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I'm puzzled by this article. Do people usually misinterpret this short story as being about time travel? I can see people thinking the movie might be about time travel of a sort, since everything is less explained and more "emotional" in it, but the short story is pretty clear about what it's about. We never see any sort of time travel in it. Instead, the protagonist painstakingly explains the different theories of perception of time.



To me the story as written pretty clearly implied that she had acquired time-related superpowers by learning this language. Even as a believer in block time this was deeply unsatisfactory. (I don't think this needs any complex explanation as Gwern looks for; I think the simpler explanation is that the story means what it seems to mean, and is simply a bad story).


But in the short story it's important that everything anyone does is still understandable with based on a linear understanding of time. The movie messes this up with some retro-causality that isn't in the short story.


I'd rather say it's a story with some magical handwaving, not necessarily a bad one. (Yes, magical handwaving is a blemish, but not necessarily a catastrophic one.)


Characters in the story don't physically travel through time like in The Terminator, but they have some sort of precognition via information being passed from the future via some unexplained mechanism.

So yes, it is a time travel story, information being relayed to you from the future is information traveling through time.


It's all word play and there's no meaning in debating about a concept which itself has multiple interpretations.

You're saying it's "travel" because information travels through time.

But a lot of other people relate "Travel" with humans, meaning it's the human that travels through time.

In fact, most people when they hear about "travel" think of human as its subject, not non-human objects like information.

If you stretch it that far, basically any story with flashbacks is time travel, because information travels to present from the past.


But it's a time travel story if you can't act in the information and the information have been always there?

I suppose that we could say that the point of the story is to show that time is not what we though.


The language Gwern uses here is slightly confusing. They're never actually talking about time-travel, but about precognition. They briefly state that precognition is equivalent to time-travel in terms of philosophical consequences, and then use the term time-travel almost exclusively.


Gwern often writes in the style of lesswrong's perspective on rationalism - this comes with a tendency to assume the reader is also reading from this perspective and thus will automatically accept propositions like "precognition is the same as time travel".


I think it's unfair to attribute my assumption to LessWrong or rationalism... The reason I assume it is because it is true in physics and because Chiang explicitly says so in https://boingboing.net/2010/07/22/ted-chiang-interview.html and I quoted him in the footnote:

"I think free will is what underlies most everything interesting about time travel. And when I say time travel, I'm including receiving information from the future, because that's essentially equivalent to someone traveling from the future."


Hm, I stand corrected. I did find that your review jumped somewhat headfirst into accepting their equivalence though. The first line of your interpretation establishes their equivalence, and the linked quote just states that the author has the same opinion. It's a little disorienting to build from this as an established fact, if the reader does not agree. Also, your suggestion that they are equivalent in physics may be true from an information-theoretic perspective but it certainly isn't intuitive.

My assumption that the statement was linked to LessWrong was due to other similar radical statements I've seen posited by members, especially Yudkowsky's ideas around the equivalence of a consciousness and its simulation.


Yeah, it is confusing. At first I thought he was arguing against an interpretation involving (actual, non-precognitive) time travel, which seemed so obviously right that I found it hard to believe that anyone could ever have claimed that interpretation. Then when I realised he was actually talking about precognition as time travel, he seemed obviously wrong.




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