HERE BE SPOILERS. (about the movie, the source story, everything)
(a note I write after posting all of this: I very largely underestimated both the original story and the movie. I am defeated. What I wrote is still valid up to a certain point, but my hope was to exhaust the argument and lead to my conclusion. But since there was so much more than what I suspected, in the end this is a record of my failure. The simple fact I underestimated this short story, and was unable to see so much that was there, just signs my defeat.)
The stuff I wrote at length recently was about categories of determinism, free will and foundational theories of the universe, so of course I was really interested when I heard that the movie dealt directly with those themes and I went straight to the short story the movie is based on. I developed a grudge against it, then proceeded to watch the movie, yesterday. I got into some discussions about it. I’ve been told I take it “too seriously”. So be warned, I take this VERY seriously. Of course I take it seriously.
In my opinion the short story has two MAJOR “holes”. The first is from the scientific side and it’s my own unconfirmed speculation. A pattern I see and recognize, but that I cannot be 100% sure that it’s not my own interpretation of it to fall short. But still, discussion with those who know science much better than me didn’t disprove anything I thought, but didn’t fully resolve the contention either. The other major problem instead is on the metaphysical side and it’s so glaringly obvious, so explicit, that I’m quite sure about it and it would require quite a significant paradigm shift to prove me it can be twisted back into something that makes some sense.
All this premise to say I started watching the movie primarily with the intention to see if those two big problematic aspects about the story carried over to the movie, or if the movie added something or took a different path. It turns out that the great majority of the “plot” in the movie doesn’t even exist in the source story, or at least it is only implied indirectly. This also means that the “big purpose” and justification for the “arrival” that the movie offers (it’s an exchange, so that humans will help aliens some 3000 years in the future) is completely absent in the original story. No explanation is given in that story, it’s left to the reader’s interpretation and there’s also not even much on the plate to speculate about. The story pushes your curiosity somewhere else and discourages you from second-guessing the aliens’ intentions. That’s not the point of the story. The movie instead anticipates that the public would be extremely frustrated by a total lack of answers, so it tries to shape it in a more plot-driven and conclusive way. It more generously adds some meat. You have the premise of a global conflict, a threat, that is then neatly resolved, achieving some sort of global peace and unit, and the thing about returning the favor someday in the future. Some have interpreted the ending as the aliens actually triggering a new political unity on Earth, bringing a great change, if indirectly.
The movie focuses on those two elements that are entirely (“apparently”, my delusional future self would edit) absent from the original story. There’s the plot on one side to actually add some tension and excitement to the story, and there’s what I consider as mostly fluff, but substance for the movie: the “atmosphere”. The reliance on sophisticated imagery and eerie sounds (and eerie music) to try to recreate some 2001 Space Odyssey type of fascinating disorientation. Form over substance, but absolutely required to infuse the movie of a sense of wonder that is nowhere to be found in the original story. In fact I’d say this is bland and superficial movie that is ONLY sustained by its form and atmosphere. And exclusive of the movie is the movie-like, Fight Club-like reversal, or twist that is the revelation that what one assumes is a flashback is instead a flashforward. I was completely robbed of this primary effect of the movie, and likely a significant reason why I didn’t enjoy all that much. In fact I only realized THERE WAS a plot twist only by reading others’ opinions. Coming from the short story I was immediately aware that those visions came from across the whole timeline (in the short story they are more randomly scattered) but even if the movie is faithful to the story, in the story the whole thing of the daughter dying is only hinted and easily overlooked if you don’t read too carefully. The exact opposite of the explicit emphasis it has in the movie.
If in the movie the woman receives directly these “visions” of the future, in the book those section are strictly separated and don’t seep in the story. They could as well been written and recorded in the future. It’s a device of the story structure and how it’s presented, it’s not part of the plot. That means the whole “Back to the Future” plot of the movie, where she uses in the past knowledge taken from the future, is also absent in the original story. This is quite significant to underline before starting any analysis. There’s no time paradox in the original story.
If the movie structures the plot so that it “moves”, the original story just presents its “gimmick” without imparting on it any action. There are no crisis to be resolved, it’s all about exploring the idea of the possibility of language altering perception, and the possibility to interpret and conceive the universe outside its constraint of time, to analyze how human canons can still fit in that picture. It’s directly more philosophical and metaphysical than anything in the movie. But because of this, the movie eludes the two big holes that I recognize in the story. YET, because the source is the same, the movie merely hides the mistake, and if you dig it doesn’t make ANY FUCKING SENSE EITHER.
So let’s move to the movie specifically now. I’ve read a bunch of “explanations” online on the various sites, to notice they don’t even agree with each other. Pretty much all of them are satisfied with explanations that simply brush away the actual unanswered questions. Because the movie sets up things in a way radically different than the original story, the result is a kind of non-sequitur where some elements have their origin in the source material only to appear magically in the movie without any actual explanation. Stuff that is introduced in a certain way only to “morph” into something else. If you look from afar it might seem to make an overall sense, but if you stop and look closely you’d realize how lots of stuff doesn’t “add up”. But it’s a movie, and you shouldn’t take it seriously…
Take these flashforwards. The theory that comes from the source story and that the movie retains is that language shapes perception (“Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”). It actually shapes consciousness, because we use language to think, and language is the tool we use to “differentiate”, and so perceive the world through human distinctions. It means language is the mean through which we perceive the world. The world is mediated by language (you can have a better take on this than surpassed, but still overall valid, Sapir-Whorf if you read a bit about “foundationalism”, and specifically the last paragraph here about Richard Rorthy, that “stepping out” concept will be used later to unfuck the metaphysical paradox). This is the higher scale interpretation of the theory, and in the movie we need it as strong as possible. Its most extreme. Because of this, the movie suggests that “contact” with alien language produces on the protagonist a shift in perception. Because the trait that qualifies the aliens is the perception of time in a kind of holistic, non-sequential way, so the woman starts to have visions of her future: she begins to perceive time the way the aliens perceive time. A circular (it’s not, it’s simultaneous), immutable structure with no actual linearity. The linearity is the interpretation (and perception) humans have of it, but not its true substance/nature. In the original story this point is stressed even more, because it spends time analyzing both human and alien science, to illustrate how the same scientific concepts can theoretically be *observed* from these opposite perspectives. Human and alien physics aren’t “incompatible”, it’s just about radically different conceptualizations of the same phenomenon. Different observers looking at the same stuff. Two points of view, dramatically different, on the same substance. Which directly leads back to something I discussed in the past: Double-aspect theory (but where the pivot in this case is “time”, instead of the classic mind/body).
