The recently released film "Arrival" is a powerful story of alien first-contact. Radical translation from an alien language raises many important issues regarding meaning as well as cognition; could humans really come to understand a language so fundamentally different from any on earth? In what follows, I will first go through the general plot and storyline of the movie, including my initial thoughts and reactions as I watched it. Next, I will go over the important features of the alien language that differentiate it from typical human languages. Then, I will discuss in detail the metaphysics in the world represented by this piece including the nature of time, space, causation, and fundamental reality. Finally, I will explain what this metaphysical framework means for cognition and consciousness, autonomy, value, and the future of humanity.
Storyline - (Spoiler alert)
"Arrival" is set in approximately the present-day, centering around a linguistics expert and professor, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). The first five minutes of the film tell the story of Louise's daughter's lifetime from her birth to her untimely death at a young age due to disease. I became extremely emotional instantly, unable to hold back tears; the bond between a mother and her daughter seems to me to be the most meaningful and powerful connection in existence and I can't imagine what it would feel like to have to hold your daughter's hand while she slips away. Though this montage was quick, it was incredibly well done and it was easy for me to put myself in Louise's shoes; my heart broke along with hers, I resolved to stay strong so my child could pass peacefully, and I could understand how having this sort of strength may be one of the hardest things one could do. Louise's voice was narrating the introduction, speaking as if to her daughter, mentioning that she no longer believes in things like beginnings and endings, but telling the story must start somewhere.
My initial reaction to this while watching the film was an expectation that it would be deeply concerned with the nature of time, perhaps taking a circular view on the nature of time or representing it as being something like a higher dimension of space. I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's "Tralfamadorian" species, who exist in all times simultaneously, as if their life is a book which can be flipped through at will or viewed all at once. I think often about these issues, in general I love science fiction especially when it relates to consciousness and alternate conceptions of time. It is also important to note that I've always been interested in the broad question: "What does it mean to make sense of things? Relatedly, what does it mean for things to make sense?" -- I am primarily interested in cognition, interpretation, consciousness, and unity. Since I was extremely young I have been concerned that the universe at bottom may be nonsense, we are simply looking for the patterns in static; this is ultimately why I chose to study the brain, because understanding the mechanisms by which we detect these patterns may help to elucidate their nature. These interests are important to mention because they may affect the lens through which I view the film and its philosophical implications.
The next thing that is shown in the film is the arrival of twelve alien spacecrafts located at seemingly random locations around the world. Louise is at work about to give a lecture on Portuguese and why it is so different from the other romance languages. Her students' phones are going off incessantly and it clearly is not a normal day; one of them asks her to turn on the news, which she does, where the story of the spacecraft landing is obviously front and center. Sirens go off, class is cancelled for the day, and Louise drives home. She's talking on the phone with her mother, who is incredibly worried, but Louise says it is all fine and seems quite calm. The next day she is in her office watching the news (which is talking about how people are panicking and all travel in and out of Montana, where the craft in America landed, is shut off). Colonel Weber from the US Military (Forest Whitaker) comes in as a matter of urgent business. He plays a recording, audio of alien speech, and asks her how she would go about beginning this radical translation. There is nothing she can do without actually being there to interact with the beings, so he leaves in search of someone else. Luckily, Louise is unarguably the best person for the job (their alternate mistranslated the Swahili word for "war"), so they come to her home via helicopter to take her directly to the craft site.
When she gets there she meets many other individuals on the American first-contact team, including her physicist and mathematician partner Ian (Jeremy Renner). There is a lot going on, of course, and a big room with a team of military personnel and political figures working on strategies. There is an almost continuously ongoing video call with the world leaders to coordinate efforts, though from the beginning there is quite a palpable tension. Understandably, many are worried about the intentions of the aliens, not knowing why they came to earth or whether their plan involves waging war on humanity as a species. The primary aim of communicating with the aliens, than, is to get to the point of understanding to be able to ask the question "What is your purpose here?" and further, to be able to understand the answer.
The first time Louise meets the aliens, the humans are required to don orange Hazmat type suits because the air quality inside the craft is unknown and it is possible that the aliens could suffocate the humans by removing all the oxygen. The aliens open the doors on the bottom of the craft every 18 hours so there is a limited and precise amount of time to plan their encounter, and obviously the hope is to maximize each one. The spacecraft is floating in the air, not visibly supported by any sort of legs, and Louise, Ian, and their team ascend to the door in the craft on a scissor lift. Once they get inside, gravity shifts such that they are able to walk on the walls to the top of the craft where there is a glass wall. Louise is visibly overwhelmed, breathing heavily and unable to speak. Two aliens come through the hazy fog; seven-legged radially symmetric grey creatures, squid or octopus-like but larger, and hovering in the air. The first meeting is largely unsuccessful because Louise is in a state of panic.
The first breakthrough comes when Louise has the idea to attempt visual rather than verbal communication with the aliens. She writes the word "HUMAN" on a whiteboard, pointing to herself. They respond by spurting black ink in a circular pattern; a seemingly symbolic form of visual communication. Louise learns that their auditory language and their visual language are not isomorphic in any sense, which is extremely important. This is an interesting feature of their language that makes it different from typical human language, wherein our visual symbols typically map cleanly onto the symbols we use to communicate verbally. It is also important that the alien symbols are understood as complex sentences and produced circularly and all at once, with no real distinction between beginning and end, unlike typical earthly language which proceed in a line. This means that the aliens already know how a sentence will end before it begins. If the language one uses in some way represents one's metaphysical commitments, there are a few key points one can draw from these differences between human languages and heptapod languages. These will be discussed in the next section as a starting point for understanding the metaphysics in the movie.
Equipped with the heptapod logograms, the real process of radical translation can begin. The symbols display a consistency through time, and they learn that the symbol they responded to "HUMAN" with was their own symbol for humanity. Louise begins having odd flashes of seeming "memory" with her daughter, increasing as she learns the language more and more. Some even display a kind of synchronicity with the current moment, such as when her daugher is asking her for a "more scientific" word for a compromise where both sides get something that equals out, and Louise says "if you want science, call your father." In the strategy room Ian says "non-zero sum game" to explain a deal with the heptapods, and flashing back to Louise with her daughter she also says "non-zero sum game." There are many flashes of these "memories" sprinkled throughout the movie, and the precise order is unclear to me since I have only seen it once and don't have access to the script. Many of them relate to language, where Hannah asks her mother the meaning of a word. America seems to be making better progress with the heptapods than any other nation, particularly because of Louise's extreme skill. They are seemingly able to parse the logograms mathematically in order to understand the symbols more and more through time.
