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Locke’s Personal Identity and the Nonlinear Timeline in the Movie Arrival
“We are so Bound by Time; By its Order.”
Since the dawn of human civilization, time has restrained us, granting us a beginning we call birth, and an end we call death. Time is linear, like an arrow – once released from the taut bowstring, it hurtles through existence, flying until it hits death. However, in the movie Arrival, an interesting concept was introduced, suggesting that humans perceive time as a linear entity merely because of the limitations human language poses. Thus by learning the language of Heptapods, the aliens in the movie, a new way of thinking is introduced that gives humans the ability to perceive time not like a line, but a dot, where all moments of one's life are presented as the “now.”
This notion of a nonlinear timeline is an intriguing concept because it presents us with an alternative way of thinking about the present, past, future, and what it would be like to live outside the boundaries set by a linear timeline. It also raises questions regarding the essence of our consciousness. Without a linear timeline, one’s perception of the past, present and future start to blur; since all time is presented as the “now”, there is no order of events under the concept of time, and therefore cause and effect would be a mere illusion. This is illustrated when I partake in the mundane action of turning on the television; it is not that I first press the remote and this action lights up the television screen, it is that I pressed the remote, and it just so happens the screen lit, and to me, these two events all happened in the “now.” Not having a clear distinction between past and future events raises more issues. Memory, one of the most important components of our consciousness, implies a past. One can only remember what has already happened and what one has perceived before the “present”. This implication of past actions suggests that if one is able to perceive all time as “now”, they will not be able to form any new memories. This raises significant challenges, most notably, the problem of personal identity. This essay explores the implications of perceiving time nonlinearly on personal identity, drawing upon the philosophical views of John Locke while taking into account the influence of language on our perception of reality.
“Memory is a Strange Thing.”
Philosopher John Locke held the belief that personal identity is preserved in the continuity of one’s consciousness, which depends heavily on memory. He states that “For as far as any intelligent being can repeat the idea of any past action with the same consciousness it had of it at first, and with the same consciousness it has of any present action; so far it is the same personal self.”(Locke, 303) This suggests that memory plays the role of collecting one’s past actions and connecting them with the present self, therefore preserving one’s personal identity over time. John Locke also makes the distinction between being the same man, the same person, and the same substance. He states that a man consists of only the living body organized in a specific way that identifies it as the same man “Whoever should see a creature of his own shape or make…would call him still a man.”(Locke, 300) A person is a more complex definition than a man. John Locke highlights that a person “is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself” and “it being impossible for anyone to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.”(Locke, 302) This definition of person is what John Locke believed our personal identities were meant to preserve. He acknowledges that our consciousness is often interrupted by forgetfulness, sleep, etc. However, he doesn’t think this takes away our confidence in our personal identity over time, instead, it raises doubts regarding whether one remains the same substance or not. Locke states that “our consciousness being interrupted, and we losing the sight of our past selves, doubts are raised whether we are the same thinking thing, i.e. the same substance or no. Which, however reasonable or unreasonable, concerns not personal identity at all.”(Locke, 303) Thereupon, for John Locke, the essence of personal identity lies heavily in memory/continuity of consciousness, but forgetting what one ate yesterday for breakfast does not take away their identity.
“Language is the Foundation of Civilization.”
In Arrival, the language of the Heptapods is the key to opening the door of a nonlinear timeline. This leaves us room for interpreting how timeline perception works with respect to different languages. Language is humans’ most efficient tool for representing our thinking, and language to a large extent influences one’s way of thinking. According to the Sapir-Whorf Theory, language is an agreement among communities that prescribes meaning and significance using a specific pattern, and “we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification which the agreement decrees.”(Whorf, 272) Once one learns a foreign language completely, in some sense it reforms one’s way of thinking. One is integrated into that society and is able to wire their brain in that special way. However, one can only speak one language at a time. Take me as an example — I am a fluent speaker of both English and Mandarin, but my logic in speaking Mandarin is quite different from when I’m speaking English. My tone, word choice, and length of sentences all become subject to change. Thus, I believe that the human brain has a mechanism that switches us into a different mindset when speaking different languages. This switch is essential when discussing the effects of different languages on human perception.
“Louise Sees Future”
In Arrival, we follow the story of Louise Banks, a linguist who was enlisted by the military to communicate with the newly arrived Heptopods. As a cross-cultural exchange between humans and Heptapods takes place, Louise plays the most crucial role in deciphering the Heptopods’ language and figuring out their purpose on earth. During the process of teaching Heptapods and learning their language, Louise discovered that learning the Heptapod language would allow humans to perceive time in a nonlinear way, and she was able to use this special language to save the earth by perceiving the future. As the first human to learn the Heptapods’ language, Louise portrays a fascinating clash between two completely different ways of perceiving time and thinking, which may redefine concepts we humans have taken for granted such as perception, memory, thinking, cause and effect, past, present, and future.
Perception is the action of the present. We can never perceive what is in the past or the future. Perception is the image, sound, smell and feeling that is being experienced through our senses at that one moment. In a linear timeline, perception is constantly changing, from one moment to the next. Our consciousness extracts simple ideas from what we perceive, which are reflected to form complex ideas or thoughts, then these ideas are combined to form impressions of that particular perception, which we call memory. However, once one learns the Heptapods’ language, they start to see all of time as the present. In other words, all perception happens at once, and all moments of one’s life are being perceived at once. There is no order in these perceptions, no matter what is being perceived – the first beam of sunlight after birth, or the last sight of moonlight before death – it all happens now. In the movie, we see scenes of this happening, especially when Louise meets General Shang in the future. Louise has no idea what General Shang meant when he said “You did something remarkable”(Heisserer, 110) nor when he mentioned his private number. This is evidence that Louise is truly experiencing the future as the present – present Louise’s consciousness in future Louise’s body – instead of merely seeing what happened in the future, because she would have answered General Shang’s questions correctly if her consciousness was one that has already experienced the past.
