Arrival’s Fatalism


If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.
— T S Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’

*

For those who have not seen Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 science fiction film Arrival, I’ll offer a brief synopsis. Spoiler alert.

The film opens with a sentimental sequence of shots showing Louise Banks, a linguistics professor, playing with a child. The child is shown at various ages, but we also see her dying young in a hospital. The sequence initially seems like a flashback. In the present, twelve alien spaceships appear on earth. Louise Banks is invited, along with Ian Donnelley, a physicist, to assist the military personnel who have surrounded the ship on American soil, Banks to aid in communicating with the aliens and Donnelley to question them about their technology. They meet the aliens, known as “heptapods,” in their ship’s antechamber, where they stand separated from them by a glass screen. Banks begins deciphering the aliens’ language, in which entire sentences are written with single signs, or “semasiograms.” It appears that the aliens have a different perception of time from humans.

As Banks learns more of the aliens’ language, she begins to have visions of the child we saw at the opening. It transpires that these do not refer to any event in her past – “Who is this child?” she asks. When inquiring about the aliens’ purpose, Louise receives the answer: “Offer weapon.” A diplomatic crisis risks tipping over into war as the Chinese are poised to attack the aliens – a spy satellite reveals that their translation of the aliens’ purpose was “Use weapon” and an intercepted Russian communication shows the aliens saying “There is no time.” The Americans plan to evacuate.

Louise hurries outside and is brought up into the ship. She appears on the other side of the glass barrier, a subtle visual metaphor for her having attained fluency in the alien language. A heptapod reveals to Louise that she “has [the] weapon” and that the weapon “opens time.” Thus we learn that “weapon” in fact is a mistranslation of “tool” or, indeed, “language.” Moreover, the language offers a special ability: it reconfigures one’s perception of time such one can see one’s entire life in a single instant and hence look into the future.

Louise now has a series of visions. Not only does she see herself as the author of a bestselling introduction to translating the aliens’ language, but she also sees why the father of her child will leave her: he cannot forgive her for choosing to bring the child into the world when she knew that it would die young of a rare disease. Finally, Louise averts global disaster by “remembering” a future conversation with Chinese military commander General Shang. In the future, he provides her with his personal phone number and a piece of private information. Louise is hence able to contact him by telephone and reveal in confidence the aliens’ true purpose. The Chinese hold off their attack.

At the end of the film the aliens disappear and it is revealed, in case the audience had not foreseen it, that Ian will be the father of Louise’s child. Given that she now speaks a language that lets her see the future, she knows that their union will also end in tragedy. We are left with the question, presented by Louise in a voiceover: “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change anything?”

Given the wildly hypothetical premise of this question – we simply cannot see our lives in this way – I am not sure that we can make it morally interesting. However, I also do not believe that it is coherent within the context of the film’s universe. As I will argue here, that universe must be fatalistic, so there is no possibility open for Louise to change anything. On the most basic level, the intuitive argument is that if Louise sees the future, then the future must be determined. However, in unpicking this statement, we have to consider what “seeing the future” really means. If one is located outside of time, such a perspective does not imply fatalism. However, if one is still subject to the conditions of time, the intuitive argument holds, and it does. The fatalistic problem with Arrival is that Louise possesses just such a mixed perspective.

The short story on which Arrival is based – ‘Story of Your Life’, by US science fiction author Ted Chiang – confirms the fatalistic interpretation. Chiang accepts the fatalism of his fictional universe. At the same time, he equivocates, and claims that it is inaccurate to describe the aliens as automata, since from their eternal perspective, this notion makes no sense. Nonetheless, as I will argue below, I believe that Chiang fails to recognize that Louise’s perspective must, in fact, be mixed, not eternal, which undercuts his get-out clause.

Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter who adapted Arrival from Chiang’s short story and introduced the film’s closing question, seems confused about the fatalism of this fictional universe. There are a few differences between the story and the film: the story has no international conflict subplot; the aliens’ grasp of physics plays a role in illustrating their concept of time; Ian Donnelley is called Gary Donnelley… The most important difference, however, concerns the death of Louise’s child, Hannah. In the story, she dies aged 25 in a climbing accident. As science fiction blogger Abigail Nussbaum puts it:

In the story, the point of Hannah’s death being accidental is that it is easily preventable. Someone with knowledge of the future—as Louise will eventually become—could keep it from happening by saying a few words. The point of ‘Story of Your Life’ is to explain why Louise doesn’t do this. Making Hannah’s death something that Louise can’t prevent seems, in the film’s early minutes, like an odd bit of point-missing.

