Skynet in Zen: The Past, The Future, and The Terminator

“God, a person could go crazy thinking about this…” Sarah Connor says at the end of James Cameron’s film The Terminator in a recording she will eventually pass on to her unborn son, John. Sarah knows her son will grow into a man named John Connor simply because the film’s other main protagonist, Kyle Reese, has already informed her that this boy, who he himself never knew he was destined to be the father of, is the same man who sent Kyle back from the future to protect Sarah herself. For, as Sarah said to Kyle earlier in the film, “Well, at least now I know what to name him.”

This last statement of Sarah’s begs the question that if Sarah had named her son something other than “John Connor”, would the future have turned out differently? Would there have even been a Skynet if there’d never been a “John” Connor? Is there a different “possible” world? And how many changes to the existent world does it take to create a different “possible” one? Perhaps, Sarah even considered this, and perhaps, she concluded that since she didn’t have any control over the building and programming of Skynet, she should at least give her son the name he would need to eventually defeat Skynet.

We, of course, are aware that Kyle Reese’s statement about Sarah Connor being in hiding before the war is in fact coming to fruition by the end of the movie. We get a chance, in the film’s final frames, to see the picture taken of Sarah that Kyle eventually falls in love with in the future. So we know that, in this instance at least, the future is the past is the future.

Unlike John Connor (who must have his own unique understanding of time due to his mother’s tapes concerning his origin), however, Skynet, as fully aware of an operating system as it may have become, never appears to become aware that the future it lived in was merely a precursor to the past it grew out of. Leaving aside, for the moment, the question as to whether a self-aware artificial intelligence, with its massive computing power, might not have reached this same conclusion on its own, the question we must ask is: What sort of “vision” of time is necessary to allow the events of James Cameron’s film to take place?

If the past becomes the future and the future turns into the past, the first thing we should accept is that a being who steps “outside” the system we know of as time would not witness a linear progression through what we’ve come to think of as our linguistic tenses. Rather, that being would view a “static” image where past, present, and future are happening simultaneously. As if everything we experience were merely a Renaissance fresco on The Vatican’s wall. This “being” sounds an awful lot like some sort of Newtonian physics God existing in “absolute” time and space. We will, however, leave aside theological considerations at this moment.

Instead, we will admit that this same concept of a “static” time was envisioned by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, where the author introduces us to the multi-dimensional beings he himself invented, the Tralfamadorians. In this instance, the Tralfamadorians offer us a much clearer picture to begin reasoning from than theological abstraction. For, with both The Terminator and Slaughterhouse-Five, we are safely in the realms of (relatively) recent pop culture, rather than a distant, “proto-scientific” cosmology. There is a slight difference, however, between Slaughterhouse-Five’s visions of the Tralfamadorians and The Terminator’s conception of time travel.

Like the philosopher’s God Himself, the Tralfamadorians exist in a Newtonian “absolute” space where time is seen from an external vantage – although, they eventually interfere in a very real way with “time” in the way that we do actually perceive it (that, however, is the subject of another meditation). On the other hand, Kyle Reese, from his own perspective, has come to be in the past via the future. In fact, one could even say he’s “transmigrated” from the future to the past, but unlike in any sort of Tibetan conception of Bardo realms, Kyle Reese comes from one very real point on the space-time continuum to another very real point on the space-time continuum. Relatively, however, he’s remained at rest. For, he’s still Kyle Reese at both points.

We can juxtapose The Terminator’s concept of time with the concept of time in another film from the same era of the mid-1980s, Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. As opposed to the Tralfamadorian vision of time as a static fresco, Back to the Future indulges in a conceptual fantasy more akin to “possible worlds” theory. For, in Back to the Future (as opposed to The Terminator), we see an actual representation of Kyle Reese’s quote that, “The future is not set.”

With the simple change of a single event in the McFly family’s past (namely George McFly finally standing up to his lifelong bully, Biff), the entire scenario of future events has spun off into an entirely different direction. In the future at the film’s end, George McFly is a wealthy man and Biff works for him, rather than the other way around. This appears an illustration of the meditation that “nearly possible worlds” exist given a different set of counterfactual variants.

