Issues in Philosophy Arrival, Interstellar, and the Transcendence of Temporality

Arrival, Interstellar, and the Transcendence of Temporality

by Grant Maxwell


If you haven’t seen Arrival or Interstellar, I’d advise you to stop reading immediately and go watch them. What I’m about to say will spoil the surprises at the heart of both films. You’ve been warned.

Arrival and Interstellar are both about transcending temporality, one through physics and the other through language. I will suggest that these two visions of time are deeply connected and, to my mind, two of the most plausible visions of the deep nature of temporality to be found in popular culture.

Photo credit: Interstellar (2014)

In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey’s character finds himself being drawn into a black hole. When he passes the event horizon, instead of being crushed as physicists have often speculated might happen, he enters a strange realm that resembles an infinite hall of mirrors, except that the mirrors are the book-covered walls of the library in the home where he left his daughter so that he could save humanity. As he floats around this surreal space, he realizes that the apparently fractal distribution of library walls, which appears to stretch endlessly in all directions, represents the wall of books at each point in time. Once he has this realization, he starts pushing books off the shelf to communicate with his daughter, who received his communications earlier in the narrative. It appears that this place inside a black hole is a three-dimensional representation of a four-dimensional space, and that humans of the future have created this domain as a way for him to perceive the further degree of freedom that they inhabit. These future people seem to have ascended into a higher manifold so that the fourth dimension of time described in general relativity has become something like another spatial dimension available for their exploration. For these relatively transcendent beings, presumably our descendants, moving in either direction through time is as simple as moving through space is for us.

Photo credit: Arrival (2016)

In Arrival, Amy Adams plays a linguist who is called upon by the United States government to attempt to communicate with alien beings whose giant ships hover over various locations on the Earth. As she learns their language, a visual script depicted in organic, complex circular shapes, she discovers that these circular shapes are sentences combining numerous words that are read all at once, rather than linearly as is the case with human languages. By the end of the film, we come to understand that the very comprehension of this language changes her perception of time. Instead of perceiving one thing happening after another on a linear timeline, which reflects the linearity of human language, she experiences all of the moments of her life as spread out before her in a kind of trans-spatial terrain through which she can apparently travel at will, or perhaps her consciousness exists at all of this manifold’s points simultaneously, and she can shift her attention to different moments at will.

So in both of these films, a character is brought into a literally higher degree of freedom by beings who have developed the capacity to see time all at once as a new direction to be moved along intentionally rather than as a stream in which we are inexorably drawn from one moment to the next. Once these characters have entered this higher-dimensional state, which seems conceptually similar in both films though their depictions differ, both characters can still interact with people who inhabit the usual three dimensions of space and the linear, fixed dimension of time, but they see a far more expansive swath of reality than the normal humans with whom they come into contact. In the case of Interstellar, McConaughey’s character is sent back to his family no longer able to perceive the lower-dimensional projection of this higher dimension without the assistance of the transcendent future humans, while Amy Adams’ character in Arrival is permanently able to inhabit this higher degree of freedom through her acquisition of the alien language.

Setting aside the significant differences in the stories, these two cinematic depictions of what it would mean to transcend linear temporality seem to be plausible visions of where our current conceptual and technological trajectories are heading, a suggestion that I describe in more philosophical terms in my book The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View. As I write in the book’s introduction, the final chapter:

“advances the hypothesis that life has been a process of ascending through increasing orders of dimensionality, so that the simplest organisms, as the vanguard of life in their epoch, were able to perceive and move toward or away from sustenance in an essentially one-dimensional existence. Subsequently, plants and animals of increasing complexity were able to perceive and move in two and eventually three spatial dimensions. Finally, the mathematical description of time in general relativity as a fourth dimension suggests that the more complex animals who perceive temporality, particularly humans, are perhaps in the process of emerging into the consciousness of a more expansive manifold describable in dimensional terms. However, the fact that we generally appear to move through time in a static, linear progression (not a result of the current laws of physics but solely of their probabilistic interpretation), rather than possessing the full degree of freedom that we possess in the other three dimensions, may suggest that what we call time is actually a fraction of a dimension (i.e. a fractal dimension) and that the complete emergence of a new world view will consist in the coming to awareness of the fourth, temporal dimension as a full integer.

