A philosopher explains “Arrival” and “Stranger in a Strange Land”

Summary: Today we have a twin review by the philosopher Kelley Ross, looking at the use of language as the driving force in the book Stranger in a Strange Land and the film Arrival. Heinlein is one of the great science fiction authors (his worst works are excellent). Arrival is powerful film based on a science fiction story, staring Amy Adams — one of the great actresses of our time.

Arrival (2016)
Available at Amazon.


The Whorfian Hypothesis in
Stranger in a Strange Land and Arrival.

Review of the book and the film.

Arrival stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Written by Eric Heisserer. (2016.)

Stranger written by Robert Heinlein (1961).

Review by Kelley L. Ross. Posted at Friesian.
Re-posted with his generous permission.

In the novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert Heinlein and in the movie Arrival (2016), the stories depend on the Whorfian Hypothesis about language being true. In both of them, simply learning a new language enables characters to manipulate the world, and apparently suspend laws of nature, in ways not possible to them previously.

In Heinlein’s book, Michael Valentine Smith, who was orphaned on Mars when his astronaut parents died (or were murdered) there, was raised by Martians and then later was returned to Earth by a subsequent expedition. He does not know that human beings, without the benefit of the Martian language, do not experience reality in the same way that he does and that they lack abilities that he takes for granted. Thus, levitation and control of ambient conditions are things that he does not find remarkable or in need of explanation. Most dramatically, if he perceives or “groks” (glossed as “to taste,” like Latin sapio, “to taste” or “know”)wrongness” in anything, including people, he can, remotely, tip them out of our universe of three dimensional space. They disappear. When he realizes that humans cannot do these things, he cannot explain how he is able to do them without teaching his human friends the Martian language, which he begins to do. They are then able to perform similar feats.

Heinlein, of course, cannot explain what it is about the Martian language that makes interaction with the physical world so different. Ex hypothese, he could not. Eventually, Smith turns his language instruction into a religion (like Heinlein’s science fiction colleague L. Ron Hubbard?) and allows himself to be martyred to the faith. It is not clarified whether the circumstance that his spirit survives death is also due to the Martain language or is just true in general, as it appears to be.

An alien ship in "Arrival"

The film Arrival, based on the science fiction story “Story of Your Life” {at Amazon}, by Ted Chiang, stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. Renner was the star of The Hurt Locker, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2008. Forest Whitaker was the memorable modern samurai hit man in Ghost Dog [1999]. Amy Adams has been in various winning movie roles, including the delightful foodie movie, Julie & Julia [2009]. In Arrival she plays a linguistics professor who is called into action, by Army Colonel Forest Whitaker, to try and communicate with alien space ships, twelve of them, that have arrived at Earth. Teams from various nations on Earth are able to enter the ships and interview the aliens, who appear to produce speech, but no one can establish any actual communication.

Amy Adams in American Hustle
Amy Adams in American Hustle.

Whitaker plays some of the alien sounds for Adams, apparently thinking that because she speaks Persian (which the movie calls ) and Chinese, she’s going to be able to understand them. She tells him that she can’t do that without directly addressing the aliens. Of course, that can be an element of it; but learning or deciphering any language requires much more in the way of examples of it than can be gotten quickly even in an actual interaction, let alone from a single brief tape of noises.

Whitaker’s reaction is pretty much “you’re no fun,” and he initially withdraws his offer, which is silly, since nobody can do what he seems to want.

The movie also creates the deceptive impression that everyone in linguistics is a polyglot, and the single reference to Sanskrit by Adams leads reviewers to conclude that she also knows Sanskrit. But few people in linguistics are actual polyglots, although my own Persian professor from UCLA, Donald Stilo, now at the Max Planck Insitute in Germany, is one. Writing a dissertation on Persian in linguistics, Stilo was also designing a course in Persian, and was teaching it. I recently discovered that Stilo’s name came from a historically significant city in Calabria.

Adams, accompanied by physicist Jeremy Renner, discovers that alien “speech” is actually a kind of writing, with the aliens squirking ink into the air that forms into largely circular glyphs, which look a lot like just inkblots. The form of the glyphs contains semantic elements that express, all at once, entire sentences. Adams is eventually able to analyse and identify these elements, reproduce them (digitally!), and engage in dialogues, although often with confusing and even dangerous ambiguities.

Writing in "Arrival"

Since the glyphs contain whole sentences all at once, it is noted in the movie that they are free of time. And this is what leads into a Whorfian metaphysics — with the explicit identification of the “Sapir-Whorf” theory in the movie. As it happens, in the metaphysics of the alien language, time does not exist in the strictly linear fashion known to us. As Adams begins to learn the language, she also begins to experience episodes of seeing things that are not in the present. Actually, she knows so little of the language at that point, and is so intent on translating it into English, that it is not believable that she should already be experiencing reality is such a different way. In Stranger in a Strange Land much is made of the circumstance that the word grok represents a concept that resists translation into human speech. Although, as we have seen, simple glosses are possible for it, the word tends to be used in English unchanged by those learning the Martian language.

