Category Archives: Mythology

Includes philosophy, science, religion, physics, metaphysics, and all kinds of speculative wankery.


Well, that was 100% unexpected.

While I was watching the season 2 finale I was thinking it was really good. Then I checked and noticed there was a whole chunk left to see, the whole final part. I was satisfied even without that one. So this time I made sure to never check how much was left. And when it was over my reaction was… What? …That’s it?

I’m not a completely cold-hearted guy, there are stories that move me. But even the emotional side of this one felt flat to me. Analyzing, it’s probably because it didn’t ring true for most of it, so there wasn’t enough time for me to connect. Like Nora, I couldn’t believe Kevin arrived in that place at random. But unlike Nora I couldn’t trust the narrative either. I didn’t know if it was just bad writing or if there was an explanation within the story.

So in the end for me it was mostly honest curiosity driving my experience, more than emotional connection. But anyway, that emotional side of the story doesn’t look particularly meaningful to me. Kind of banal? But not in a genuine way either. Too coated in rhetoric even when it tries to be raw and honest. That’s the feeling I have about this whole season. It was interesting and with plenty of good ideas, but it lost most of the genuine emotional side that fueled season 1. It lost authenticity.

I thought I was going to be writing about mythology here, but is there anything to say? I was expecting the finale to make some very wrong move, and be enraged by that, or it to make a brilliant, inspired one, and be awed by it. It was neither. The mythology and mystery just fell off. The finale was not a finale. Well, I’ll be cynical after all. It was sentimental banality. Too gamed to be true, needlessly convoluted too.

But it wasn’t absence of mythology either. There’s the rest of the season to account for, and it’s a gaping hole. Really. This went back to The OA levels of missing footholds. It’s completely arbitrary and pointless, nothing to work with and leading nowhere meaningful. (in fact the always enlightened Jeff Jensen calls it “anti-theology”, it works the same as “anti-mythology” and it’s exactly what we have here, more or less deliberately, where for “deliberate” I mean the intention of not giving anything solid to speculate about, a deliberate absence being built)

What was the point of Kevin’s resurrection powers? Everything else? The theme vanished from the finale. We got one big “answer” as a way to check that one box about what most people wanted to know. But only to show how what most people want to know is utterly pointless. You got your answer. It obviously leads to a complete lack of satisfaction. It’s the most underwhelming revelation ever. And that’s fine, because that really wasn’t the point. It correctly shows that what most people attention is on, is pointless. It’s a good, correct message.

But the rest? It’s all put aside and gone unaddressed. The finale has no suggestive suggestion, no statement either. It just moved on and everything fell away. The OA at least was inspired. This one was carved empty.

Well, it cannot compare to LOST. Despite its mistakes LOST tried to soar high. The Leftovers has lots that is good in it, but most of it is contained in season 1. This was a finale where the stakes are massively lowered instead of raised, maybe for the fear to disappoint, or to stay on what is familiar and proven. Season 2/3 were fun rides with good ideas, but in the end leading to nothing meaningful. Sidetracks. The parts being better than the sum, because the sum disperses what was being built. There’s no arriving place, and, retrospectively, no meaningful journey.

The ambiguity in Nora’s story

Reading now other people’s reactions I notice that some think the finale (and it’s bogus answer) is ambivalent: Nora might be lying. All her story is just a story we/Kevin are supposed to believe, or not. This is seen by people as a way to answer this final question in a kind of open way, because maybe this is just a story she tells us. It’s not ultimately verified. But well, okay? I fail to understand why this ambiguity can be seen as relevant. It doesn’t seem to make any difference to me. It doesn’t seem a meaningful dilemma to think about?

And thinking about it more, I also cannot find any good reason why Nora would lie. Lies and truths are meaningful because of their implication, but it seems nothing is implied here. We have a finale where Nora and Kevin are back together, a starting point, ending on a positive note. It would seem quite pointless if this reunion begins with a big lie, especially because Kevin and Nora’s relationship started on the basis of hiding nothing. So, to me it seems that the overall narrative leads me to “believe” Nora, exactly as Kevin does. In a way, the whole journey has the purpose to lead to trust that story without the need to question it, because of what we’ve been through. We arrived at a point where we don’t need a proof. Then nope, this aspect of the finale isn’t ambiguous. The story the way I received it tells me Nora wasn’t lying, because she couldn’t be lying at this point in the story.

The only good reason to motivate that Nora lied is that her story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (why wouldn’t anyone else come back, then? That they all live happier is kind of silly, even if it seems to be validated by the fact that when Nora returns she decides to live in a “technologically light” kind of town, supposedly similar to how those people live on the other side. Aka: technology is bad, you feel better living the good olde ways, yeah). Heh, might be just the best story the writers came up with and whatever implausibility has to be ascribed to that. The problem isn’t whether or not *I* believe the story, the problem is that the choice of making her tell that kind of story that way feels contrived. The whole thing of these two possibilities to preserve and reinforce this ambiguity is contrived.

She could still be lying, it remains a possibility even if it doesn’t make a narrative sense to me. But the important aspect is that it really makes no difference. Either she found out the world was split, or she doesn’t. Neither case has any explanatory power, or is compelling to consider. It’s dry speculation without consequence.

So why again? No images being shown, as a writing choice. Faithful to the ambiguity that runs through the whole show and that instead of being solved is made into a foundation. THIS is the statement. It rings a bit hollow and artificial, but that’s how I read it. The purpose driving it is the choice the writers made: to crown ambiguity. To keep it open ended. To leave that doubt not as a thing to solve, not as a complex mystery encoded in the story and hard to unveil, but as the ultimate statement. To leave human beings uprooted, ungrounded, nowhere to go beside doubt. Lacking information to be able to choose. But while this is praiseworthy as an ultimate goal, I think this specific theme was handled badly, and it’s one of the weaker parts of the whole show. So making it as the theme that connects and builds the whole thing, well, it’s weak.

Let’s at least discuss what little mythology is there. In the case Nora’s lying, well, we don’t have much. As I said we aren’t juggling real alternatives, so if Nora’s lying we just have nothing in our hands. No theory is offered in the show beside the hidden and unfathomable hand of god. If Nora’s lying it’s because she’s ashamed that she couldn’t go all the way. She’d feel a coward and so she’d close herself from the rest of the world, as we’ve seen. We’re left with nothing in the way of answers to what happened. But if Nora’s saying the truth, then we have a little something, at least indirectly.

