Perceptions of time in Arrival
Here there be spoilers.
While the 2017 Oscar winner for best picture gave the brief impression that two parallel universes intersected for a moment, a movie that did not win raised deep questions. Arrival, a film about first contact with alien visitors, ponders on the nature and perception of time and its role in the formation of the meaning of our lives. The Nerdwriter gave a typically thoughtful analysis of the film as a work of cinematic art on his YouTube channel, and I recommend that everyone give that a viewing. My purpose, however, is to discuss it as a philosophical text.
The key point of difference between the humans and the extraterrestrials is that of the linearity of time. Human experience of time is primarily and frequently that of a progression from the past into the future, and this is what makes understanding the language and purpose of the new arrivals hard. They perceive time in a manner that is entirely alien to us. Time for them is a completed whole. They know the story as a completion. And as the main human character, linguist Louise Banks, learns their mode of communication, she comes to share their temporal perception, anticipating events in her future and the future of humanity.
In its themes, Arrival has much in common with Contact, the Robert Zemeckis film based on Carl Sagan’s novel. Both, of course, deal with the first meeting between two intelligent species, and both show the fears that many on Earth would have over such an encounter. Another key concept, one that was important to Sagan during his life was the idea of this planet’s population coming together as a family, no matter what our governments tell us to do.
But both stories also address religious themes. Contact explored the religious impulses of humans, while Arrival presents beings that are essentially what western theological traditions have offered as God.
And therein lies the flaw of the movie. In one scene, a suspicious member of the military personnel confronting the alien spaceship brings an explosive aboard. The aliens use some manner of force projection to push Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly out of the chamber to save them from the blast. When Banks returns to the ship, she is told that one of the aliens is experiencing the “death process.” Perhaps the aliens have the same doctrine of substitutionary sacrifice presented in Christianity, but I would expect rational beings who perceive the whole of time — or the whole, at least, of a particular episode in time — to have a better response than to allow a distinctly linear outcome that does not seem necessary to the overall quality of the event that they desire.
I say this because Banks was already developing a sympathy for the aliens, and the various representatives of the American government, military and intelligence, did not have their minds changed until she did what already felt inevitable at the end.
Note here that I am stuck treating the story as linear. And I wonder how we can possibly have a story in any other form. Yes, movies like Pulp Fiction and Memento play with the order of events in a narrative, and telling a story in medias res goes back at least to Homer’s Odyssey, these artistic techniques cannot erase the underlying linear nature of the plots.
Can a being perceive time as a whole — not as memory, current perception, and anticipation, but an actual comprehensive present? What would that experience be? There would be no choice, since making choices involve a before and an after. It may be that the explosion I referred to above was simply a part of what was written, and change, like choice, also requires the passage of time. Now I might have concluded that this perception is only about events in the past, but the reason for the alien-human encounter is that the visitors will need human help three thousand years after the events of the film. This mode of temporal perception, seeing the whole all at once, makes the aliens seem robotic, in possession of superior technology but to no good effect since they are incapable of doing anything other than the story as it is.
As godlike characters, the aliens in Arrival illustrate the problem with God as presented in the monotheistic theologies of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the Bible, God is shown to be surprised, annoyed, and indecisive. He makes choices in response to human actions. He answers prayers. And none of that makes sense, given the doctrines that owe more to Aristotle than to scripture. Aristotle’s god contemplates perfection, something that sounds like a good stand in for timelessness. That god has no perception of anything else.
What Arrival really shows is that being human is fundamentally tied up in perceiving time as a sequence that we reside in, rather than a hypersphere that we observe at all points at once. Without that human quality, no stories and no choices are possible.
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