Monday, June 14

Rivals To “Arrival”


If you have not yet seen the science-fiction movie Arrival, stop reading right now, and run – don’t walk – to the nearest theater where it is being shown. SPOILER ALERT:  if you intend to see Arrival, read no farther than this first paragraph. Be assured that the movie is far more provocative than the following comments, which do not profess to do it justice. Specifically, Arrival (1) harks back almost 1500 years to a text, The Consolation of Philosophy, by the early-Christian philosopher Boethius; and (2) at the same time leverages some of the implications of the quantum “measurement problem”:  the relationship between (what we once were pleased to call) “objective” reality and the consciousness of the observer. A lot has been written about both the latter, but Arrival’s twist is to relate both to the nature of language via a kind of rim-shot glance at postmodernist appraisals of of language as the medium for the articulation of a “social” conception of reality. Yet in a surprising kind of way, Arrival’s meditations were anticipated by roughly 1500 years by ancient speculation on the nature of God’s consciousness and existence of human free will.

Boethius was Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, a scion of a patrician family that flourished during the late Roman Empire, who was born around 480 BC, though the year is not certain, and who rose through the ranks of the late-Roman / post-Empire civil-service bureaucracy under Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great.  His reputation at court was destroyed by a – quite possibly fictitious or at least exaggerated – charge of treason, for which Boethius ended up imprisoned around 520 CE, and eventually executed in 524 CE. During the time of his imprisonment, he wrote the text for which he is most often remembered today:  The Consolation of Philosophy, which is written as a conversation on virtue and evil between Boethius and Lady Philosophy.  I have read Boethius’ Consolation several times, and found it to be simultaneously entertaining, incisive – and frustratingly meandering.

boethiusConsolation seems to attain a very sharp focus, however, when Boethius, late in the book, considers the specific issue of whether human beings are possessed of free moral choice.  His answer to this perennial question is interesting … and oddly consistent with contemporary issues in the “measurement problem” of quantum theory – and consistent in a way that Arrival so provocatively reprises. Boethius’ answer to the question of whether humans have moral freedom is, basically, “Well … it all depends”.  What the answer depends on is one’s point of view.  From a human standpoint, no, he says, human action in the world is pretty much exhaustively predetermined:  we are each as thoroughly programmed by causality as the cyborgs in the Terminator movies – again, from a finite, human standpoint.  But the "other-hand" half of  “it all depends” is, not surprisingly for Boethius the Christian and neo-Platonist, God’s standpoint.  For human beings and God have radically different perspectives on time.  Human beings perceive time as separate, discrete events occurring at separate, discrete times:  “just one damn thing after another”.  God’s view of time is of time as an “Eternal Present” where past, present, and future all equally co-exist at once.  Human beings see the Painting of Creation one blob of pigment at a time. But God sees the entire Painting, eternally present, at once.  From humans' standpoint, human actions are predestined because human actions, being events, occur one at a time at separate moments, with each event determining its successor. But with God, the issue of whether or not human action is determined is a phony issue in the first place:  there is no causality in the Eternal Present, and so events cannot be causally determined. From God’s perspective asking whether event A "causes" event B makes as little sense as asking if one dab of pigment in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party “causes” another dab of pigment at another location on the canvas:  all paint-dabs are present together. God sees the whole Painting; we see the Painting one dab at a time.

Manuscript page of "Consolation of Philosophy"

In Arrival, the aliens – called “heptopods” (“seven feet”) because they are like huge, seven-tentacled octopi – have an essentially God-like perspective on time.  For the heptopods see what we call “past,” “present,” and “future” as co-equally present, each part being as “present” as the other two.  So the point of view of the movie moves fluidly forward and backward in time – though such a viewpoint, like that of God, renders such temporal terminology as “forward” and “backward” essentially meaningless. Furthermore, this trans-temporal perspective is a result of the heptopods’ similarly trans-temporal and highly non-linear language:  language determines reality … in fact, language just is reality. The reality that the heptopods share – the reality that the female lead in the movie learns to share by learning the heptopods’ language – is a product of their trans-temporal “grammar”. Even if the rest of us don’t, Boethius would have understood quite well.