(besides, if you sprinkled a bit of Chomsky over that Sapir-Whorf you’d realize that it’s not like the language shapes the brain. It’s the brain that shapes language. We still only have perception of the world as mediated by language, so Sapir-Whorf is correct when it says that language affects perception, but we have human language as supported by human brain. Getting in contact with alien language, especially of that kind, definitely cannot change much. Because it would need to re-wire the brain, and it takes some thousands of years to evolve that kind of effect… Yep, suspension of disbelief, if it can happen then we can accept fictionally accelerating it, okay.
Partially addressed in the short story:
Even though I’m proficient with Heptapod B, I know I don’t experience reality the way a heptapod does. My mind was cast in the mold of human, sequential languages, and no amount of immersion in an alien language can completely reshape it. My worldview is an amalgam of human and heptapod.
After I learned Heptapod B, new memories fell into place like gigantic blocks, each one measuring years in duration, and though they didn’t arrive in order or land contiguously, they soon composed a period of five decades.
But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive — during those glimpses — that entire epoch as a simultaneity. It’s a period encompassing the rest of my life
yes, this parenthesis that is left here is ugly)
That’s the “device”. The “weapon”, as referenced in the movie. The idea that this world could be observed from a different, “alien” perspective. And the hinge of the specific articulation used here is the distinction between human sequential perception and the alien simultaneous one. Time experienced linearly versus time experienced as a solid. Alan Moore, or Rust Cohle in True Detective.
Deep into our six-hour talk, somewhere around the dessert (three scoops of ice cream for Moore, hold the whipped cream), the Sage of Northampton is explaining how he came to see the world as Doctor Manhattan does. In 1994, he experienced an “absolute, crystalline understanding” during a magical ritual. Since then, Moore has believed, as Einstein supposedly did, that time is a solid in which our lives are embedded; it is only our perception of it which makes it appear linear.
In other words, everything that has ever happened is still happening. Everything which is about to happen has already happened. We never truly die: the lives we are living now are solid and eternal. That’s all major religions out of business, then.
“The thing is,” says Moore, “we don’t have free will, or at least that’s what I believe, and I think most physicists tend to think that as well, that this is a predetermined universe. That’s got to pretty much kill religion because there aren’t any religions that aren’t based on some kind of moral imperative. They’ve all got sin, karma or something a bit like that. In a predetermined universe how can you talk about sin? How can you talk about virtue?”
You ever heard of something called
the M-brane theory, detectives?
It’s like in this universe,
we process time linearly forward…
but outside of our spacetime,
from what would be a fourth-dimensional perspective,
time wouldn’t exist,
and from that vantage, could we attain it..
our spacetime would look flattened,
like a single sculpture with matter
in a superposition of every place it ever occupied,
our sentience just cycling through our lives
like carts on a track.
See, everything outside our dimension…
eternity looking down on us.
Now, to us,
it’s a sphere,
but to them…
it’s a circle.
All this is fine and dandy, the problem is that the movie takes a few liberties to shit on plausibility. In a way, it’s required to keep the story moving and not bog it down, but the implications aren’t that superficial. In the original story it takes the woman quite some time to start having glimpses of the perspective of the aliens, it’s the study of the language itself that triggers the effect.
I practiced Heptapod B at every opportunity, both with the other linguists and by myself. The novelty of reading a semasiographic language made it compelling in a way that Heptapod A wasn’t, and my improvement in writing it excited me. Over time, the sentences I wrote grew shapelier, more cohesive. I had reached the point where it worked better when I didn’t think about it too much. Instead of carefully trying to design a sentence before writing, I could simply begin putting down strokes immediately; my initial strokes almost always turned out to be compatible with an elegant rendition of what I was trying to say. I was developing a faculty like that of the heptapods.
As I grew more fluent, semagraphic designs would appear fully formed, articulating even complex ideas all at once. My thought processes weren’t moving any faster as a result, though. Instead of racing forward, my mind hung balanced on the symmetry underlying the semagrams. The semagrams seemed to be something more than language; they were almost like mandalas. I found myself in a meditative state, contemplating the way in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable. There was no direction inherent in the way propositions were connected, no “train of thought” moving along a particular route; all the components in an act of reasoning were equally powerful, all having identical precedence.
In the movie instead the process is a lot more immediate, and “magical”. It still relies on the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis to justify itself but it presents the device in a more of “action at a distance” kind of way. Everything changes when she gets out of protection suit and goes to touch the screen. She gets a significant vision not after a sleepless night studying the language, but right there when she takes initiative, touches the screen and the vision hits her. Right that moment. That’s why, in my interpretation, she’s the only one to have these visions. She becomes the “chosen one”. She has visions right at the moment, when a contact is established. It’s a mental link whose “linguistic explanation” is there as a mere relic of the original story. She has visions because the aliens give her visions. Yet this explanation might not sound convincing, because if the aliens could communicate with her then they wouldn’t “mediate” and instead be a lot more proactive. Again, this is a case of ideas coming and going between the original story and the adaptation. We can speculate than even if these visions are given directly by the aliens, the aliens can only offer “what is already there”. They can “activate” her own memories, but can’t implant new ones and talk to her explicitly. Basically: the aliens can only communicate with her by using her, as a form of introspection (this idea of non-interactive dialogue, as a mirror just bouncing back your own image, is an idea stressed in the original story, but spun on a different context). We also know another hard rule that binds both the aliens and the woman: they can see the future but cannot (decide to) change it. …Follow me. If the woman actually had acquired the power to see the future, as the aliens are supposed to, then she would be able to see it all. For example she wouldn’t have needed to fly back up to the alien ship to ask a few more questions, she could have pilfered the answers from her future. BUT. The way the timeline works establishes she cannot acquire knowledge she doesn’t have. So she NEEDS to fly back up to the ship, because that’s where she gets her information. What bugs me is that the movie keeps this ambiguous in order to keep it convenient for the plot: either she knows EVERYTHING, and so all the anxiety and time-bound human emotion are unjustified, or she only had those individual visions and nothing more, GLIMPSES of the future, not all of it, which would mean that these visions are directed by alien hand. They are “convenient” for a purpose. They are exactly the visions she (the movie) needs (to show) for that specific scene. To obtain an effect. (because the original story has no urgency, and the woman doesn’t need to resolve any crisis and perform any appropriate time-bending stunt, this problem is exclusive of the movie. In the short story the order or significance of her visions is purely irrelevant)
Who decides what specific vision she gets? If we exclude the aliens we could speculate she only accesses memory, same as one accesses memory of the past. So she makes her mind wander in a kind of subconscious way that would justify why she picks up those memories that have some relevance to the present time. Her mind stays the same, but her memory suddenly expands to include her whole life. So she can erratically “remember” things of the future, with the same vagueness we have about the past. It’s not omniscience, memory is unreliable. (but weren’t the aliens simultaneous, instead of merely remembering stuff across?)
