Time Travel

John Titor As An Unreliable Narrator

I’ve posted quite a bit about John Titor, the alleged time traveler from 2036.

This isn’t necessarily because I believe Titor was an actual time traveler. However, I’m fascinated by his story as a whole — the future of an alternate 2036, the statements regarding our own future, the machine. The character of John Titor himself and his interactions on those old message boards.

This is the stuff of modern urban legend.

But just because I don’t believe John Titor was a time traveler, that doesn’t mean I can’t come to his defense in one particular aspect of his story.

Many of his “predictions” (which, from his perspective, would be more appropriately called “reflections”) did not come to pass. There was no civil war in the United States in 2005. CERN has not discovered the ability to time travel (as far as we know). There are no signs of a nuclear war occurring in 2015.

Many will take this as a sign that Titor could not have been a time traveler. But that’s the beauty of Titor’s story: He left himself “outs.” Conditions, qualifications. Reasons for the possibility that nothing he stated would occur in our reality.

According to his own story, the failure of his “predictions” fits perfectly within his narrative’s internal logic. Therefore, if a person is going to argue against his being an actual time traveler, it cannot be based on his failed “predictions.”

Now, you can look at the failure of Titor’s “predictions” and the inaccuracies of many of his statements (including the science behind his machine) one of two ways.


The individual posting as Titor wasn’t a time traveler. He made his statements knowing full well that many of his “predictions” wouldn’t happen, and that his science could be wrong. However, he was clever enough to construct a narrative that allowed for deviation from those “predictions” (which is a win-win situation as far as hoaxes go).

Or two:

John Titor was an unreliable narrator.

Quantum Leaps Of Logic

Worldlines From The Big Bang
Image: Flickr/pshutterbug via CC by 2.0

An unreliable narrator is defined, in general, as a narrator “whose credibility has been compromised.” This compromise can be in the form of personal bias, inaccuracy, ignorance, or an unwillingness or hesitance to tell the entire story. In other words, unreliable narrators are not omniscient or objective, and they suffer from all the downsides and complexities that come with being human.

The concept of an unreliable narrator raises the issue of trust. However, it can usually be assumed that the average narrator of a story is telling that story to the best of his or her ability.

Now, let’s look at how John Titor fits into the category of an unreliable narrator, and why the failure of his “predictions,” and the inaccuracies of his science, cannot be used as an argument against his time travel claims.

Please keep in mind that, for the sake of this argument, I’m assuming John Titor was a time traveler, at least in the context of his story. This does not mean I, personally, believe he was a time traveler. It’s entirely possible that both he and his story suffer from something akin to a self-reinforcing delusion. I’m not arguing against that.

Instead, think of the following as a kind of literary analysis, and an outline for the reasons why there are better paths toward discounting Titor as a time traveler than simply focusing on his “predictions.”

1. Worldline divergence

John Titor often mentioned his time traveling device and the science behind it. In doing so, he referenced something called the “Everett Wheeler model” of physics.

In this model, otherwise known as the Many-worlds Interpretation or the theory of the universal wavefunction, every irreversible quantum observation causes worldlines to decohere, or split:

“Temporal space-time is made up of every possible quantum state. The Everett Wheeler model is correct. I have met and/or seen myself twice on different worldlines.”

According to Titor, timelines are not closed loops like those we’re familiar with in movies like Back to the Future. It is possible to travel back in time and kill your grandfather, because there are no paradoxes. There is a worldline for every potential series of events, and the “grandfather” you visit in any other worldline will only be superficially similar to your own, but not the exact one from your original worldline.

In regards to Titor’s time machine, this divergence of worldlines causes a few complications when traveling through time:

“… the distortion unit has operational limits. Imagine your path through time is through a cone. The farther away from the center of the cone, the more differences you will see in the worldline.

The C204 begins to “break away” at about 60 years. This means the level of confidence drops rapidly after 60 years of travel and the worldline divergence increases. In other words, if I wanted to go back 2000 years and meet Christ, there is a better than average chance I would end up on a worldline where he was never born.”

