Future conditional

Last night I attended an event at the Rubin Museum in which Ted Chiang, the author, and Dean Buonomano, the neuroscientist (and author), discussed the nature of time, and our perception of it.

Story of Your Life, the brilliant story that is the basis of the recent film Arrival, is essentially a disquisition on this topic, as well as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in the form of a science fiction tale. Ted Chiang pointed out, during their fascinating on-stage discussion, that our human perception of time seems to be at odds with a deterministic view of the Universe held by some scientists, including Albert Einstein.

Specifically, we subjectively perceive the possibility of many futures, based on the choices we make from moment to moment. In other words, we think of ourselves as having free will.

Yet in Einstein’s view, all human thought and behavior is simply a manifestation of the Universe playing itself out in a deterministic way. This includes our belief in our own free will.

There is really no contradiction here. We now know enough about quantum physics to be sure that it would be impossible to query the current state of the Universe completely enough to learn what is going to happen in the future. So even if Einstein was right, and the state of the Universe is completely determined throughout all of time, the future is still unknowable, even theoretically, to human beings.

This all came up in the context of a discussion about language. Human natural languages generally have an asymmetric view of past and future embedded deeply within their semantic structure. But would it make sense, on any level, to posit a natural language based on full knowledge of the future? In other words, could there be a natural language in which past and future are semantically equivalent?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but now I’m thinking about it.

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