(bear with me: the movie doesn’t really explain conclusively how the aliens actually perceive time. We could for example assume, as I did when reading the story, that the aliens exist outside time. They *experience* it non-linearly. Which means that the whole sequence of time for them is immediate. Manifested at once. We perceive them in this moment, but for them this moment is contemporary with every other moment. They experience “across” the timeline. Holistically. And so empowers them with an “eidetic” memory of the future. OR we interpret it as what we see in the movie. So we could imagine that the aliens, like us, exist in the “now”, perceive the present time exactly as we do. But, same as it happens to the woman, they get “unlocked” memories that go both ways: in the past as in the future. They have still experience bound by time, but access knowledge that eludes time. Which means they’d live like “passengers”. Experienced like watching a movie for the second time and knowing what happens, but without being able to change it. It seems like a detail, but when I’ll delve in the metaphysics this distinction is the tool to extricate the truth out of this mess.)
(remember Westworld? When Dolores has an “eidetic” memory she lives it without awareness that it’s just something remembered. It’s as if she travels in time and experiences the memory as it happens. She cannot make the distinction because the memory is “perfect”. This is very similar to the hypothesis of the aliens as holistic beings. Once memory is perfect, time vanishes. …Or, when time vanishes, memory is discarded. You don’t need to “remember”, when you ARE, always, forever in simultaneity. Locked into eternal existence.)
That seems satisfying enough, and whereas it was due to the study of language or a less subtle alien trigger, this ambiguity can still be kept under the suspension of disbelief. The point is that the movie, while retaining this idea of time-as-solid, introduces explicitly time paradoxes, whereas instead there’s no trace of them in the original story (I’m wrong, they are just well hidden, see te section here below). And while the original story has issues of its own, the movie has to harmonize this concept of solid time WITH the concept of the possibility of paradoxes. AND IT CAN’T. Either time is fixed, or it can be changed. “Back to the Future” knew what it was doing: it accepted the fact time could be manipulated. You go back in time, change something, the future changes. You create a multiverse of possibilities where every “choice” branches out. It’s linear time applied recursively to itself. It works plausibly. But if you instead postulate time is an unchanging solid, then how the hell can you introduce time paradoxes to it?
I’ve traveled back in time to add this note: all my fancy capers trying to wrestle the elements of the story to give some semblance of logic neglected a quite significant aspect that invalidates a lot of that: aliens do time travel, and they do it fully already in the source story. The movie writer simply realized that this is the case, and made it more explicit in the movie. But I can now say that the movie doesn’t add anything to the concept, it merely follows it further along.
The idea of alien writing comes from the gimmick that this writing, too, is non-sequential. And it is explained that they write that way because they already know how the sentence ends before they start to write it.
Besides, if that wasn’t the case humans could have never guessed that aliens experienced simultaneity. We only deduce that from observing their language. That simultaneity to be understood needs to manifest itself. And that can only happen non-linearly, so breaking time. You cannot manifest simultaneity in a way that is respectful of the rules of time as we know them.
In the short story this fact is kept a little vague, but I don’t think it can me interpreted otherwise. This is the only directly pertinent part I found:
The heptapods didn’t write a sentence one semagram at a time; they built it out of strokes irrespective of individual semagrams. No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no human could.
This is already a form of time travel equivalent to that used by the woman. The woman accesses in the past information she will only receive in the future. The aliens start writing a sign while knowing “how it ends”, how it will turn out when complete. It’s still information that “goes across”. It’s still about accessing at a different time information that sequentially isn’t there.
Maybe the aliens are just fast, but it’s obvious the story wants you to look for a more sophisticated answer.
Moreover, I just found out proof that in the original story she travels FORWARD in time. Are you fucking kidding me? You fucker of an obfuscator.
In the movie they simplified the scene: she cannot remember the “zero-sum game” word, then she has a flashforward and she pilfers the word from it. It’s the way the movie uses to teach the public she can take back in the past information stolen from the future.
As seen above in a quote, she says memories of the “future” drop like blocks at random (like the visions in the movie). The “zero-sum game” scene is inverted:
She hears in the past (present time) someone saying the word. The scene is interrupted by a scene in the future. She finds herself, right that moment, simultaneously in the past and in the future. Two places and two times at once. And because there’s this momentary connection, she hears in the future the word she just heard in the past.
So: information travels forward. It’s meant to deceive, since it appears as if she merely remembers a thing that she’d be able to remember normally without superpowers. But because it’s described that way, if you look deeper the scene tells you it’s not just the usual human memory. It’s a moment of actual simultaneity that transfers information across.
But hey, non-linear time *actualization* means cause-effect isn’t merely described differently by humans and aliens, while being preserved in substance. It means that alien consciousness can violate time rules. Information is always available “across”. Everything can happen.
The curious outcome? They made it such a mess that it’s just impossible to unravel. And so they made it so “alien” that you can’t apply any logic to it. Meaning that “just so” will have to work. They can show everything they want and you have to swallow it, as you can’t have logic means to parse it. It’s alien.