Titor even states the assumed divergence of the machine between our worldline in 2000-2001 and his worldline in 2036:

“… the fact that I’m here makes it different. I’ve also noticed little things like news events that happen at different times, football games won by other teams, things like that.

I would guess the temporal divergence between this worldline and my original is about 1 or 2 percent. Of course, the longer I am here, the larger that divergence becomes from my point of view.”

To put this divergence into perspective, according to the Many-worlds Interpretation, the worldline we inhabit at this very moment is vastly different from the worldline we inhabited in 2000-2001, and vastly different from the worldline we will inhabit in 2036. In fact, the very concept of “inhabiting” a worldline is probably meaningless. Every possible outcome of events has occurred somewhere, somewhen, in an infinite or near-infinite number of worldlines.

What does all of this mean in regards to John Titor’s predictions? It means that, if the Many-worlds Interpretation is correct, none of his predictions were ever likely to occur, simply due to the divergence between his worldline and ours.

This divergence makes John Titor the most unreliable narrator we could have possibly asked for.

2. Withholding Information

Reading through Titor’s posts, we’re given reason to believe that he was never being entirely clear with us. For example, one of his statements was as follows:

“For those asking how come a microsingularity doesn’t swallow the Earth or want to know details about the size, stability, mass, temperature and resulting Hawking radiation from such a thing, those details I must keep to myself.”

Why must he have kept those details to himself? Perhaps it was ignorance, and yet “I must keep [those details] to myself” implies that he knew the answer. He simply refused to share it.

We must remember that the character of John Titor was recruited and trained for a particular mission. What that training entailed, what his specific orders were in regards to how to act, etc., were not entirely revealed in his posts.

We can, however, infer from the above statement that, despite the divergence between worldlines, there still existed some things that Titor was either ordered not to reveal, or simply chose not to reveal.

3. Titor Is Human

The final proof that John Titor was an unreliable narrator, and that many of his statements cannot be taken as absolute, lies in the simple truth that he is, above all else, a human being.

We have spent so many years parsing Titor’s every word, analyzing the science behind his machine, and the veracity of his “predictions,” that it’s easy to forget there is a person behind this story, true or fake.

Humans are, by nature, biased. And the bias of John Titor was no clearer than when he commented on his personal feelings regarding this moment in history:

“This time period is looked at as being full of lazy, self-centered, civically ignorant sheep. Perhaps you should be less concerned about me and more concerned about that.”

Furthermore, Titor did show a slight ignorance in regards to the physics and construction of the time machine itself:

“Please keep in mind a couple of points as I answer your questions. First, I am not a physicist. “Time travel” is only a tool that allowed me to do my job in 1975. Most airline pilots are probably not aerospace engineers.”

Also, going back to his statement regarding “worldline divergence,” we see that at least one of his statements was a guess:

I would guess the temporal divergence between this worldline and my original is about 1 or 2 percent. Of course, the longer I am here, the larger that divergence becomes from my point of view.”

The point here is that mistakes can be made. Memories can be faulty (sometimes to an extreme). We cannot always be certain that the information we are relaying is accurate, particularly when barraged with questions we may not know the answers to. We can attempt to provide those answers, but we cannot always guarantee their validity.

The very same goes for John Titor.

Diverting Attention

John Titor As An Unreliable Narrator
Image: Flickr/Anders Sandberg via CC by 2.0

The “predictions” made by John Titor were not “predictions” as such, but rather statements of “fact” from the point of view of an alleged time traveler. They were reflections of an individual’s past, which often come with both bias and inaccuracy.

Along with those biases and inaccuracies, the existence, in Titor’s story, of a “worldline divergence” only underscores that nothing Titor said in regards to our future could ever be held against him.

John Titor, even if he was a time traveler from 2036, was an unreliable narrator.

If we want to discount his science, his time machine, and his story in general, we can do so. But working within the logic of his narrative, we cannot discount his claims simply by looking at his failed “predictions.”

We must, instead, look elsewhere.

Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.