Indeed, Heisserer seems to have missed the point even more than Nussbaum suggests. In a podcast interview with Jeff Goldsmith, he says that the purpose of this change was to make the story about free choice, rather than determinism: “I think it’s more profound for me if she has a choice, if she has free will, and can change her future, and yet she chooses to have Hannah.” However, nothing about the way in which the aliens’ language functions in the film is different from the story. There is no reason to believe that the metaphysics of time in the film universe differ from those in the story universe. Heisserer merely pushes back the theoretical point at which Louise could have made a different choice if she had free will. Once Louise conceives a child with a rare disease, the die is cast. In Chiang’s story, if Louise has free will, she can intervene at any point to stop the child dying – but she hasn’t, and doesn’t.

The General Shang conversation scene is actually incoherent in the film, since Future Louise seems to have forgotten the actions of Past Louise (she asks something like “I called you?”). I take the scene to be employing a certain poetic licence: Future Louise speaks the words of Past Louise, who shares the temporal present of the viewers and accompanies them in figuring out what is going on.

Chiang’s story attempts to explain why this is the case by offering a considered discussion of just what the aliens’ perspective, “outside of time,” would be like. Although Chiang does not mention it, the logic of such a perspective and its relation to free will already received its first extensive treatment in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, written on death row in ca.525 AD. I shall hence take Boethius as a model in the following discussion. Whilst Boethius aims to show that God’s “eternal” perspective is not incompatible with free will, his argument depends on an absolute separation of divine and human perspectives. In both Arrival and ‘Story of Your Life’, speakers of the heptapod language are discussed as if they possess both a timeless and a sequentially temporal perspective. This, I will argue, is not only incompatible with free will per se, but also with the “redemptive” interpretation that Chiang attempts to offer in his story.

Boethius, in Book V of the Consolation, presents his comforting interlocutrix, Philosophy, with the following problem:

‘It seems,’ said I, ‘too much of a paradox and a contradiction that God should know all things, and yet there should be free will. For if God foresees everything, and can in no wise be deceived, that which providence foresees to be about to happen must necessarily come to pass. (V.iii, trans. H R James, 1897)

This is exactly the problem that Louise faces. Yet the crux of the matter, as Philosophy points out, is the notion of “foreseeing” something – that is, of possessing this knowledge whilst being bound by temporality, and hence viewing it as “the future.” Philosophy draws a distinction between things that are “everlasting” and things that are “eternal.” The “everlasting” is still “subject to the condition of time” (V.vi) – it sees a past, present and future – even if it can be considered to lack a beginning and end. On the other hand, the “eternal” is genuinely outside of time: it perceives past, present and future all within a single moment. God is better understood as eternal, rather than everlasting.

We could illustrate the Boethian God’s perspective on the timeline as follows:

Pure BPU

As Boethius puts it:

The divine mind contemplates all that falls within its simple cognition as if it were now taking place. And therefore, if thou wilt carefully consider that immediate presentment whereby it discriminates all things, thou wilt more rightly deem it not foreknowledge as of something future, but knowledge of a moment that never passes. (V.vi)

Boethius describes a radical difference in perspectives. We can think of being “outside of time” as involving a knowledge of all events, yet such that this perspective does not determine what makes agents free or not. From the divine perspective, of course things could not be different, but from the human perspective, of course they could:

[T]he same future event is necessary from the standpoint of Divine knowledge, but when considered in its own nature it seems absolutely free and unfettered. (V.vi)

We must think of God as having a radically different perspective, separate from the timeline, such that he sees everything in an unchanging, eternal present. Then, the notion that events are somehow fixed “beforehand” by God’s knowledge falls away. They are not fixed “beforehand” at all. “Determination” only happens when one abandons tensed expressions entirely – that is, when one places oneself outside of time, and then it means something quite different from what we temporal beings usually understand as “determinism.” At the same time, this changes nothing about our freedom seen from a temporal perspective.