Before moving to the details of metaphysics of the original story, let’s exhaust the stuff more explicit in the movie. Beside the problem of time paradoxes in a context that postulates time as fixed there’s the problem of how memories of the future can reach the woman. It’s not a pointless detail. Because the original premise was about the aliens as “holistic” beings, this problem about the memories was more subdued. If you exist outside time it is automatic that your knowledge extends to the whole breadth of the timeline. You experience every moment at the same time, so you have 100% knowledge of the thing as a whole. But if we agree that the woman in the movie doesn’t start to live holistically, but merely has her memory department unlocked, then you have to explain HOW those memories arrive in her brain. Where is the information coming from? Does information take a time machine to go in the past and implant itself in the brain cells of the woman? That’s why it’s important to underline how the “power” the woman acquires is of a wholly different nature compared to the power the aliens naturally posses. Access to memory for the alien makes sense: they exist outside time. Access to memory for the woman has instead to be justified. She doesn’t exist outside time, she doesn’t *experience* the future either. That’s the point. She REMEMBERS the future. She doesn’t experience it. Or, if you don’t want to commit, either she remembers or she experiences. If she remembers then memory is vague and discreet (in the sense it’s chunked to a precise episode), but you then have to explain how memory goes back in time, if instead she experiences then she doesn’t get to pick what’s relevant. It’s all of nothing. Or, and here be branch out to a new hypothesis, she becomes an HYBRID. The result of interaction between human and alien. Something new that neither humans neither aliens exhaust.
The point is that we might imagine that this alien holistic experience doesn’t happen as if flipping a switch. So the hypothesis is: she begins *experiencing* exactly as the aliens, those visions are not memories, but because it’s the beginning of a process it’s not as pervasive and so it arrive to her in short burst. Essentially: she begins to experience the future, but this experience appears in the guise of (looking like, but not being) a memory because it’s just a burst of experience. Dolores in reverse. Which might even justify the time paradoxes. While the aliens don’t have the power to mess with time (wrong, that’s what I wanted to believe to make sense of it), because they exist outside it and are merely passive passengers on their own ride, the woman, by both existing in time AND having glimpses of perception outside time, fuses the two states and actually breaks the horizon. She is able to create a paradox because she IS a paradox. She has a new power, to break time, that the alien didn’t have, and is instead obtained by fusing human with alien perception. The stunt she pulls by using her memories of the future in her past is something she only can perform, and that would instead be completely outside the power of the aliens themselves, and maybe the very special power the aliens will need 3000 years in the future. But here we are in pure fanfiction domain, and so it’s all quite pointless.
Aaand, after more than 3000 words we actually arrive to the core. You see, if you follow that fanfiction-y hypothesis you have some kind of explanation that looks incredibly fancy but that at least puts everything in the same pot while keeping logic and internal consistency. That hypothesis WORKS. The woman is able to do impossible stuff because the woman transcends both alien and human. She steps out of both canons to create a brand new one. She “steps out”. The problem is (1) none of this is even vaguely suggested in the movie or the original story. Nowhere it is hinted that the woman acquires something new compared to both human and aliens. (2) The original story, that closes the perspective itself since it was meant to be autonomous, builds itself on an entirely different premise (nor there are no time paradoxes to illustrate the new superpowers the woman acquires). And that’s where we arrive to the metaphysics.
…But before discussing the metaphysics I need to clarify my position on what I consider a wild misrepresentation of science in the original story. The stuff I mentioned at the beginning but that I’m not 100% sure about. I’ll explain my thought process so that you see why I lack the knowledge to be certain and yet I believe I might be quite right about it.
Let’s start from a well known natural phenomenon: a lightning. As a kid who still was somewhat accustomed to science I always thought it was quite weird that some god in a cloud up in the sky could see some pointed piece of iron (or some hapless victim) on the ground and precisely aim a lightning to it. I knew there was no god aiming, but the problem stands: how can the lightning “know” the path to take to point precisely at that piece of iron? How can the information travel across? Action at a distance. Same as gravity and planets going through their orbit. How can gravity “travel” to exercise its force? Through ether? In the case of the lightning we know how the illusion is resolved. There’s no “magical” aiming. What happens is that there’s a process taking place before we see the actual manifestation of the lightning. From the pointed piece of iron electrons float up. It’s a chain reaction, electrical charges that begin traveling up, creating a “path” until they hit the charges in a cloud during a storm. At that point the lightning happens, discharging itself through that same path. Simplifying: a messenger traveled from the point of the piece of iron on the ground, up across the sky, to deliver the information to the god in the cloud. Who, by reading that information, was able to aim precisely the lightning. Information actually traveled up beforehand. But don’t stick to the example, abstract more. We observed a phenomenon that looked like “magic”, impossible. We saw something knowing where it was going before starting its journey. The lightning knew its destination in a teleological way. But it was only an illusion, of course. It was magical because we missed a piece of the puzzle (the pre-existing, invisible process), and the pieces didn’t add up. Consider the pattern, don’t you see the same here?
“Okay,” I said, thinking aloud, “so let’s say the goal of a ray of light is to take the fastest path. How does the light go about doing that?”
“Well, if I can speak anthropomorphic-projectionally, the light has to examine the possible paths and compute how long each one would take.”
Gary nodded again. “That’s right; the notion of a ‘fastest path’ is meaningless unless there’s a destination specified. And computing how long a given path takes also requires information about what lies along that path, like where the water’s surface is.”
I kept staring at the diagram on the napkin. “And the light ray has to know all that ahead of time, before it starts moving, right?”
“So to speak,” said Gary. “The light can’t start traveling in any old direction and make course corrections later on, because the path resulting from such behavior wouldn’t be the fastest possible one. The light has to do all its computations at the very beginning.”
I thought to myself, the ray of light has to know where it will ultimately end up before it can choose the direction to begin moving in
“the ray of light has to know just where its destination is. If the destination were somewhere else, the fastest path would be different.”
