This post has been copied over from my old blogspot blog.
I wrote this a couple weeks ago but forgot to post it. Surprise, surprise, more thoughts on "Arrival."
Here I'd like to talk about what it would actually feel like and be like to experience time in this alternate world. One thing I'm interested in is what the nature of consciousness would need to be like. I find myself imagining, for a creature that "sees all of time at once" - that they are like, on the outside, looking in at their life, seeing the whole thing play out. Is that plausible? Is there no longer an actual conscious experience associated with each particular moment?
I didn't read the book, but this quote from it is relevant:
So, it is meant to be that these differences are fundamental differences in conscious experience of the world rather than differences in the world itself. It is interesting, though, that the author intended these differences to have their root in the very first beings with "the spark of consciousness." The alternative seems possible as well; that the heptapods started with sequential consciousness, but as their physics developed they began to understand the meaninglessness of cause/effect/time. Then this enabled them to begin to theorize on that assumption which slowly caused them to change the way it was perceived. Why does it matter when the change occurred? It may have implications for the future of humanity. On my interpretation I understood it that all of humanity would be able to learn the language and change their perception of time, but perhaps not. Anyway, the purpose of this post is merely to discuss the phenomenology of time perception. Let's run through a few different possible options.
It seems that the author of the short story intended for heptapods to be illustrations of type (4) of time perception. However, it's not clear this is the same kind of time perception that was illustrated in the film. Perhaps it would just be impossible to really display simultaneous-consciousness in that medium. Or perhaps there is not a real distinction between (6) understood as in reference to (2.2), in combination with the kind of experience described in (4). That is, suppose an individual experiences time as a circle in which causation (as we conceive of it) is largely irrelevant, because everything on the "causal circle" at some level of analysis is connected to everything else. Also suppose that individual has a teleological worldview in which all things are the way they are because of their natural purpose.
I'm having a rough time after a couple interactions with Eric Heisserer, the writer of the film. It seems he intended (3), which surprised me quite a bit. Hopping? Visions? I thought it was just portrayed that way on film since a film is necessarily a sequence of frames, but I thought they were trying to bring across a non-sequential view of awareness. Why does this worry me so much? Well, if experience is "hopping" between different times -- who is it that is doing the hopping? I can make sense of and "imagine" myself hopping to a point in my future and being confused, but this doesn't fit with our current framework wherein what we think is just a function of our brain states.
In order to make it fit, I can think of two options, both of which are problematic:
I'll have to do a lot more thinking, so I apologize if this is all just messy. I'm not sure what to think after those conversations with the writer. I'll close this out with an alternate interpretation, rather than "jumping," and maybe if I make a decision between the two I'll make another post explaining it, and correcting the errors this would have for my past post on the metaphysics of the movie.
Simultaneous, Circular Mode of Awareness
Perception at a time is perception of a moment - but what is a moment? Is a moment an infinitely small amount of time - like a point in euclidean geometry, existing as a demarcation point, with no dimensions in itself? On the sequential mode of awareness, where experience exists as a stream, this is what it must be - or at least, seems to be. However, on my theory of "Arrival," we can fit all modes of awareness into a single cognitive framework. All that differs is perspective. So, what I described above as a stream of experience consisting in "moments," may not be what it seems. Instead, even this mode of awareness is actually of a circle in time. A circle is perceived all at once, which is why it is simultaneous rather than sequential. But if the circle is small enough (say, 200 microseconds), then in order to parse the physical world it would seem to make sense to represent that world as a sequential flow between "moments" which are linked together through "causes" in time.
But what if we could choose how wide our window of perception was? How would this affect how we viewed causation, time, and experience itself? Would we see links between things, that we don't see currently? Can we imagine a creature with a circular mode of awareness, that is able to zoom her perspective in and out at will? Relating to Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians - as if she is looking at a mountain range, and can choose to focus her attention on one mountain peak, or many, or one tree, or the whole range?
The heptapods have a circular, simultaneous mode of awareness as well. However, they are not bound to the 200us window of circular time that humans are. It is not clear how wide of a window of time they are able to perceive at once, but it seems to be at least 3000 years. In a sense they can "see the future," but not in the sense of being a single thing that is hopping in and out of existence at particular times. Seeing the future is just taking a different perspective, like when you view an optical illusion that can either be a wine glass or two faces. Both are correct, depending on what you focus on. They are higher dimensional creatures, but this doesn't necessarily run into the above problems of cognition, because it refutes that conscious awareness takes place through "streams." There need not be an inner eye to view one's brain states. The window of time which one views as being simultaneous will be mappable to brain function, though may require a reconception of what precisely that means. When Louise is both at the gala and making the call, there is no separate person hopping between the experiences. There is just one brain, and the events are experienced as simultaneous because there is a unity existing between each of those brain-states. Maybe we can make sense of that unity as a physical-mathematical notion, perhaps related to the synchronization of neural oscillation. Typically this is bound to time-windows that are very small, but Louise's brain learns to synchronize with events that are separated in time, the same way that the heptapods do.
So it's hard to imagine, but perhaps that's as it should be, since this kind of experience would be alien to us. Seeing all of time is the same as seeing one time (as we understand it) except with a greater understanding of purpose. It's like the relationship between looking at a single point on a piece of paper versus looking at the whole thing. It's still the same piece of paper and it is still the same point, and nothing is lost with respect to that particular point. You just see more now. And making sense of that kind of perception would involve a different framework for doing science and value-theory, especially because without a sequential mode of awareness notions like causation almost just don't make sense. And this led the heptapods to greater scientific advancement and a greater understanding of purpose.