Stranger in a Strange Land
Available at Amazon.

We see nothing of the sort in Arrival, although there easily could have been a sequence where Adams points to part of a glyph and voices some perplexity about what it could mean. But perhaps there is something like that, since she and Renner keep seeing a glyph they translate as “timeless.” Of course, the amount of time this all would take is not something easily accommodated in a movie, so the rapid transformation of Adams’ world can be excused as poetic license.

No more than in Heinlein can Arrival explain how this alien language alters the apparent structure of reality, to the point where impossible things can happen. But the consequences of his are very different in Arrival than in Stranger in a Strange Land. Michael Valentine Smith has some kind of super-powers, but the effect on the character played by Amy Adams is of a much more personal form.

At the beginning of the movie we see what we take to be recollections by Adams of her young daughter, who subsequently had died of what looks like cancer. We don’t see a husband, and at the beginning of the main story she is quite alone and unattached to anyone. As the time displacement experiences begin to occur, most of them also involve her daughter. Still no husband, but we learn in one of them that the girl’s father has left because Adams has told him about the disease that will take their daughter’s life. This kind of thing happens with real people.

Meet the alien in "Arrival"

A large part of the dramatic payoff of the movie is when we learn that all these recollections of the daughter are actually in the future. The father of the girl is Renner, whom Adams has only met on the alien translation project. He later leaves because Adams has told him, long before the illness occurs, that their daughter is doomed and fated to die. He can’t handle it — although we wonder, since he has been learning the alien language himself, why he has not acquired a similiar familiarity with the future.

Thus, the much of the interest of the movie is in the moral issues of the fatalism implied by its metaphysics, which in turn is allowed by the Whorfian Hypothesis, which thus taken to strongly imply that a real metaphysics can be anything that a language in some sense “wants” it to be. The producers of the movie seem to be aware of these overtones. Thus, as Adams and Renner become intimate, and he voices a desire for a child, she asks him if there is anything about his life that he would change. He answers, “No,” perhaps not realizing that she means all of his life, including the future, even the tragic death of their child, which presumably could have been avoided by not having that child at that time. In Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965), young Paul Atreides ( — pardon the Greek) begins to see the future (because of a drug, not a language), but he also sees different futures. It turns out that the future he would rather avoid, a Cosmic Jihad, is unavoidable if he does what he must do, which is liberate Dune from the evil Baron Harkonnen. Liberation, Jihad. No liberation, no Jihad. This is a dilemma, but it is not fatalistic in the same way that we find in Arrival. The future in Dune is a problem of navigation, not of fatalistic acceptance.

But it is hard to be consistent about this. The aliens tell Adams that they are teaching humans their language because in 3000 years they will need our help. So, because of this, the aliens have chosen to come to Earth? But then, knowing the tragedy of her daughter’s life, Adams choses to have the baby anyway? Or are there really no true choices involved? The aliens are compelled to come to Earth, as Adams is compelled to have the baby.

Amy Adams in "Arrival"

This is a paradox of free will and foreknowledge. If we have free will, and we know the future, then we can change the choices to produce a better future. This is what we try to do anyway, when all we have is speculation about the future and imperfect knowledge about the possible consequences of our actions. But if our knowledge of the future were perfect, has the future in a sense already happened, which means our choices have already been made for us? Elsewhere I have recently considered a physicist who stumbles into such a mess. This has long been a problem in theology. When God creates the world, he already knows that Adolf Hitler will murder millions of people. So why does he allow this person even to be conceived? If Hitler simply never exists, he will know nothing about it; and all the suffering he would have inflicted will not happen. And if somehow Hitler must exist, aren’t there going to be an infinite number of other possible individuals who simply won’t exist themselves? What have we, or God, got against them, especially if most will be better people than Adolf Hitler?

Thus, by way of the Whorfian Hypothesis, Arrival opens up a fountain of metaphysical, moral, and theological problems. Is it good that Amy Adams values her daughter’s short life? Or is it wrongful that she allows her daughter to exist and live a life that ends in intense suffering and tragedy? Sometimes there are dilemmas like this in the real world, when parents discover that they will or may have a child with grave birth defects or hereditary disease. Thus, we find that the Whorfian Hypothesis can lead into a tangle of larger issues, which may already exist without it, but which can appear for us if all we are doing is talking about the meaning of language.

The outright fatalism of Arrival might be compared with the confusion between determinism and teleology in the movie Knowing. There is no confusion in Arrival, just the consequences of the Whorfian Hypothesis; but both movies are, after a fashion, meditations on the meaning of life.


Kelley L. Rross

About the author

Dr. Kelley Ross retired in 2009 after 22 years as an instructor at the Department of Philosophy of Los Angeles Valley College. See his LinkedIn profile. He joined the Libertarian Party in 1992 and has run several times for the California State Assembly and Congress.