But Fermat’s principle sounds weird because it describes light’s behavior in goal-oriented terms. It sounds like a commandment to a light beam: ‘Thou shalt minimize or maximize the time taken to reach thy destination.’ ”
“It’s an old question in the philosophy of physics. People have been talking about it since Fermat first formulated it in the 1600s; Planck wrote volumes about it. The thing is, while the common formulation of physical laws is causal, a variational principle like Fermat’s is purposive, almost teleological.”
Now the one explained here and my example are about completely different contexts and I’m the first to doubt about such a simple analogy. I only underlined the overall pattern: that certain things usually appear “weird” because we’re missing the whole picture. We see illusions and mistake them for truth. Is this theoretically valid even for Fermat’s principle, and so the case that the story makes? I’ve read a few things on the wikipedia and the problem is too complex for me to competently handle it and so arrive at a conclusive evaluation. But at least the wikipedia confirms this teleological explanation is far from being accepted. It’s a case of framing the problem in a way that leads to a false conclusion. A sort of intuition pump. Which would confirm the pattern: what’s “teleological” is the framing of the problem so that it “leads on” toward flawed conclusions. It hid some variables in order to perform its magic trick. In any case, the short story doesn’t even hint at the controversy, and in doing this it is quite dishonest.
Finally we arrive at the metaphysics. This is important because it’s specific in the short story and it’s the real core of the idea that springs the discussion over determinism and free will. If this part is explicit in the book, in the move only the overall theme is carried over, and the result is that mess of time paradoxes and overall lack of logic. But we’ll get to that point.
The first aspect I want to underline is that the original story seems very rigorous (if a bit fraudulent) when it examines its science problem, but completely falls apart when it deals with metaphysics. It stops trying to further the analysis and falls back into baseless myth. In doing so not only it undermines its whole construction with a HUGE logic hole, but it also stops short of reaching actually *meaningful* conclusions. It asks the right questions, then refuses to follow through. It refuses to kick the door open to cower back into obscurantism.
I’ll have to quote the page, since the dilemma is wholly contained here:
Was it actually possible to know the future? Not simply to guess at it; was it possible to know what was going to happen, with absolute certainty and in specific detail? Gary once told me that the fundamental laws of physics were time-symmetric, that there was no physical difference between past and future. Given that, some might say, “yes, theoretically.” But speaking more concretely, most would answer “no,” because of free will.
I liked to imagine the objection as a Borgesian fabulation: consider a person standing before the Book of Ages, the chronicle that records every event, past and future. Even though the text has been photoreduced from the full-sized edition, the volume is enormous. With magnifier in hand, she flips through the tissue-thin leaves until she locates the story of her life. She finds the passage that describes her flipping through the Book of Ages, and she skips to the next column, where it details what she’ll be doing later in the day: acting on information she’s read in the Book, she’ll bet $100 on the racehorse Devil May Care and win twenty times that much.
The thought of doing just that had crossed her mind, but being a contrary sort, she now resolves to refrain from betting on the ponies altogether.
There’s the rub. The Book of Ages cannot be wrong; this scenario is based on the premise that a person is given knowledge of the actual future, not of some possible future. If this were Greek myth, circumstances would conspire to make her enact her fate despite her best efforts, but prophecies in myth are notoriously vague; the Book of Ages is quite specific, and there’s no way she can be forced to bet on a racehorse in the manner specified. The result is a contradiction: the Book of Ages must be right, by definition; yet no matter what the Book says she’ll do, she can choose to do otherwise. How can these two facts be reconciled?
They can’t be, was the common answer. A volume like the Book of Ages is a logical impossibility, for the precise reason that its existence would result in the above contradiction. Or, to be generous, some might say that the Book of Ages could exist, as long as it wasn’t accessible to readers: that volume is housed in a special collection, and no one has viewing privileges.
The existence of free will meant that we couldn’t know the future. And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness.
Or was it? What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?
The first paragraph is already misleading. We’re discussing whether or not the universe is deterministic. So how, speaking concretely, the universe CAN’T be deterministic because this possibility is blocked off by our free will? I’d say it’s much more easily plausible that it’s our assumption of free will that is going to be challenged, since the determinism of the world is rather thoroughly supported by science, whereas our free will is merely supported by sentiment. Are we trying to look at truth or convenience? Do we bet on what is the logic outcome or on what we HOPE is the outcome? In order to *preserve* our free will the world has to be non-deterministic, yes. But are we sure the world complies to our specific interest? Should we shape science and belief so that they serve our selfish ends?
It’s true that most would say/believe the world isn’t deterministic, because they believe that human agency is a thing, and that it exists outside of (known) physics. Something in the brain happens that can’t be tracked, something unprecedented. And so it escapes rules, it brings change. Speaking concretely, this is TRUE (and the reason why I have a compatibilist position). We cannot track the brain, it’s way too complex. Therefore it escapes, if not physics, at least our current knowledge. In this case the unresolved gap is mistaking what we know about the world with how the world really works.
The following example is where we move onto metaphysics. It is postulated, as in the context of the overall story, that time is a “solid”. “That a person is given knowledge of the actual future, not of some possible future”. The actual future here means time is unchanging and already written. Predetermined (and described in the book). And it is obviously built to create the dilemma. If time is fixed, and someone reads the book, that someone won’t be able to use that knowledge, because he cannot change/decide a thing.
Now. This paradox is an apparent one. A trick similar to the intuition pump, where a problem is built to induce deception. In fact this paradox can be easily solved. But what I find infuriating is that the author doesn’t even TRY. Instead of continuing to apply rigorous logic to it and see where it leads, it drops the ball. It flees back into “myth”. And what’s worse is that the book ultimately offers that as the final answer, as you can see in the last line. The universe “conjures” so that the person knowing the future is MAGICALLY COMPELLED TO COMPLY.
Does it remind you something? It’s Donnie Darko. But at least in that case the problem was framed correctly, and that’s not the case here. In Donnie Darko there’s no time paradox, and no set future. In fact the point is that the world actively conjure to compel him. But this can work because the premise is that the boy can actually REFUSE to do it. It’s a dynamic, action is needed. But instead in this other context of the Book of Ages we’re examining here, action is DENIED. You know but cannot act.
This story doesn’t even try to answer this mystery: why those “sense of urgency” and “sense of obligation” should exist? The book is satisfied to use this as a revelation. The conclusive answer: you know the future, so you have an obligation to fulfill it.