In addition to the flashes of memory, Louise has an interesting dream. Ian asks her if she has been dreaming in the heptapod language. She says something like "yes, but that doesn't make me unfit for this job" and then she dreams that a heptapod is there in her room with her. It would be interesting to explore further the role of these dreams in her learning of the language; it sometimes seems to me as though my mind is much more fluid and non-constricted by the bounds of sense when I am in a dream or half awake state. This explains why it would be easier to dream in a radically different language before understanding it in a wakeful state, since in a wakeful state the radical difference between the language and your current understanding of the world may make it difficult to integrate the two into your conscious experience. Another conversation, I don't remember if this is in the dream or in real life, Ian asks her if she has heard of the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis." Of course she has, she's a linguist: it's the idea that the language you speak determines what you can think. This theory, as stated so strongly, is widely disparaged, but in the movie it seems to have some merit because of the effect learning heptapod language has -- not only on Louise's thought, but on her very perception of the world.
Her interactions with the heptapods become more and more meaningful. She begins to understand, bit by bit, that the heptapods view time quite differently from humans. In the meantime, international relations become more and more tense. In an important scene, it is said that another country received communication from the aliens saying something like "There is no time. Many will become one..." There's more, but the military personnel perceive it as a threat. Louise insists that it can be interpreted differently, but the people tasked with defense are more worried about protecting the human species than they are about anything else. They think the aliens mean that time is running out, and that the aliens are trying to get the humans to fight amongst one another until only one is left. They actually meant that time literally doesn't exist, and that humanity will become unified.
Another important revolution is that they are finally able to ask the heptapods why they are here, what do they want with the humans, and their response is translated as "Give weapon." Louise is very adament that this is not necessarily a threat, because it is common to have mistranslations between weapon and tool. She decides to go back to the craft after leaving to attempt to clear things up, but some of the military personnel have already placed a bomb inside the craft, secretly (!). This interaction was very powerful, the heptapods request Louise to come close to the glass and they connect directly, feeding her direct "memories" of her daughter again. Then, they release more ink than they ever have before, in a myriad of hundreds or thousands of symbols released quickly and forming an entire system with one another. The bomb nears 0 seconds but just before, the heptapod slams on the glass such that Louise and Ian are forced backward into the zero gravity space, the explosion goes off in the cavern, but no one is hurt.
This myriad of symbols is extremely important and the key to the next steps. Louise is increasingly understanding the language such that her very own perception of time is beginning to become more fluid. The Chinese declare war on the aliens, which is terrifying, because Louise and Ian discover that the myriad of symbols they received was only 1/12 of the "gift" the heptapods wanted to give to humanity. Each craft would receive its own "gift" and humanity needed to work together to see the bigger picture. Ian is analyzing the symbols and notices that their "symbol for time" is reiterated multiply throughout the myriad. Louise has a memory of the future where she is looking at a box of books titled "The Universal Language" by Louise Banks. It is a key for deciphering heptapod language. She says, in the present moment "I understand." This is partly the moment where her brain has rewired to see time as more fluid and observe future moments as almost as real as current moments.
In a very dramatic moment, Louise is able to have a memory of a future event. She is at a global gala, and the Chinese leader comes to speak her. He says he wanted to meet her in person, he doesn't know how it is she does what she does, but he felt he needed to see her and thank her for calling him on his personal number. I don't know your personal number, she says, and he shows her. He then says, I'll never forget what you told me, and whispers it in her ear. She calls him in the present day using the phone number from the future memory, and says the thing that he told her that she said. It translates to "War makes no winners, only widows and orphans" and it was his wife's dying words. He changes his mind about declaring war on the aliens.
The world decides to work together and share all their information and intelligences regarding alien communication. Louise steps into this "pod" where she is transported to a completely white space, along with one of the heptapods. They tell her she has been given the weapon, she needs to use it. The "weapon" they are referring to is the complete understanding of their language as well as their reality in which all times exist concurrently. She asks "who is this little girl?" Indicating that the memories she has been seeing of Hannah have actually been precognitions of a future daughter. Another important moment is when she "remembers" an interaction with her daughter, in which Hannah says her dad doesn't want to see her anymore. That's probably my fault, Louise says, I told him something he wasn't ready to hear. It has to do with a disease, about which nothing can be done. She tells Hannah about how she is unstoppable, and her art and poetry (I think?) is a gift to the world. "I am unstoppable" Hannah says, smiling. Flash back to by a car and Louise is practically collapsing, saying, "I remember why my husband left me."
Louise and Ian have developed a bond throughout this experience. They fall in love. In a moment they are hugging, and Louise can see her entire life all at once. She can see the death of her daughter, even. Even so, she decides to have a baby with Ian. They hug and there is a sort of swirl around them or a flash to being back in the house. Though all the memories of Hannah so far have been fatherless, there is another montage of memories with Hannah wherein now Ian is present. There are also images of Hannah's pictures and clay figures of Louise, Ian, and a heptapod. Since the heptapods have completed their mission of distributing their language and the gift of time to the human species, they have completed their purpose and are ready to leave. This signals an appearance of the word "Departure," and Louise's narration voice in the background tells Hannah that this is where her story begins.
So it goes.
Features of Heptapodian Written Language:
Clearly, the heptapods have both a different conception as well as perception of the nature of time. This is only the beginning of understanding the differences between the metaphysical framework of the heptapods and the humans in this world. This is not to say that there are two actual metaphysics of the reality represented in the film. Only one metaphysical framework can be an accurate representation of reality, and to the extent that multiple can be accurate, they are likely non-distinct. But before getting into just what I think the heptapods' metaphysical framework is, I will explain how it can be determined from the nature of their written language.
There are a few key components of heptapod written language differentiating it from human language, including but not limited to: non-combinatorial syntax and semantics and non-compositionality, complex symbols, circular structure, non-arbitrary symbols, and mathematicity. I will discuss what each of these differences amounts to, and then I will explain what this means for heptapodian metaphysics. This will include my theory on whether heptapodian symbols are representational, and if so, what they might represent.
1. Non-combinatorial syntax/semantics and Non-compositionality
A language is compositional when the meanings of the parts (e.g. "words") determine the meaning of the whole (e.g. "sentence"). It is often taken as a fundamentally important feature of language that enables us to produce endless amounts of sentences given a limited symbol set. Compositionality is taken by many philosophers as being crucial for explaining both the systematicity as well as productivity of not only language but also thought. The connection to thought is closely tied to the Fodorian picture which holds that thought is fundamentally language-like. Fodor proposes that the mind is a kind of symbol processor, in an attempt to explain the features of higher thought mechanistically. Symbols in a "language of thought" on his view are instantiated in the brain, and combine using rules, and this processing is the physical basis for thought. Personally, the Fodorian picture of thought has never had much sway with me. I am attracted to dynamic views on cognition, which emphasize complexity and hold that while thought is fundamentally algorithmic, these algorithms are not best understood as being rule-governed operations upon discrete symbol sets. More on this later.