The problem we encounter in Arrival and ‘Story of Your Life’ is that the divine or, as I shall term it, Boethian perspective is not totally separate from the timeline. Rather, those who possess it also participate in sequential temporality. Louise is not shown as having a perspective genuinely “outside of time” – rather, she has “memories” of the future that extend to the moment of her death.

Boethius’s God, and perhaps the heptapods, do not see the future – they simply see everything all at once. Such a “pure” Boethian perspective looks like the diagram above. Yet Louise’s perspective is mixed, simultaneously anchored in the timeline and outside of it:

Mixed BPU

Now we are faced again with Boethius’s original problem. How can one gain reliable knowledge about one’s future choices and then – as a sequential, temporal being – continue to exercise freedom? One cannot. Without a radical separation of perspectives, the argument that the eternal perspective does not imply fatalism fails. If it is mixed with the temporal perspective, it will infect it and imply fatalism. Boethius’s elaborate and beautiful argument is an attempt to avoid just such a mixture.

One way to get around this problem that I have seen is to invoke the idea of multiple timelines. When we make a free choice, we move from one timeline of possible worlds into another. Could we not posit that there is a classical Boethian perspective on a unitary timeline – call it “BPU” – which implies fatalism and a non-fatalistic Boethian perspective over multiple timelines – call it “BPM”? If we consider a version of that second perspective mixed with a temporal perspective, it would look something like this:

Mixed BPM
(As I have drawn them in these diagrams, each blue circle represents a possible world state at a particular time, with times stretching into the future to the right and into the past to the left. Since a possible world state must include facts about the history of that world, all worlds that are accessible to each other must share a common past: my decisions allow me to move between different future worlds, but I do not possess any technology to transport me into a timeline with a different history. The world states to the left that are all vertically connected by accessibility relations are hence identical. This is a result of my decision to draw multiple complete timelines, rather than one branching timeline. Given that we are representing the mixed perspective of a being bound by sequential temporality, looking both backwards and forwards from a point whilst somehow standing outside of it, it seems more appropriate to me to show accessibility relations as dropping off as time progresses, rather than the more usual branching from a single point, which implies nothing but an anticipation of the future. A being possessed of true Mixed BPM would also have visions of inaccessible pasts, each with infinite, inaccessible futures falling upon unique timelines. Perhaps we could posit a weaker form of Mixed BPM that ranged only over the future, acknowledging our anchorage in sequential temporality – a kind of BPU for the past with BPM for the future? Such a perspective is less daunting, but irrelevant for my argument.)

With Mixed BPM, we can presumably glance into alternative futures and understand the choices made in order to access them. Louise sees that if she has a child with Ian (or Gary, as he’s called in a parallel universe), then that child will die. She is accessing that vision from one possible timeline and, on this model, she can withhold her carnal urges and jump into an alternative one.

Firstly, I should say there is no evidence in the film that this is how the aliens’ language works. Moreover, Chiang’s story actively contradicts such a notion by giving a fatalistic interpretation. But I would also like to consider how such a perspective, in its pure (rather than mixed) form, seems to offer an experience only of metaphysical necessity, eliminating the notion of contingency.

Let us consider Pure BPM. That would look like this:

Pure BPM
(If you have this you exist outside of time but also outside of metaphysics, so you presumably don’t care whether I draw in accessibility relations.)

Now, in the film, the aliens who possess a form of BPU say “There is no time.” This is because they have a perspective outside of time and are conscious at every point of a unitary timeline at once. The notion of temporality, which implies change, is simply non-existent to them.

Given Pure BPM, they would say “There is no possibility,” for they would be conscious not just at every temporal point, but in every possible world at once. This perspective would not be on a timeline, but over the space of all possible worlds. Those atemporal beings endowed with BPU could still, potentially, imagine another universe – their perspective preserves metaphysical contingency. Yet for those possessing Pure BPM, everything that could possibly be true would be true simultaneously. They would experience no notion of metaphysical contingency, only necessity. In a sense, they would be outside both time and metaphysics. It is questionable whether “freedom” makes any sense from such a perspective.

If we return to Mixed BPM, such a perspective does leave open the possibility of freedom as conceived within the consciousness of sequential temporality. My point, however, is that, given Pure BPM, the aliens would not say “There is no time”, but “There is no possibility” – and that is not at all what they say. The metaphysical conclusions implied by BPM are simply not explored in either the story or the film, whereas those of BPU are. This is a reason to rule out BPM as a plausible interpretative option.