Instead of standing up to the problem, the very sign that something is WRONG in the framing of the example, it accepts the paradox as the SOLUTION. This couldn’t be more idiotic and fraudulent.
Because yes, of course there’s something wrong. And if you keep FOLLOWING the problem that was introduced, just following the path already traced, and you’ll see the paradox has a solution. And that solution is more powerful, revelatory and meaningful than anything else written in this bad short story.
So let’s do just that. Let’s follow logic in a more rigorous way. The first consideration is that the theory that says time is fixed, and the universe deterministic, is similar to the concept of Laplace’s demon. That means that in order to know the future you need to know the *complete* state of a system in a given moment. Then, you can freely deduce any future or past state (the time-symmetric property described in the example). It also means that the Book of Ages doesn’t contain “prophecies”. It records time, in a perfect way. It contains everything, not some arbitrary selection and subjective narration of a neat “story”.
This is very important because it implies the book is written in a “rich” language that describes completely the system. And not in a convenient human language that DECIDES on what’s relevant to record in a story and what to omit because less interesting. The Book of Ages cannot discriminate on human agency and relevance. The Book of Ages cannot be anthropocentric. It contains the state of ALL particles, it doesn’t tell neat stories.
It would directly EXCLUDE the possibility of course-correcting universe, or gods conspiring so that the prophecy is fulfilled. If the Book of Ages says something happens, in a precise moment, then it has to happen in that precise way. As I said, the description has to be complete and perfect. It’s not approximate, and it’s not open to interpretation. It CANNOT ADJUST because we postulate that the description is 100% perfect. And we postulate the description is 100% perfect because that’s the scientific hypothesis of a how determinism works and why time might be a solid. Determinism is possible once a complete description is possible. The Book of Ages is the manifestation of this description, and that means the Book of Ages has NO MARGIN OF ERROR. It rules all particles, and those particles aren’t free to act on their own whims. There’s no leverage at all.
But MORE. Because if determinism is a thing, then human *thought* is part of it. The arbitrary distinction that is embedded in the example is IDIOTIC. That example imagines that knowledge of the future compels the person to fulfill it, so denying the action to produce change. It means it creates a split between thought and action. The person CONSIDERS about doing otherwise, but ultimately decides to not proceed. “To abstain”. And the movie actually promotes this self-restraint as something transcendent, almost HOLY, to celebrate it as a proof of its contrary: choice and free will.
But again, all this construction is just a stupid illusion built to mystify and obfuscate. The description in the Book of Ages is perfect, being perfect it contains not just performative actions and stories, but it contains thoughts as well. What goes through the brain. And because its description needs to be complete, there’s no leverage to contain a variance between actions and thought. The possibility that one is conflicted but ultimately resolves to comply with the future is denied by the fact that this doubt, TOO, has to be written in the Book of Ages. Nothing escapes.
WHAT DO YOU SEE? YOU MUST TELL ME. WHAT DO YOU SEE?
The original example is a shameless fraud, an intuition pump, because it HAS TO produce that fracture in order to make free will manifest. The *choice* not to act. That choice BREAKS the determinism, allowing to potential healing of the paradox itself: at the same time the Book of Ages is not violated AND I exercise my free will by complying to it. But to have both, another hidden fracture is built: that between action and thought. I obtain a NEW thought: I might do otherwise than what was written in the Book of Ages. But this doesn’t resolve into change: I decide not to act, so everything conforms to what was written.
If instead we frame the problem correctly we realize that no fracture can exist. Because the Book of Ages doesn’t discriminate between action and thought. If the universe is deterministic then human thought is just made of physics as everything else. And because human thought in this context cannot be “magical”, or transcendental, then it means the Book of Ages HAS TO RECORD IT, along with everything else. And if the Book of Ages records thought, then it ALSO records the choice not to act itself. Turning it in a non-choice. And so DENYING ONCE AGAIN any romantic idea of free will. There is no space for free will. No leverage. (there actually is, I’ll link it few paragraphs below)
We’re still there. We’ve simply confirmed that under a rigorous formulation there’s no leverage for the operation of free will. The world cannot course correct because the description is already 100% complete. …so how the Book of Ages would look like, in this context? What happens if someone reads it?
Here things become interesting. In order to understand how this works we need to abstract and simplify the whole thing to have it on a more manageable level that still retains the fundamental traits. If we observe the most simple system that retains the traits we’re dealing with, then we can understand better how it works and what it can or cannot do.
Take a simple system: eight binary numbers. The system needs to be deterministic, and that means we need to “hold” a complete description. Say these eight numbers are 1 0 0 1 0 1 0 1. To keep things even more simple we decide that these numbers stay the same forever, so that the description of this system doesn’t even need to describe a process that makes the system evolve over time. It just stays the same.
Now, to have a complete description of that system we need a description large enough to fit that information. We need another eight binary numbers, or something equivalent (as large or more), like one byte. So, we are at a point where we have a closed, deterministic system that contains eight binary numbers and their value, AND we hold a complete description outside of it that consists essentially in a “copy” of the first system. Or another system whose size can contain as much information as that contained in the original.
What we need to do to replicate the Book of Ages scenario is then to bring our “cloned” system within the first. We just plug it in (the Book of Ages has the complete description, like that we just built, we only need to bring it in). What we obtain? We obtain a system with eight binary values, plus one byte. Or eight binary values + another eight binary values identical to the first.
Of course this doesn’t exhaust the goal. The Book of Ages exists on the premises it contains ALL of the system it describes. That obviously means that our description inside the system not only has to account to what previously was in the system, which we achieve, but also account for itself once it enters the system. It means we need a bigger data set that contains BOTH the original system AND the copy system. But once we create this we once again need an even bigger data set that accounts for the one we just introduced. A problem of infinite recursion.
(if you don’t like the philosophical implications of infinite recursion you can keep that out of the picture and simply use the context of computational limits. We establish the original system is structurally defined by its 8 bits. When you try to include the copy system within the first you would realize, already and without imagining any third system, that the copy system doesn’t “fit” in the requirements of the original one: it holds 8 bits and no more.)