For the heptapods, it seems not to be the case that the meanings of the parts determine the meaning of the whole, but rather the other way around. In order to begin radical translation, the humans do attempt to parse the symbols into meaningful parts to some degree. And this is helpful, particularly as a method of communication, but in my view on the nature of the heptapodian language, this method would not be sufficient to gain full understanding of the language. Instead, the symbol is meaningful in itself, and it is the meaning of the whole which is fundamental to the meanings of the composing parts. Part of why I think the heptapod's written language must be non-compositional is because of the way in which it is produced. It is not produced by means of discrete parts being combined, it is produced in a fluid, unified, manner with no clear boundaries. This is unlike human language which is produced by various discrete parts from "letters" to "words" to "sentences." In addition, the heptapodian symbols could in principle be broken down infinitely, because of this non-discrete nature. Humans may not have the words to understand the meanings of the infinitely small portions of heptapodian language and so the translation can not be perfect, but it is clear that every detail of the symbol matters. It was written that small changes in small portions of a symbol can change the meaning of the entire sentence.
Complexity and compositionality are closely related. For human languages, as mentioned, the meaning of a complex sentence is determined by the meaning of its constituent parts along with their structure (or, syntax). However, on my view of what it means to be complex, it's not clear that any systems with discrete, determinate parts which, given rules, sum to determine the nature of the whole system, actually count as a complex system. My view of complexity is fundamentally linked to dynamical systems and chaos theory. So, a complex system may be composed of a large or even infinite number of components which aggregate in a non-linear (dynamic) fashion. It is important to note that by "complex" I do not simply mean "complicated," which the term is often colloquially taken to mean. Instead, I mean complex in the mathematical sense, wherein a complex system is best described using chaos-theory and non-linear dynamics. Although a complex system is mathematical, it is often unpredictable from a human perspective, because of its dependence upon a large degree of possibly indeterminate parts (I sometimes like to refer to a chaotic universe as being "indeterminately deterministic"). This is why it is related to chaos theory, which holds the small changes in small parts of a system can radically change the behavior of the entire system. As mentioned above, small changes to the structure of a logogram can change the meaning of the whole in radical ways. Although complexity and non-compositionality are closely related, I thought it was important to mention both, because non-compositionality is compatible with the idea that the whole is in no way dependent upon parts. Complexity reminds us that the whole and parts are related, but this relation is not as simple as linearly combining the parts, along with their structure, according to rules, to obtain the whole.
3. Circular Structure and Nonlinear Orthography
The circular nature of logograms is one of their most important features, which I've read again and again was directly intended by the producers. What can we draw from the circular nature of logograms? As a feature of language specifically, circularity is interesting because it is unlike any human language that I know of. The circularity of the logograms was one of the key features that led me to thinking of them as non-compositional and complex, as discussed above, because the heptapods clearly are able to understand the meaning of the entire symbol all at once, producing it from both ends at a time. Circles are also metaphorical in the sense that they have no necessary beginning, end, or middle. This is key to noticing the nature of time from the perspective of the heptapods. The heptapods perceive time as a static entity, existing all at once, as opposed to the typical human perception of time as a linear progression from "past" to "future." Just as human language represents our conception of time as progression from beginnings to endings, the heptapodian language repudiates such boundaries, representing their view on the nature of reality. This will be discussed further in the next section, delving into more detail on this alternative metaphysical framework.
Circles have far reaching implications and metaphorical significance. One connection that I think is important to emphasize is the clear connection between circles and waves, illustrated in the images below. The reason I think this is important to emphasize is that if understanding the nature of a "circle" is fundamental to actual "reality," this could be comprehended with a system that instantiates wave functions. Some hold that neural oscillations and oscillatory synchrony are fundamental to understanding human cognition and consciousness, so perhaps in the metaphysics represented in "Arrival," humans can have direct connections to "reality" through this means, if space-time itself is fundamentally "circular" in some sense. Some discussion of what it would mean for space-time to be "circular" will be discussed in the next section, but it is important to flag early that there is a close connection between circles and wave functions. This is relevant to the discussion on dynamical systems, too. Dynamical systems theorists (DST) in the realm of cognitive science hold that bifurcation dynamics, neural oscillation, and synchronization are key features for human cognition.
4. Non-Arbitrary Symbols, Mathematicity, and Hierarchical Structure
Something that initially struck me as watching the film was that the aliens already had a symbol for "Louise" before meeting her. Of course, since time is no object, "before" is a largely irrelevant notion, but still, it is striking. Do the heptapods have a symbol for everything in existence? Perhaps they do, but either way, to account for this observation it seems that the nature of their symbols must be non-arbitrary. There is a fundamental connection between the symbol and that which it represents, and this connection is mathematical. The nature of this connection is not clearly understood from the human perspective because of the aforementioned complexity, however, the heptapods may have much more complex brains than we do that are able to algorithmically connect a symbol to the thing it represents in the world. This is striking because typically linguistic symbols are taken to bear an arbitrary relationship to the thing represented. This raises a clear worry on whether logograms are even rightly considered symbolic, on many accounts of what it means to be a symbol. However, intuitively, any representational entity can be considered symbolic in the sense that it stands for something in the world.
Another reason to suppose that heptapodian symbols are non-arbitrary concerns the relationship between symbols which represent natural kinds belonging in hierarchical structures. An example of a hierarchical structure in natural kind terms would be the hierarchy from life, to humanity, to Louise. Louise is necessarily a human, and a human is necessarily alive; that's the nature of a hierarchical taxonomy such as this. Notice that in English, there is no clear structural relationship between the symbols themselves, so the hierarchy only exists in our conceptions of them. For the heptapods, this hierarchical structure between natural kinds is represented in the symbol itself. Symbols, for heptapods, seem much more closely related to actual concepts than earthly linguistic words do, in their ability to represent this hierarchical structure. As mentioned above, symbols are also closely related to the thing in the world which they are meant to represent.
Representational nature of symbols:
So what is it that the heptapodian symbolic logograms represent, assuming they are indeed representational? Considering their hierarchical structure, one possible candidate is natural kinds. However, it is important to note again that not all heptapodian logograms must represent single entities, but can also represent complex thoughts. Either way, that which is represented by the logogram can be considered complex and time-independent. For natural kinds themselves have a complex metaphysical nature, particularly when considered as intentional trajectories through space-time. Since heptapods experience all time as happening "concurrently" (though language like concurrent is misleading), their symbols would not be expected to refer to static or discrete entities that exist in a moment. So, the fact that they even have a symbol for an entity like "Louise" has important implications for identity; it means she exists, perhaps, that she is an agent, continuous through her trajectory in space-time. Interestingly, heptapodian symbols bear a direct relationship not only with the things in the world they represent, but also to the thought about that thing. This is interesting because they do seem to play the role of Fregean modes of presentation (MOP's) - a term's sense may be distinct from its reference, and that sense is captured in a symbol's mode of presentation, such as "Superman" and "Clark Kent." For the heptapods, he same "thing in the world" can be represented in different ways depending on context, for example, thicker lines around the circle represent greater urgency.