In my own schematics I always analyzed this in terms of the boundary of fiction. The threshold. The “event” being seen like a gap that opens and then closes. This is all in accord with the transcendental theme. I imply an inside and an outside. The hand of the god comes in from outside, and the departures go to this outside. But Nora’s story changes all this radically. If that story is *true* then it means the departures only went to some kind of parallel world, not an outside. This perspective changes everything because the parallel world, conceived in this way, is still part of an “inside”. It just became more complex, more differentiated, but still “inside”. It’s a scientific possibility. The event itself becomes normalized. A new event for science, but not outside science. We didn’t break through the “dome”, we just found out another place, still within it. The story is still encapsulated and not breached. Ideally, as in Nora’s story, we can build machines that let us walk between one place and the other. We didn’t move into spirituality or into an afterlife. We just moved into an parallel universe, and that’s well within the potential of science.

In this case the idea that the hand of god comes in, takes some people and moves them to a parallel universe, well, it is kind of silly and far-fetched. Far more plausible would be some rare physical event that created a fracture on the timeline. Something spontaneous but with an ultimate scientific explanation. The god of this world would be identical to ours. An hidden hand, not an explicit one. The idea that god permeates reality, but doesn’t intervenes directly, or tampers with it. It’s the occluded god of Kabbalistic tradition.

It opens a problem, though, and it’s where the whole show has to be questioned. This finale wants to make a statement about ambiguity and uncertainty, as I said, but that ambiguity is what the original book was about, the main theme. And that story was already fully contained and really well adapted through the whole first season. I have commented how season 2 and 3 expanded that story and introduced a new layer. The magic and mystery were featured more prominently, it seemed that the show was leading somewhere else, that it wanted to make a jump. That’s why the finale was a disappointment. In the end season 2/3 didn’t really add anything. The mystery and magic fell off, the theme disappeared and for the finale we simply went back to restate what season 1 already delivered with much more precision, meaningfulness and depth. We got a very long, very interesting sidetrack that ultimately lead nowhere if not backwards. A detour that was fun, but pointless in the Grand Scheme of Things.

In the end The Leftovers denied its own statements. The conflict was solved without producing something new. What worked well was the tension between two writers. In Season 2 we saw Lindelof seizing control, to push the story toward this new place, to embrace more fully its mystery. Season 3 is even more liberating, in the sense that we move further onward into Lindelof territory. But then comes the finale. It’s like there’s a missing piece. It’s like there’s a world between episode 7 and 8, and it’s like during that implied war between Perrotta and Lindelof, the latter lost (LOST). Or better, he surrendered.

This hypothesis is directly validated here:
http://www.vulture.com/2017/06/leftovers-finale-behind-the-scenes-exclusive.html

Lindelof actually pitched early on that they should show the mirror world – which received support, except from book author Perrotta.

“He made it so f**king compelling,” says Perrotta, “and everybody in the room is going, ‘Yeah!’ And I’m sitting there going, ‘No!’ ” Lindelof, comparing his writers’ room to 12 Angry Men, says that “Perrotta became Juror No. 8” — the lone dissenter who brings the room around. Perrotta gave a version of his Leftovers stump speech: “It was always just a given for me that there is this mystery, the same mystery of where do we go when we die, and the idea that there’s one authoritative answer seems palpably ridiculous to me.”

Lindelof was seducing the writing room. The same as season 2 and 3 were seducing the public with its mysterious, magical and crazier elements. Boiling and bubbling up as the seasons progressed. He was winning the war until Perrotta claimed control again.

Lindelof clearly lost. He left while still trying to make a dent, throughout season 2 and 3, but ultimately the finale restates Perrotta’s book without even a little change or addition. It still backpedaled. And I tend to think that Lindelof lost simply because he once again was chasing a trail that he didn’t know what was actually about, and that meant he couldn’t produce good arguments to win that war. That trail lead nowhere, and the show ultimately led nowhere if not back to what was known: the beginning. Restating something that is only superficially convincing and that more than give a closure, it DISTRACTS from closure.

This is my opinion on The Leftovers. A show that was a tension between two writers. Two different perspectives. That is creatively fueled and enlightened by that conflict but that ultimately fails to produce a synthesis or something new. An imperfect work that tries to arrive to a balance, but failing. It’s still immensely interesting, of course, or I wouldn’t write about it here. Maybe third time’s a charm.

My explanation of The Leftovers’ mythology remains valid. The finale didn’t prove it wrong, but it made it pointless. What was the premise for a mythology, even if weak, became a statement for an anti-mythology. The finale not only didn’t produce answers, but ultimately made the questions themselves irrelevant. The answer to mystery is pure doubt. Theories and systems, that are the premise to build a mythology, were made impossible.

Of course you should check out Jeff Jensen’s take, because he always makes things better than they are.

I’m now catching up with the show, with episode 8 ready to go. But first I wanted to write down some notes about the mess that was episode 7. In fact I wrote down some obscure notes so I wouldn’t forget them while being carried by the rest of the story:

Once you master a level you awake, all you’ve learned is lost. New level, new problems. Surf the trajectory. Every new level resets the importance, relevance is contextual.

With only the finale left, I’m peering at the possibilities. For me, right now, the show could go either way. Polar opposites. It could be the best or worst thing ever. I hope it does something clever and consistent, but I have zero faith on this. It could as well be a total clusterfuck that retrospectively ruins everything up to this point. And this episode 7 fits this mold.

It’s not a bad episode, it’s not good either. This whole third season has been pretty much useless, but at the same time it can still be great if they pull off something. It can potentially be great even if these seven episodes didn’t have substance.

So I see the episode and of course the reaction was WTF. Purely that. Nothing makes sense here, nothing is understood. So I go to read those recap that journalists write.

http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/otherworldly-leftovers-kevin-fulfills-his-purpose–256008

It’s a show with an elaborate, layered mythology for those interested in delving into it

WHAT?! Are you fucking kidding me? That’s why I have to write this down, because it seems I’m the only one who’s interested in delving into it. BUT THERE’S NOTHING TO DELVE INTO.

Where is this elaborate, layered mythology? Because of course none of those articles that mention it actually delve into it or even know what it is. They only mention it. It’s no one business.

But first, I’ll point out to the total lack of coherence.

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/28/15701402/the-leftovers-episode-7-most-powerful-man-in-the-world-identical-twin-recap

The Leftovers is still, at its core, what it’s always been: a story about wrenching, deeply personal grief.

To then continue with:

in all of the craziness, we’ve missed something important: The real tragedy is Kevin and Nora’s breakup.