This is just another manifestation of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. In simple terms we know that determinism, or a complete description of a system, is only possible from a position outside the system itself. This theoretical position is known as Laplace’s demon. And the fundamental requirement is that the observation point has to be outside a system that is closed. From a different perspective, but retaining this basic concept: there are computational limits to our universe. The computation required to “prove” the universe is deterministic is greater than the computation possible within the system. That means, simply, that the Book of Ages cannot exist within the system it describes because it would need to be bigger than the system containing it. You cannot compress what needs to account for itself AND the compression. No amount of mind bending can overcome this problem. The Book of Ages might exist, but outside the system it describes. That’s all.
That also BREAKS the source story premise. The information/computation required to make the aliens holistic is GREATER than the information contained within the universe they’d belong to. Having a perception of time as absolute EXCLUDES the possibility of having that kind of perception while being inside the system. It’s the example above: the Book of Ages (or the alien’s knowledge) has to be bigger than the system it contains. That’s why, instead, the aliens actually might work the way they work: because they sort of manifest inside the universe, but CANNOT INTERACT with it. They are “passengers”. Passive observers. You see, these aliens are effectively OUTSIDE the universe, but “looking in”, as if the dome that closes the system was see-through. They see inside but they aren’t inside. They are corporeal inside, but with the caveat that their “minds”, or actual consciousness is walled away from action. They observe themselves as they would observe a movie of themselves. A copy of them. Simulacra. A view from outside, a voice from inside, that cannot be heard. (though all of this turns out false with the discovery that aliens, indeed, time travel, as seen above)
This is why the dichotomy between aliens and humans is preserved in the book (but not the movie). In the book the woman who sees the future has no option to change it, it’s the rule. She has to accept it as we’ve seen above in that quote. Time travels are not possible, because time is fixed. Alien and human perspectives are possible because the alien perspective is (or should be, if we stick to rigorous logic) outside. You can either “act” when you are inside in the flow of time OR see it all passively when you are outside and seeing time as a solid. You cannot bring in the holistic time-view because, as we’ve seen, the information required greatly outsizes the information possible (even worse if you consider what a human brain is capable of computing).
Note from the future: but we do realize that aliens can time travel. And mess with time. Thinking about this, it might not directly break a computational limit. Because yes, determinism is computational, but you could simply receive it done. Know what happens without the need to do the calculation. We do not “compute” memories after all, we just store the data. And aliens do not predict the future by simulating it, they experience it.
But this is where my brain farts. I just cannot fathom a way to describe logically alien existence. Alien behavior. The way you’d act when simultaneity is a thing. What does drive you and how is this driving happening? I can’t.
Also because while time for us is irremediably fucked (once aliens manifest, for us classic time rules break), for them it is still fixed. They still can’t change anything even if their actions still included total awareness across time. I can only imagine that as “optimizers”: their life is performed at maximum performance. As if, sequentially, you’re given infinite possibilities to try to go for the very best obtainable given your immutable starting conditions. But this too contains a seed of impossible recursion.
Let’s go back two paragraphs. We imagine then we are in a closed, deterministic system, and that a Book of Ages exists just outside, in the hands of our Laplace’s demon. Let’s say this is a naughty demon, and that it decides to whisper to us. To tell us a line here a line there about what has been written in the book. But be aware (beware), this has already upset the whole thing: the moment new information seeps in the system is the moment the system stops being closed (obviously). The moment it stops being closed is the moment the Book of Ages becomes invalid, which means that the description becomes incomplete. That means that the system stops being deterministic. It means the Book of Ages has now recorded an hypothetical future, a possibility. But as the demon introduced new information, the system was changed. Time was changed at the moment information was introduced. But more importantly our holistic aliens are now WRONG too. They saw something that isn’t going to happen. They saw an alternate universe that doesn’t come to pass. The aliens “arrived” because the aliens, like us, only truly desire to be free. To free themselves from the slavery of observing passively. And they know that when humans get in contact with alien perception, time goes BOOM. It shatters the dome. The determinism collapses. (let’s stop here as I’ve introduced macroscopic logical mistakes, I was just romanticizing.)
That was me analyzing the various permutations of the Book of Ages possibilities. Nope, gods do not conjure and course correct the universe, because the description was meant to be complete and perfect. No leverage. It also does not exclude the existence of the Book of Ages (or a deterministic universe), just as long that book stays outside. I’ve branched out the revelatory truth, that free will is actually compatible with this deterministic vision, in another post where I explain the tools I applied to analyze Arrival. That means that with that post I’ve exhausted the metaphysical aspect.
We still have the effects on the consistency of the story. That, already from the very start, appeared completely absurd to me. The movie (and book) pay attention to only deliver you scenes that are convenient to further the agenda. to make you think the way they want you to think, to agree with them. They carefully select what to show. But what happens if you look where they don’t want you to look? I offer two options, where I ended up looking.
The first option is just about imagining what kind of life the woman will have once she can see the future. It’s not the thing about the daughter, it’s about living your life second by second. Just imagine this scenario:
You are sitting on a bench, it’s cold, and the sky is pouring down on you. Thankfully you brought an umbrella, but it’s not helping all that much. You are waiting for a bus to get back home. Because you can see the future you know that this bus had an accident. It will never arrive. You are just waiting for a thing that won’t arrive. Because of THE RULES, you have no choice but staying there, under the rain, and enjoy the experience.
Is that all? Nope. Beside the fact we’ve established earlier that the Book of Ages registers everything, not just action, and so registers, too, your thoughts about constantly deciding to not avert the due course of time (so again a logical fallacy in the process of knowing the process while being part of it). But even worse you have to focus on this poor woman internal life. Not only she lives with the obligation to constantly second absurdities like waiting for a bus that won’t arrive, but she has to ACT in front of EVERYONE ELSE as if nothing is wrong. As if she knows nothing.
Now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: those who know the future don’t talk about it. Those who’ve read the Book of Ages never admit to it.
– The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.
– The second rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.
(but do notice that this is the case in the short story, not in the movie. In the movie she ends up telling something to the husband.)
