The pony who holds my fate in her hooves (It’s About Time)

[insert joke about Past Twilight coming on to Future Twilight]

It’s March 10, 2012. The top song is back to Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” and the top movie is still The Lorax, with the surprisingly good (if you accept it for what it is) John Carter at number two. In the news, China ups its defense spending by a whopping 11 percent, the U.S. government takes steps to extradite the founders of MegaUpload, beginning the end of that particular file sharing service, and on the day this episode airs, famed French comic artist Moebius dies.

While on TV, we have “It’s About Time,” by M.A. Larson and directed by Jayson Thiessen. Like “Feeling Pinkie Keen” in Season One, this is a Twilight-centric episode that has Pinkie Pie in a supporting role, and involves a series of misfortunes happening to Twilight courtesy of co(s)mic forces of fate. In this case, a visit from her rather beat-up future self (from the distant era of next Tuesday, a full two days beyond Next Sunday A.D.) cues Twilight to begin desperately trying to avert the disaster she sees coming. Of course, in a tradition dating back to Greek myth, everything Twilight does to avert the future serves only to bring it about, because she has misinterpreted the nature of the warning.

In my article on “The Cutie Mark Chronicles,” I discussed the way the show handles questions of fate, destiny, coincidence, and free will, questions on which I expanded in the chapter “Of Destiny and Doughnuts” in the My Little Po-Mo book. In the former discussion, I talked about the relationship between destiny and coincidence, arguing that the distinction between the two is purely subjective. In the latter, I discussed (within the context of cutie marks) whether free will can exist in a deterministic universe, arguing (following Daniel Dennett) that it can and does.

“It’s About Time” raises both questions within the context of an “ontological paradox” or “time loop.” Twilight had planned for a normal week, but the sight of her future self incites her to panic, and she takes a series of increasingly desperate actions to try to avert the disaster she believes is imminent, in the process steadily altering her appearance until she is a perfect match for her future self. At this point, she realizes that there was no disaster, just her own empty worries, and travels back in time to try to warn herself not to worry, but the sight of her future self incites her to panic…

The reason this is referred to as a paradox is because there seems to be no “origin” for Twilight’s panic. She panicked because she tried to tell herself not to panic because she panicked because… However, everything that happens is logically consistent. Events proceed in a circle, rather than a line, yes, but there is no contradiction–nothing that happens renders anything else that happens impossible. Indeed, there has been serious research by physicists on a simplified model of time travel, involving a computer model of a billiard ball encountering a “closed timelike curve” (presumably called that because “time warp” doesn’t sound science-y enough for the grant committee). Thus far, while they have been able to find scenarios where the ball travels back in time and knocks itself into the time warp, they have yet to find a scenario where the ball travels back in time and prevents itself from doing so. There is much reason to be skeptical, not least of which that no closed timelike curve has ever been observed, but it seems within the realm of possibility that it is possible to travel back in time to make yourself travel back in time, but not to travel back in time to prevent yourself from traveling back in time. Twilight, in other words, was always doomed to failure.

But what then of free will? Is future Twilight somehow compelled to say and do what she does, stripped of her freedom by the fact that she saw herself do it?

Much of the question comes from how we define “free will.” The construction I used in the book, and will continue to use here, can be expressed as “the capacity of an agent to identify potential courses of action, determine a preferred course, and act accordingly.” None of this requires mysticism, magic, or even a non-deterministic universe; even in a completely deterministic universe a specific agent can still identify the courses of action some other agent might take in the same circumstances, and reject that in order to take the action consistent with itself. This is, after all, the kind of freedom worth having–the freedom to act as one wishes to act, in accordance with one’s own values and preferences. Why would anyone want “free will” if it meant acting against oneself?

So, given that definition of free will, does Twilight have free will within the time loop? To put the question another way, is future Twilight destined to say and do what she does in order to perpetuate the loop, or is it a coincidence that the two ponies do what they did? To which the answer is, of course, yes–the distinction between the two is subjective, and so it is a matter of perspective.

Key to understanding this is to grasp that there are not two separate events, one in which past Twilight talks to her future self, and another in which future Twilight talks to her past self. There is only one event, one point in time and space which Twilight views from two different perspectives. Happily, the episode makes this obvious by allowing the audience to see the same event twice–and it is the same event, shot-for-shot identical. Nonetheless, like Twilight the audience has two different perspectives on the event. Although the position of the camera, the sound, the events depicted are identical in both scenes, the first time the scene plays we have been following past Twilight, and therefore experience it from her point of view, sharing her surprise at the sudden arrival of future Twilight and frustration at how little information she receives; the second time we have been following future Twilight, and so share her desire to see the past changed and frustration that past Twilight keeps interrupting with irrelevant questions.

Two perspectives, but one event. When Twilight encounters her future self, she acts in accordance with her own preferences and personality, bombarding her with rapid questions. When Twilight encounters her past self, she acts in accordance with her own preferences and personality, trying to get out important information but continually sidetracked by questions. These are the same event, and Twilight is acting freely in both.