(an aside, I noticed on reddit a comment that correctly said: they didn’t break up, they just were on different pages.)

So, nope, it’s not about any convoluted mythology or fantasy elements. It’s about the characters. Only to then say that “in all of the craziness” we actually lost those same characters. Duh.

And that’s actually correct. The Leftovers has become a mess of a show that in the end does nothing “properly”. It thrives on contradiction. There’s too much mystery and absurdity that get in the way of actual character development, yet that mystery is too all over the place to even begin making sense, or being consistent and generous enough that it makes delving into it a rewarding activity. So BOTH are poorly done.

But as I said at the beginning, it’s extremely wobbly, yet it works. It manages to achieve some form of clumsy balance. Do its own worthwhile thing because it’s at least different from most TV shows. It plays with stuff, might get burnt badly, but it’s still kind of fun and interesting to watch. But it is ALSO a clusterfuck.

Even in the Flood of Nonsense that was this episode, I was able to bring some clarity to myself. It makes sense to me, and that’s why I went to read various recap, to see if other people parsed things in the same way. And they didn’t. They call for that elaborate mythology that everyone points at, but generically and without saying what it is about. Like a looming yet evanescent presence.

So here I am, once again, to explain how it works. Or the way I personally parsed it.

The cardinal point this time is that THERE’S NO MYTHOLOGY. Yes, this is important not as a simple statement, but because it brings actual clarity. And it’s funny that it’s the opposite of what everyone else notices.

What I observe, comparing this episode to season 2’s 8th (International Assassin), is that there are no actual, objective rules. There’s no overarching mythology that has been established, in fact. Where for mythology we imply “systems”. There’s no actual consistency between these two episodes. What instead there’s plenty of is: arbitrary symbolism. It’s very obviously a dreamworld. One example for all, only in this episode we have the seemingly important mechanic of the character transition through reflective surfaces. Yet there were mirrors in the other episode too, they just didn’t have this use.

It’s one element only, but an important one. It says to me that in this world there’s no consistency. It’s not a mythological afterlife with strong rules established and consistent throughout. It’s instead a dreamworld that follows dream logic. Transitions happen by just blinking eyes. Like in dreams.

So where are we? The answer is that we get nothing of an “afterlife”. We are in an afterlife, because Kervin does keep dying and resurrecting, but the nature of this afterlife, its actual mythology, is occluded. We just don’t get to see what it is. Instead we get a simulacrum. The place where Kevin ends up is his mind, obviously. BUT. I also just said he keeps dying, so he is inside an afterlife. The mythology of the show DOES command an afterlife. But it doesn’t reveal it to us.

So where are we, again? We are in an afterlife seen but occluded through Kevin’s mind. We aren’t in that place directly. We are in that place as symbolized by a mind. A place fashioned by a human brain, and so a representation of a place through a mind. A dreamworld again.

That’s why there’s no mythology. A mythology is the sense of structure, of rules. But because this afterlife is entirely occluded, even if it does exists, we can only infer meaning. We can only observe it indirectly the way Kevin’s mind fashions it. And so, because it’s a dreamworld, it follows dream logic.

All this leading to my interpretation of the whole episode, its meaning. The important line for me is:

“You just do what they tell you to do…. What do you want?”

That’s Evie to Kevin. Evie keeps herself in character all the way through. She doesn’t “awake” inside the dream. She doesn’t “wink” at Kevin the same way Patti does. Kevin tries to shake her out of her reverie, in order to deliver the message. But she stays in character. The delivery of the message is a failure because the message cannot breach her character. The message doesn’t reach her.

Yet, what she says works anyway, the same as the speech with god worked in the episode on the boat. Layers. Evie describes Kevin the way he is. He’s doing stuff he doesn’t understand just because he has faith on the fact it works. It still makes no sense. It’s still absurd that he accepts of going through this insane ordeal. But he does, blindly.

That’s why it all does make sense to me. What we’ve seen in this episode is a total failure. Kevin wasn’t able to deliver the message to Evie, because Evie wasn’t awake. And he also wasn’t able to figure out the mystery of the kids without shoes, he got no answer. And he also didn’t get the song from the guy. All three of these missions he had were a complete failure.

Yet it makes perfect sense. It’s a dreamworld. It’s personal even if it’s connected to an afterlife. The only one who can benefits from facing those “demons” is Kevin himself. The owner of the dreamworld. You don’t get to fix someone else problem by telling them what you dreamed the last night. Dreams are personal affairs. What’s deeply meaningful to you is useless to someone else, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen here: Kevin learning something about himself, but powerless to fulfill others’ “tasks”. It’s his dreamworld, it has power on himself. For everyone else it’s useless. The afterlife is completely occluded and you cannot take away anything that wasn’t already buried on this side of the threshold. This afterlife/outside exists within the show’s mythology, but it cannot “speak” or reveal itself, if not through what is already manifest: Kevin’s own demons.

That’s how it makes sense to me: Kevin comes back empty handed. The message is clear: you have to fix your own shit without any divine intervention. No magic tricks. You tried going through, but you just hit your head against an hard wall. Rejected.

The show’s central mystery stays unsolved, because that threshold did open once. We now know, simply, that the afterlife delivers no answers or solutions. It’s just an echo chamber.

I’ve just watched the first episode of season three, but these ideas have lingered with me since the ending of season 2. Although that was just two weeks ago, for me.

Is it possible to crack the code?

This is the question. Whether or not this season will deliver answers, or just more questions.

From a random article, the first that popped up:

I’d be surprised if we got real answers. In fact, I think it would be antithetical to The Leftovers’ whole point, which is that in life we don’t really get answers. If the show were to give us any, it would run against its own grain.

And of course Lindelof, because of Lindelof I’m gonna talk:

Tom, myself and our incredible team of writers and producers put tremendous care into designing those seasons as novels unto themselves…with beginnings, middles and ends. As we finished our most recent season, it became clear to us that the series as a whole was following the same model…and with our beginning and middle complete, the most exciting thing for us as storytellers would be to bring The Leftovers to a definitive end. And by ‘definitive,’ we mean ‘wildly ambiguous but hopefully mega-emotional,’ as all things related to this show are destined to be.

Waiting for the season (and show) finale would be too easy, though. And those two quotes already tell us we aren’t likely going to get a whole lot. Promising that an ending is going to be ambiguous isn’t that good of a promise. It’s like: nope, you are getting more character drama to empathize with, but no actual answer about the mystery that supposedly sustains it all.

Do you think that’s enough for me? Nope. There’s a million of TV shows that exploit empathy and offer various levels of character drama, and very few that do “mystery”, or even better transcendental stuff, and do it well.