In this way, the representational nature of heptapodian logograms cuts across the objective/subjective divide, perhaps by directly expressing "information." My use of the term information here bears relation to its use in the Gibsonian framework of ecological psychology. Ecological psychologists have a physical notion of information, contrary to popular philosophical opinion that information is an abstract notion. At the same time, ecological psychologists take it that information is directly accessible by perceptual systems. They think that stimuli are meaningful in themselves, because of their structure. Lawfully structured energy distributions are information, which is embedded in the environment, and at the same time is directly detectable. Detection of information is the nature of perception. On this framework it makes no sense to try to understand perception or cognition independently of the environment in which an organism is embedded and embodied. I mention this framework because it seems to fit quite well with the metaphysical framework developed in the film, and because Gibsonian "information" has the same property of cutting across the objective/subjective distinction.
As mentioned, the fundamental nature of heptapodian linguistic structure is mathematical. What do I mean by mathematical, and how does this connect to what it is the symbols can be said to represent? I take a patternist view on mathematics; for a system to be mathematical it must be patterned. This point seems quite trivial, for one can then ask, what does it mean to be patterned? (I don't think there is any good, complete theory to answer this question yet; consistent mathematical systems exist, and we can point to them as examples, but have no reason to assume mathematics is complete or that every possible consistent mathematical system already exists.) This view is related or identical to the structuralist position which holds that mathematical entities are fundamentally "structures," as opposed to the idea that fundamental mathematical objects are something more like "numbers." However, both positions typically hold that their respective mathematical entities exist as abstracta, in a realm distinct from the physical world. What it means to be abstract is to exist outside of space-time and to not play a causal role, the thought is typically that neither numbers nor structures themselves play causal roles, but their instantiations do. The ecological framework as mentioned above provides a different way to think about where mathematical entities, or structures, exist in the natural world. This position holds that patterns are themselves "physical" but are neither abstract nor concrete in the typical conception of the words. Typical uses of concreteness depend on a particlist or atomist framework of fundamental reality, a picture the ecological psychologists reject. What it is to be physical just is to be patterned, and it is these patterns that play causal roles, though repudiating the abstract/concrete distinction may require us to fundamentally change how we think of causation. So, my view of heptapodian logograms is that they are fundamentally mathematical/informational in this sense, which feeds nicely into how we can begin drawing out the metaphysics of the world represented in the movie.
Metaphysical Framework - Time, Space, Causality:
In discussing features of heptapodian language, it was difficult to avoid at least some discussion of the heptapodian conception of reality. However, here I will attempt to give my above claims more substance and explain in as much as detail as I can the metaphysical framework I think that the heptapods are committed to. Because the heptapods conception of reality is quite literally alien to the human species, this discussion is in some ways difficult to frame within the western philosophical tradition of doing metaphysics. Within western philosophy, of primary importance for elucidating a metaphysical framework is giving an account of the natures of substances, properties, and events. Interestingly, it's not clear any of these notions are going to have any direct correlates to heptapodian metaphysics. The reason hinges primarily on the way our perception differs from theirs. Namely, we perceive reality through "moments," and we experience time as a linear progression from past, to present, to future. Because of this, many human philosophers (not all) tend to intuit that what is fundamental, metaphysically, will be something that exists in a single moment, such as a subatomic particle. So, western philosophers take "substance" to be of primary importance. Substances bear properties which determine their causal powers (or are intrinsic), and "events" are the ways in which properties change through time. Events are what play causal roles - e.g. the event of "a paint can falling on my head" has the causal power to induce pain in me. A great deal of western/analytic philosophy takes place through this method of "carving up" reality into distinct parts. Our human tendency to want to explain reality in a part-wholed fashion will not be shared by the heptapods.
This is primarily because the heptapods do not directly experience the passage of time in the way that we do. They see all of time at "once" as is reiterated throughout the film and emphasized by the circular nature of their language. Human language, conversely, has the feature of being linear and flowing from beginning to end. An additional component of human language that correlates to our perception is its part-wholed nature. As discussed above, we tend to view reality as fundamentally composed of parts and expect to understand how the parts are able to sum to the whole. This is evidenced in the compositionality of our language. For heptapods, what is fundamental is not parts but wholes - this is evidenced not only by the circular shape of their logograms, but also the fact that they are produced in no particular order but from all sides at once. Since they see all of time at once, they have no reason to engage in an active "carving up" of space-time to elucidate its parts and show how these parts sum to the whole. Instead the whole universe itself is ontologically fundamental; the whole is primary to its parts (or, neither the whole nor the parts are fundamental but the unity that exists between them). This "whole" can be described as circular, though in some sense it is important to recognize the metaphorical nature of a 2D circle. Spacetime is a 4 dimensional entity, and we might think that this itself is "circular" in some important sense. Though all of spacetime is fundamental, that's not to say there simply are not parts at all; they just aren't ontologically or explanatorily primary. The smallest of parts might be thought of as points demarcating positions in spacetime, of which there are infinite because they have no size in themselves. Notice for example the following graph of the first 10,000 decimal points of pi:
If reality really does extend infinitely inward this would explain why it is preferable to think of the whole as primary to its parts. Let's follow through the dimensional analogy, since one way to think of heptapods is as of higher dimensional creatures. A point is the lowest level of analysis, with no dimensionality at all. Next, in one dimension, there is a line. Lines connect points. Lines exist in a single dimension, and so still do not have an ontological correlate that is understandable from our human perspective. Imagine a creature that exists in 1 dimension. This one dimensional creature has only length with no width or height. However, one dimensional creatures can travel in 2 dimensions without knowing it if their single dimensional line is folded circularly upon itself. Though the 1D creature can travel along this circle, it would appear to them as of a line.
Planes are two dimensional entities which connect lines and have only the dimensions of length and width. Imagine that there was a creature existing in only two dimensions, a creature having only length and width with no depth. This kind of imaginary creature can only perceive objects which also have only two dimensions. If a three dimensional creature or object were to pass through their reality, they would see it in only 2 dimensional cross-sections. It would appear out of nowhere, pass through their reality, and seem to pop out of existence. Like 1D creatures can travel in 2D without knowing it, 2D creatures can travel in 3D without knowing it by folding the 2 dimensional plane upon itself.