Consider another perspective: there are three possible ways past Twilight’s morning could go. She could not encounter her future self, because her future self doesn’t travel back. Or her future self could travel back, warn her not to worry, and Twilight could agree not to worry, making sure in a few days’ time to go back and warn herself not to worry. Or, finally, the events we see could occur. Regardless, there is at most one encounter between the two Twilights, and they thus each get only one chance to choose their actions. Whatever they choose in that moment is what happened in that moment; since neither can do the moment over (traveling back a second time, if possible, would only mean three perspectives on the same event, not a new event), neither can choose not to do what she already chose to do.

It helps that the episode does not (unlike most time loop stories in science fiction) go around the loop multiple times, creating the illusions that the characters do as well. Instead, we see the event once from past Twilight’s perspective, and completely appreciate why she chooses to say and do what she does, and then again from future Twilight’s perspective, where again we can appreciate why she chooses to do and say what she does. Future Twilight is not trapped by anything other than herself, her own nature and choices–just because she happened to see her choices before she made them doesn’t change that they are her choices.

With this episode, the season’s exploration of time is largely over, given a fitting capstone in a return to the past of the series. At the same time, it lays the groundwork for the future; between “It’s About Time” and “Lesson Zero,” it is very clear to both the audience and the ponies that Twilight has a tendency to overreact and create disasters where none are needed. That knowledge of her character will be key to the season finale.

Next week: Unless of course referencing a 30-year-old game franchise counts as part of the theme of time.

8 thoughts on “The pony who holds my fate in her hooves (It’s About Time)

  1. The funny part of this episode, of course, is that in all her scrambling to “avert” the future she was “warned” about, Twilight actually prevents any number of potential disasters for Ponyville (many of them likely to not happen for some time, granted). It wasn't a fun time for her but the town might've been much worse off if she'd just been asked to take it easy for a week.

    Anyways, another perspective I like on free will vs time travel is to consider what can't happen. Is it possible that my future self will come back in time, tell me to invest all my money in Microsoft, and then two days later Microsoft stock drops 90% in value? Well, no. Unless I have some specific reason to fear a paradox as both possible and worse than any other outcome (see: Homestuck), there is nothing that can motivate me to tell myself to lose all my money. So that time loop is inconsistent and will never happen. Similarly, if I were in future-Twilight's position I would just tell past me to shut up and talk over him (and if I were past me I'd definitely let him talk). Or better yet, write something down and hand it to myself. So a loop in which I have ample prep time yet spend a full minute in the same room as my past self without conveying any useful information is also inconsistent, and could never happen.

    Is that free will? I say yes. The ability for avenues of the future to be realized or cut off because of the contents of your brain (both knowledge and personality) is the only kind of free will there can be in a deterministic universe, and also the only kind we need.

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  2. The ability for avenues of the future to be realized or cut off because of the contents of your brain (both knowledge and personality) is the only kind of free will there can be in a deterministic universe, and also the only kind we need.

    Thank you so much, I love your comment, and this was the best part.

    Good point about Twilight averting a bunch of potential future disasters, too.

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  3. I'm reminded of a thought experiment I read on the internet a while back (but can no longer find) where you have a safe to which you do not know the combination, a time machine that can send a single peice of paper back in time half an hour, and a pen and paper. You decide to write down a number, send it back in time and try it on the safe. Half an hour before you do this, the number arrives.You try it in the safe, and of course it works. Because if it didn't, you wouldn't have sent back that number. Anything that in happening causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen. But not necessarily in that order.

    (I used this as the basis for a Doctor Who fanfic set shortly after the 2011 Comic Relief skit, with the Doctor explaining to Rory how he knew to tell himself to pull the wibbly lever, when all he really knew for sure was that he'd told himself to pull the wibbly lever.)

    The point about free will reminds me of the one bit I strongly disagreed with in Science of Discworld (II? Could have been III?) Cohen and Stewart claimed that we all think we have free will, but everyone else is deterministic; when we think of a future, we see everyone else acting out their appointed roles, but *we* have the ability to decide we're doing something different.

    The way they put it, when we see someone acting out of character, we don't think “He's acting out his freedom to choose”, we try to find out what's making him act differently. And I thought. “Flip that round. We don't think 'He's acting according to deterministic processes he has no control over', we try to find out what's making him *choose* to act differently.”

    I believe I have free will. I don't believe in a future where I'm eating a hamburger, without something deterministic happening I have no control over. My free will told me I wanted to be a vegetarian many years ago, and I act according to that.

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  4. Is any of the debate about “free will” actually predicated on disputes of empiric, scientifically-measurable factors? Or is it all just about conflicting definitions of the term?

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  5. There can be no such thing. The question of what would constitute empiric evidence in favor of either answer is itself determined by how you define the term.

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  6. More to the point (unless this is what you meant) which side any given piece of empirical data supports is entirely dependent on how you define the term. That tends to be the case for what might be called the “theological” category of social constructs–fate, destiny, free will, God, and so on.

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  7. That said, this is part of why I like Dennett's Freedom Evolves. He does talk about neurological research and how it negates certain ideas central to naive constructions of free will (specifically, there is no “moment of choice,” the process of making even a snap decision being measurably distributed in both space and time, and there is also no “Cartesian theater” as he terms it, no unique locus of self that watches sensory inputs as they come in without actually being a part of processing them).

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