Part of the fun, as with Westworld, is to expose the writers, know what they are writing about, understand where it comes from, and anticipate where it is going. And if the show is stingy with answers, well, I’ll provide them.

I of course waited at least the first episode to propose my interpretation. I just wanted a glimpse of where it was heading. Would it wrong-foot me? For me the season 2’s beginning was pure trolling and very frustrating to watch. This new episode instead still had a certain amount of trolling, but it was fun and clever. The show starts strong this time, it’s LOST+++ once again. A great episode. And it also fooled me for a while and confused me, made me doubt my conclusions. But that confusion was due mainly to myself because I cannot recognize faces well (or remember names). So when there was that scene with John and Laurie running that scam, I thought John wasn’t John but the original guy that was doing the same thing in season 2, and that the show tried to sell as ‘legit’. Was the show in season 3 debunking that same feature that it sustained in season 2? Is it some form of “retcon”? Nope, because we aren’t looking at the same guy, as I thought. This is John and Laurie.

That turns on itself and becomes a confirmation of what I thought before. It’s classic Leftovers’ trolling + misdirection. Remember season 2? It starts on the same note, repeating pattern: Laurie and Tommy run a scam by imitating the hug-giving guy. A guy that, once again, the previous season (1) tried to validate. The pattern is to validate something in unambiguous way (deal with me, even if you are now thinking it was actually ambiguous), and then come later with a different take where the same thing is turned ambiguous. So you get doubts. Was it the real deal or is it just more baseless superstition?

This is the fucking theme. Look down at other posts where I write about The Leftovers. The question is always whether or not this is superstition. And if it’s real, how the hell does it work? What is going on? Why people disappeared? Why strange stuff does happen in Miracle town? And so on. What are the rules here? How are they built? And, if you look at it meta-fictionally, what where the writers thinking and what are they trying to achieve?

You can read some of my own analysis in the other posts, but here I arrive to my own conclusion and interpretation. To make this whole thing “fit”, into some kind of overall plan. Because, as I wrote, up to the end of season 2 the show didn’t provide anything that could be effectively used to “crack the code”. It’s generous with character drama, but stingy when it deals with mystery. You don’t have much to work with (same as The OA).

And then, the show explicitly trolls you. You say you don’t understand, and the show shoves you the defying sign “you understand.”

UNDERSTAND WHAT?

Take this, again from the previously linked article (I don’t even need to put effort to seek relevant material, because everything ends up relevant here):

This story is, in other words, The Leftovers in miniature: a seemingly endless cycle of faith, pain, and determination to keep going even when your experience in the world is screaming into your face that everything you’ve ever known might be completely pointless.

The story, it seems to say, is about DOUBT. Or unflinching faith, despite reality keeps kicking you. To actually make you doubt.

That’s already the “solution” for me. Because that description doesn’t fit AT ALL with The Leftovers. This is not a correct description of the show.

Leading onward is this interview with Lindelof. Jump to 35:30:

I’m drawn to these ideas that have supernatural underpinnings or, in some cases, overtones because the challenge to ground them is that much greater. But the show has a supernatural conceit, it was written by someone who’s never dealt with the supernatural before, Tom Perrotta. He wrote a “genre” book but, you know… whenever I’ll pitch something in the room Tom will say, “that’s too weird, man.” And I’ll go… (intensity rises) This was your idea! You started it! 140 million people disappearing with no explanation. THAT’S weird. …And he’ll go (dismissively) “Yeah, but this is too weird.” And most of the times he’s right.

When I heard that I thought ‘I knew, that’s exactly the roles I bet they’d have in that writing room’.

You see, The Leftovers existed as a completed book. It was a complete story that Tom Perrotta wrote. For the TV adaptation Lindelof was brought in. They made a deliberate choice there. Lindelof didn’t simply adapt the story for TV format, he did fucking CHANGE it. The first season of the show IS the book, it’s actually a faithful adaptation, too. But the reason why we’re onto season 3 is because Lindelof brought a complete new layer to the story. A layer that doesn’t belong, supposedly, to the book. It’s a brand new take, a new level. The TV show is a new story that is the product of the interaction of Tom Perrotta and Lindelof. It’s a new story, the way Lindelof would write it.

As far as I know, Tom Perrotta’s book only has that supernatural “premise”, but nothing else happens in the course of the book, and the book ends without hinting at more supernatural stuff. Supernatural stuff that is instead far more pervasive and stated explicitly in The Leftovers, the TV show.

As you see from the interaction above, Lindelof would come up with more supernatural ideas, and Perrotta would try to tune them down, saying they don’t ring true to him. Lindelof pushes, Perrotta pulls. Lindelof says ‘most of the times he’s right’. And that implies the opposite: that sometime Lindelof won the tug of war. And so that the show would embrace that supernatural element.

It’s so clear to me, because of what I wrote in my previous posts to “frame” the problem. The split between the character drama and the mystery that causes it.

You see, for Lindelof, and correctly, that little supernatural gap, the disappearance of millions of people, wasn’t just a tiny glitch that immediately closed without leaving a trail. It was a DOOR. Lindelof wedged his metaphorical foot in that door, to keep it open.

The Leftovers, the TV show, describes a credible world, similar to ours, but where supernatural shit does happen. This is the actual solution. As I mentioned above, the show tries to make you doubt of something that the show itself validated previously. But this is an inverted pattern, because what is authoritative is the first validation. Whereas the following doubt is misdirection. A way for the show to hide its ghostly hand, so that the magic trick can work.

It still is a thought experiment, of course. A creative endeavor, of course. But this is how we build it. The rules of THIS (fictional) world. The Leftovers describes a mirror world. Through the looking glass. Remember that scene in The OA, with the mirror in the last episode? The Leftovers is wholly contained beyond that threshold. The world and characters we see in The Leftovers are convincing, they seem like us. So we draw parallels, or recognize parts of us. But the world of The Leftovers is not ours. It’s, as Lindelof states, a “weird” world where people can magically disappear. Where supernatural stuff DOES happen, sometimes. It’s a world similar to ours, with the small caveat that superstition is fucking ‘legit’. Not always, because in The Leftovers’ world human beings can still scam each other, but whether it is god, magical hugs, divination or predestination, sometimes it is. The moment the supernatural gap opens, with the original premise, is the moment the door is kicked open too. Lindelof picked up Perrotta’s story and said that the little glitch is gonna have consequences. He pushed that premise all the way. We moved into mirror-land, where weird shit does happen without any possible rational explanation.

