Math is...

something to help you dream. Dreaming is like exploring a new land with nothing but the clothes on your back. You wander the woods, rivers, hills, and beautiful as it is, you have no idea where you are, and no idea where you're going. Sometimes you come back to the same spot, and without a map or compass you are, in the end, lost. Math is the map and compass that helps you navigate the land of your dreams. As you wander, you now chart the landscape, building an atlas by which to navigate this strange land. With this, you now know where you are - where you have been, and where you want to go. And so onwards you may dream; farther, bigger, deeper.

Arrival (2016)

This 2016 film by Denis Villeneuve is a refreshing take on the alien encounter genre. Its aesthetics and soundtrack evokes a kind of calm and appreciative excitement that might come from finding oneself at a magnificent vista after a grueling hike through dense woodland. Okay, that sounds a bit cheesy, but...yeah, that's how I would describe it.

However, it is its main reveal (Spoiler warning), which had the greatest impact on me. To put it briefly, the aliens do not experience time linearly. Instead, they somehow see everything that will ever happen in their life, all at once. It's sort of like the difference between being a passenger on a train, and being a person in a helicopter above who can see the entirety of the train's track, and hence where it has been, and where it will go. This unique "bird's-eye perspective" is reflected in the aliens' language, the "sentences" (called "logograms", shown on the right) of which are not read from one end to another, but rather understood in its entirety, all at once.

"Abbott is death process."

"Abbott is death process."

The main reveal of the movie is the assumption of the "Sapir-Whorf" hypothesis, which roughly says that the language you speak influences how you think. In this case, as the protagonist Louise Banks learns the aliens' language, she begins to experience "flashbacks", which one eventually realizes are in fact visions of the future. In one of the final scenes of the movie - she asks her future husband "If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?"

I think everyone's gut reaction to the question would be "almost certainly", but of course the way she asks it implies that her answer would be negative. Indeed, later she chooses to have her child, despite knowing that the child would die at a young age to an incurable disease. The classical conundrum that arises when one considers having complete and infallible knowledge of the future, is that this would only be logically possible, if anyone possessing this knowledge does not end up acting differently because of the knowledge. At first, settings issues of "free will" aside, it would be difficult to imagine a human being who, when given access to this knowledge, would not choose to deviate at all from his path. However, after thinking about this for a while, I think I can imagine how this might happen.

As humans, we spend almost every waking moment of our lives planning for the future, or acting in order to achieve some goal. However, all of this action assumes that we are self-interested individuals, in the sense of economics. In particular, it assumes that you and I are different - that we are indeed individuals, each having a sense of "self". From a cosmic viewpoint, our identities can be defined as a sort of asymmetry in the way I see things, compared to how you see them. For one, the data I have available to me, via sight, feel, hearing, and such is never the same as what you have available to you. Indeed it might make some sense to even define an individual as the collection of sights and sounds experienced over the individual's lifetime.

Now imagine that you somehow had access not only to your experiences, but everyone's. Suppose every piece of data in the universe, past and future, is somehow available to you. Then, I claim, you would cease to become yourSelf - you cease to become an individual. Indeed, why would you compete with your friend when you could experience your friends joy when he wins the prize as if it were your own? The asymmetry is lost, and you effectively become everyone and everything at once - you become the universe. From such a cosmic perspective, what is to be gained by changing the future?