Let me explain.
How did WWII end? The Allies defeated Germany in Europe and the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is estimated that 70,000 to 135,000 people died in Hiroshima and 60,000 to 80,000 in Nagasaki from the bomb blasts and long-term radiation side effects.
Would eliminating Hitler have avoided this? Japan at the time practiced a brutal imperialism. Ask China. Reference Nanjing Massacre. I’ll wait.
Let’s say that eliminating Hitler would have allowed the U.S. and allies to defeat Japan earlier and with less loss of life. Is this still the best outcome?
Think of this. The knowledge to produce an atomic bomb was likely to happen eventually. If not in 1945, then when? 1955? 1965? 1975?
Regardless of when the atomic bomb was invented, it would eventually happen. Does the U.S. get the bomb first? The Soviet Union? Germany? (Remember, we killed Hitler so all the social ills still existed in the 1930s, along with the unrest. Stalin killed more than Hitler and Mao Zedong killed even more than Stalin. The violence was not restricted to one nation. There were plenty of candidates looking for the job.)
The difference in a world without Hitler is a world where more than one nation invents the atomic bomb at the same time (or nearly so) before first use. Without the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki we might not fear the atomic bomb’s abilities. And using atomic weapons when more than one nation has them leads to the probable outcome of catastrophic worldwide devastation and loss of life.
Without Hitler, several nations could have produced an atomic bomb without knowing the consequences of using the device. It might have been an acceptable strategy, even probable strategy, to use nuclear weapons. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) may never have been a thought, it would have been lived.
In the scenario without Hitler the first use of nuclear weapons could be a full scale nuclear attack by multiple nations. The environmental consequences and loss of life would make WWII look like a mild skirmish.
Under such a scenario life on earth would continue, but humans might not survive much past the experiment.
Going back in time to take a different path doesn’t mean the obvious choice will actually be better. It can also be worse. A lot worse.
The Dalai Lama was wrong. Killing Hitler, with or without anger, is almost certainly a worse outcome. Instead of millions suffering and dying, billions would; and the end of humanity as we know it.
Your Choice the First Time
Good thing you can’t go back in time. The changes you make could lead to ever worse disasters.
At the end of the day, going back in time is not a real choice. The only real choice is to be mindful every day in the choices you do make. You do not get to borrow from the future. No special knowledge of future events. No borrowing experience not yet learned. That comes from doing, including mistake. Big ones.
Living life as if you can go back and do it again would lead to foolish mistakes as accountability is not needed. Just go back and give it another try.
Using the Stoic practice of negative (and positive) visualization is not a ‘going back in time’ wish. Visualization is a practice to deal with life. To make better decisions. The first time.
Live your life in a manner so that you don’t feel the sting of regret now or in old age. Living life to the fullest, doing the things that excite you, is the surest way to live a meaningful life without desires to go back and do it again, differently.
Make the first time count.
Wednesday 21st of December 2022
Great article. I agree that it is best to live life by accepting the decisions you've already made. I lived my life as I did with the knowledge I had at the time. Now I know better and would do things differently, but if I was 20 again I would NEED to make those same mistakes to grow. The Hitler analogy is spot on, because as horrible as he was and how bad the Holocaust was, I don't know where we would be without it. Who is to say we wouldn't have had greater atrocities born upon us. Society hopefully learns and never forgets. And without my learnings I would not be where I am today.
The Social Capitalist
Tuesday 15th of November 2022
I agree that we cannot change yesterday (exactly).. and need to focus on tomorrow. However, while the premise that there could be worse outcomes to going back in time is true.. there could have been better outcomes too. I've thought much about the killers of the 20th century - really the first century where disease did not truly limit human population. Humans, individually, were and maybe are not ready for such a populous world. Larger populations produce larger swings in the economy, social changes, and even the environment. Humans cannot accept such large changes at once, and as a result, often perform horrific acts.
But I cannot compare Hitler to Mao and Stalin. They mostly killed their own - dissenters, maybe, but not altogether targeted for belief and, or nationality. Hitler tried to exterminate a minority, Slavs, and homosexuals, etc. What he did in less than 4 years, left unchecked would have been the equivalent to what smallpox and other diseases did to the New World (90% death rate) in a little over a hundred.
The world will never be rid of strongmen and can only hope to erect strong institutions that defray the damage until sensibility returns. Nor, looking back, would the problems of Germany been any less without Hitler, perhaps another would have risen in his place, who knows. But Hitler lives on, his power to hate lives on, hs insidiousness that destroys society from within lives on... I for one cannot see a worse outcome from his death. Perhaps like R. Penn Warren, I see the web of history as determined as much by events today as what actually occurred. As the spider feels the fly and vice versa, so too does the past feel the present. Eliminating such a large spider may have coasted thousands more, but perhaps, all more controllable.
Sorry, if my analogy is a bit intertwined. I believe the entire post is a bit poetic and it is why I do enjoy it.