While I was watching, the James Cole repeatedly says that he couldn't change the past "because he didn't" (so because it was determined or something like that). And yet, when he is in the past, he gives the idea of creating a plague capable of human extermination to the guy in the asylum later-turned-crimminal (the antagonist) who somehow manages to get out of the asylum and form the Army of the Twelve Monkeys to execute such a plan.

Is this an issue with consistency, or did I miss something?

  • I presume you're referring to the film?
    – Valorum
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 20:33
  • Cole didn't give the idea to Dr. Peters. movies.stackexchange.com/q/2804/7812
    – Valorum
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 20:34
  • Yes indeed, I am referring the film.
    – mematusz
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 20:34
  • 4
    I'm struggling on this one. Dr Peters was never in the asylum, nor did Cole speak to him in the Asylum. The Army of the Twelve Monkeys weren't responsible for the virus plot. They were on a separate (and unconnected) mission to release some animals from the zoo. Their graffiti "we did it" was merely coincidental.
    – Valorum
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 20:39
  • 3
    Yeah, I think V Prime is misremembering the movie, in fact Jeffrey Goines (played by Brad Pitt) was the character Cole met in the asylum and he was the one who started the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, but it turned out (spoilers) that neither Goines nor the Army had anything whatsoever to do with the creation of the plague. Peters was a scientist working at the virology lab run by Goines' father, and judging from his questions at Kathryn Railly's book signing (where I think the audience first sees him), he already had the idea that the human race needed to be ended to save the environment.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 20:42

1 Answer 1


The past cannot be changed

COLE: (moving his head to see the film) I have seen it, but I don't remember this part. Funny, it's like what's happening to us, like the past. The movie never changes -- it can't change -- but everytime you see it, it seems to be different because you're different -- you notice different things.

This movie is an example of self-consistent time travel: anything you do has already happened, including the results of your time travel.

Your actions can have an effect on the past, but that effect has already been seen in your present.

For example, Cole tries to stop Dr. Peters from taking the virus on the plane, but has to fail, because the virus already exists in his present.

ANGLE ON YOUNG COLE, as his FATHER'S ARM drapes over his shoulder, steering him. YOUNG COLE turns to look back as he's led away.

YOUNG COLE'S POV: the PARAMEDICS, exchanging glances, shrugging helplessly. It's too late. The BLONDE MAN is dead.

As such, he can take actions that are consistent with the future, but not ones that are inconsistent, and any consistent actions he takes are predetermined.

As @Hypnosifl says, it seems that James Cole may not have given Peters the idea to release the virus.

DR. PETERS: I think, Dr. Railly, you have given your alarmists a bad name. Surely there is very real and very convincing data that the planet cannot survive the excesses of the human race: proliferation of atomic devices, uncontrolled breeding habits, the rape of the environment, the pollution of land, sea, and air. In this context, isn't it obvious that "Chicken Little" represents the sane vision and that Homo Sapiens' motto, "Let's go shopping!" is the cry of the true lunatic?

However, even if he did, it would be consistent with Cole's present, and thus allowed.

  • As an aside, this leads to a kind of problem with unrestricted self-consistent time travel (at least as it is often seen in movies). If something would occur that contradicts the timeline, it simply will not occur. So even though Cole should know better than to try to attack Dr. Peters, he must do it anyway. Self-consistency is controlling his mind (and, in doing so, basically violating other laws of physics). Even avoiding this, self-consistency has to violate probability (if 100 time travellers try to kill Hitler, they'll all trip and break their necks). That's why scientists don't like it.
    – Adamant
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 20:43
  • My impression is that if scientists consider the possibility of time travel at all, a self-consistent history is the favored way to avoid paradoxes. And when scientists have analyzed it they've actually been able to assign different probabilities to self-consistent scenarios involving billiard balls (as I mentioned here), so it could be that that even in much more complicated scenarios, the universe would tend to find the "path of least resistance" in its consistent solution, one that doesn't involve as many seemingly improbable events.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 20:54
  • @Hypnosifl - Well, that's why I said "as it is often seen in movies). If scientists believe time travel is possible, I would imagine they would favor many-worlds. It fits in well with the similar-named, and rather popular, interpretation of quantum mechanics.
    – Adamant
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 20:56
  • Even if the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is true, basic principles of QM would apparently have to be altered to allow one to travel between worlds (see the many-worlds section of the wiki 'Time travel' article along with this paper which it references), so the simpler solution is that time travelers in each "world" would stay within the same world they started in. From reading physicists like Kip Thorne write about time travel, self-consistency seems more popular.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 21:01
  • @Hypnosifl - While Thorne's paper is fascinating, I don't think it eliminates the need for fantastically unlikely outcomes. For example, let's say you have a patch of healthy grass. Ten seconds later, you send a bucket of acid through to a time before you saw the healthy grass. Something fantastically unlikely (and big) would have to happen each time you sent the bucket through to keep the grass unharmed. A gust of wind blows the bucket away in the past, a plane drops on your head when you start the machine. Little things might cut it for billiard balls, but not for everything.
    – Adamant
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 21:04

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