I tried to defeat it, I was defeated instead.
I still feel defeated, especially my pride as a reader since I missed so much in that original story while being absolutely certain there wasn’t more to it. I was extremely arrogant and I have no excuse for that.
But my mind doesn’t know it’s alright to lose, and so keeps tying anyway.
It became obvious that the movie didn’t really add anything. The original story already had time travel, it was just well hidden. The movie simply took those parts and pushed them in the front, made them explicit. It was all already there. Wow.
My suspicion, but remember I’ve already been defeated utterly, is that Ted Chiang actually dug deep into this idea and understood that the scenario lead directly to time travel and resulting paradoxes. He knew that if he went there he would have undermined the concept itself. He could have used time travel explicitly as in the movie, but it would have been dishonest. It seems to me as a deliberate restraint due to the awareness the concept itself was flawed. A choice to not go too far. But maybe the story in the movie can then work better if you accept that her choice was free choice, outside any restraint. Instead of the attempt in the short story to juggle both the deterministic aspect and free will. That was clumsy.
This suspicion can find a confirmation in the story itself.
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 heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons. What distinguishes the heptapods’ mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history’s events; it is also that their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.
Freedom isn’t an illusion; it’s perfectly real in the context of sequential consciousness. Within the context of simultaneous consciousness, freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion; it’s simply a different context, no more or less valid than the other. It’s like that famous optical illusion, the drawing of either an elegant young woman, face turned away from the viewer, or a wart-nosed crone, chin tucked down on her chest. There’s no “correct” interpretation; both are equally valid. But you can’t see both at the same time.
Similarly, knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will. What made it possible for me to exercise freedom of choice also made it impossible for me to know the future.
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.
That last part appears very telegraphed to me. Blatant.
It’s a kind of secrecy originating from the fact that exposition of that knowledge makes the trick too obvious. The magician would get exposed.
I remember an article written by Niklas Luhmann where he analyzed the evolution of human communication, and explained the case of ancient tribes that worshiped some bones as sacred, used for rites and cure certain ailments. Only a selected, small number of initiates could get close to those bones. Luhmann described this as a “repression of communication”. You couldn’t “go see” these sacred bones, because meaning (and power) was acquired by UNSEEING. If everyone could see those bones, they would quickly realize what they were: just normal bones.
Here we have a scenario that looks similar. Imagine if, instead of stating that she isn’t going to tell anyone, she publicly tells the world. You can expect she’s going to be tested.
Imagine this scenario. You and the scientist who claims she can see the future, sitting one in front of the other.
You: So you’re the one. But since I believe in science, I’m going to put you though a test, so that you can prove me that what you’re saying is indeed true. So, what is the next word I’m going to say?
Her: Well, of course I know that. The next word you’re going to say is: ‘salad’.
You: SPINACH! FUCKING SPINACH!
That’s a typical paradox, and it works perfectly to underline the illogicality of the basic thesis: being able to see the future in a context where time is fixed (that’s the original story scenario).
My own way to deal with that fixes the paradox. My hypothesis acknowledges Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and says that a deterministic account is only possible when outside the system. The complete description of a system cannot exist inside the system because it recursively needs to account for itself. Concretely, this means that whenever the woman who can see the future tells the other guy the word she knows he’s going to say, the guy will merely end up saying a different word, and she would be wrong. This is what happens.
Is this surprising? Nope, the woman can indeed see the future (that’s the premise, and it needs to be valid, obviously). The universe is indeed deterministic. Yet she’s wrong. Why she’s wrong? Because the moment she answers, and she’s inside the system, she obligatorily introduces new information that wasn’t part of the system. And the rule says that every time a system receives new information, the system changes. It means that whenever she speaks (introduces information that shouldn’t be available) she causes the system to take a different course.
The rule wants that if you can see the future, and you are inside the system, the future follows your whims. It cannot stay fixed, because it’s new information. That paradox embeds the reflexive property, and so is modified by it. If we say that determinism and time-as-a-solid are likely properties of the universe we live in, we also have to admit this hypothesis cannot be verified because it relies on a proof that is “out of bounds”. Or, it’s the property of the “screen”, of the dome that walls our experience. This isn’t even a religious claim. You can imagine there’s an outside (so a religious perspective), or you can imagine it all came together spontaneously following the rules of physics, but the properties of the system are still the same.