The third dimension is the one which we as humans are most familiar with. Our perception is of three dimensional objects with length, width, and height. Einstein preliminarily proposed that the thing that Newton called "gravitational forces" to explain distanced interactions between three dimensional objects are actually more like "bends in spacetime." Perhaps this is because Einstein was sensitive to the fact that the way in which our perception seems to be of a 3 dimensional space may not necessarily map onto the way reality is structured, and if we make the mistake of thinking that it is, we will be like the 2 dimensional flatlanders who try to explain causation in only 2 dimensions, but are fundamentally missing something such as how their 2 dimensional plane curves in on itself, which will result in inaccurate scientific explanations. Although we as humans exist in 3 dimensions of space, through our existence we travel forward through time. Though our perception is only of 3D, we can travel in 4 dimensions without feeling like we are traveling. One way to explain this is analogous to the way in which we explained 1D creatures traveling in 2D and 2D creatures traveling in 3D; we can posit that our three dimensional space folds upon itself circularly.
I think that heptapods live in the 5th dimension, though it could be the 4th. But if I am right that they live in the 5th, then we, to them, would look like the 1D creatures look like to us. We can see not only the 2 dimensional space that the 1D creature is traveling within, but also their entire trajectory through it. Similarly, heptapods can visualize the trajectory through which we as 3 dimensional creatures travel through 4 dimensional space. I call these "intentional trajectories through space-time," which I think are directly correlated to heptapodian logograms for natural kind terms (by intentional I just mean agential). Further, it is likely that heptapodian language represents hierarchical organization between natural kind terms, and this realization is key for understanding their ontology. As explained above, the logograms for the hierarchically organized natural kind terms from life, to humanity, to Louise, are structurally related. Might this map onto the way in which these ontological entities themselves are hierarchically organized on the heptapodian metaphysics? What would it even mean for ontological entities to be hierarchically organized?
Explaining this hierarchical organization is key to understanding why I think heptapods live in the 5th rather than the 4th dimension. I don't mean 5th dimension in the way it is sometimes referred to as the dimension above space-time representing "possibility" of alternative space-times. Recall that the fourth dimension includes the representation of "intentional trajectories through space-time." Also recall that to move between dimensions we can form a connection between entities in the dimension below, such as a "line" in the 1st dimension as a way of connecting between "points" in the dimension below. So, if entities in the 4th dimension are trajectories through spacetime, the 5th dimension relates and connects these trajectories in the dimension above. Since heptapods not only understand our individual trajectories through spacetime but also collective trajectories through spacetime as well as the structural relationship between them, this leads me to believe they live in at least the 5th dimension. But this is not necessarily fixed by biology, as evidenced in the way the movie is spelled out; as we will see, the future of humanity in the film involves becoming higher dimensional creatures ourselves.
I hope this discussion of dimensionality has been helpful for understanding how the metaphor of a circle is intricately important for understanding heptapodian metaphysics. So far we have discussed a few key features of their metaphysics, and before moving on I will recap. First we went over how their view of fundamentality is that wholes are ontologically and explanatorily prior to parts. The most fundamentally real "thing" on their metaphysical framework is the entire universe itself; this represents the vast interconnectedness of all things that are: spacetime can be thought of as a 4 dimensional object that is circularly folded in on itself. Since, as I mentioned, the heptapods are 5th dimensional creatures, they can see this entire circle for what it is. Unity of all things is fundamental on this metaphysical framework such that in some way everything is connected; this relates to the discussions of chaos, complexity, and non-linear dynamics as discussed in the above section.
Since unity of all things is ontologically primary, we can think of heptapodian ontological hierarchies as being prefaced upon levels of unity. The highest and most fundamental unity is the unity that exists between all things. Without an entire conception of their language, it is difficult to elucidate precisely which other kinds of unities figure into their ontological framework, but I think there is reason to believe that life, consciousness, and agency all will be ontologically "special" on their conception of reality because creatures which instantiate these properties can be thought to bear a special unity relation with each other. The hierarchy I have mentioned a few times is their hierarchy from life to humanity to Louise. Each of these natural kind terms represents a unity relation from the highest to the lowest level. Life is ontologically special because its end directed behavior plays key roles in the mathematical structure of reality. This is important to note because the "unity" relation that is had by natural kind terms is meant to be a mathematical notion.
For example, there is an intuitive level of unity had within a single agent. One conception of what this unity amounts to that fits well with the heptapodian metaphysical framework I have been working with is the idea that the unity of consciousness is explained by information integration; I have a unified consciousness because not only is it the case that I am able to detect information in my environment, but my brain is able to integrate that information to form a single experience. This fits well because information integration is often taken to be a mathematical notion that involves synchronization of neural oscillators. This synchronization is often modelled mathematically using wave functions, and as we mentioned waves and circles are intimately related making this an interesting avenue through which to explore not only the nature of fundamental reality on heptapodian framework, but the way in which this reality is accessed. Since we are 3D creatures perhaps we would experience a circular structure as a wave function because this is the way the 4 dimensional circle projects itself as a shadow in the 3 dimensional world. This is all quite speculative but I think the main points to draw from the above discussion in order to understand the way heptapods see reality is that: it is fundamentally mathematical, unity is ontologically primary, and circles are doing a great deal of explanatory and ontological work.
The above is a roundabout way of discussing the heptapods' conception that substitutes human discussions on "substance," but what of the notion of "causation?" Like substance, it is also not clear that our understanding of causation will have a clear correlate in heptapodian framework. For one thing, their universe is deterministic; it must be in order for them to see all times at once - future events, past events, and present events do not have a real distinction between them. If "future events" are equally real as "present events" (bearing in mind these words have no meaning) then it must be the case that in some sense the future has "already happened" and so is determined. This doesn't mean that causation just doesn't exist, it just means that they may have no use for the term. This can also be emphasized with respect to the discussion on interconnectedness and chaos. It makes no sense to say event A caused event B when everything has a "causal" relationship with everything else. However, the mathematical nature of fundamental reality may be their closest correlate to our conceptions of causation. If I ask of an event, "Why did this happen?" a response from the human perspective would be to say "It was caused by event X." The heptapodian response would likely be something like stating the mathematical principles that underly the generation of that event in relation to the rest of the universe. They could cite "everything," or they could simply say that things are the way they are and that's the way they need to be. Just as a circle has no beginning, an event placed on a circle has no first cause but is part of a "system." There also seems to be some emphasis on the law of lowest energy, or the path of least resistance. They seem to be committed to the idea that the universe acts in the lowest energy way possible, perhaps summing to zero based on its circular nature. This is another symbolic point to draw from the way they produce their symbols from both ends. If the universe itself instantiates this law, then everything that happens, happens of necessity. For anything to exist, everything must happen exactly the way that it does. Does the deterministic nature of their reality undermine autonomy and what it means to live a free and valuable life? I think not, though if your conception of freedom involves being able to change the structure of spacetime you may be disappointed by my response. This will be discussed in the following section.