If we return from BPM to BPU, “free will” also makes no sense from a pure perspective. “Free will” implies the possibility of acting, of extending oneself through time. Yet if I am an atemporal being, outside of time, I cannot in fact experience actions unfolding through time – at the very best, I can see them below me in a timeline, but I myself simply cannot act and therefore cannot exercise free will. Without temporality the notion makes no sense.

We can tabulate the available possibilities as follows:

Perspective Free will?
Sequential temporality Yes (or at least it appears that way)
Pure BPU Incoherent notion (but the world is contingent, not necessary)
Mixed BPU No (and we know it!)
Pure BPM Incoherent notion (but the world is necessary, not contingent)
Mixed BPM Yes (and we know it!)

To conclude, I will consider how Chiang deals with these issues in ‘Story of Your Life.’ I believe that both Arrival and Chiang’s story represent Mixed BPU, thus excluding free will entirely. Chiang argues that there is a perpetual alternation between sequential temporality and Pure BPU, which does not totally rule out free will. I do not find this convincing.

On the one hand, Chiang seems to be as clear as Boethius regarding the distinction of perspectives:

We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. (Ted Chiang, ‘Story of Your Life’)

Nonetheless, he begins to equivocate:

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.

Here, we can detect an implicit contradiction within Chiang’s picture. On the one hand, the story suggests that the heptapods simply have no sequential consciousness. Louise, by contrast, has a mixed perspective, saying “Even though I’m proficient with Heptapod B, I know I don’t experience reality the way a heptapod does.” She has “memories” of the future and only occasional glimpses of a totality. Her perspectives truly are mixed. Yet, as soon as Chiang talks of motivation here, as soon as he talks of action, he is describing the heptapods’ world in human, sequential terms. From a perspective of timelessness, everything is ever-present; there is hence no such thing as action, which implies change over time. Motivation likewise implies sequential time, for a motive comes before a deed. The notion of a teleological perspective, perceiving the end of an action in its beginning, strikes me as a valid description of a pure Boethian perspective. However, whilst Chiang wants to claim that the heptapods’ perspective is pure, he ends up describing it in mixed terms. Moreover, Louise, with her mixed perspective, falls definitively within the realm of unfreedom.

Chiang takes pains to exclude the possibility of a mixed perspective:

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.

The problem, however, is that Louise does see both. This is clear when she describes her pereception and her attitude:

[N]ow 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.

[…]

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?

This has been interpreted as a kind of amor fati message, for instance, by Nick Statt in The Verge:

In Arrival’s deterministic universe, free will exists in the form of following through on a choice you already know you’ll make. In effect, by choosing not to alter the future, you’re creating it, and actively affirming it.

Yet, as I have argued, a mixed perspective simply cannot permit free will. The situation Louise is in is the opposite of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return. Rather than affirm her freely chosen action for all eternity and stand behind it with a confidence equal to faith – for the Eternal Return only has poignancy if we do not know the future, beyond the fact of repetition – Louise feels an obligation to a higher purpose and her affirmation is a fulfilment of duty. Her actions are no longer autonomous, but heteronomous. Possessing moments of BPU has altered whatever “freedom” can mean within her moments of sequential consciousness. Despite Chiang’s protestations, a mixture of perspectives does occur.

I am hence led to conclude that the word “weapon” is not a mistranslation. By teaching humans this language the aliens expose them to fatalism. Louise, in the throes of BPU, no longer has any meaningful form of free will and simply watches her life unfold beneath a sense of obligation. We can take this line of thinking further. If possessing sequential consciousness is a basic constituent of being human then the aliens carry out a genocide by means of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: humans who learn the language adopt the same temporal perspective as the aliens and lose their species identity. The heptapods’ mission to Earth thus constitutes an attack on humanity – a colonizing force in which the subjugated culture’s previous mode of self-understanding is eliminated and replaced with a bleak sense of metaphysical duty, an obligation to serve not autonomously chosen, but alien ends.

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This entry was posted in Arrival, Denis Villeneuve, film, free will, metaphysics, philosophy, science fiction, Ted Chiang, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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