With this being said, it seems like once one grasps the language of Heptapods, one can never forget, because forgetting is an action that presupposes a past – one can only forget what happened in the past. If one is able to perceive all time as now, it seems that no past would exist for that person, only the present. The only thing lost in forgetting is memory, but if no memory exists in the first place, there will not be anything to forget. It would be absurd to think one can forget anything because all moments of their life are being constantly perceived. Moreover, this conclusion seems to also apply to memory. Memory is also a concept that presupposes a past - one can only form memories about events that happened in the past.
This notion of forgetting and memory raises a clear contradiction in personal identity according to John Locke. On one hand, one can always revisit moments in the “past” and never forget these moments since all past and future moments are being constantly perceived as “now”. This is largely in agreement with what John Locke believes one should be able to do if their personal identity is preserved. On the other hand, memory, a critical component for personal identity, is non-existent – “as far as any intelligent being can repeat the idea of any past action with the same consciousness it had of it at first”(Locke, 303) – what happens if there is not even a past for our memory to go back to? John Locke’s theory would not apply at this point.
This contradiction is further intensified if we bring thinking and reflection into the picture. Reflection and thinking are our consciousness’s action after the perception; it creates first impressions we call memory and then complex ideas we call thinking. For example, seeing a tree outside my window is the result of perception, questions such as why is the tree there is the result of my reflection on the perception of the tree, and my image/impression of the tree ten minutes later is memory. However, it is evident that both reflection and thinking are actions of the future; they are what happens after the perception, and this “after” implies an order of time, which is non-existent if all of time is present. Thus, to perceive all time as now, one must give up the ability to forget, the ability to form memory, and the ability to think and reflect. This is detrimental because John Locke defines a person as a “thinking intelligent being.”(Locke, 302) If there is no thinking, there is not even a personal identity to preserve.
This conclusion means that Louise Banks, once she learns the Heptapod language, won’t even have a personal identity. However, we see in the movie that Louise is still able to think and reflect, form memories of the future and recall memories of the past even after learning the language. In fact, she doesn’t even appear to be perceiving all time as “now” constantly. Toward the end of the movie, she said to Ian “I forgot how good it feels to be held by you.”(Heisserer, 115) confirming that she doesn’t always perceive all time as present. I believe the only explanation for this is that although Louise learned the Heptapods’ language, she still has the knowledge of other human languages that would allow her to experience a linear timeline. Going back to how one switches their mindset when they switch the language they use, it is the same here. For Louise, there is a present, and a “more real” present – when she is using the mindset of a Heptapod, she’s able to perceive all time as the present, but once she switches back to using a human language, she perceives a “more real” present in the linear timeline. This allows Louise to possess a continuous consciousness that would align perfectly with John Locke’s theory of personal identity, and therefore preserving her personal identity.
“Abbott is Death Process”
Louise is able to preserve her personal identity because of her knowledge of human languages. What about Heptapods? It is certain that Heptapods have a distinct personal identity, a notion of self, and even names – Abbott and Costello. They understand that they are separate individuals, yet have no knowledge of a language that distinguishes a present and a “more real” present. For Heptapods, all moments are truly the present. According to our reasoning in previous paragraphs, it is certain that if the Heptapods can only perceive all time as now, they will not be able to forget, memorize, reflect, and think. It would seem like all of their actions are not the result of thinking and reflecting, but rather of fate and destiny. To understand their personal identity, we have to adopt either John Locke’s view on the identity of man and animal or his view on the identity of God.
For man and animal, John Locke believes that their identity consists “in nothing but a participation of the same continued life, by constantly fleeting particles of matter, in succession vitally united to the same organized body.”(Locke, 299) In the case of Heptopods, this theory will work, since it is obvious that the Heptopods remained in the same body with the same organization throughout the movie. The strongest objection of this view is the switching of consciousness into different bodies. However, a “consciousness which is inseparable from thinking”(Locke, 302) won’t exist if thinking doesn’t even take place.
As for John Locke’s concern for God’s identity; he wrote that “God is without beginning, eternal, unalterable, and everywhere, and therefore concerning his identity there can be no doubt.”(Locke, 297) It is apparent that the Heptapods are not “everywhere”, nor are they omnipotent and omniscient, or else they wouldn’t need the humans' help in three thousand years, as reflected when Castello clarifies the Hepatopods’ motivations for arriving on Earth with the explanation that “Three Thousand years from this point, humanity will help us.”(Heisserer, 102) However, although Heptapods are not Gods, they perceive time similarly to the way God does – every moment as now – so maybe this implies that we can treat their personal identity over time similarly to that of Gods: there can be no doubt about its personal identity.
“There are Days that Define Your Story Beyond Your Life”
In conclusion, the concept of perceiving time as a nonlinear entity, as presented in the movie Arrival, challenges our conventional understanding of the past, present, and future. If one could grasp the language of the Heptapods and perceive all moments as the "now," the notions of memory, forgetting, and reflection would become paradoxical, disrupting one’s personal identity according to John Locke’s theory. While the movie's protagonist, Louise Banks, retains her personal identity by switching between human and Heptapod mindsets. The Heptapods themselves, without the knowledge of human languages to perceive a linear timeline, may have an existence resembling either the identity of man and animals, or resembling the attributes of God – perceiving time similarly to an eternal and unchanging entity.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Roger WoolHouse. Penguin Books. 1997.
Heisserer, Eric. Arrival. Based on Story “Story of your life” written by Ted Chiang. August 20, 2015. cinefile.biz/script/arrival.pdf
Language, Thought, and Reality:Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, MIT Press, 2012, p. 272