The “magic hugs” in season 1 were working. We later see Nora have some kind of recurrence, the show trying to push back these magic hugs into ambiguity, but Nora is still a different person and she continues to be that even in the following season (the crippling trauma doesn’t come back). That lapse we saw can be explained in various ways. The magic hugs did work, the show made a statement then it tried to partially hide it, but look closer and you’ll see that the initial statement stays true. It’s misdirection, not contradiction. The same as in the middle of season 2 Laurie convincingly persuades Kevin he’s having delusions. This is convincing for us because her arguments are arguments that would be solid, in our world. But you know where the story leads. And you see in this episode as well, when Kevin is confronted inside the church with the evidence of something that cannot be explained going on. And again this first episode, showing/suggesting that the handprint-divination thing is also an hoax. But was it really? Nope, because this is just John and Laurie using the internet, whereas season 2 showed us that the guy who did the legit hand-reading knew stuff that just he isn’t in the position to know, internet or not. Stuff that we get to know through a flashback, and a flashback is an authoritative device. It’s structure. The pattern is inverted because the mirrored world is specular: if in our world skepticism brings us closer to truth, in this mirror world skepticism might take you away from it. But just ‘might’, because sometimes superstition is artificial and human-made as in our world. It’s even more ambiguous.

(but then, if Lidelof aligned everything perfectly, we would get something too linear and easy to see through. So the show has fun with some blatant trolling, as in this episode with the “canine conspiracy”. Not all superstition is automatically true. Delusions still exist in The Leftovers’ world. Not all of them are, just some. The show is just playing with you, deliberately exploiting ambiguity so that you lose track of what’s possibly true and what isn’t. So that the show can then surprise and catch you off guard more easily. They have produced a context where superstition can be true AND easily disguised. It’s an extremely powerful tool for a writer.)

We end up with two worlds. One the mirror of the other. The mirror world of the TV show is a “written” world. It’s determined by a god/author who infuses that world with… purpose. It’s a meaning-full world where everything exists for a reason. And because this world is written, the rules are coherent. Responsibility is onto an external agent. This world has to have a direction. It’s a world where superstition can be real, where people lives have meaning and purpose. Where coincidences happen because someone wrote them that way for a reason. And because of these artificial features, the mirror world is specular to ours, where we struggle to find meaning, direction. Where, this time correctly, we’re stuck in a “seemingly endless cycle of faith, pain, and determination to keep going”, because in our case the world we live in is… silent. We don’t get any answer.

Not even a hint.

I decided to keep this separate to write a few comments on what I think the show does right with its metaphysics.

The premise convinced and surprised me. I knew that it was about these people suddenly vanishing, but I was surprised that the show didn’t do any “dressing” of the event itself. People just disappeared. It’s the “purity” of the event that is so powerful. If in other mystery stories something happens that produces a change, here what’s important is that the event happens once and never again. And it happens without actual direct consequences. The event happens without links to anything else. It’s not simply unexplained, but it is unexplainable because it’s not connected to anything else. There is no “whoosh”, there is not weird alignment of planets, or ominous prophecies, or sudden blackout, or a storm, or eclipse or whatever. It’s just a one time glitch. The gap opens and closes so quickly. It doesn’t even “happen” because it’s not a phenomenon. It’s not something that is consequence of something that happens. It’s the absence of an “event”. A touch so fast and so light that was not perceived.

That’s why it is interesting and solid: what happens if our belief system collapses? That’s what the event is about. We believe and exist on the premise of an objective external world. On the fact our experience is “stable” and we can rely on it. That’s why the show then enjoys to play with a character that has an “unstable” experience. But that’s personal experience, you can be crazy. What if factual reality stops being stable, for everyone? This is The Leftovers.

How do you answer the event?

The show is solid because it’s up to humanity to give answer. And they try. How can you answer the event? Through science, through statistics, through correlation, through belief, religion, or through superstition. The show examines all these variations in their detail, because as I said the purpose is to use the event as a lens, to understand how human beings live their life and how they work. In the absence of an objective world, endless possibilities open.

When you unseat science, because science has to rely on a stable external world, what is left is raw. It is purer. It’s not anymore a sporadic case of someone becoming unhinged, it’s all humanity that becomes unhinged. It’s a form of freedom. The world becomes open, truly free. Yet nothing actually changed, on the outside. The world was unaffected, untouched.

WYSIATI. What You See Is All There Is.

Here it becomes the opposite. The dark side of the moon: What You Don’t See Is All There Is.

The world is unchanged by the event, but it’s the end of the world. Apocalypse. The world has ended. Eschatology, rapture. What this means is that the world is internal.

As constructivism would say, the external world is a projection of what’s inside. And what’s inside is what you cannot see, but is all there is. People are missing. Absence. The show examines how absence becomes more powerful than what is there. That 2% becomes more important than the 98% that is left. What’s missing manipulates what remains, it conditions and transforms the world. It’s a shaper of things. The shape given by what is not there.

The “light touch” gives the story its power. If something else also happened, it would immediately create a pattern. Two points that make a line, a connection. And examining that connection would lead to a direction, a way to lay the foundation of another belief. Metaphysics, the premise to build a new world. But because instead this doesn’t happen, because there’s nothing left outside to pick up, all that is “externalized” becomes all that is inside. And what’s inside is, often, trauma. And trauma is catastrophic, fundamentally reshaping everything in dramatic ways. In the maximum freedom, the characterization becomes the only cage. Unfiltered, it becomes pure and raw. Because there’s no other way to go than deep inside.

After the momentary obsession over Arrival I was looking for something equally compelling and bold. I found The Leftovers, that creates a neat link going from Westworld, through The Man in the High Castle, and especially The OA. I’d say The Leftovers is an interesting mix between LOST and The OA. I probably won’t write anything that is really a spoiler in the sense of events and plot, but I’m going to write about the overall structure of the two seasons.

This was a good time to watch a show like The Leftovers. The main reason is that two seasons are complete and in two weeks the third one begins. It’s the final season, so this story is going to have a definitive conclusion. It’s done, it will come. And it will come soon, since it’s just 8 episodes, so this June it will all be wrapped up. This is/was NOT a show that you want to watch while it is ongoing.

The Leftovers is essentially a mystery show. It should lead to some sort of revelation, or twist. So this makes it a show that relies on a good finale, a good finale that justifies what comes before. That infuses some meaning, that offers some answers. That escalates towards something that is meaningful, hopefully even revelatory or transcendental. But is The Leftovers really about this?

