I Experience, Therefore I Am: A Case for an Evolutionary View of Self from Plato to Blade Runner to Arrival

Plato’s allegory of the cave tells the story of a group of men bound together in chains from birth, locked away from the world in a deep, dark cave. They are forced to stare at the wall of the cave and are unable to look around at each other and their surroundings. One day, one prisoner is mysteriously freed from his shackles and leaves the cave to explore the new and enchanting world of humanity. After he exits the cave, his eyes struggle to adjust to the sunlight. But, after they adjust, he discovers that there are other people in the world – free people, no less. Amazed, he returns to the cave and tells his fellow prisoners of his experience. Unsurprisingly, they do not take his information – which is ultimately a challenge of their worldview – very well. They brutally murder the man, thereby refuting his worldview and confirming that humans are shaped by their environment and are unwilling to listen to and accept new ideas and opportunities. Although the assertions about human nature made in the allegory of the cave are wholeheartedly correct, Plato’s theory of the self – which says that all parts of the soul have desires, but desire in appetitive and spirited parts is not a matter of belief about what is good and what is bad – is wholly foolish and incorrect. Instead, one should prescribe to an amalgamation of the evolutionary and dualist view of self, which says that the self develops in the brain as a result of past experience and genetic inheritance in order to differentiate self from other. It hinges on “the ability by the brain to coordinate new sensory information in light of the organism’s internal states and in the context of its personal history and genetic inheritance”.

There are a vast array of fictional pieces that ponder the self, but none are as well-done and innovative as Ridley Scott’s landmark 1982 film Blade Runner. It portrays a dystopian Earth in which a genius inventor named Edmond Tyrell has created mechanical humans called replicants. While once an exciting and innovative product, virulent hate for the new beings has begun to spread throughout Earth and its surrounding colonies. As a result, the eponymous blade runners (all of whom are hitmen) are dispatched to hunt down and destroy the newly rebellious replicant population. The replicants have no genetic experience – only artificial and implanted experience from their creator and his henchmen. Unlike humans, their lives are artificial, short in length (many of the replicants in the film have lifespans totaling only four years), and meaningless in their existence. Reflecting on and ultimately accepting his short yet fascinating life in one of cinemas great soliloquies, the films replicant antagonist Roy Batty remarks: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die”. Without context, this dialogue can be interpreted as a man reflecting on the many experiences of life and looming expiration (Batty is at the tail end of his life cycle). With context, though, this dialogue takes on an entirely different meaning. Prior to Batty uttering these famous lines, he saved his rival Rick Deckard from an untimely death. With this in mind, Batty’s speech can be interpreted as a confirmation of the existence of self and an accusation (the accusatory phrase “you people” cues the viewer into his tone) that replicants are more human than flesh and blood humans themselves. In other words, Batty advances the notion that the soul cannot be programmed; instead, the soul is obtained through experience and by living life to its fullest, no matter the length.

Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, written by Eric Heisserer, and adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story “Stories of Your Life,” illuminates how subjective time really is. Its main character, Dr. Louise Banks, is sent on a mission to decipher the language of the non-dangerous aliens dubbed Heptapods. Initially, she labors to understand the aliens exceptionally complex language but ultimately discovers that their language conveys feeling, not sound. After fully immersing herself in the foreign language of the Heptapods, her perception of time changes. Her adaption to the new language, while rooted in evolution (humans are hard-wired to adapt to new situations relatively quickly), primarily stems from her learned behavior (the language). In the short story, she describes her experience with the new language: “With this language, I can see how my mind is operating. I don’t pretend to see my own neurons firing; such claims belong to John Lilly and his LSD experiments of the sixties. What I can do is perceive the gestalts; I see the mental structures forming, interacting. I see myself thinking, and I see the equations that describe my thinking, and I see myself comprehending the equations, and I see how the equations describe their being comprehended.” It is admittedly strange to compare the experience of learning a new language to taking LSD, but the comparison is apt in this case. To Louise, learning Heptapod is like taking the mind-altering drug LSD in that it significantly changes brain chemistry; it alters how she thinks, how she perceives time, and how she lives her life. Really, it alters her view of self.

People should live life to fullest knowing full well that their time on Earth is finite and could be over before tomorrow. The title “Stories of Your Life” is vital to understanding the self and human existence: life should be made up of many stories – not just a single one – and humans should strive to live their lives to the fullest. Each individual is different, everyone – no matter skin color, age, sexual orientation, etc. – shares the common experience of being human. At our core, we are all human beings worthy of dignity, respect, and if we put a little effort into it, a decent life.

