An Insoluble Problem
McCall (Storrs)
Source: Analysis, Vol. 70, No. 4 (October 2010), pp. 647-648
Paper - Abstract

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  1. In a paper published in 19861, Michael Dummett envisages the following situation. A fifth-rate but conceited artist living in the 20th century is visited by a time traveller from the 21st century, an art critic who is impressed by those of the artist's works that have survived and have given him the reputation of being one of the greatest painters of his time. When the critic sees the works, he is disappointed by their quality, and realizes that the artist has yet to create the magnificent paintings that subsequently made him famous. The critic produces a portfolio of reproductions of the later works, but shortly after has to depart at short notice, being permitted for some reason to remain only for a limited time in the past. The artist manages to conceal the portfolio, and spends the rest of his life meticulously copying on canvas the reproductions left behind. These copies form the basis of his subsequent artistic renown.
  2. Is there a problem here? Yes. The whole subject of time travel is rife with problems. As Kurt Gödel showed in 1949, there exist solutions to Einstein's equations of general relativity that permit the existence of closed time-like loops, along which time travellers could, in theory, travel. It goes without saying that such travel cannot, without contradiction, permit the occurrence of events that would negate the very possibility of the voyage itself. For instance, a traveller who visits the past could not kill his or her own grandmother. On this, see Lewis 19762. However, barring such limitations, time travel is physically possible. The critic does not change the past in any way, though he may be said to influence it (Horwich 1987: 116). Nothing prevents the art critic from visiting the artist, nor the artist from copying the works that make him famous. The puzzle lies not in this, but in finding where artistic creativity enters the equation.
  3. No one doubts the aesthetic value of the artist's paintings, nor the sense in which the critic's reproductions reflect this value. But the aesthetic value of a work of art, as distinct from a natural phenomenon like a sunset or a butterfly's wing, lies in the artistic creativity that produces it. In the story of the artist and the art critic, where is the artistic creativity? A skilled technician, wielding a paintbrush, can copy a Michelangelo or a Picasso. But what the copying process lacks is Michelangelo's creativity.
  4. This is the true puzzle that underlies Dummett's imaginative example. Given the right circumstances, time travel is possible. There are conceptual obstacles to understanding
    1. The critic's visit to the artist, nor
    2. How the artist paints the copies.
      What is incomprehensible is
    3. Who or what creates the works that future generations value? Where is the artistic creativity to be found?
  5. Unlike the traditional 'paradoxes of time travel', this problem has no solution.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: See "Dummett (Michael) - Causal Loops".

Footnote 2: See "Lewis (David) - The Paradoxes of Time Travel".


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