Overthinking: Applying Augustine's Theory of Time to 'To the Moon'

What is time? This has been a question that we have asked since the concept of time was first realized. We may know formulas that give us a working definition of time, but these formulas still tell us nothing. While time is not entirely understood, for many in academia the notion of time travel mostly sits firmly in the realm of science-fiction. Despite this, philosophy attempts to provide an accurate answer to the question mentioned above as well as explore various aspects of time travel. These theories of time and time travel can be seen in many places within our media ranging from books to video games, to movies. The independently created video game To the Moon utilizes a few theories of time throughout its hours of play time. While many philosophers have worked on theories of time as well as theories of time travel, I will only focus on two. Augustine's theory of time as a tension of consciousness and to explain time travel I will utilize David Lewis's principles and paradoxes of time travel. In this essay, first, I will present the two theories of time that I will be working with throughout the course of the essay. Then, I will describe the basic premise of To the Moon. Third I will present the theories of time being read into the theories of time.

This wonderful "Son of a Shepard" is Augustine

This wonderful "Son of a Shepard" is Augustine

Before To the Moon can be furthered discussed we must first know in depth what theories of time will be applied to it. The first theory of time that will be utilized is Augustine’s. Augustine’s theory of time is quite different from the “traditional” idea of time. In his work Confessions Augustine indicates that we do not actually understand time. He states that we know time well enough but if someone asks us to explain what time actually is we can not provide an adequate answer. In order to account for this idea, Augustine goes on a search for time. In this quest, Augustine finds to his horrors that he can not locate time. He searches for the past, but it is already gone. Augustine looks to the future, but it has not arrived yet, so it is not here either. When Augustine begins his search for the present, he quickly realizes that he has to set a boundary since whatever we call the “present” moves too quickly to be located. To search for the present Augustine uses the idea of the century to represent the present. Even with this boundary Augustine still finds an issue. Since the present bleeds into the future as well into the past so this leaves us with no present that someone can simply see. This notion leaves Augustine in a conundrum, as he can not find any unit of time, it seems to indicate that no unit of time can be observable, and the present simply can not exist. So by this conclusion, the essence of time is to absent itself.

Despite the answers found while looking for time, Augustine does not want to believe it, and he knows time is something. Augustine knows with certainty that time has to be something because it can be measured. The time that someone takes to work on an exam can range from a few minutes to a few hours. If time is not something how can we measure these lengths of time? If an individual did not have an arm, this individual could not just measure the space because there will be nothing to measure.

According to Augustine, to understand this problem we must realize that time can only be truly understood with the mind. With this notion, Augustine answers all the initial problems that were recognized when he went in search of time. When memory is brought into the equation of time, an individual can realize that the past passes away, but the mind keeps it in memory. The future is not yet present, but the mind anticipates it. Finally in regards to the present, within the mind, the present now has a measurable duration with the use of memory and regression. An example, a middle-aged man smells a scent that his mother wore when he was a child. At this moment, it seems that Augustine believes that with our memory we experience a sort of temporal regression which utilizes our minds to travel back in time. In regards to the present, the sensation of smelling his mother's perfume allows him to set boundaries for the present. The future in Augustine's theory relies on the process of expectation. This aforementioned expectation serves as a form of fortune telling that utilizes a fluid combination of prior memory and sensation to predict the future. For example, your friend Amy leaves a glass at the edge of the table. Your friend Greg, who is known for being clumsy, walks into the room and edges dangerously close to the table. Based on the sensation of knowing where the table and cup are located and also utilizing the memory of Greg’s clumsiness you have an expectation of what could happen. These three different viewpoints of past, present, and future come together to showcase that according to Augustine time is the tension of consciousness.

While Augustine’s theory of time will serve as the lens through which we view To the Moon’s structure of time, David Lewis's theory will be used as the lens through which we will view time travel in To the Moon. In his paper The Paradoxes of Time Travel Lewis introduces a few basic time travel concepts. These concepts all fall back to what time travel is a part of and according to Lewis, time travel involves the discrepancy between time and time. In his writing Lewis indicates that this discrepancy is a common complaint against the concept of time travel. Lewis goes on to state the difference between travelers and time travelers. Any average traveler leaves from point A and then arrives at point B; the time between point A and point B is the duration of the time. A time traveler leaves from point A and then arrives at point B yet, the separation of time does not equal the duration of the journey. This concept simply does not have the capacity to make sense. To force it into the realm of understanding Lewis brings forth the idea of distinguishing time into two different variations. These two variations are known as external time and personal time. External time is simply the time that is all around us, the time that can be measured with a clock or a watch. Personal time is our own bubble of subjective time that is colored by the way we see and interact with the world. Once this concept of personal it is realized it removes the discrepancy between time and time. The time traveler can travel from point A to point B and while point B may be a year ahead or backward in time in regards to the external time, with the time traveler’s personal time sixty seconds may have passed. With this example, Lewis has constructed one of the most popular definitions and explanations of time travel.

Lewis’s writing of time travel does not just end with its setup. Later on in his paper Lewis goes on to explain the grandfather paradox. This paradox sets up the scenario that creates an inconsistency through changing the past. If you were to kill your grandfather, you will prevent yourself from being born thus creating an inconsistency since if you were not born who would have killed your grandfather. Lewis goes further by offering an answer to the proposed paradox. His answer is that we simply can not change anything in the past. We cannot change anything in the past because you cannot have something that exists and doesn’t exist. The inherent contradictions that present themselves when one changes events in the past are brought into the spotlight with the concept of the singular timeline. Since there is one timeline, there can be no branching paths, so needless to say anything that has happened in the past cannot be changed and/or modified because it has already occurred.

