Predestination paradox

A predestination paradox, also called a causal loop or causality loop, is a paradox of time travel that is often used as a convention in science fiction. It exists when a time traveller is caught in a loop of events that "predestines" him to travel back in time. This paradox is in some ways the opposite of the grandfather paradox, the famous example of the traveller killing his own grandfather before his parent is born, thereby precluding his own travel to the past by cancelling his own existence.

Because of the possibility of influencing the past while time travelling, one way of explaining why history does not change is by saying that whatever has happened was meant to happen. A time traveller attempting to alter the past in this model, intentionally or not, would only be fulfilling his role in creating history, not changing it. The Novikov self-consistency principle proposes that contradictory causal loops cannot form, but that consistent ones can. This raises the issue of whether there is such a thing as free will.



A typical example of a predestination paradox is as follows:

A person travels back in time to discover the cause of a famous fire. While in the building where the fire started, they accidentally knock over a kerosene lantern and cause a fire, the same fire that would inspire them, years later, to travel back in time.

Another example:

A man travels back in time and impregnates his great-great grandmother. The grandmother would thus give birth to one of the man's great grandparents, who would then give birth to his grandmother or father, who would then be able to give birth to one of the man's parents, and finally to the man himself who would have to travel back in time in order to ensure his own existence.

A variation on the predestination paradox which involves information, rather than objects, travelling through time is similar to the self-fulfilling prophecy:

A man receives information about his own future, telling him that he will die from a heart attack. He resolves to get fit so as to avoid that fate, but in doing so overexerts himself, causing him to suffer the heart attack that kills him.

In all three examples, causality is turned on its head, as the flanking events are both causes and effects of each other, and this is where the paradox lies. In the first example, the person would not have travelled back in time but for the fire that they caused by travelling back in time. Similarly, in the third example, the man would not have overexerted himself but for the future information he receives. In the second example, the man's very existence would be pre-determined by his time traveling adventure. This also raises the paradox of which came first — the time travel or his existence (see below).

In most examples of the predestination paradox, the person travels back in time and ends up fulfilling their role in an event that has already occurred. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the person is fulfilling their role in an event that has yet to occur, and it is usually information that travels in time (for example, in the form of a prophecy) rather than a person. In either situation, the attempts to avert the course of past or future history both fail.

Fictional examples

Many fictional works have dealt with various circumstances that can logically arise from time travel, usually dealing with paradoxes. The predestination paradox is a common literary device in such fiction. Prior to the use of time travel as a plot device, the self-fulfilling prophecy variant was more common, with one of the earliest and most famous examples being the ancient Greek legend of Oedipus. There, Laius's attempt to circumvent the prophecy that his son Oedipus would one day kill him by abandoning the babe as well as Oedipus's leaving home to avoid the prophecy that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother (unaware of his adopted status), would result in the fulfilment of both prophecies.


In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and Hermione travel back in time three hours. During this, Harry discovers that the person who had saved his life earlier in the novel with a Patronus spell was not his late father, as he had believed, but his future-self. The film version of the book adds three more examples, one revealing that some shells that were mysteriously thrown into Hagrid's hut earlier were actually hurled by Hermione's future-self to warn them that Cornelius Fudge and company were arriving. While escaping Fudge and company, Hermione heard something behind her. It was actually future-Hermione being shocked at seeing what her hair looked like from the back.

In Douglas Adams' Life, The Universe and Everything, Arthur Dent gets told by Agrajag that there will be an attempt on Arthur's life at Stavromula Beta. Arthur, who has never even heard of the place, realises that he must go there sometime in his future and therefore is immune from death before he goes there.


Movies in the Terminator series deal with predestination paradoxes. In the first movie, Reese, the soldier sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, the future mother of his commander John Connor, ends up fathering John Connor with her. Paralleling this, the Terminator cyborg sent back to kill Sarah is destroyed, but its components are salvaged to form the basis of the artificially intelligent computer network Skynet that will, in the future, send it back in time on its murderous mission.

In the film Kate and Leopold, Kate McKay (Meg Ryan) lives in the present day (2001) and falls in love with a time traveller from 1876, Leopold (Hugh Jackman). After Leopold returns to his time, Kate also travels to 1876 to marry Leopold and consequently becomes the great-great-great-grandmother of her ex-boyfriend, Stuart (Liev Schreiber).

