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A Short Rumination on Time in Arrival

In one of the last scenes of the movie Arrival (2016), the viewer realizes that everything intentionally presented and inevitably perceived as reminiscences is actually taking place in the future, meaning that the presumed flashbacks were, in fact, "flashforwards." By "cracking" the aliens' written language made up of sophisticated circular signs, the main protagonist, professor of linguistics Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), is endowed with the ability to see the future, thus obliterating the seeming insurmountability of temporal and spatial constraints. In one of the most gripping sequences, Louise is able to call a Chinese general and stop a world war because he shows her his private phone and whispers his dying wife's last words in her ear at a future UN event, so she could use this information in the present to call him and convince him to halt a nuclear cataclysm. In the emotional resolution of the film, she decides to start a romantic relationship with the theoretical physicist with whom she was paired to establish communication with the aliens, even though she knows he would leave her as soon as he finds out she had concealed from him her awareness that their daughter will die from an incurable disease as a teenager.

The average movie-goer, turned irreversibly cynical by the abundance of miscellaneous aliens, "arrivals," pseudo science and cheap romance, is bound to recognize here the singularity of the creative interpretation and particularity of the philosophical approach to this frequently used theme. The universal cord that is struck is not the triumph of love over hate, peace over war, reason over rashness. It is the pervasiveness and seductive mystery of the concept we simply call time.

It is significant that the other expert the government chooses for the effort to establish communication with the aliens is a theoretical physicist named Ian (played by Jeremy Renner). This choice, first of all, shows the sacred position to which humanity has elevated natural sciences in an attempt to understand the world around us. The second noteworthy meaning of this choice is the fact that quantum physics is precisely the scientific field that has made a discovery related to time hitherto professed only by mystics. The 1999 test entitled "The Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser Experiment" shows not only that the nature of a photon passing through a double slit depends solely on whether someone is observing it or not, but also that its properties -- whether it behaves as a wave or a particle -- reach back in time to the point when the photon first appeared or the moment when it was launched. What this means is that, in addition to the fact that objects and events can change depending on if or who is observing them, this transformation is not limited to the here and now. 

It is immediately clear that the consequences of this experiment do more than answer the perennial philosophical thought experiment whether the tree that falls in a forest makes a sound when there is no one to hear it. For the makers of the documentary film The Simulation Hypothesis (2015), for example, it proves that reality is an illusions and humans are unaware of being controlled and manipulated. Doubtlessly inspired by Matrix, The Truman Show and some other popular, thought-provoking sci-fi creation, they place the film about the experiment into a philosophical frame that attempts to explains the reverberation this discovery should have on our perception of humans and the world. The conclusion is that Platonic idealism wins over the materialism instigated by Democritus. But then again, the verdict largely depends on our previous convictions or the "cultural niche" in which we were raised and educated. Whatever the terminology of the metaphysical interpretations and the vocabulary of epistemological conjectures which inevitably followed, this discovery has to yield an agreement that the old maxim "God transcends time" ought to be taken at least a little more seriously.

Even though Ian discovers an important part of the puzzle related to time, he cannot understand Louise's decision to choose the ultimate pain of loss and loneliness, albeit preceded by temporary emotional fulfillment and passion. When physicists try to make sense of the law-shattering, ostensibly irrational breakthroughs in quantum mechanics, they just call them counterintuitive. Louise knows, or feels, there is something more profound in the aliens' rounded symbols. She is initiated into the world of timelessness unrestrained by linearity not because she is a perceptive expert on communication, but because she courageously follows her intuition.

Svetozar Postic

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