A perspective on freewill

“Story of your life” is a story about a mother reminiscing the memories of her daughter who dies during rock climbing. What’s weird is that the events she describes haven’t taken place yet. Her daughter isn’t even born. She knows the future.

But how does she know the future? It all starts when a bunch of alien spaceships visit earth. It’s unclear why they arrived. Are they here for an invasion? Maybe they are just tourists visiting earth. Dr. Louise Banks is a professional linguist who’s hired to interact with the aliens and figure out why they are here. She, along with a fellow physicist Gary, tries to unfold the mystery by learning aliens’ language. During the process of learning this foreign language, she discovers the difference between how humans think compared to this species of aliens…


There’s been a lot of discussion about freewill in the scientific community. It’s logical that there might not be any such thing, that we’re bound by laws of physics to act in a way that we do. What I love about “Story of your life” is that the author, Ted Chiang, doesn’t discuss freewill like we understand. He states that having or not having freewill are simply different perspectives.

The story talks a lot about Fermat’s Principle. This is one of the things that made it easier for Louise to understand aliens’ language. It states that a ray of light travels from one point to the another in order to minimise the time taken to travel. This basically explains why light travels in a straight line when in the same medium and bends when there is a change in medium. What’s interesting is I used to think of bending of light as a property of medium of travel. Both these approaches are correct, they are simply different perspectives.

Fermat's Principle

A ray of light travels in a straight line from point A to point O and then bends in order to travel in a straight line from point O to point B. Point A and point B lie in different media.

This situation can be visualised in two different ways:

  1. Light starts travelling from point A, hits point O and bends reaching the point B during its journey. This is a very intuitive interpretation of the scenario.

  2. Light will travel from point A to point B. In order to do so, it travels from point A to point O and later point O to point B because this is the fastest path. This is in fact what the Fermat’s principle describes.

We as humans find it hard to digest the second perspective. How do we know that light “will” travel from point A to point B? Light reaching point B is in the future. Everything has a “cause”. X causes Y, Y causes Z and so on. No matter how we reason with it, this perspective describes not just similar, but the exact same situation. I like to think that the first perspective describes behaviour whereas the second one describes the path.

Let’s take another example. I love programming which inspired me to dive deep into the world of software engineering. I started making software that I thought were cool which led me to a job. The job required me to work on databases and it caught my interest. I learned more about databases which eventually landed me a job at my current company.

What if I represent the situation as – to land a job at my current company, I need to learn about databases and gain some experience in it. This would require me to work on some other database which would be open to hiring a fresher. In order to crack the interviews, I need to code some software, which means I need to learn programming.

Both the interpretations refer to the exact same situation. There’s a lot that the second interpretation doesn’t explain. For example, it doesn’t explain my love for programming. But that’s what the difference in perspective is. The “behaviour” interpretation looks for a cause. The “path” interpretation looks for an objective. The cause “love of programming” pushed me into the world of software whereas, to achieve my objective I started programming which I also loved. Our belief that we have a freewill doesn’t go well with the path interpretation. This is simply because we cannot see the future. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. We believe that things might change on the way that we behave. Even if we knew the future, we might be able to change things.

The story challenges exactly this thought. It’s not about knowing the future. It focuses on the fact that in order to achieve an objective, there is a path that needs to be followed. The path of light is defined only when it knows it needs to reach a certain point. If you change the destination, the path will change. So, whether or not we have freewill, you can derive the path to reach a certain destination. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have a freewill, or even that we do. It is simply another perspective on how we see things happening in this world.

The effect of language

The movie “Arrival” is based on this story. It does a pretty good job of presenting how the language we think in changes our perspective to see things. The language written by the aliens, Heptapod B, is one such language. It’s written in a way that you can only write it if you already know everything that’s supposed to be written. Imagine you’re writing a sentence. We start with the first alphabet of the sentence, join the others to form a word, add a space to separate the word with the next word and keep repeating until we reach the end of sentence and finally add a full-stop. What if you already knew the amount of space that’s going to be taken by the sentence, each word in that sentence. You could put the full stop immediately before writing the complete sentence. You could write any word at the exact position it was supposed to be. It’s not impossible for us to write this way. Unfortunately, the languages we write themselves stem from the “behaviour” perspective. We think sequentially, so we write sequentially. Character after character, word after word. This recursively assures our thought process to work in a sequential manner. We write the full stop because the sentence is ended. Maybe we end the sentence because there is a full stop.


This movie and story has given me so much to think. I highly recommend everyone to try both. Having a different perspective gives you an appreciation for new things, opens up your mind to more beautiful experiences in life. I feel inspired to learn a new language. It’s exciting to see how this new language transforms the way I think. You could also say my objective is to gain a new perspective and the way I can gain it is by learning a new language 😛