Back to the Future deals with a variant of the paradox. In it, Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox), travels back from the year 1985 to 1955, and prevents his parents from meeting. This has the effect, via the grandfather paradox, of causing himself to start fading from existence. By the end of the movie he gets them back together, ensuring his own birth and becoming part of his own personal history. This is not a "pure" predestination paradox because history is changed to accommodate the paradox caused by McFly rather than the paradox being part of history to prompt the time travel, but the end result is the same. The two sequels to the movie deal with variations on the theme.

In Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the jail break that allows Bill, Ted and the "dudes from the past" to escape relies on a series of booby traps that they have to remember to place in the future. There are similar scenes relying on predestination paradoxes throughout the film.

In 12 Monkeys, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is the main protagonist who claims he traveled from the future to the present time to investigate the cause of an apocalyptic event that occurs in the near future. He apparently has bouts of memory loss and schizophrenic confusion and has recurring flashbacks of a man getting shot at an airport, an event which supposedly happened when he was a boy. At the end of the movie, the man who was shot turns out to be Cole himself. Although this event is not part of the main storyline, it lends credence to it because it suggests that Cole was not delusional after all and that the apocalyptic event is destined to occur.

In Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker sees a premonition of his wife Padmé's death during childbirth. This incites him to try and keep her alive which eventually results in him seeking the Dark Side. This in turn causes Padmé to lose her will to live, and she dies in childbirth as was foretold.


The paradox shows up in two episodes of The Fairly OddParents cartoon series, namely The Secret Origin of Denzel Crocker and Father Time. In these episodes, the show's main character causes his later teacher's findings on fairy godparents to become public, and sees how his parents met for the first time, respectively.

In "Roswell That Ends Well", an episode of Futurama. In the episode, Philip J. Fry travels back in time and meets his future grandfather Enos and future grandmother Mildred. Fry accidentally kills his grandfather, and is shocked to discover that he continues to exist. He therefore decides that Mildred must not be his grandmother. Satisfied that this is the case, he has sex with Mildred, only to realize that she is his grandmother, and his grandfather is, in fact, himself.

In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Relativity", Captain Braxton of the future timeship Relativity recruits Seven of Nine to prevent the USS Voyager from being blown up by a temporal intruder. Her first two attempts are unsuccessful, and she ends up recruiting Captain Kathryn Janeway to find the intruder who planted the bomb. The intruder turns out to be a future version of Braxton, seeking revenge against Janeway, whom he blames for interfering with the timeline on numerous occasions and causing him to endure a 30-year exile on 20th Century Earth. The First Officer on the Relativity arrests the present-day Braxton for "crimes he will commit," and promises Janeway that he will clean up the timeline. How this is to be done, however, or whether the events of the episode will continue to exist if he does so, is never explained.

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Captain's Holiday", Captain Picard is contacted by two Vorgons from 300 years in the future. They claim that he is destined to find a powerful weapon that was stolen and hidden in the past, the Tox Uthat. Compelled by this prophecy, Picard finds it, but on discovering that the Vorgons were the ones who stole it in the first place, chooses to destroy it instead. The Vorgons then admit that this was what history had actually recorded and their attempts to change it for their own gain failed.

In the Stargate SG-1 episode "1969", a wormhole transports the SG-1 team to 1969, where they are arrested as communist spies. One of their guards, Lieutenant George Hammond, who will be their commanding officer in the future, finds a note in Samantha Carter's equipment. The note, in Hammond's own handwriting, states, "George, help them." Because of this, the younger Hammond helps SG-1 escape. In his relative future, General Hammond will remember the incident and write the note, giving it to Carter just prior to SG-1 leaving through the wormhole, thus closing the loop.

In the 1973 Doctor Who serial Day of the Daleks, guerillas from the 22nd century travel back in time to prevent their own future from coming to pass. However, they discover that it is their actions that actually cause that future to happen. In that case, the loop is broken, not by them, but by the Doctor. As his existence is not dependent on the loop, he is not caught in the paradox and can act freely, his actions presumably causing that future to cease to exist. In the 2005 episode The Parting of the Ways, the Doctor's companion, Rose Tyler, absorbs the energy of the spacetime vortex to save the Earth from the Daleks. She also uses the power to scatter the phrase "Bad Wolf" throughout history as clues, to lead her past self to the position where she will absorb the energy of the vortex to save the world.