The Illusion of Free Will in a Deterministic Universe: An Analysis of ‘Arrival’

“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” is a query made by the protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), in the film Arrival which provokes complex contemplations on determinism, free will, and fate. Does the knowledge of the future render free will as just an illusion? Or does it make determinism obsolete? The film follows the linguist Louise Banks and physician Ian Donnelly after enlistment by the U.S. Army to discover and conduct communications with aliens following their landing at the Montana site. They contact the seven-limbed aliens or heptapods and discover the complex writing system of nonlinear orthography that can bridge communications. Thus, they are tasked with deciphering the language similar to other specialists in other nations where the aliens have landed too. In the process through linguistic relativity Louise becomes capable to see her timeline in a non-linear manner hence can see the future, present, and past simultaneously. In the film’s deterministic universe, however, despite Louise’s knowledge of the future attributable to the nonlinear perception of time, she still makes the same choice despite the devastating future that lies ahead. Therefore, knowledge of the future is incompatible with free-will despite the fact that one would consider her free will lies in the fact that she had a choice in the issue. Causal determinism is defined in philosophy as the notion that every deed, decision or moral choices are completely determined by a sequence of prior occurrences. In that beings follow a predetermined pattern since they cannot act otherwise than they do. In the film, the future can influence the past as much as the past influences the future. Thus, the film illustrates that despite knowledge of the future determinism is inescapable as choices are predetermined by one’s nature hence free-will is an illusion.

In the film, determinism is inevitable even in knowing the future since an individual acts according to their nature which is influenced by their past or in this case also future. Louise narrates to her daughter “Despite knowing the journey…and where it leads…I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it” (Villeneuve). In this assertion, Louise verifies that despite knowing that her daughter will die due to a terminal disease she still makes the choice to have her. Louise’s nature influenced by the course of her past life and also future makes her an individual who cannot deny her daughter life just because it will cause her pain in the future. Or forgo the love of companionship because the marriage will end in the future. The knowledge of the future brings forth a sense of responsibility or urgency to act exactly as she knew she would. Knowing how it feels to lose a daughter even before it happens is precisely why she goes through with the choice. Thus, her choice is not an exercise of free-will but more of a decision predetermined. Free-will as the idea that we have a choice in how we act and are free to choose behavior is a concept that is more of an illusion in this scenario despite seeming as the contrary. Akin to the manner in which the aliens are striving to guarantee the future they already know and see.

The deterministic endeavors of heptapods do not rely on free-will but their underlying nature to ensure their motives coincide with future purposes. From the source material of the film Story of Your Life Louise asserts “The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons” (Chiang). Alluding to the fact that the aliens’ actions are not driven by free will and also they are not following automated instructions but rather are acting according to their own nature. Their nature is to enact chronology by creating the future according to history’s purpose. They cannot deviate from the plans, as they already know the occurrences of the future and aim to continue the course of events. Even if the heptapods acted by their free will their actions have to align with the chronology thus they are influenced by the future as much as the past rendering freewill as just an illusion.

Henceforth, Louise’s newfound non-linear perception akin to the heptapods also render her choices as deterministic. She states “…I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived” (Villeneuve). Implying to the awareness that comes with the linguistic relativity, in that since the heptapods’ arrival her perception on time has exceedingly defined her life and choices. As much as her decisions prior to the arrival are deterministic in that is influenced by her nature, her subsequent decision-making is also impacted by her deterministic nature adopted from the heptapods. Therefore the inescapability of determinism even if the future is plainly laid out as Louise’s choices are ingrained in her through the power of the past and the future.

In view of that, Arrival demonstrates that determinism is an inescapable construct even while knowing the future as choices are predetermined by one’s nature thus free will is simply an illusion. Louise’s choice illustrates that an individual’s nature or character nurtured by their past or future already predetermines their choices. Hence, her future displaying that she chooses to marry and have her daughter illustrates that it is a choice she would have made with or without her knowledge of the future. Through the heptapods the film shows the overt version of the deterministic decision-making that Louise also now possesses in spite of the knowledge into the future. Her choices are not mired in the present or rather do not stem from freewill but are predetermined by webs of past and future occurrences. To answer Louise question on whether you would change your life if could see its entirety, the film demonstrates that you cannot as you only act as you do despite the impression of free will in one’s choice.

Works Cited

Arrival. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Perf. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. 2016. Web.

Chiang, Ted. Story of Your Life. Tor Books, 1998. Web.