Wittgenstein once remarked that “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” Presumably this would hold true for extraterrestrial life forms, too. Part of what he meant was representing reality to one another is only one of the many things language can do; language is a set of tools for getting other people to do things within a common “form of life”. In other words language is social. But since lions – or aliens – and humans don’t share a form of life, they can’t have a shared language. This is especially true when we attempt to represent reality to each other. As Wittgenstein said in a different place, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” The structure of our language defines the parameters within which we experience the world. Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016) flips this on its head. If language shapes the way we experience reality, then learning a new language gives us a new way of experiencing reality.
In linguistics, this is known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It is probably not strictly true, at least in the way it was originally theorized. But it provides a fun sci-fi premise in Arrival. In the film Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor hired by the U.S. military to help figure out how to communicate with a fleet of mysterious alien spacecraft and to discern their purpose for visiting earth. Do they come in peace? Banks discovers that, unlike human language, the aliens’ language is based only on writing not on speech.
Since human language is a spoken, it happens in time. Every sentence has a beginning, middle, and end, and the meaning of the sentence is determined by the temporal order in which the words are spoken. But the alien language in Arrival is independent of time. It can be read both backward and forward. Sentences in the alien language are written in a circle, and must be understood all at once with the words existing in a kind of timeless relationship that has no beginning or end.
Given the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, as Banks learns the alien language, she begins to experience time differently. Playing cinematically with the theme of non-temporal meaning, Arrival is told in a nonlinear narrative. It opens with the death of Louise’s daughter Hannah and ends with Louise becoming pregnant with Hannah. “I used to think this was the beginning of your story,” Louise tells Hannah in the film’s opening scene. “Now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings.” Instead she believes there are just “days that define you”. Her experience with the alien language has changed her way of understanding her daughter’s life “story”.
Since human language is temporal, we experience time narratively. Our lives have a beginning, middle, and an end. Seen as a narrative, the meaning of one’s life as a whole is determined by how it ends. So when a life ends tragically we are tempted to think that this ending invalidates the meaning of that life as a whole. But learning the alien language teaches Louise how to see her life’s timeline all at once. By the end of the film Louise wonders, “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” Louise has learned to see her life in just this way. Given all the suffering you knew would experience in life, would you still want to live? Louise decides in the affirmative: “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and welcome every moment.” Life is a series of moments to be cherished, good and bad, that make you who you are.
This viewpoint is somewhat similar to Nietzsche’s idea of “amor fati” (the love of fate). A truly great person would love his life exactly as it is, not wanting anything to be different. Because if you changed anything about your life, you wouldn’t be the person you are. So truly loving yourself, affirming your life as worth living, would entail affirming every moment of your life, good and bad, because all those moments contributed to making you who you are.
The idea of fate is important here. For the plot of Arrival to work, the past present and future have to be equally real (which is in fact what Einstein’s theory of relativity assumes). Louise “remembers” her daughter’s life even though (from her perspective) it hasn’t happened yet. Likewise the aliens know that in 3000 years they will need humanity’s help, because from their perspective it is already real. But it must be equally real that humanity does in fact help them. Their visit to earth is necessary to bring about the future that has (for them) already happened.
The idea of embracing every moment also reminds me of Buddhist ideas about mindfulness. It is not an accident that each sentence in the aliens’ language is written as a single circle that resembles the ensō brush paintings that Zen Buddhists make to symbolize the peace and enlightenment that arises from experiencing the present moment. From a Zen perspective, the flow of time is an illusion, and the self that is built up out of that sense of passing time is also an illusion. But learning to see one’s life as a collection of moments allows us to be free from the suffering that comes from attachment to some of those moments and not others. Seeing the whole, we see that no one moment is more important than others and can therefore embrace every moment equally.
In the film these ideas have political implications. The film plays with the indeterminacy of language. Whereas Louise’s linguistics colleague translates the Sanskrit word for war as “an argument”, Louise argues that a better translation is “a desire for more cows”. In other words, depending on our language we can see conflict as fundamentally about ideological disagreement (a clash of civilizations) or as fundamentally about economics. It is not just language that is ambiguous; it is the nature of war that is open to interpretation. Reality itself is ambiguous.
The most important ambiguity in the film is the aliens’ answer to the question about why they have come to earth. The Chinese interpret the message as “use weapon”, whereas Louise argues a better translation is “offer tool”. She says the Chinese mistake was learning the alien language using mahjong tiles, which put everything in the context of a zero-sum game with winners and losers. This is why the military worries that the aliens want us to fight each other to the death. Louise argues that in order to tell the difference between a weapon and a tool we need a language that allows for contexts in which everyone benefits. We need a language like the aliens’ that allows us to see the world as a whole and affirm all its parts equally.