In the animated series Gargoyles, Multibillionaire David Xanatos uses an artifact known as the Phoenix gate to travel back in time to the Dark Ages. There, he shows off his membership in the Illuminati to arrange that a single gold coin will be given to his younger self hundreds of years later. Xanatos used that same coin to build his fortune and get into the Illuminati, thereby making him a "self-made-man" in his own way.

In the Red Dwarf episode "Ouroboros" Lister encounters an alternate reality where Kochanski survived instead of him, after adding his contribution to an in-vitro tube he finds a supplies case labeled ouroboros (which was also written on the cardboard box he was abandoned in). He then realises that he is his own father, and when the child is 9 months old he goes back in time and places the child where he was left.

Video Games

In the first-person shooter TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, the player character Sgt. Cortez often meets a near-future version of himself who helps him progress with the game. Later on the player must perform that exact role to help his past self.

In the Legacy of Kain series, the character Raziel is born a human and lives the life of a religious zealot that, along with his Sarafan brethren, eventually meets his end at the hands of a demonic abomination. Raziel is resurrected as a vampire by Kain, who later sentences him to burn in the Abyss. Rising again, and following a quest for vengeance against Kain that covers the five games and time travel, Raziel discovers that it was he who killed himself and the other Sarafan, and that Kain had sentenced him to the Abyss to fuel the chase through time that would bring Raziel full circle for a larger purpose.

Ontological paradox

A very closely related paradox, usually occurring at the same time as a predestination paradox, is the ontological paradox:

On his 30th birthday, a man who wishes to build a time machine is visited by a future version of himself. This future self explains to him that he should not worry about designing the time machine, as he has done it in the future. The man receives the schematics from his future self and starts building the time machine. Time passes until he finally completes the time machine. He then uses it to travel back in time to his 30th birthday, where he gives the schematics to his past self, closing the loop.

The paradox raises the ontological questions of where, when and by whom the schematics were created. Time loop logic operates on similar principles, sending the solutions to computation problems back in time to be checked for correctness without ever being computed "originally."

Other examples in science fiction include the antique eyeglasses Captain Kirk receives from Doctor McCoy in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which Kirk leaves in the 20th Century in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home so it can be eventually bought by McCoy. Although the screenwriter's intent in Star Trek IV was to suggest a causal loop involving the glasses, the additional problem of the glasses aging by three centuries with each loop is never addressed. Similarly, Scotty and McCoy trade the formula for transparent aluminum with an engineer so that he can use it to build a whale tank for them. Scotty eases McCoy's concerns about changing history by asking, "How do we know he didn't invent it?" In neither case is there actual evidence seen of the loop, however - the characters merely assume it (see also transparent alumina). (In the novelization of the film, Scotty recognizes the engineer's name as that of the inventor.)

In Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, future Bill and Ted introduce their past selves to Rufus. He never actually tells them his name.

Robert Heinlein's stories By His Bootstraps and "—All You Zombies—" also play with the ontological paradox, as do David Gerrold's more complex The Man Who Folded Himself and stories where a time traveller gives William Shakespeare a copy of his Complete Works. To use the example from the Television section, when the Doctor breaks the loop in Day of the Daleks, he creates an ontological paradox in the process of averting the predestination paradox. If the events that alerted him to the loop no longer exist, where did his knowledge of the loop come from? (Though his existence is not dependent on the loop, his knowledge is.)

Isaac Asimov's short story The Red Queen's Race used Lewis Carroll's example of the Red Queen's race in Through the Looking-Glass to illustrate the concept of a predestination paradox, even though the short story itself implies a resulting ontological paradox.

In a storyline in the daily comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin attempted to create an ontological paradox by travelling two hours into the future to retrieve a story he had to write for homework and did not want to do. He reasoned that by that time it would be done and he could then bring it back to the past and spend the time goofing off instead of working. Of course, the future Calvin didn't have the homework either, having decided two hours previously to time-travel instead of doing it. Calvin eventually ended up fighting with two of his future selves, while Hobbes and his future self wrote a story based on the whole predicament. The story received an A+.


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