Perception of an Ending

If you haven’t seen Arrival or read Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life (the book that the film was based on), and you want to see/read it without knowing what’s going to happen, please don’t read this blog post until you have!

Reading this blog will reveal the ending of the story and many major plot points if you haven’t already seen/read it.

You have been warned.

I now assume that my readers are people that have seen the film and know what I’m talking about, or people that don’t care what they know about the film. To make sure we’re all on the same page, I should say that a key idea in the film is that the way the aliens (aka heptapods) see the world is not the same as humans.

The film illustrates this through their language, as the way they write reflects the way they think: they perceive all points of time at once, and so they write in circular graphics that require them to know exactly what they want to communicate before they write it. If I remember correctly, the film relates all of this through a discussion of the aliens’ language as a linguist, Louise Banks, works to learn it.

Alongside Louise is a physicist, Ian Donnelly (called Gary Donnelly in Story of Your Life). In the film, Ian doesn’t seem to do much – the focus is purely linguistic. In Story of Your Life, however, Chiang gives Donnelly’s physics a more prominent role, that helps Banks form her understanding of the heptapods’ language and consciousness.

The point of this post is to try and relay how some of the ideas in the story have helped me explore faith-related ideas of free will and God’s words/Word, and I want to start that discussion by looking at an idea from physics that is central to Chiang’s written version, but absent from the film: Fermat’s Principle of Least Time.


This is the simplest version of a diagram illustrating Fermat’s Principle that I could find. You can ignore most of it. What you need are points A and B, the red line, and the distinction between medium 1 (for our purposes, air) and medium 2 (water). The red line indicates the path light takes to get from point A to point B. The angle at which the light travels changes when it moves from air to water, because the the different medium refracts the light.

That’s a causal explanation of the path of light: it changes direction because the properties of the media change. According to Fermat’s Principle, however, light takes that path because it is the shortest route from A to B.

I’ll use some quotes from the book to demonstrate the significance of this further*:

“‘While the common formulation of physical laws is causal, a variational principle like Fermat’s is purposeful, almost teleological […] The light can’t start travelling in any old direction and make course corrections later on, because the path resulting from such behaviour wouldn’t be the fastest possible one.’” (Gary Donnelly, Story of Your Life, p. 148-149).

“Each physical event was an occurrence that could be parsed in two ways, one causal and the other teleological, both valid.” (Louise Banks, p. 159)

It’s this understanding of the physical universe – that it can be interpreted both causally and teleologically – that leads Banks to understanding how the language and perception of the heptapods is fundamentally different from that of humans. While we see the world causally, as a series of events along a linear timeline, heptapods see the world teleologically.

Telos is a Greek word meaning aim or purpose. The fact that the heptapods see the universe teleologically means that they perceive all points of time at once, seeing how events that we perceive as causal work to enact history’s purposes.

This revelation leads Banks to consider notions that are normally seen as intrinsic to consciousness and human thought.

“The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts […] their actions coincide with history’s events [and] their motives coincide with history’s purposes.They act to create the future, to enact chronology.” (p. 163)

This idea, of enacting a known history, is seen as similar to the human notion of performative language, language like, ‘you’re under arrest’, that creates a new state by virtue of being spoken.

“For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize.” (p. 164)

This is a rather winding route to the consideration of the difference between the perception of humans and God. The Bible makes it clear, in both Genesis 1 and John 1, amongst other places, that the idea of language is key to the idea of the creation of the world. God creates by speaking.

Of course, God has complete knowledge of everything in space and time, so before he creates a world in time, or even time itself, he knows exactly what he is going to create, and how that creation will play out through time. He knows its purpose, and creates its purpose.

An analogy could be drawn that says that God sees spacetime teleologically, while we, his creation, see it causally.

This isn’t really saying anything revolutionary. Christians throughout the centuries have affirmed a similar viewpoint, but I like the idea of God’s language as intrinsically performative, working to actualise his knowledge of creation. This is even more beautiful when we consider that God’s Word is also his Son – Christ. For me, it adds a stunning new dimension to the idea of Christ as a creator and sustainer.

To return briefly to Fermat’s Principle, it helps us to see that two interpretations of events can both be valid. It is worth adding Chiang’s own caveat here:

“For those interested in physics, I should note that the story’s discussion of Fermat’s Principle of Least Time omits all mention of its quantum-mechanical underpinnings. The QM formulation is interesting in its own way, but I preferred the metaphoric possibilities of the classical version.” (p. 334)

The metaphor is useful for me as well, particularly in the way that it relates to free will, a conundrum that has been notoriously difficult to get your head round:

“The existence of free will meant that we couldn’t know the future. And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness. Or was it?” (p. 157)

Story of Your Life makes a distinction between free will, experienced causally, and performative action, experienced teleologically. The two aren’t exactly easy to reconcile, but the idea of two seemingly contradictory states existing in harmony might help us with understanding free will in a world where God knows everything that is going to happen. It’s something I want to think about more.

There isn’t a nice conclusion to this post. It’s really been me talking through my thoughts from reading Story of Your Life. I would love to hear your thoughts on the film/book, and if the ideas had any impact on the way you see the world.
*All quote are taken from Picador’s 2016 edition of Ted Chiang’s short story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, now simply called, Arrival.

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