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.
Arrival. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Perf. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. 2016. Web.
Chiang, Ted. Story of Your Life. Tor Books, 1998. Web.
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