When I wrote about The OA I said that it was a deliberate “leap of faith”. Nothing is explained there, it’s a bridge that spans a darkness. A Bugs Bunny that keeps on walking on thin air, just as long he doesn’t look down. The OA was a show that asked you to Believe. The Leftovers instead is less directly meta-narrative, it doesn’t stare you back in the face. It’s not the abyss. But it still deals directly with the theme of “faith”. And because it focuses primarily on this, it does a much better and profound job compared to something more ephemeral like The OA. This means The Leftovers is not a mystery show as I said. It’s instead a character study, and an excellent one.

What happens when 2% of the population disappears? Without a reason. One second they are there, the next they are gone. Nothing else is changed. It’s a “what if” scenario. An hypothesis. But when you make this sort of mental experiment you create a split. On one side, The Leftovers’ side, you imagine how people react, how the world deals with an unprecedented event. “Arrival” is similar: what happens if aliens suddenly appear, visible to all of us? How humanity deals with them? So, The Leftovers becomes a character study, the “event” (of people vanishing at once) is purely an excuse to examine what happens to people when they go through this type of unprecedented stress. How their mind adapts when something upsets a balance that was believed immutable. But this is one side of the split. The other side requires that you give a reason to why this happened. “Arrival” requires you to imagine who these aliens actually are and what they want. The event of people vanishing requires the writers of the show to take some kind of stance toward it. Why did it actually happen? How? So the split. You want to examine what happens, using an impossible event like a “lens”, to observe through it. But you also want to imagine a context that makes that lens possible. Consistent with what you are imagining. Not just magic, but rules. Metaphysics.

This split is a constant in all similar “mystery” stories. Just these days there’s a resurgence of interest for Stephen King’s IT, because the trailer for the movie(s) just came out. IT too had to deal directly with this split. The core of the story is another “what if” scenario: what happens if there’s something truly evil living in the heart of a town? How people change, how this town is transformed along its history. For me, the interesting part is that Stephen King didn’t wave it away, he didn’t retreat, he didn’t pull the hand. Not only he writes the (excellent) character study, but he also faces the other side of the split: he will tell you how that “evil” ended up in the town, where it came from and what it actually is. The author commits to something. It’s not just “magic”. And in just an handful of pages you get explicit answers. Well, these answers kind of suck. IT’s metaphysics stays afloat without an actual foundation. It’s kind of bullshit and not rooted into something true or profound. It’s weak, just not really good at all. But I do appreciate that the author still committed to it instead of fleeing from it. The author was brave enough to laid the substance bare, to be judged. IT’s still excellent for everything it does, the metaphysics suck, but it was still “brave”.

So what’s the strategy for The Leftovers? When I started watching the first few episodes I commented saying that it was “getting the metaphysics right”. I meant it doesn’t step out of the line. It takes its bold premise (people that vanished) and handled it properly. The context the show creates is 100% valid and solid. The character study that follows is not simply “credible”, but powerful because it goes right at the core. Absolutely nothing changes in the world, but EVERYTHING changes for the people. The event, even if actually small and circumscribed, is catastrophic. It’s the end of the world. And this because the authors do get it. They understand that the SUBSTANCE of the show, and the substance of experience for all of us, is not a “fact”, but the way we perceive and believe in a world. The way we believe in reality, the way we create and narrate experience, and identity. The event itself is so negligible because just a few people disappeared, but the fact of the possibility of this kind of event UNDERMINES REALITY ITSELF. It undermines experience and rationalization.

I’d say most of season 1 goes along with superb writing, characterization that is well done, deep, and that respects that basic premise. It shows something new, and it does it properly. The show is kind of slow, and sometimes a bit dull. But it is “inspired”, and has true depth. Episodes 3 and 6 are close to masterpieces.

I’m still talking of one side of the split, the character study done through the lens of an impossible event. The character study is excellent and worthwhile. It goes in depth on the nature and consequence of belief. It’s powerful. And the fact that the event is framed like that, closed in that single moment and completely empty of real consequence or purpose, makes me say they handled it the best way possible. The show is faithful to its premise. But this also means the show closes itself to the other side of the split: it says nothing.

But is The Leftovers really saying nothing about what actually happened and why? Quite the opposite. I only glanced at the wiki about the novel form of the story, and it’s possible that this description applies there. That the book doesn’t answer in any way the mystery of the story. The show is different, though. It is made absolutely explicit already during the first season the fact that something “magical” is going on.

This caught my attention. The story here is built in a way that could have completely avoided the supernatural aspect. Weird shit that happens, in a show with similar premises, could be eventually explained away. When you go deep in the study of how “belief” works you arrive to the natural conclusion that people are deeply delusional. And the show does that. It shows how people would rather believe what’s convenient and reassuring rather than what’s “true”. Perception and reality, and perception altered by belief. It’s a true story, and because this show does a good job, it goes deep and “truthfully” into this. But it also does something else, and it does it deliberately. It’s not a misstep, it’s purposeful.

If on one side you have the context to explain it all as a delusion, on the other side the show actively refuses this “easy”, more straightforward way out, to state something. And what it states, unambiguously, is that weird magical shit is actually going on. Weird magical shit that isn’t going to be explained logically. The authors did go there, decided to go there even if this kind of show could have been solid and worthwhile regardless. It could have been closed neatly, but it didn’t. The weirdness lingers and it is put there, explicitly, so that it demands an answer. The authors decided to straddle very dangerous territory.

I can also say that after two full seasons absolutely NOTHING has been answered or revealed about the nature of this side of the split. Do I trust the writers that an answer will come in the final season? Hell no. I would be a fool for trusting Lindelof. But I’m still curious because the show didn’t need to go there, but decided to. I want to go see. At times the writing is so inspired it almost borders a transcendental level. It happened far more rarely in the second season, but I’m in.

The weird shit is too deeply rooted now. Ok, so you’re committing to this. How far are you taking this? Waiting for instructions.

Like LOST, from meta-fiction to metaphysics, fully embracing it.

All of this was tolerable because I could watch all of it at once. I do not envy those who had to wait week after week. That’s insanity for a show like this. The Leftovers is PURE TROLLING. When in the second half of the first season the episodes started to be uneven, I made a chart mostly as a joke. It looked like season 1 was doomed to collapse into shit. I had no idea at that point. The first half of the season was so solid and well written, then it started to slip into dangerous territory. It could have gone either way. You can see how it goes down for episode 9, and that started a trend. The episode itself isn’t complete shit, but it’s the first hint of how far the trolling is going to be pushed. The structure is like this: they end episode 8 with a cliffhanger, so you have to wait a week biting nails, desperately wanting to see what happens. And what happens? That episode 9 is entirely a flashback, and also 100% useless, adding absolutely nothing worthwhile to the story. Purely filler. Torolololol. Now you have to wait another week. But eventually the finale was good, sort of. It was dramatic, but it was weak in substance. It didn’t say anything meaningful and didn’t add anything worthwhile.

