If you knew the future, would you still choose your life?
- When we decide to act, we’re either incredibly bad at thinking about the implications or we don’t think about the future at all.
- A short story by Ted Chiang, “The Story of Your Life,” asks us to imagine how things would be if we knew what would happen to our choices, especially tragic events. Would we do them again?
- Immanuel Kant argued that hope is essential to motivate our action. Without the hope that things will turn out well, why bother doing anything?
Ignorance is not just happiness; it is necessary.
Imagine what life would be like if you spent all of your time dwelling on the odds of how things might turn out. How would you behave if you had a flashing statistic saying: “One percent of the population will die in a car accident ”each time you switch on the ignition? high luck it won’t last! “? And would you stop playing the lottery if you knew you had a higher chance of being killed by a tornado, struck by lightning, or even? hit by a meteorite than to win?
Humans are experts either at completely ignoring what might happen in the future or at be terribly bad in base probability. The result is that when we choose an action or decide on any path, we usually don’t think much about the possible future outcomes or implications of that choice.
Now imagine how different things would be if you only knew, with perfect precision, whatever would happen in your life. And if you knew your best friend would betray you in three years? Or that your boss is going to fire you tomorrow? What if you knew the day you died?
This is one of the many philosophical questions raised in the film. Arrival and the incredible Ted Chiang short story on which it is based, “The Story of Your Life”. It concerns the role of foreknowledge in our actions.
There will be spoilers.
An alien way of seeing things
Chiang’s story features an alien species that arrives on Earth for no obvious or discernible reason. A linguist, Louise Banks, is called in to decipher their strange language. We learn as the story goes that these aliens don’t write linearly. On the contrary, verbs, nouns, adjectives, subjects, objects and so on are all mixed up. It is only by reading the sentences as a whole that one can make sense of them.
As you would reconstruct it if it were that sentence.
As the plot progresses, we discover that aliens not only communicate this way, but are somehow able (and we have to suspend disbelief here – but not by much) of seeing time from above, in general. They see the past, present and future as a block, and they also see their little role within that. Foreigners act, knowing perfectly good what their actions will do.
Louise is learning this language and also comes to see the weather this way. She begins to see, with certainty, her entire life path, as well as a great tragedy to come. She knows that she will meet her husband, that they will have a child and that this child will die young from an incurable disease.
Although she knows it, she still has the child.
Optimism ignoring hope
The question is: would you do the same? If you knew that your choice would end in such incredible grief and desolation, would you still go down this path? Does knowing how something ends ruin the present?
Many philosophers, like Immanuel Kant, stress the importance hope is in action. The reason we do things, or make a commitment to someone, is because we hope it turns out well. For Kant, one cannot rationally or logically “prove” hope; instead, we have to accept it with what he calls “practical reason”. This is the expression that Kant usually uses for those things that we have accept for other things to work.
In this case, we can only perform all of our daily actions, moral or worldly, if we believe that there is an end point or product at the end. We have to hope that what we are doing ends well. This end point may be utterly unrealistic, naive idealistic, even statistically impossible, but the point is, we must have hope in order to motivate the agency.
The problem with Chiang is this: If we knew the future and thus lost that ignorant optimism that defines hope, would we ever do anything?
Your life, for better or for worse
Ultimately, Arrival and “The Story of Your Life,” echo an idea made famous by Friedrich Nietzsche: fati love (“love your destiny”). It’s the idea that knowing how things end shouldn’t devalue what we have. The path before us, for better or for worse, is our path. That’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it precious.
We all have our bags to carry and our burdens to carry, but for Nietzsche we must appreciate and love them precisely because they are ours. When all is said and done, they’re all we’ll get. Thus, we will all encounter sadness in our lives. There will be pain, sickness and death. We might live our lives as if these things were distant or only applied to others, but they still remain. Yet we continue to live anyway.
And so, in the story, Louise chooses to have a child. Despite what she knows is going to happen, she plays, laughs and hugs her. She relishes the joy, as long as it lasts.