On Remembering the Future

Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future. But remembering the future is child’s play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now … To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say: ‘Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and likes you no matter what you are.’

– Kurt Vonnegut

In 2009 my wife and I lost our only daughter following a long illness caused by a birth defect. After almost two years of failing to conceive, we prayed at a fertility shrine in Yunnan China and in 2012 we had another daughter, so we decided to pay it forward by rebuilding the temple. Many of my friends know this story, but what I never shared was the spooky action that resulted from my making a video to play for visitors at the temple. The looping 8-minute video I made is called, “Love, Loss, Love”, a short synopsis of the story of how we came to rebuild the temple. When looking for the accompanying music, I happened across a track called “On the Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter, a celebrated British composer. I emailed Richter and told him what I was up to, asking if I could get the royalty free rights to use the track for my video. In his reply a few days later, he generously agreed.

Cut to January 2017 when the movie Arrival comes out in theatres and I go see it. Being a fan of Ted Chiang and his collection of short stories, in particular, Story of Your Life on which the film is based, I was excited to finally see it on the big screen. What came next absolutely floored me. The opening sequence is of the main character, Louise Banks, as she cares for her young daughter Hannah, who is close to dying from an incurable illness. Immediately I recognized the soundtrack as Max Richter’s “On the nature of Daylight”. Also, my daughter’s name is Hannah. I had to pause the movie to pull myself together, but after watching it, I began to notice an itch that was hard to scratch.

This may seem like coincidence so far, which it is, because everything is co-arising, we usually just can’t see it. When we do notice coincidences, they occur to us as the impersonal universe responding to us in a personal way, but I believe there is much more to them.

In Arrival (Story of Your Life), Louise Banks is a linguist who is called upon to try and communicate with an alien race who have arrived on Earth. Through her experience, she realizes that the aliens called heptopods, experience time not sequentially, but all at once. She discovers this through their writing system that the heptapods do not write a sentence one ideogram at a time, but draw all them simultaneously, suggesting they know what the entire sentence will be beforehand.

In examining this apparent four-dimensional awareness of the aliens, Louise’s scientist partner Gary, explains this phenomenon as being consistent with Fermat’s Principle of Least Time. Like a lifeguard swimming the most direct line to save someone, as light is refracted, it will always take the fastest possible route. Louise reasons, “A ray of light has to know where it will ultimately end up before it can choose the direction to begin moving in.”

When a photon leaves A on its way to B, does it choose its path? Perhaps the path is pre-determined and the photon fulfills its destiny. Principles of least action are everywhere in physics, and we must also be subject to their effects. The biochemical signals that power every one of our thoughts or actions fire in advance of our awareness of them. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion. We do not know what we will intend to do until the intention itself arises. Free will is the ghost in the machine.

The heptapod language, like a virus, infects Louise’s consciousness and alters her sequential human perception. What at first she believes to be dreams are soon revealed to be recollections of the future. Once she realizes this, she never acts contrary to that future. Gary and Louise start dating and eventually marry. When Gary asks Louise if she wants a baby, she agrees, knowing that they will divorce, and their daughter will die young.

What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?

As the seriousness of my own daughter’s illness became apparent, I began to realize that she wouldn’t survive it. While I outwardly expressed confidence in a positive outcome, I also sensed that her passing was destiny, with a certainty of having already witnessed it. Even donating my liver for her transplant didn’t make a difference. If you know what’s going to happen, can you keep it from happening? Even when a story says that you can’t, the emotional impact arises from the feeling that you should be able to.

As James Gleick writes, “What we call accidents are only artifacts of incomplete knowledge. And there’s no room for choice. Free will, the determinist will tell you, like the sense of the present, is a powerful and persistent illusion”. We resist this notion because it would mean we have no autonomy and that our decisions don’t matter. At the heart of human identity is the belief in agency, that we are in control of our own lives. But besides the loss of meaning, could we bear to live with the dread of knowing that we would die of a long painful illness and that taking better care of ourselves now would do nothing to prevent it?

Nature is deterministic and runs like a Newtonian clock. So why should we be different, even with our big brains? This is the problem: we are subject to these same physical laws of least action, but we believe we are exceptional. This is nothing more than ego, coupled with the desire to believe that all our work must amount to something, that there is good in the world and that our lives are meaningful. Without free will, goes the argument, we have no faith in our own agency and thus no need for moral responsibility.

As Sam Harris observes, people often confuse determinism with fatalism. Determinism is the belief that our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Fatalism, on the other hand, is the belief that our decisions don’t really matter, because whatever is destined to happen will happen. You can’t just step out of the causal stream by choosing to do nothing, because that is still a choice and all your biomolecular processes will carry on doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. Your awareness of them doesn’t change this because they have already happened.

In Story of Your Life, Louise demonstrates the heartbreaking courage to own this inevitability and act in accordance with it. She sees the outcome in advance (or maybe in retrospect), which is devastating, and yet she deliberately acts to make it happen. We hear Louise in voiceover: “I remember moments in the middle.” But she also says, “Now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings.” While her visions are patchy—limited in perspective, incomplete in detail— so are our memories of the past. And with such imperfect memories, we rely upon this unreliable construction as if the past were real, but it occurs differently for everyone who experiences it.

As I reflected again upon the story, I began to toy with the possibility that all of this has happened before; that life is one giant déjà vu, and we are just trying to remember it each day, like a loop in the causal chain. Think Groundhog Day. I can’t be the only one who has created something and then forgot how I did it. Much of my time I feel I am re-tracing invisible steps. Instead of thinking about the future as something on a horizon, to be predicted or anticipated, what if we were able to reflect back upon it? Is this life just an unfolding of the given?

In the mornings, I meditate and recite a future storyline as if I am reviewing it. I believe that using the past tense to refer to the future imbues it with inevitability, inviting destiny to reveal itself. The story is about what I accomplished, as recounted from a distant point in time. I then live into the story, writing it each day through deliberate action as it comes to me. This is not the wishful thinking of daily affirmations, the unconvincing patter of Stuart Smalley trying to compensate for past failure. I believe that I am remembering the future; not intending it but witnessing it.

This practice connects the deterministic dots between cause and effect, like tracing a path back to now from where something has already occurred. I don’t believe in free will, but am convinced that we can find positive options in everything. This capacity for autonomy is essential for anyone to lead a decent life. The kind of will that leads to success—seeing positive options for oneself, making good decisions and sticking to them—can be cultivated. Determinism does not mean we can’t exercise conscious deliberation and self-control. In The Paradoxical Commandments, Dr. Kent M. Keith writes, “The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.”

“I’m sure my memory only works one way,” Alice remarked. “I can’t remember things before they happen.”

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked. — Lewis Carroll