Category Archives: Mythology

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

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.”


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):

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:

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:

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.
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’.

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.

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 Rorty, 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..
we’d see…
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…
that’s eternity,
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.


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.

I’m in the process of writing about the metaphysics of “Arrival”. “In the process” means I’m 7000 words deep into it and only see a faint light at the end. Because Arrival is about determinism and free will (among other themes) it means I apply to it the tools I’ve developed in the past.

As I discuss sidetracks I keep trying to condense the theory to its core, the true intuition at its center. “Walling it up” so that discussing all the various branches and consequences don’t disperse the core idea (and my train of thoughts). Of course for it to be persuasive one has to go through all the motions. Here I only try to reach for the center in one stroke.

Determinism and free will, a compatibilist hypothesis.

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. Or, more philosopically: Gödel’s incompleteness theorem establishes that a system can only be determined complete when you observe it from outside (Laplace’s demon).

You can correctly state, as a likely hypothesis, that the universe is deterministic and that you don’t have free will, but to do so you postulate a position theoretically projected outside the system, and then “receive” this information from that point. The moment you “bring in” that information inside the system, the information vanishes in your hands. Because of wicked Gödel again: the information is only valid as long it stays outside. It’s still a “truth”, but a truth that is not for your own use. It’s a truth lying “beyond”. A transcendental truth. A god-like revelation mistaken for science.

When I say “a position theoretically projected outside the system” I refer to something I call “a golem”. A golem, a man-made artifact that can talk back to you, but using your own voice, a trick. A mouthpiece bouncing back your own voice from a false perspective. You hear (imagine) the voice of a god. That’s the error that triggers the paradox. Gods (to you) do not exist. Gods cannot exist inside the system. They can exist outside, but that’s beyond the attainment of your life.

The proof that the information vanishes in your hands can be deduced by the fact that, in the postulate to the thesis, the determinism of a system is broken when “new” information is introduced. Because the system is a complex system (all parts are connected and indispensable, in a holistic way, a prerequisite of determinism), any new information will obligatory produce change in the system. The information that the system is deterministic, when “brought in”, is information that produces no change. It’s the ONLY type of information that produces no change. And it behaves like that because that information is invalid. It’s invalid because the position it comes from is invalid, impossible (comes from outside the system but is realized while inside).

Free will is a perspectivist truth. A truth relative to a system. If we proved, as we’ve proved, that no other state can be reached (the system is “domed”, occluded), then we we’ve proved the relative truth is absolute. That no other state is valid. The system is domed because the system is closed. As seen above, a system is deterministic when a complete description is possible. A complete description is possible when the system is closed and observed from outside. Hence, the system is closed, domed, as a prerequisite to determinism. Because it is closed, we cannot pass the barrier. Because we cannot pass the barrier, and because there are strict computational limits while within, the relative truth becomes absolute: no other truth is available.

Science and “progress”: we philosophically “bring in” more information. We become bigger, inflating our knowledge. Swallowing and absorbing more of that useful information. The more we know, the better we survive. The idea is: if we project this trajectory, this continues as long we fully understand our universe, the moment we “swallowed it all” (Omega Point). The problem is: science works as long it is about the “inside” of the system (observability). As long it is beyond us, but within reach. Swallow-able. A verifiable hypothesis. You make the hypothesis, then swallow it (proof). It’s like Pac-Man, there’s a pill over there in the corner and predators that swarm around you and want to eat you instead (survival), if you can get to the pill in time you acquire power. But knowledge of determinism is like a pill that sits outside the labyrinth. You can see it, but you cannot reach it and swallow it. You can keep pining, but it’s kind of silly: wasting time pining for that pill won’t help you while you’re busy surviving.

You might say that I’m wasting my time, then. Yes indeed. But I’ve noticed that every new player wastes at least a little time trying to reach that pill. It eventually happens to everyone. So I kind of sacrificed myself so that players beyond me will have better chances! I wrote a strategy and posted it on GameFAQs.