So I began season 2. Imagine waiting a fucking year for that. Because the first episode is UNBELIEVABLE. See me giving it a “2” on that chart. So you’ve waited a year to see what happens in that story? Enjoy a whole episode wasted to introduce new characters you never saw before and about who you don’t give a shit, doing things you don’t give a shit, including “artsy” sequences accompanied by just music that are 100% useless and actively, deliberately irritating and infuriating. Where the fuck is the story and characters I care about? Why are you wasting my time? Why the whole episode is gone and I don’t give a shit about anything you’ve shown me? But hey, here 5 minutes at the end with the characters you actually know about. Like, a cameo. So you go right into episode 2, because episode 1 was just more troll. And what you get? A damned flashback episode again! It goes back to the characters we know and care about, but it’s another full episode that covers just the gap and that ends at the same spot of where the first episode ended, without furthering the story one inch. And episode 3? TROLOLOLOL! Episode 3 goes back to ANOTHER set of characters to tell you what happened to them in the meantime. So, you have to wait until episode FOUR to see any shit actually fucking happening. All mixed with a bad habit of starting episodes with loud music and scenes out of context with unknown people doing unexplained stuff for 5 or 10 minutes before any kind of plot actually happens. Just to irritate you more.

I watched it all at once and I STILL wanted to punch Lindelof in the face (I wouldn’t punch him in the face, of course, but oh boy I have all the rights to imagine doing that, because he deserves it). It’s a fucking troll of a show. It doesn’t respect you in any way. As a serial it’s just an exercise in pure irritation. …And then it eventually find itself again to rebuild a story and lead toward a new finale. But you know what happens with episode 8 and 9? Symmetrical trolling! Episode 8 of course ends with a big cliffhanger, and episode 9 once again moves to a completely different story. Trolololol again. But my rating stays high because episode 9 ends with its own cliffhanger, surpassing the previous and honestly surprising me. I didn’t expect anything like that. Season 2 finale is more inspired than the first, and it works better as a culmination. It has some more substance, some moments that ring true and that make me forgive the other moments that are there just to be exploited for their dramatic force. Around minute 45 I was sure the episode was over (and already good), but then I checked and there were still another 25 minutes before the end. That was just a surprise. This “second ending” was also good, full of meta-fiction, and done well.

We wait for season 3, now. I’m now in the flock along with everyone else, waiting for Lindelof to troll all of us some more. It’s just 8 fucking episodes, though. You have less space to play your pranks. I don’t trust you but I’m going to follow.

Where are you taking me? I don’t understand. (You understand.)

The reason why I wrote so much about Arrival is because it mirrors exactly the same stuff I’ll discuss here. Same patterns, same category of problems, just different contexts we paint those themes onto.

Remember how we were all taught to toss out teleological thinking—the idea that there is a purpose or design to existence? We have all been taught that Darwin upended that idea. Mr. Dennett argues for another perspective. “Darwin didn’t extinguish teleology: he naturalized it.”

The teleological hypothesis is the one that created the basis for Arrival. But that quote comes from this article (it’s WSJ, it uses a paywall, so to bypass it and read it fully you have to use this link):
https://www.wsj.com/articles/daniel-dennett-explains-it-all-1486149888

That’s Michael Gazzaniga reviewing Daniel Dennett’s latest book, but because they come from a fairly similar school of thought Gazzaniga doesn’t have much to criticize. In fact in the (awful) comments someone says something I find hilarious:

This reviewer doesn’t seem to critically engage the author at any point. A critical review doesn’t have to be entirely negative. But when nothing is challenged how is this a review that engages the subject?

The reason why I kept thinking about Arrival is that I keep banging my head at trying to understand if there’s a different perspective. At least something that can be considered plausible, like a different way to frame the problem. Maybe there is something I’m missing, and that’s exactly why Arrival engages me. I wrote so much not to explain that Arrival is bullshit, but to go deep into every perspective to carefully check if there were “gaps”. I write as a way to analyze. To see if there is actually something, in a kind of open ended way.

This “other” perspective is represented by Thomas Nagel. He does believe in a different way of looking at the problem. And Sean Carroll challenges his perspective here:
http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/08/22/mind-and-cosmos/

But as with Arrival, I’m not too quick to dismiss, and keep looking out for something that resembles something with some value. And here we have a much longer review of Dennett’s book, written by Thomas Nagel… But that you cannot read fully because it’s behind a paywall:
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/03/09/is-consciousness-an-illusion-dennett-evolution/

I did read it fully, though. It’s quite long, across three pages, but only a couple of small paragraphs have something interesting to say that actually challenges Dennett’s point of view. I’ll quote those, as the rest of the long article is just a description of the book’s content and thesis.

The first hint of disagreement is something quite common and that I categorize as a simple misrepresentation:

In keeping with his general view of manifest image, Dennett holds that consciousness is not part of reality in the way the brain is. Rather, it is a particularly salient and convincing user-illusion, an illusion that it is indispensable in our dealings with one another and in monitoring and managing ourselves, but an illusion nonetheless.

You may as well ask how consciousness can be an illusion, since every illusion is itself a conscious experience – an appearance that doesn’t correspond to reality. So it cannot appear to me that I am conscious though I am not: as Descartes famously observed, the reality of my own consciousness is the one thing I cannot be deluded about.

Nagel describes all this as a view that is “unnatural”. Because this view challenges what we intuitively feel as consciousness. And the concrete feeling of something that cannot be considered an “illusion”.

This is a common position. Thinking that all these books about “consciousness” just point at unexplained illusions, and so do not explain anything at all. But it is a misrepresentation. Bakker’s own Blind Brain Theory, or the weaker versions, don’t simply point to an illusion to just call it “illusion”. Because they are materialist positions, they need to explain WHY and HOW the illusion appears.

An illusion is not something that doesn’t exist. An illusion is a visual phenomenon (for example), so made of matter, that you have to physically describe to explain why it appears like that. It exists, but it is motivated in a way that is revealed as false. It’s not a negation of the existence of the phenomenon, it’s a negation of the way we explained it. What you saw wasn’t a “ghost”, it was just a trick of the light that bounced in that mirror and produced that effect. The image was REAL, but you interpreted it incorrectly.

