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Hast Thou Considered the Heptapod?

December 30, 2016

"Arrival stars Amy Adams as a linguist named Louise Banks who is tasked with learning how to speak to the aliens who have arrived in monolithic ships all over the earth. Her military handlers, suspicious of the extraterrestrials’ intentions, want her to do this without teaching them English. Adams convincingly plays a gifted scholar who is in over her head, until she starts seeing the world from the aliens’ viewpoint and gets glimpses beyond the limits of human consciousness.

 

Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” serves as the inspiration for the film. Chiang describes the aliens as oddly shaped but relatively unimpressive, “heptapods” that each look like “a barrel suspended at the intersection of seven limbs.” It is only when Louise immerses herself in the written language of the heptapods (Heptapod B) that she gets the sense of contact, not simply with something foreign but with something transcendent.

 

The film, by contrast, offers us immediately numinous aliens. These heptapods, while still seven-limbed, are towering shapes that emerge out of enshrouding mist. They exude ink from their limbs to write on the air. Louise encounters them first through a glass, darkly, and then, in a climactic scene, face-to-face.

 

Story and film both have Louise become a kind of prophet as she learns more and more Heptapod B. (Those afraid of spoilers, beware.) The aliens have a wholly different understanding of time than we humans—to them, cause-and-effect are ephemeral. It is the end or purpose of an event that ripples back in time to explain it. They write the complex symbols (“almost like mandalas”) of their language without caring where they start. The aspects of physics that are strangest for human scientists(because they describe light’s behavior as goal-oriented) are most intuitive for the aliens. In short, the aliens are teleological beings, and they do not experience time linearly—instead, they have “a simultaneous mode of awareness.” Louise, in learning their language, also gains glimpses outside of time, as the life of a daughter she doesn’t yet have floods into her mind like memories of the future.

 

Here arises the question of free will. Does the aliens’ seemingly perfect knowledge of future events mean that they do not make decisions? Chiang’s Louise, with her taste of future knowledge, speculates, “What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?” So perhaps a teleological being is an unfree one, bound not by chains but by a sense of the rightness of the future.

 

Christians believe the world is teleological, as the heptapods do. But we encounter the world, as all humans do, as a chronological series of events that cause future events. How can we read these heptapods within our cosmology?"

 

Read the whole piece at First Things

 

 

 

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