For a modern, rationalist sensibility, the suggestion that human history constitutes the process of coming to awareness of a fourth degree of freedom may seem absurd, the stuff of science fiction or of ungrounded new age speculation, not the subject of serious philosophical inquiry. However, as some of our greatest thinkers have suggested in various valences, this sense of absurdity may have more to do with the limitations of the conventional modern mentality than with the inherent implausibility of the idea itself. For a world view founded upon the premises that time is purely quantitative and linear, and that material and efficient causation are the only valid causal modes, the concretion of time would in fact be an irrational conclusion. For a world view, though, that accepts the ideas of formal causation, final causation, and exponential temporality into its conceptual lexicon, the concretion of time seems to be the most plausible scenario for the further development of process.

Plato, the father of philosophy, suggested that time is ‘a moving image of eternity,’ which taken at face value means that what we perceive as time is like a radically expanded reel of film, so that each still frame is a snapshot of the total situation of the cosmos at one particular point in a dimensional manifold that exceeds our current cognitive capacities to comprehend as a whole. Through this perceptual method, which Henri Bergson refers to as the ‘cinematographical mechanism of thought,’ we can trace the textures of temporality, the ups and downs, and the ins and outs of narrative development. For instance, the archetypal journey story, setting aside the complexities of frame narratives, flashbacks, and subplots, begins with the naïve, childhood embeddedness in home. Then some conflict intervenes that impels the protagonist to embark on the journey. Encounters take place along the way, consisting of all kinds of qualitative experiences, both tragic and revelatory, both languid and explosive, both violent and amorous, both expansive and contractive. And eventually the protagonist returns home transformed. This is one of the simplest forms of narrative, for which there are many convoluted permutations, alterations, and substitutions. But visualized from a spatial perspective, these qualitative temporal moments in the narrative trace a complex trajectory through time, which, if it could be seen at once in its entirety, would possess a definite shape and extension, like the lower-dimensional analogue of a three-dimensional object perceived by the denizens of a two-dimensional world. The narrative construction of time, the tracing of the qualities of temporality, is apparently a means of mapping time’s contours.

Although a number of thinkers have articulated the recognition that being constitutes a process of ascending into ever more expansive degrees of dimensionality, Jean Gebser is perhaps the theorist who has most comprehensively elaborated this idea in its details in his 1949 book, first translated into English in 1985 as The Ever-Present Origin. In this work, through a voluminous and erudite exposition of the stages of consciousness, from archaic to magic, mythical, mental, and integral, drawing on philosophy, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, anthropology, mathematics, art history, and other disciplines, Gebser demonstrates that what we experience as time constitutes the coming to consciousness of a further degree of freedom, perhaps equivalent to something like another spatial dimension, which we have constructed in our experience as temporality.

David Bohm, a physicist who worked closely with Albert Einstein, appears to corroborate this supposition from the perspective of quantum theory in his Wholeness and the Implicate Order, published in 1980. As mentioned above, it is a peculiarity of the laws of physics as they are currently understood that the equations describing the physical universe work equally well when time is reversed, and that time is only unidirectional based on probabilistic interpretations of these laws. In fact, it is this very probabilistic interpretation about which Einstein wrote in a letter to Max Born that God ‘is not playing at dice,’ by which he appears to have meant that the probabilistic interpretation of quantum theory is merely an approximation of a more encompassing theory that would reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity. These theorists and others have gestured in various valences toward what might be described as a transcendent reality intimated in premodern religious and mystical modes, though this more expansive domain would probably not be fixed and static as it was generally supposed in various religious dispensations (at least after the volatile beginnings described in the creation myths of these traditions), but enacted through the participatory process of temporal becoming.

Beginning in 1984, astrophysicist Laurent Nottale, Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, proposed the theory of scale relativity, which appears to be a viable candidate for the reconciliation of quantum theory and relativity based partially on fractal geometry, a geometry not available to Einstein, Gebser, or their contemporaries. Among many other features, scale relativity derives the result that time can be described in quantum mechanics as exhibiting a fractal dimensionality of .5, precisely one half of a full degree of freedom. Although this result requires more study, when fractally extrapolated from the microphysical scale to the scale of human consciousness, it may perhaps suggest that our experience of time can be described as precisely half a dimension. If this discovery holds up to further investigation, it would seem to indicate that the human mind in its perceptual and cognitive capacity is literally halfway between an animal and something like Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the potentially higher-order entity whose eventual ingression into temporal actuality may have been intimated over the course of human history as spirits, gods, and the like. However, regardless of whether or not this precise fractional figure proves generalizable to the human measurement, perception, or construction of temporality on all scales, it appears plausible that fractal dimensionality, an idea only four decades old as of this writing, may be increasingly understood as the most accurate description of temporality in relation to spatiality.”


Grant Maxwell’s piece was originally published on his personal blog. You can find it here.


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