I have mentioned the Gibsonian framework of ecological psychology already and it fits nicely here as well. This is because causation is seen as a dynamic flow rather than interactions between particles. Gibsonians reject the particlist framework and hold that "information" is of fundamental importance. Information is physical and structured, but the Gibsonians reject the idea that information is part of a "causal sequence," instead emphasizing notions of unity and resonance. Unity, resonance, and information can all be seen as mathematical notions, and are of fundamental importance for the ecological framework which is quite consonant with heptapodian metaphysics. This involves rejecting common dualisms present in metaphysics as well as philosophy of mind including: abstract/concrete, semantics/syntax, subjective/objective, mind/body, and others. The semantics/syntax distinction is rejected because mathematical structures themselves are meaningful, and their meaning isn't something in addition to the structure or because of its composing parts.
I have spelled out a notion of heptapodian metaphysics which is fundamentally mathematical, i.e. patterned. The circular nature of their symbols represents not only an alternate perception of time, because time should be understood as a dimension on par with spatial dimensions. So it is not just time that has the element of circularity, but the entire integrated universe "spacetime," where circularity is understood as metaphorical. Causation on this framework should not be understood as "causal sequences" which are fundamentally time-dependent. The analogous notion to causation on this framework is the dynamic complexity that underlies spacetime, allowing the universe itself to follow the "path of least resistance" for its existence. "Life" is ontologically special on this framework because of the ontological significance of unity relationships, which are also mathematical. This allows for a hierarchically structured ontology without the problematic notion of layered, autonomous ontological strata.
What does this all Mean? Cognition, Consciousness, Autonomy, Meaning, and Value:
The above discussions have given us some hints as to the nature of heptapodian linguistic structure as well as ontological frameworks. I argued that there is a tight connection between the metaphysical framework implicated by the heptapod's linguistic structure and the metaphysical framework underlying the ecological approach to perception. This makes sense, because the aim of the ecological approach is to integrate cognition on the entire spectrum of the nature of reality, rather than suppose that there are fundamentally different principles underlying natural systems and psychological systems. This is the goal of the Computational approach to the mind as well, however the computational approach takes the principles underlying natural systems to be mechanistic, and so attempts to explain minds mechanistically - that is, as interactions between particles. The ecological perspectives takes the principles underlying natural systems to be fundamentally mathematical and even end-directed. Perhaps we can draw lessons from the ecological framework's approach to cognition to also understand where cognition fits into the wider picture of the reality developed in "Arrival."
Unfortunately, work in ecological psychology is far from obtaining a complete picture on the nature of cognition. Interestingly, they think that studying "brains" in isolation is the wrong way to go about studying cognition; this is a way of isolating variables that aren't meant to be isolated. Brains are by nature embedded in environments, and in order to properly study cognition, we need the proper unit of analysis - this, they think, is the "organism environment system." Contrast this to the computational approach to the mind which takes cognition to be a causal sequence from input, to processing, to output. Ecologists, conversely, do not think of cognition as being "causal sequences" at all, because of how deeply interconnected brains are with the environments in which they are embedded. As I have mentioned, they emphasize the notion of "information" as being of fundamental importance, taking a stance that says that information is both "structure" and "physical" (in contrast to traditional metaphysics in philosophy which holds that structures are abstract entities). This information has causal powers which is what makes it non-abstract, but they emphasize strongly that it is not part of a causal sequence. Instead, information-pickup can be thought of as a form of the organism coming into this "unity," or, "resonance" with the information (lawfully structured energy distributions) present in the environment. So, what is the role of brains on this picture? Brains are the means by which this unity is established. Dynamical systems theory (DST) gives one mathematical possibility to explain the Gibsonian notion of resonance. Without needing to get into the details here, neural-oscillations and oscillatory synchrony provide one possible avenue for ecological psychologists to ground their notion of perception in the physical world.
There are also important possible connections one can make between the notion of "information" and consciousness. One feature of our conscious experience involves coming into unity with things out in the world, on the ecological picture. Another important feature of consciousness (which isn't emphasized by ecologists, or rather, is taken as trivial), is that it is unified. This means that I am having a single conscious experience rather than disjointed experiences of all the parts included in my conscious experience. Whether this unity is a fundamental feature of what it means to be conscious or not, there do seem to be cases in which this unity breaks down. The clearest example where the unity of consciousness seems to break down is in "split-brain" patients. Split-brain syndrome is where an individual has a severed corpus callosum, which is the primary neural connection between the left and right brain hemispheres. In experimental settings, I can show a "clock" to a patient's left-visual-field, which means the "clock-information" is sent to the right hemisphere. The patient will claim they didn't see anything (since language abilities are typically associated with the left hemisphere), but with their left hand (which is controlled by the right hemisphere) they can draw the clock. This is just one simplistic example, and the question of whether a split-brain patient has a unified experience is complex, and I can't get into it here. One plausible theory to explain the unity of consciousness is that it is established by information integration. On the ecological picture where information cuts across the subjective/objective divide, information-integration theories on the unity of consciousness have even more pull. So, for the split-brain patient, we might think that the severed corpus callosum prevents establishing full integration of all the information present in each hemisphere.
What can information-integration theories on the unity of consciousness tell us about the themes I found to be present in "Arrival?" Well, recall that my position is that the heptapods' logograms are themselves "information" in the ecological sense of the word, that is, entirely mathematical, complex, complete, and directly detectable. This view of information, mind you, tells us something important about our own human languages, which wouldn't themselves be information on this picture. Our language might instead "encode" information. This makes sense, because two people can see the same sentence and interpret it differently, have different thoughts about it, even if they fully understand the meanings of the terms. This would not happen in a language like the heptapods', if such were possible. This is because logograms directly relate to thoughts - they too, like the invariants in the environment, cut across the subjective/subjective divide. So, communication between two individuals who fully understand the logograms, would be like the communication between two human brain hemispheres, i.e. direct transfer of information. When one fully understands the meanings of the terms in a heptapodian logogram, there is no possibility of differing interpretations, because the logogram is complete. So - this would be a way for real information integration between individuals, directly analogous to the information integration that takes place within individuals. If consciousness is unified because of information integration, perhaps the more information integration, the more unity.
