"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."
One of the better movies of 2016 was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a sort of thinking person’s Independence Day or, rather the kind of close encounter that Arthur C. Clarke would have penned in the 70s had he been just a little bit more clued up.
The premise at least is familiar and simple. A bunch of round, eight-legged ETs show up at multiple locations across planet earth and proceed to hover a bit menacingly in their enormous intergalactic craft. On this occasion however they appear to have nothing more sinister in mind than a bit of a chinwag with the world’s A-list linguists and physicists.
America’s chosen linguistics expert is Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a woman who has seemingly only recently overcome the grief from losing her teenage daughter. Against a background of American military and government figures performing standard repertoire, Banks gradually gets to grips with the aliens’ non-sequential writing system and along the way discovers that her mind is being subtly rewired.
All of a sudden prone to chronesthesia Banks realises that her consciousness is no longer constrained within the moving present and can anticipate the future — and viewers soon twig that the ongoing flashbacks to her period of loss are actually flash-forwards. The movie’s elegiac conclusion reflects on Banks’s ‘decision’ to proceed with the relationship that will eventually lead to bereavement.
Meanwhile the heptapods have scooted, having somehow implanted in us a form of awareness which will later on help save their own civilisation.
On first viewing I was left with the impression that I wasn’t quite sure what the take-out from all this was supposed to be, other than that Villeneuve’s upcoming Blade Runner sequel ought to be nothing to lose sleep over.
The film was adapted from a science fiction novella called Story Of Your Life by the Chinese author Ted Chiang. The original is much more full-on with the physics and the linguistics behind the narrative and ultimately much more likely to stimulate profound reflection.
Chiang's story is a very careful examination of the seemingly incongruent notion of simultaneous awareness and its implications for what we call free will.
Early on in the tale Banks frames the problem thus...
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.
At first the human academics can find no entry point of common understanding of fundamental physics, but then suddenly the heptapods appear to recognise Fermat's variation principle of least time. In short this is a mathematical expression of the refracted passage of light which seems teleological i.e. the photons behave as if they have detailed information about their destination and about the path towards it. Fermat suggested that all the laws of physics can be expressed in this way, as well as in the more common-sensical sequential form.
Every physical event was an utterance that could be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological, both valid, neither one disqualifiable no matter how much context was available...Explain it by saying that a difference in the index of refraction caused the light to change direction, and one saw the world as humans saw it. Explain it by saying that light minimized the time needed to travel to its destination, and one saw the world as the heptapods saw it.
In the heptapods' writing system, in effect a parallel language system to their spoken tongue — dubbed Heptapod B by our lot — every stroke participates in multiple clauses, so the writer has to know the whole sentence before applying the first one. Just like light seemingly needs to 'know' where it is going.
In studying Heptapod B Banks finds that her thoughts have started to become at least partially graphically-encoded and begins to wonder about the fuller implications of knowing the future. If the heptapods are already aware of everything they are ever going to say or indeed hear, what then is the point of language?
Language wasn't only for communication: it was also a form of action. According to speech act theory, statements like "You're under arrest," "I christen this vessel," or "I promise" were all performative: a speaker could perform the action only by uttering the words...With performative language, saying equaled doing. For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place...I suddenly remembered that a morphological relative of "performative" was "performance," which could describe the sensation of conversing when you knew what would be said: it was like performing in a play.
In her own case Banks finds that the experience of foreknowledge evokes in her a 'sense of urgency', akin to an obligation to act precisely as she knew she would.
Before I learned how to think in Heptapod B, my memories grew like a column of cigarette ash, laid down by the infinitesimal sliver of combustion that was my consciousness, marking the sequential present. 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...My consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing sliver crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind: there is no real combustion. 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, and the entirety of yours.
Chiang's story endorses the premise, common to most theoretical physicists today, if not philosophers, that the sense of the passage of time — that we inhabit a moving present moment in which everything that took place before is ceasing to exist 'in real time' and that everything to come is yet to exist at all — is an artifact of human consciousness, a consequence of the limited awareness we have evolved with.
As Einstein put it, albeit in a letter of consolation...
“For we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.”
Having only a subset of all the variables in this determined universe, we experience time sequentially and the events that occur within it in terms of probability rather than certainty. And thus we have free will.
Einstein's use of the term 'persistent illusion', which he applied to reality in general, is perhaps misleading, for it seems to me that there is no way to be certain that the indeterminacy we perceive from within the cosmos is somehow less primal that the apparently determined and fundamental structure he called Space-Time — especially given that the latter itself appears to cohere spontaneously out of a soup of indeterminacy.
Theoretical physicists sometimes ask us to visualise spacetime as an expanding four dimensional balloon. From this point of view everything inside the balloon is forever fixed, making life seem, if not impossible, at least not especially useful. I've always thought a better analogy would be a 4D expanding Guatemalan house!
For this way, every location on the inside would have its own direct connection to the outside, delivering something like equality and mutuality between the superficially inconsonant states — between determinacy and indeterminacy, between causality and teleology and perhaps also between the present moment and eternity.