   To the Moon utilizes both mentioned theories of time and time travel within its story. To understand the time aspects of To the Moon one must first understand the story that the time components weaves itself around. To The Moon focuses on two time agents from Sigmund Corp, Dr. Eva Rosalene, and Dr. Neil Watts. At some unknown point in its timeline, Sigmund Corp. creates and utilizes a technology that can create artificial memories. As the device creates a new memory, it causes conflict with existing memories creating a sort of cognitive dissonance effect on the recipient. Because of the downsides of the device, it can only be utilized to provide a “wish fulfillment” service to people who are dying. In this world, it is only legal to use the device only if the recipient is on their deathbed and it is at this where we are introduced to the main subject of the game Johnny Wyles. Once the two doctors reach Johnny’s bed they find that his one wish was to go “to the moon,” yet for the life of him, he could not recall why he wanted to go to his moon. From there, the time agent duo work back through Johnny’s past with the use of the device and eventually reach his childhood. Upon entering his childhood, the time agents attempt to insert the desire to go to the moon, and because of the cognitive dissonance Johnny’s brain would create new memories based on that singular desire. When the time agents make it back to the present, they find that the memories did not create new memories, and the time agents must return to his childhood once again. Once they revert to the past, it is revealed that Johnny’s twin brother died and their mother fearing for the mental stability of her son utilizes beta-blockers to erase the overall memory of his brother from his mind. With the reason behind the device's inability found the time agents implant the memory that his brother never died creating an alternate memory path, that while never happened in the physical world occurs within the mind of Johnny. In this alternate line of remembrance, Johnny accomplishes his final dream to go to the moon while at the same moment in the actual present he finally passes away.

   Augustine’s theory of time is easily seen within the confines of To the Moon. The device the time agents use is essential to this connection. With Johnny on his deathbed, the device allows the agents to travel back in time through his memories. The agents can only go back in time to significant memories of an individual's past. With the use of the device, the two agents travel a few years in the past at a time. At each stage in the past, the agents must find a significant “sensation” within each memory to piggyback off of that sensation and take them to the next significant memory in the timeline. As with the middle age man that smells the perfume that his mother used to wear the the time agents are transported back in time. The concept of time in To the Moon is not solely based on the measurement of the longness and shortness of time, it is intricately built into its very function.

It seems as if To the Moon attempts not to fall into any of the simple pitfalls that will cause it not to support Augustine’s theory of time. It allows itself to run continuously with the relationship between time, experience, and memory. One character at first glance seems to destroy this relation with her very presence: River Wyles and her mental disorder. River is an interesting character in regards to memory. While it is never outright said the evidence sprinkled throughout the game seems to indicate that River was suffering through Aspergers for her entire life. At one point in academia, it was a common assumption to believe that individuals with Asperger's held a pin-point memory.  This was relatively recently proven false; the opposite seems to be true and more often than not people with Asperger's have a statistically worse memory than those without the syndrome. It has been proven that if an individual with Asperger's has a “source” memory they can have a memory level comparable to individuals without Aspergers.  Harnessing these source memories individuals with Asperger's can finally take part in Augustine's theory of time.  These source memories which for River seems to have started in childhood are depicted throughout the events in the game.

Johnny and River meet at a carnival when they are both young children. They took an immediate liking to one another and agreed that if they ever lost each other, they would meet on the moon. Before Johnny leaves he gives River a platypus toy, this toy becomes significant because throughout the rest of her life River cherishes the toy. The toy develops into an anchor as well as a significant memory for River. It quickly cements itself as a source memory in the fractured mind of River Wyles.  When Johnny’s brother dies, and his mother utilizes beta blockers to erase the memory of Johnny’s brother, erasing any memory of River in the process. A few years past and River and Johnny meet again in junior high. River quickly realizes that Johnny has forgotten about her and, she regresses back to her state in the source memory. River’s inability to simply tell Johnny about their promise due to her Asperger's as well as her regression back to the primary source memory causes her to travel mentally back in time. River Wyles seems to be an example of what could go wrong in Augustine’s viewpoint of time. Her sensation seems to be stuck in the recall of the memory and while she continues to get older through time she is still mentally stuck in the past.

While River is mentally stuck in the past, the two time agents are physically sent through time. The device that Sigmund Corp develops can only be used to travel backward in time throughout an individual's memories. To the Moon seems to be the intersection between Augustine theory of time and Lewis’s basic theory of time travel. The game's initial setup seems to be setting up a paradox in the similar vein as the grandfather paradox. To fulfill their clients wish of going to the moon, the two agents have travel back in time until they get to the childhood of their client. Once the time agents reach the client's childhood, they would plant a suggestion that changes the future. This initial setup was only a ruse that they shared with the client as they put him under. You can not modify the past in Lewis’s definition of time, and neither can you change the past in the game’s universe. But, you can alter memory in both scenarios. The route of altering memories is the one that the time agents take. This game does an excellent job of skirting the grandfather paradox because the time agents are not traveling backward in time they are only traveling backward through memory. Lewis’s base definition of time still stands for the two time Agents in the game. While the agents are traveling backward in memory, their personal time is still functioning. In fact, if the player takes to long getting through certain portions of the game the two agents will quip that they are not getting any younger. This strict unknowing dedication to these theories is what marks To the Moon as a successful mixture of Augustine’s and Lewis’s theories. It takes the most important points of both and places it in a cohesive story.

Time travel in media more often than not tends to be a failure.

When time travel is often portrayed in media it often falls short of its intended impact. Meaning it does not utilize the time or time travel to its fullest potential. To the Moon is not one of those pieces of media. It uses its time travel as both a medium to tell its story and as well as an inventive way to showcase this topic. In this essay I have attempted to explain the theories of time that the game utilizes, go into detail about the backstory of the game, and finally apply those theories of both time and time travel to the game itself.