This means that on the metaphysics expressed in "Arrival," the unity of consciousness is not confined to the head. Indeed, it is my view that the heptapods as a species are fully unified and have a single conscious experience as a species. This is not to say there aren't also individuals, but as discussed, the whole is fundamental over the parts. This explains why the heptapods' experience includes not only the entire timeline of one heptapod's lifetime, but the entire timeline of the species of the whole. Direct communication between individuals establishes a higher order level of unity, making the species as a whole function as a single agent. This has interesting relations to functionalism in philosophy of mind, which holds that minds are at some level of analysis best characterized by their functional role. Ned Block raises the "Chinese Nation" as an objection for such a view, saying: imagine that the whole of the Chinese Nation played the functional role of brains. Each individual is connected to one another, with the same functional organization as neurons in the brain, and have the same level of communication. If functionalism is correct this would mean that the Chinese Nation as a whole has a conscious experience. If one takes this conclusion to be absurd, then that makes the story as spelled out an objection to functionalism. However, that seems to be just what has happened with the heptapods. Granted, we need to get very clear on the proper unit of analysis for "functional role." The Chinese Nation example might just seem ridiculous because it is implausible to suppose that individuals with walkie-talkies can really play the same functional role as neural circuits. However, on the picture in the movie, it seems much more plausible to suppose that logograms have the requisite mathematical nature to really play the same functional, communicational role played by the brain. If I am right, the entire heptapodian species has a unified conscious experience (a sort of "mega-consciousness") and functions as an agent.
This explains how they knew their species needed help in 3,000 years. But what sort have help may they have needed? Well, first, consider their goals coming to earth. Importantly, consider the quote "Many will become one." The heptapods envisioned that humanity would come to exist as a single unified agent in the same way the heptapodian species has. This takes time. First, it will take a great many generations for every person on earth to not only be able to use the language, but to really understand it to the extent that is necessary for it to play the role of "unification." This could even take a thousand years. Then, once everyone understands the language and sees time as it is, they will be able to use this greater degree of communication as direct information transfer to be able to unify as a single whole. Many will, quite literally, become one. Humanity becomes a literal agent and subject of experience as a species. In 3,000 years, when humanity has unified, perhaps the heptapods want to unify their species together as well. Unity between two species could be like the unity between our two brain hemispheres. Both bring something interesting and new to the table. They can function independently, but can do so much more when connected. I read, for example, that Einstein had a thicker corpus callosum than typical, which explained his ability to think out of the box and express those out of the box thoughts mathematically. I read of one individual who was born with no corpus callosum. While extremely smart and well functioning, he has an IQ of 81 and is unable to "reason his way through mathematical problems." Unity could be of fundamental importance for being able to make greater sense of things. So, perhaps it isn't that the heptapods will have some crisis in 3,000 years, but rather that they yearn to reach an even higher form of truth than they've already reached, which can only be established by increased unity. Perhaps inter-species integration forms a new form of a mega consciousness that will be even more fundamentally "real" - because remember, to the heptapods, wholes are fundamental over their parts.
This brings us to the important discussion of what this film means for "value," "meaning," and "truth." Clearly, "unity" has a high degree of importance to the heptapods. But why? Let's try to compare it to some western conceptions of what value is, in order to make better sense of it. I think the Kantian perspective may provide one link between how we might think of value and how the heptapods do. For Kant "humanity" is of fundamental importance, particularly because of our autonomous nature and for our ability to apprehend "reason." Morality for Kant is a standard of rationality, imposed by a categorical imperative. Being fully autonomous means acting in line with this imperative, and thus reason and autonomy are inextricable linked. Mathematics is clearly connected with "reason," so perhaps Kant would be amenable to a mathematical notion of value that emphasizes autonomy as well as unity. For Kant, our existence as autonomous, rational agents comes along with the imperative to also treat others as such. The heptapods would agree, but would go one step further to say that our existence as autonomous agents which are fundamentally "separate" establishes the imperative to unify into the more valuable, universal kind of agent. In fact, given the circular nature of space time and causation, one can't exist without the other. This goes along with the path of least resistance; for the very universe itself to exist, it must instantiate total energy of zero or less. The universe all coming into existence out of nowhere takes too much energy, it doesn't make sense, but if time is circular, then there must be a path of lowest energy between this metaphorical "beginning" and itself. This path will, of necessity, be followed.
Does autonomy have any place in the heptapodian metaphysical framework? Indeed, the universe is deterministic in this world, so in what sense can people be said to be autonomous or agential? I think this is an extremely important point to emphasize - what does it mean to be an agent? Agency requires end-directedness. But what is "end-directedness" in a universe with time as simply a dimension of space? If we can't interfere with the causal order, in what sense are we really free? Since I have argued the universe is fundamentally mathematical in this universe, agency must be a mathematical notion if it exists. I think agency is important for this framework and it does exist, so therefore agency must in some sense be mathematical. Being an agent will also be tightly linked to being an experiencer, involving coming into mathematical resonance with the universe itself. So agency and unity are also tightly linked - agents are things which are unified in their experience of the world as well as action in it. The highest form of agency will be the agency had by the universe as a whole. This is another interesting parallel with ecological metaphysics, which holds that the universe is end-directed based on mathematical principles. Bear with me, this is quite speculative: if time is a circle, perhaps at some point in that circle, it is necessary that all exists as one. That the illusion of separateness fades away and the only agency that exists is the agency (unity) of the entire universe. This would occur both the beginning and the end of time, which are non-distinct.
But by losing the "individual" agency, do we lose some sense of "value?" Well note that nothing is lost, all exists at once. However, even if time were a straight line progressing from least to greatest unity I think a case could be made that there is more "freedom" in the latter case than the former. What is freedom? Is freedom being able to change the structure of spacetime, being able to act-against the end-directedness of the universe? I think not. I think, real freedom, real value (in this world) would come from understanding the way things are and the way things need to be without wanting to change them. A lot of people, I have seen, say that Louise loses some sense of freedom when she is able to see all of her life at once. I think it's the opposite. First because nothing in metaphysics has actually changed, if the universe is deterministic then the future is already "set" whether or not you can see it. However, she has lost the illusion of freedom. She has lost the feeling that she is able by her actions to change the course of the future. Might this illusion itself have some value? I think it does, actually, but only the value in that it must be had in the first place in order to be genuinely understood to be meaningless. Once one understands the structure of time and the nature of the universe, the "end-directedness" of the universe comes into parallel with your own individual "end-directed" nature. That is true freedom. Ultimate freedom isn't changing the way things are as they are, it is understanding how they are and not wanting to change them. This could be one way to draw out the symbolism of Louise's decision to have the baby despite knowing about her untimely demise. An understanding of ultimate freedom coming along with greater unity would mean that love takes priority, even when it causes great pain. You can't fully understand heptapodian language, perhaps, without accepting this fact, such that it would not have been possible for her to "change the future." The same understanding that comes with seeing all of time at once also comes with the understanding that it cannot nor should not be changed - which is perhaps a higher form of freedom than thinking that it can.
