This weekend, I watched X-Men: Days of Future Past, which I enjoyed. This post discusses some aspects of that movie, most notably the ending, so if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to be spoiled, you might consider skipping it until later.
In the movie, mankind is in a devastating war with the mutants, with the Sentinels (killer robots) relentlessly finding and destroying the mutants. In the process, much of Earth has become a wasteland.
One of the mutants has the ability to send a person’s consciousness into their past self, with knowledge of the future, and the ability to alter that future while they are in their past self. In an attempt to stop the Sentinel war before it begins, Wolverine’s consciousness is sent back to 1973 to work with Xavier’s and Magneto’s past selves (the two main mutant leaders, and enemies in most of the films) to prevent the event that enables the war.
Right off the bat, this consciousness going back in time notion is similar to the one in Edge of Tomorrow which I discussed in a previous post. Just as in that movie (and it countless other sci-fi scenarios), having someone’s consciousness go back in time is inherently dualistic (as in mind-body dualism). But Xavier’s powers themselves seem inherently dualistic, so this isn’t necessarily a change in assumption from what’s always been there.
Anyway, after many trials and tribulations, our heroes succeed in altering time. The Sentinel war winks out of existence. I was impressed that the film went out of its way to make sure we know that the war timeline disappears. So there’s no possibility that a version of our heroes continue to suffer the consequences of the war in a separately existing timeline. (As some of us discussed, this was something the Edge of Tomorrow film failed to make clear, even possibly implied the opposite.)
The war timeline is replaced with one where all of our favorite characters are still alive and apparently living in a much better reality. Wolverine, after his adventures in the past, wakes up in this new future and is astonished to find Jean Grey, his unrequited love, still alive (along with Scott Summers to make sure he keeps his hands off her). He immediately goes to Xavier’s office and reveals that he is the Wolverine from the alternate timeline, whereupon Xavier welcomes him and they begin a long talk.
And here is the reason for this post. There remains a tragic event here. The Wolverine that lived from 1973 to the present, dies. (The film only shows the alternate Wolverine for a few seconds in 1973 when war-future Wolverine’s consciousness is momentarily yanked back.) Oh, we don’t see him die, but we know he winks out of existence because his consciousness is replaced by the one from the war timeline. The people who knew and loved that Wolverine, who had had shared experiences with him throughout the years of the new timeline, are bound to view it as a shocking loss, something the film ignores.
Of course, you could point out that all of the surviving characters at the end of the war timeline die when that timeline ends, and that would be true. But since their entire timeline ends, there’s no one around to mourn them. That isn’t true for the peacetime Wolverine. Who knows how much better his life might have been in the alternate four decades (we learn he is a teacher), or how any friends will react to this (more) war weary version of Wolverine from the war timeline, who may no longer know many of them.
And if mind-body dualism is true, how is it even possible for there to be multiple versions with different memories? Would that mean that each timeline has it’s own version of disembodied soul for each person? If so, which one might go on to an afterlife? Or would there be an afterlife for each timeline? The film almost avoids these difficulties by not having the continued existence of that other timeline, except they let them leak in by having two versions of Wolverine in the film.
Of course, the films have made Wolverine the main character. (They’re actually getting a lot of mileage out of that character, and Hugh Jackman.) And having the version of the character that experienced all the losses we’ve seen over those films, be the one to see a reality where all of that tragedy is undone, makes the final resolution in this film all the better. Unless you’re peacetime Wolverine, or one of his friends or lovers.
The movie is fantasy and I’m almost certainly applying much more thought to this than the filmmakers did (or most of the audience), although it would be interesting to see any character fallout in a sequel.
But this fictional dilemma raises an issue a society might have to actually deal with someday if mind uploading, or any other kind of mind duplicating or cloning technology, is ever developed.
Which version of a mind is the one true one? Is that even a reasonable question anymore? And if they fork at some point, how far do the alternate versions have to go before we regard the end of a particular version as a death? Would such a mind ever really be dead if at least one instance of it was still around?
If one of those versions committed a crime, who should be held responsible for that crime? (If we only held the particular version responsible, what’s to stop anyone who wanted to commit a crime from spawning a version of themselves for just that purpose?)
Many might be tempted to say that the issues involved are simply too difficult. That’s it’s easier to conclude that such mind duplicating is impossible. Of course, reality is under no obligation to make things easy for us, as it has frequently demonstrated throughout history. But it raises the interesting possibility that a society might be so disturbed by these questions that they make multiple instances of a mind taboo, a forbidden practice.