So would the architects of quantum theory. Typically, any quantum system can assume a whole range of values, each value having a certain probability between 0 (certainly will not occur) and 1 (certainly will occur). Prior to any experiment, these state-probabilities are summarized in something called a "state vector":  an array of probabilities adding up to 1 (because something-or-other will certainly occur). Such considerations lead to the classical "Schroedinger's cat" thought experiment. A live cat is placed in a box with a sealed vial of poisonous gas adjacent to a hammer. The fall of the hammer onto the gas vial is controlled by a lump of, say, radium. A counter ticks off the decay of each radium particle. When, say, 1000 radium atoms have decayed, the hammer falls, shatters the vial, and releases the poison, which kills the cat.  The decay of the radium is a purely random process, which is predictable only statistically. When the box is opened, there is a 50-percent probability that the cat will have been killed, and 50-percent probability that the cat will still be alive. The "state vector" of the cat's status is [.50, .50]. However, when the experimenter returns to the room and opens the box, she will certainly either find the cat dead or alive. Then we say the "state vector collapses".

But now suppose there are two observers, not just one, and that they look into the box at different times.  (Of course, expressions like "different times" and "the same time" become technically problematical when you factor in relativity theory. But let's assume that the frames of reference in which the observers, A and B, make their respective choices are moving non-relativistically with respect to each other ... GAWD!) Observer A looks into the box and sees the cat in state X (dead or alive), but observer B does not look into the box until an hour later. Or a day later. Or a week later. (Let's suppose there is ample cat food and water inside the box, also.) Now ask yourself:  is the cat really dead or is the cat really alive? As long as you are Observer B, the only answer you can give is "It all depends". You have no way of knowing whether the hammer fell, releasing the gas and poisoning the cat. You are still stuck with the un-collapsed state vector (technically the "quantum superposition"). For you as Observer B, "The cat is dead" and "The cat is alive" are both equally likely results.

Now, there are physicists and philosophers of science who are "hidden variables" theorists. Albert Einstein was one such. "Hidden variables" theorists argue that the Schroedinger's cat experiment only appears paradoxical because there are "hidden variables," missing from current quantum theory, that, if taken into account, would determine whether Schroedinger's cat was dead or alive. (Ever since something called Bell's Theorem began to be verified in laboratory experiments in the 1970s and 80s, "hidden variables" interpretations of quantum theory have been somewhat discredited. But there are still physicists and philosophers who still staff the barricades.) So, "hidden variables" theorists argue, if conventional quantum theory could be augmented with an account of these "hidden variables," the outcome of the Schroedinger's cat experiment could be predicted as rigorously as astronomers predict solar eclipses and the orbit of the moon today.


So what I find interesting about the movie Arrival is that, evidently, the heptopods have discovered those hidden variables and are able to foresee the future exhaustively, with no resort to statistical uncertainty and least of all to any notions of "quantum superpositions" of various alternatives.  (The movie does implicitly leave open the possibility of "alternative universes" and various "relative state" quantum theories. But fa'Chrissakes let's not go there right now, OK?) What happened with the child of Drs. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) actually did happen. There was no "state vector" that needed to collapse. What happened happened. At least, that is one interpretation of the narrative arc of Arrival. Alternatively -- as it were -- you can say that the events that transpired in the movie were merely one possible outcome, and that what the movie recounts is merely one potential outcome among many that became evident, once the heptopods opened whatever Cosmic "Schroedinger Box" contained the events of the movie.  Certainly, with Boethius, there was one and only one possible story:  the story God was aware of all along, and which brooks no ambiguity, least of all quantum. Quantum theory, 1400 years post-Boethius, opens us up to other possibilities:  the possibility that, contra Einstein, God really does "play dice".

So which do you pick:  "hidden variables" or conventional, incorrigibly statistical quantum theory? That is the question Arrival poses. I dunno ... you pick.

And which interpretation of Arrival do you like? Have the heptopods discovered the "hidden variables" and therefore a fully deterministic, even quasi-Newtonian quantum theory? Or have they merely opened Door No. 1 instead of Door No. 2?

I dunno ... you pick. But I do find it fascinating that two texts / conceptions, separated by 1500 years, emerge as rivals to Arrival.

James R. Cowles

Image credits
Boethius ... Author unknown ... Public domain
MS page of "Consolations" ... Gregorious of Genoa, 1385 ... Public domain
Schroedinger's cat ... Martin Bahmann ... GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
State vector ... Maschen ...  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

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