We live in a world where truth has been walled off.
You may even say, intuitively, that in the example above whatever she says you will say, you will say. Because she knows, and so you won’t be able to change that. But you just have to think about it. That would mean that, as observed, that event would be interpreted as: she can make people say whatever she wants against their will. Because in the end it’s just a system, without agency. You tell the woman that she’ll have to say what the guy says, then instruct the guy so that he has to say everything but what the woman has just said.
Imagine just a computer program that asks the woman to press on a keyboard the number that is going to appear on screen. Then code the program so that it takes that number and adds +1 to it and then displays that. She’ll never be able to predict that.
Or, imagine the example above and put another guy behind a screen, observing the other two, making sure he too can see the future. We’d have a scenario where the woman says “salad”, the guy replies “spinach”, but the other guy observing the process would reliably answer “spinach”, because he can see the future and, because he doesn’t interact with the process itself, the process doesn’t change and fulfills the prophecy.
What does this tell me about Ted Chiang’s story? That the rule “those who know the future don’t talk about it” is just a convenient screen that is put there to defuse the paradox. It’s a way to wall off the inner paradox so that the story holds. It’s a trick. A manipulation. But as I said in the original article, by doing that you also wall off the actual truths that govern this system. A “paradox” is just the sign that a problem has been structured in a flawed way. That there was a mistake in our model of the world. If we simply hold up that model, we cling to something that naturally deceives, and that will only muddy the waters and prevent an actual understanding.
And one last observation to put a definitive crack into the story’s frame: is Ted Chiang also postulating that mind and body are indeed separated and that thoughts are “magical”? Think about it. If thoughts, your mind activity, is just about more physics, the same particles that build the rest of the universe, then the time travel we see in both the movie and the original story seems just about information moving back and forth. If experience becomes “simultaneous” then it means you experience every moment in the same moment. Your thoughts go across the whole spectrum. But if your thoughts are free from the chains of time, and your thoughts are just “more particles”, wouldn’t that also mean that all “matter” exists in a simultaneous way, and so that you could not only transfer information, but also OBJECTS (and everything else)?
But of course that’s just the explicit sign that the thesis requires the “mind” to be “somewhere else”. The mind, outside time, observes reality as fixed, and, by then moving an “avatar” within that reality it operates as we do when we move a character within a computer game. We rely on a double, and a scheme where the system has an inside and an outside. That is exactly how I intuitively imagined the aliens in the original story: experiencing in their “external” mind reality as simultaneous. But that means two scenarios are possible within that model: either they can control their avatars, or, as the story seemed to imply, they merely observe passively.
If they observe passively (“enacting chronology”): this opens a paradox because having an external mind that passively observes cannot explain how these aliens would behave. They need some kind of mind. If the observing mind “does nothing”, than this observing mind just doesn’t actually exists. It doesn’t manifests within the world (and the reason why this hypothesis cannot work). If it doesn’t manifest then it simply mean no time travel is possible, no manifestation at all. So no “alien writing” and no simultaneous experience either. From inside the system we have no mean to determine there’s a mind outside that observes passively.
If instead they observe “actively”, and so are in control, this brings back up to those examples I made. Interacting with a deterministic system produces new information within that system, which allows time travel. We actually fixed the problem of matter being simultaneous too, because we decided that the operating minds do their job from outside the system (again, exactly as in a videogame), but we fall back in the case where interaction produces change. Still accordingly to the physics of that system (how the game is coded) but being able to replay it endlessly and so being able to explore all the permutations that the system allows.
What happens to that woman within this scenario? That the woman appears as an NPC. She follows her coded AI. Then when aliens arrive, they unlock her, as if a player takes control of that NPC. A mind “outside” the system beings controlling that “avatar”. And that enables that avatar to produce change in the system, and so changing the “future”. Exactly as we’ve seen. But again, the conclusion is that time always changes when an external agent interacts with the system.
Time travel is possible. The future can be changed. And because you can try every possible alternative world, picking the very best you can achieve, this invalidates at once both the original story and the movie.
All the examples above are variants of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and its more basic form, The Liar’s Paradox.