This brings us back to our discussion of Kant. Recall that for Kant, acting autonomously is acting in accord with reason. But wait -- wouldn't we be more free if we weren't bound by the constraints of reason? However, the idea here is that real autonomy isn't just "doing whatever you want." If our desires do not accord with reason, it is the desire that is constrictive, not the rationality. So too with mathematics. Fully understanding the mathematical nature of reality enables Louise to know that her daughter will die and at the same time be unable to change it. Does this inability constrict her freedom? No, I argue, because the greater knowledge that she is engendered with comes along, necessarily, with an understanding of why things must be this way. So the constrictive desire, to change things that cannot be changed, will not even arise for her. This "lining up" of one's agency with reason has direct parallels with the Kantian picture of autonomy.
This is also somewhat related to the thought that circular time instantiates something like Nietzsche's "doctrine of eternal recurrence." You see your whole life all at once and all the things you do, you do infinity many times. But that doesn't mean you can change them, since all of time already exists. This might be a worry to you, but I don't think it is, because there's still something special, ontologically, about agential involvement in the cosmos. We are the ones who are intelligent/rational and able to make sense of it and I don't know what more you would want. And in "Arrival," that understanding imbues us with acceptance of all that is, being as it must be.
What is the nature of value? Is there value in a mathematical universe? Is the deterministic, mathematical nature of the universe irreconcilable with it being meaningful? I think meaning is prefaced upon agency and subjectivity. Agency and subjectivity are themselves mathematical in "Arrival." It would be a mistake to assume they are necessarily distinct. Unity can be mathematical and still have the deep sense of value and "truth" that it has.
This all seems to have some religious undertones. There is the Hindu idea of the "Atman," the fundamental mega-consciousness from which we all arise. There is the Christian notion of "God" granting humans free will - can we make sense of that on this picture? Well perhaps as mentioned above, this has to do with the illusion of separateness and the illusion of free will. Trying to fit Christian metaphysics into "Arrival" frameworks we might say that "God" is the fundamental unity and agency of the whole universe discussed above. For unity to have any value at all it must be in contrast to separateness. This "God" would make this decision, and allow itself to segment, knowing the suffering and immorality that would ensue. God giving us free will wouldn't mean that God wasn't able to see all that would ever happen. It just means that God would be able to watch all of that, knowing that it was needed for us to reach maturity as spiritual-physical beings. The development of the ego (symbolism of eating the apple) is required in order for the ego to fall away. It all forms part of an entire system. Why does God let bad things happen to good people? God on this picture wouldn't have the omnipotence she is sometimes taken to require, so all things just are as they are and that's the way they are required to be; necessity is far more constricted than we typically take it to be. Change one thing, change everything. (Unless there really are infinite possibilities, all arising from the same ultimate mega-consciousness. Maybe this is one dimension higher, and this issue isn't addressed in the movie so I'll leave it alone. It would be an interesting alternate interpretation, though, to take this into the multiverse.)
I would also like to mention here the significance of the mother-daughter relationship. Talking to a friend, a logician, they said they had one gripe about the movie which was its emphasis on Louise and Hannah's relationship and Hannah's death, as this took away from the technical and mathematical details of the language. They thought it was just more of a "Hollywood" tactic which ended up making the movie lose a small amount of technical credibility. I think this is a fundamental mistake when you consider the picture I have been giving for the metaphysics of the film. The picture of what has "value" in the film is unity -- connectedness. This is not in tension with their emphasis on mathematics, in fact, it shows that they are one. Reason and mathematics are not in opposition to emotion and connections between persons - if you think they are, you will be missing something of fundamental importance. I think the dichotomy of reason and emotion and the mathematical devaluation of stereotypically feminine traits is a great tragedy not only because of the harm it causes, but it is also an insult to Reason itself, which is actually inseparable from... can I say it, Love? Perhaps unity would be a better word as I have been emphasizing that notion. The connection between a woman and her daughter is one of the strongest connections that I know of in the universe. The heptapods could see this; since their conscious awareness is not bound by time, their perception of Louise was inextricably linked to her connection with her daughter. Louise's love for her daughter existed inside of her before she even knew her daughter existed - it was the heptapod's "window- in" for helping her to understand. They snaked their way into her consciousness through this time-independence of love. This is a theme in Interstellar as well, and I have also heard it as an insult to that film how it emphasizes the way in which Love transcends space and time. I think laughing at this or saying that it takes away from the technical and physical details of the film is, again, a mistake. It's fundamentally connected with them. Love is clearly "meaningful" but that doesn't mean it is not mathematical or physical. It can be the concept by which to bridge the gap we seem to think exists between mathematics and real meaning or value. Emphasizing the importance of love, rather than subtracting from the technical and mathematical details of the film, adds to them, and connects them to what it is that really matters. The western ideal of radical individualism, the stark dichotomy between reason and emotion, and the devaluation of stereotypically feminine traits may be taking us further from real truth rather than closer.
I have discussed the movie "Arrival" and how it can relate to basically every philosophical issue that exists. More specifically, I went over features that I think are present in the heptapodian language, including not only circularity but also complexity and non-compositionality. These features help to give an idea of the metaphysical framework under which heptapods think, which I likened to the ecological approach to perception because I took use of their notion of "information." This makes sense, because for a species that sees all of time at once, cognition could not consist in a causal sequence from past to future - instead, it would involve coming into unity with spatiotemporal information, and heptapods come into unity with a "higher-order" level of information than humans do (at least until they learn the language). The most important parts of the heptapodian metaphysical framework are that it emphasizes unity and is fundamentally mathematical, following the path of least resistance in a circular way. I then went over what all of this can tell us about what matters - are we autonomous? Does life have meaning? I argued that the mathematical structure does not remove the notion of autonomy from existence, but rather requires us to take on a mathematical conception of autonomy. I argued that of fundamental importance on the heptapodian framework is unification, and perhaps they envision a future (and past) in which the whole universe exists in a fundamental unity as a single "agent." For anything at all to exist on this framework, things must be the way they are, because the universe, of necessity, follows the law of lowest energy. But, as I discussed, this doesn't preclude there from being real "value." Value could come from mathematical notions of unity, involving connecting with other agents as well as connecting with the universe itself in the form of understanding.
I will admit that I have taken quite a few liberties in my analysis of the heptapodian linguistic structure, metaphysical framework, and conceptions of value. A movie can only provide so much information, so I am sure there are various alternate interpretations one could give. I have given a picture but don't doubt that there would be other interesting pictures one could draw out from this movie, some of which may be incompatible with what I have said. Though this ended up being quite long, I still felt I could give only cursory discussions of the things I wanted to address; like I said, I think there are resources here to answer almost every issue in philosophy. This is why I enjoyed the film so much; I think that heptapodian linguistics is a completed mathematics, physics, and philosophy all in one. However because my discussions ended up being quite cursory, please feel free to reach out for discussion on any and all of these issues.
Does any of this relate to issues in the actual world rather than just in the movie? I will be silent on that regard, for now.