He is the editor of The Proceedings of the Friesian School website, which has a wide range of fascinating material about philosophy, literature, film, and art. This school of philosophy is based on the work of Jakob Friedrich Fries (1773-1843). See Wikipedia for details.

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Trailer for Arrival.

5 thoughts on “A philosopher explains “Arrival” and “Stranger in a Strange Land””

  1. Perhaps we overthink things.
    A good chess player, understanding not just the rules of the game and his opponent but also his own abilities, may “know”, i.e. have great certainty, he will win in 12 moves. Or in perhaps 20. The difference is immaterial – he will will from a combination of rules and forces, one for and one against, each with limitations. Do the aliens “know” or anticipate correctly because their understanding is exceedingly good?

    Asimov’s Foundation novels were based on this, that there is a mathematical progression to social development. The current Democrats – and, interestingly enough, hardcore Marxists – agree: there’s an inevitable drive to “history”. So do parents who warn their children not to run with scizzors in their hands and to do well in school. The differences lie only in the amount of time, not in the prediction.

    Same with Adams’ character. New age thinking says our bodies understand our nature; evolution has given us the illusion of self-determination. Whatever. So Adams simply anticipates an outcome of her life.

    Small-time crooks can’t conceive of a future more than 2 minutes away. They knock off a bank and catch a cab home. They got away! right to the moment the cops walk in the door. The big-time crook, a Madoff, is going to jail from the gitgo, but 25 years later. The Versailles treaty of 1919 caused a world war in 1939. All were predictable but none were avoided. Rules and the nature of forces involved.

    The radical Greens see the human race as a virus or cancer. We destroy because that is what we are. Perhaps. If the Arrival aliens are simply aware of the longer term, are they not just the “Greens” creating a global seed bank against the coming agricultural apocalypse?

    Prescience does not necessitate fatalism, the loss of free will or autonomy. A language that doesn’t allow dis- or mis-information, prevarication won’t have many of our problems of future surprises. Language does shape behavior. Ignoring the super powers if Stranger, none of these stories require skills beyond a great understanding of “nature” and clarity of thinking (both deterministic and probabilistic).

    Except for death and taxes, the world provides for more than one solution to our questions. (And rich people have solved the second while working hard on the first.)

    1. Doug,

      “Do the aliens “know” or anticipate correctly because their understanding is exceedingly good?”

      That’s a fascinating question. The Arisians in EE Smith’s Lensmen books were super-advanced aliens. They could predict the future with bizarre precision. For example, predicting many years in the future not only when and where Virgil Samms would get a haircut — but how individual hairs would fall. They did this through force of intellect.

      But the aliens in Arrival actually see the future. Amy Adam’s character learns their language and gains this ability, without any apparent increase in her intelligence.

      1. Here is the quote from First Lensman (1950). This is EE Smith’s vision of what is possible with sufficient intelligence. He had imagination!


        “Five Tellurian calendar years then, from the instant of your passing through the screen of ‘The Hill’ on this present journey, you will be — allow me, please, a moment of thought. You will be in a barber shop not yet built; the address of which is to be 1515 Twelfth Avenue, Spokane, Washington, North America, Tellus. The barber’s name will be Antonio Carbonero and he will be left-handed. He will be engaged in cutting your hair. Or rather, the actual cutting will have been done and he will be shaving, with a razor trade-marked ‘Jensen-King-Byrd’, the short hairs in front of your left ear. A comparatively small, quadrupedal, grayish-striped entity, of the race called ‘cat’ — a young cat, this one will be, and called Thomas, although actually of the female sex — will jump into your lap, addressing you pleasantly in a language with which you yourself are only partially familiar.”

        “Yes,” the flabbergasted Samms managed to say. “Cats do purr — especially kittens.”

        “Ah — very good. Never having met a cat personally, I am gratified at your corroboration of my visualization. This female youth erroneously called Thomas, somewhat careless in computing the elements of her trajectory, will jostle slightly the barber’s elbow with her tail; thus causing him to make a slight incision, approximately three millimeters long, parallel to and just above your left cheekbone. At the precise moment in question, the barber will be applying a styptic pencil to this insignificant wound. …

        “These …gross occurrences, are problems only for inexperienced thinkers. …The real difficulties lie in the fine detail, such as the length, mass, and exact place and position of landing, upon apron or floor, of each of your hairs as it is severed. Many factors are involved. Other clients passing by — opening and shutting doors — air currents — sunshine — wind — pressure, temperature, humidity. The exact fashion in which the barber will flick his shears, which in turn depends upon many other factors — what he will have been doing previously, what he will have eaten and drunk, whether or not his home life will have been happy.

        “You little realize, youth, what a priceless opportunity this will be for me to check the accuracy of my visualization. I shall spend many periods upon the problem. I cannot attain perfect accuracy, of course. Ninety nine-point nine nines percent, let us say, or perhaps ten nines, is all that I can reasonably expect.”

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