She has to constantly play a part, an actress. Faking surprise when she feels none. Asking questions she already knows the answer to. All your life would be a LIE, playing a part, faking every single moment of your remaining life as if you are a puppet moved by a mean puppeteer. Watching aghast, hoping to feel again even a glimpse of honesty, of truth. AND YOU WOULD BE LIVING EVERY SECOND IN HELL.
The second option is one I used discussing on a forum, so I’ll repeat the conversation:
In Arrival, Amy Adams can see across time. She can see her life life spanning forward, with her daughter. A daughter that inevitably dies. And she chooses to have her anyway, because the joy is worth the tragedy. And Jesus fuck, in this darkest of timelines, is it ever worth saying; life is worth it for those moments of joy, even if it inevitably ends in tragedy.
This is a typical way of thinking that baffles me. How can you accept that as a logic explanation?
This is like 1800 romanticism where you believe you have a soulmate and can’t hope for any other life outside of that.
The movie, and the short story states it even more strongly, works on the premise that her choice is a choice everyone would feel compelled to make too. But where’s the evidence of that? Why you blithely accepts that this choice is a plausible, acceptable one?
You would automatically assume that she cannot have children outside that option she’s given. That if that love story goes wrong she won’t have any other chance to be happy, or dating someone else ever again. That it’s either that, or nothing at all.
It’s so obviously laid in a way that induces deceit. It’s another intuition pump. You’re induced to believe her choice makes sense because it is embellished with endearing music and romanticism. But nope, it doesn’t make any sense.
If she refuses to change her set future then she refuses to take chances. But of course her life COULD go much better as it potentially could go worse. She can’t be sure. Welcome back to uncertainty.
Under that premise we assume no one will ever get out of bed in the morning because no one will ever take any chance. What if leaving the warmth of your bed will lead to a much more miserable day? You know what you’re leaving behind but you don’t know where you’ll end up to. So better take no chance and stay in bed.
This actually can be solved too. She sees the future and knows what she will have. If she changes that and decides to take a different path then it means she might have a different husband, different children, but she would know that the daughter she lived with will be no more. That means she might go for a new life, but only by actively killing what she intimately knows. Kill a daughter to try if fate gives you a better one. So it’s as if a sense of nostalgia applies to the future, and you’ll decide to not change anything because you’re attached to what you have and cannot simply toss it away like garbage.
This explanation works, but then it doesn’t. The premise, once again, is that time is symmetric, and that she starts to experience it that way. But that also means we have a convenient tool to think about it intuitively: she “remembers” the future the same as all of us remember the past.
So you’d just have to ask yourself: if you had the chance would you travel back in time and fix some stupid shit you made? Of course this too is a gamble. You cannot determine if by fixing that issue you actually end up in a better place. But, hey, you can try. And if time travel is a thing, then it doesn’t run on fuel. If you fuck it up you can always try again until fate offers you a good hand… (UNLIMITED POWER!!1!!)
You see? It doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work even more strongly because even if you can imagine cases where, okay, she makes the choice to not change anything, this specific case certainly can’t be used UNIVERSALLY. If she doesn’t take chances then someone else certainly WILL. The story wants that everyone feels compelled to fulfill future, that’s the premise that holds it up.
Just imagine, what if instead the chance was given to some very pool fella with a VERY miserable life full of pain. What if this poor fella didn’t have jack shit to look forward to. No beautiful, if short-lived, daughter. Nothing at all.
Do you believe he wouldn’t take chances?
Are we done? Please god have mercy, are we done? That’s some fucken 8000 words and brain is melting.
Since I couldn’t fit it in one sitting the linearity has suffered greatly, but I also wanted to take it all together and be as exhaustive as possible (aka: be done with).
I’ve explained what I perceived as a “hole” in the scientific side of the short story (the teleological principle, that seems to be debunked by actual modern science), and I explained thoroughly how to actually build an hypothetical scenario about the Book of Ages that is also rigorous using logic, instead of that mess the book offers, and the even worse mess it uses as explanation. I explained (in the other post) how this opens considerations about our universe and hypothesis of determinism and free will, with my compatibilist position. I’ve also analyzed the various aspects that the movie introduces on its own (time travel), along with various doubts about the actual nature of the aliens’ perception as well the visions the woman experiences, because while in the short story these are directly addressed (and wrong), in the movie it’s all left a lot more indistinct, same as the movie has placed the aliens inside a mystifying mist so that you won’t look too closely and notice too much the lie of CG.
(I only noticed much later on how the whole movie is playful with the alien’s size. The mist and cinematography was used to give the illusion the shape was all there. Then at the end of the movie it is progressively shown how what we perceived as “the alien” was only a little piece of the whole. It was very cleverly done, but I was so focused on figuring out the more substantial problems that only a remote corner of my mind registered that alien looked a bit weirder than before… How could I give a damn about how the aliens looked like?)
The aliens in the book are described as far less majestic and, to be honest, looking quite pathetic too. Certainly not even close to the looming Cthulhu-like Gods From Outer Space. They also don’t squirt any magic ink from their tentacles, they just use a computer to write…
Ted Chiang could have used some sense of wonder. But nope. It was just a gimmick story. An intuition. Quick and clean, in the tradition of Asimov.
Continuing on the time travel note above:
I’ve rose a wall of text, only to take it down at the end. I’m sorry.
The aliens “arrived” at a precise moment in human’s history, so it makes sense that up to that point human history has no time travel fuck ups. Time makes sense, we see things making sense linearly. Cause and effect as usual, we’ve never seen it proven broken once. But the moment aliens arrive is the moment aliens can toss around information across the whole timeline, and in our faces as well.
An human observer, seeing what the woman is doing in the movie, will never be able to explain it sequentially. The information the woman uses can’t be explained in sequential ways. She broke the rules of sequential experience. She created something unprecedented. Not something that can be interpreted in different ways, something that BREAKS science as we know it. We’d have to rewrite it all.
She only apparently used that power just once, and that’s weird. But okay, suspension of disbelief. It’s still a movie and you can’t just make shit fly properly and make a 100% garbled nonsense.
…The aliens’ own timeline must be a complete mess. What the hell happens when two time travelers face each other in simultaneous time?
I’m not finished. I just give up.