Those theories of consciousness DO explain how consciousness works. They do explain why it “feels” like that, they explain the boundaries. It’s true they aren’t “complete” theories because we haven’t reached the point where we can artificially create a consciousness, but that’s because the problem is extremely complex. But we do know, or have plausible hypothesis, that describe how it works. They describe HOW that illusion works and WHY it feels like it feels. We’ve been there. We have a perfectly functioning hypothesis.

Consciousness the way it appears to us IS reality. But our intuitive model of it is simply incorrect because it relies on incomplete information. It’s not the “experience” of consciousness that is wrong, it’s our intuitive explanation we make for it. It’s the common belief of what consciousness is to be wrong. Or the belief that our intuitive explanation is sufficient.

And yes, we trade an incomplete, intuitive model for a scientific, non-intuitive but still a lot more accurate model. Current science cannot explain everything, but it can explain MORE.

Dennett asks us to turn our backs to what is glaringly obvious – that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs.”

This goes with this other part:

There is no reason to go through such mental contortions in the name of science. The spectacular progress of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century was made possible by the exclusion of the mental from their purview. To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgement that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain. It should not disturb us that this may have radical consequences, especially for Dennett’s favorite natural science, biology: the theory of evolution, which in its current form is a purely physical theory, may have to incorporate nonphysical factors to account for consciousness, if consciousness is not, as he thinks, an illusion. Materialism remains a widespread view, but science does not progress by tailoring the data to fit a prevailing theory.

Firstly, “science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain”, this is quite a bold claim, and entirely illogical. Science MIGHT have to expand, not “will have to”, unless Nagel can see the future as the aliens in Arrival. If you are going to propose an hypothesis at least make it clear it’s not some kind of absolute claim of faith.

Nagel’s thesis is: since science doesn’t have a theory of everything then it means we need new ways of thinking that go beyond physics. But this is a conclusive statement that is very far from being actually conclusive. It’s a classic “god of the gaps”.

Let’s break down the various options:
We don’t have a complete description of reality, we only have various approximate models that work in their own specific applications, but no “theory of everything” that unifies all of that into something complete and cohesive.
Therefore:
1- There might be more to physics. Since we don’t know.
2- Physics, itself being incomplete right now, might as well lead to a theory of everything, eventually (or get as close as possible).

Both of these remain open. Neither Nagel nor Dennett can prove the falsity of the other. But it’s obvious that the argument Nagel used is flawed. Just because we *currently* can’t explain everything doesn’t mean that an explanation doesn’t exist. We’re trying to predict what we’re going to find and the only true, honest answer is: we don’t know. Both those options are open and viable. We have no way of closing one or the other.

But of course we can make our own predictions, trying to explain why one hypothesis is for us more valid or more plausible than the other. We will lean toward one or the other until we can make more conclusive observations.

That’s why Nagel’s perspective seems so fraudulent to me. It’s presented illogically. The arguments that should convince one to prefer that perspective are very bad ones. When he says “there is no reason to go through such mental contortions in the name of science” it’s as if he chastises science for being too overly complex and challenge intuitive notions. All the big discoveries deeply changed human worldviews. We’ve gone through deep revolutions. And we were able to achieve that BECAUSE we challenged what was taken for granted.

In fact, Nagel’s own thesis would require an ever bolder stance to challenge the prevailing notion, so it seems logical. But the point is: the argument Nagel uses against Dennett’s thesis hits both ways. Dennett’s thesis is described as “mental contortion”, so it challenges intuitive experience, whereas Nagel’s thesis challenges what we currently know about science and physics. But while Dennett’s stance is justified as we’re trying to understand ourselves while within our own boundaries (which is a naturally hard if not impossible task), Nagel’s stance simply relies on the unjustified belief that the world is built in accord with human necessity (that it sticks to what we intuitively feel as true).

As if: we should take for granted that the world is built to be understood by the human mind.

This is purely anti-scientific. This idea that the universe exists *for* us, and so has to comply to our desires. This is the contrary of science: to actually challenge beliefs. To prove the world defies us constantly, doesn’t comply, and it’s not at our service. Science is a tool to find truth specifically because most of the times what we hope is right is revealed as wrong. Science challenges simplicity and intuition, you have to study. It doesn’t come easy.

But you can also twist this argument back, and say that Nagel’s position also requires us to challenge our views at an even deeper level. That’s correct, but let’s keep these arguments straight. Saying that Dennett’s stance is invalid because it challenges intuition or because physics is not complete is quite a ridiculous argument. And at least science continues to point in Dennett’s direction. It’s not a conclusive statement, but we make progress. On the other side when you decide to leave the path you’ve taken you have to provide good motivations to do so. And this is where Nagel’s argument is weak the most: it evokes an alternative without any idea about what it actually might be. Again, Nagel might be right, but he’s making a very poor case to prove that option can be fruitful. As if we’re deciding between “making good progress on one side, but still very far from coming out”, and “I’m bored digging there, we should try something else although I have no idea what”. To persuade people to look elsewhere you need to provide something more tangible than mere skepticism at where we’re currently looking. Otherwise you’re just exploiting the fact that since we don’t know everything, there’s space to ride the common human misconceptions until they last.

And this is where I quote Sean Carroll that I linked above:

Either matter obeys the laws of physics, or physics is wrong. And if you want us to take seriously the possibility that it’s wrong, you better have at least some tentative ideas about what would be a better theory.

Of course, Nagel has no such theory, which he cheerfully admits. That’s for the scientists to come up with! He’s just a philosopher, he says.

Which is why, at the end, his position isn’t very interesting. (Because he doesn’t have anything like a compelling alternative theory, not because he’s a philosopher.) He advocates overthrowing things that are precisely defined, extremely robust, and impressively well-tested (the known laws of physics, natural selection) on the basis of ideas that are rather vague and much less well-supported (a conviction that consciousness can’t be explained physically, a demand for intelligibility, moral realism). If someone puts forward even a rough sketch of how a new teleological view of reality might actually work, including how it affects the known laws of physics, that might be very interesting. I don’t think the prospects are very bright.

Nagel is a “god of the gaps” philosopher, the one who does his dance while others are busy working. As long science doesn’t explain everything there will always be someone who claims science MIGHT be wrong.

And yes, science might be wrong. So what?

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.

P.S.
All the examples above are variants of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and its more basic form, The Liar’s Paradox.