If we look at the premise upon which we’ve come to our realization of “possible” futures, we could say that the “possible worlds” variant offers us an increasingly positive worldview. Of course, at one point in Back to the Future, Marty McFly was on the verge of un-creating himself in a different possible world. However, the knowledge that multiple possible worlds could come into effect given a different set of variants should supply us with some solace regarding our own eventual destruction. Perhaps, there’s even a world where we don’t die, where we live forever, and where everything is at peace. This should offer us some comfort amid our current “possible” world’s suffering.

The Terminator (as well as Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians), on the other hand, appears a working example of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “theory of eternal recurrence”, which wonders if a demon were to ask you if you wanted to live your life innumerable times over would you say, “Yes”? Without answering the specific question of whether or not Nietzsche was at all serious that his theory of eternal recurrence was how the world actually operates, at the very least, we can take it as a given that The Terminator’s cosmology has accepted this tenet. Therefore, we can easily admit, given the suffering inherent to the world we inhabit (and the world John Connor is eventually born into), that this view of eternal recurrence is not the intellectual soporific that possible worlds theory can be.

For its part, Skynet, although it developed the means to manipulate one’s linear passage through time, never seemed to see the world in line with the Tralfamadorians through the lens of a tangible enactment of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. If it did, it never would have assumed it could quash humanity’s rebellion simply by killing Sarah Connor. Instead, it would have realized its time machine was rather a suicide machine.

This leads us to the question, then, that we alluded to earlier and that we must ask ourselves now, which is: If by some means of self-aware circuitry, Skynet were aware that eternal recurrence was the case, as Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians seem to perceive it to be, then was Skynet already aware that by building a time machine it was merely committing suicide? Should we, perhaps, be wondering if Skynet has come to an acceptance of the vagaries of what human beings perceive as the maddening flux of past, present, and future? This sense of peace amid flux could even resemble something akin to Buddhist enlightenment. Therefore, should we be asking ourselves – Is Skynet in Zen? However, if Skynet is in “Zen”, was it this same acceptance of the world’s necessity that allowed Skynet to be as calculatingly cold as it needed to be to bring such a horrid future into existence in the first place?

That the future Kyle Reese comes from is horrible cannot be denied. We see images throughout the film of machines rolling over piles of human bones. We see the degradation humanity has been reduced to during Sarah’s dream when she sleeps in Kyle’s arms in the drainpipe where they’re hiding from The Terminator. We understand the bleak world vision Kyle comes back to the past with through his own gestures, expressions, and imaginings of Sarah’s own death. This is the future – this world of constant suffering – waiting for humanity in Skynet’s own, personal Zen. But this could be the world waiting for all of us in any “being’s” enlightened mindset.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom claims “enlightenment” is a place of peace. Going one step further, the concept of enlightenment itself is often defined by the “peace” its practitioner has found. In other words, if the being claiming to be enlightened does not exhibit a certain evident serenity, then most people would say that being has not found the enlightenment she is seeking. In fact, many might even say that being is, as the Buddha himself would put it, deluded. This statement, however, has no backing evidence in the texts humanity’s original understanding of the nebulous concept of enlightenment comes from.

Enlightenment is defined in many ways in many different texts. However, the most common early definitions of enlightenment appear to define the concept as a cessation of mental energies: nirvana. This means the enlightened being has stopped thinking about the world. Instead, she merely experiences the world in a detached state. This detached state of experience sounds like it could even be the dissociative properties of certain trauma-induced mental disorders such as borderline personality disorder. One might even go so far as to say the enlightened being could be in a constant state of PTSD.

For, if life itself is a sort of trauma, enlightenment is the coping mechanism. Whether Skynet has reached this point of passivity amid flux is not obvious at all from the first film in The Terminator franchise. Skynet is merely a peripheral character in this film. However, when it comes to questions of time’s necessity and that necessity’s implications – whether one views the world from the perspective of the Tralfamadorians or not – The Terminator, as any piece of art should, explores this conceptual framework with a tremendous amount of further implication.

My Untimely Meditations

X.

Hebrew is like a veil being rent asunder. I see the world backwards, from the other side of the page. Suddenly, I see English from the other side of the page as well.

Greek forces me to meditate on the sound and symbol as well as the process of thought: the order of words.

Chinese is a reflection on meaning.

French? How could something so similar be so different? Even to the point of sounds of familiar letters… even to the point of putting articles where my “native” tongue has none.

I don’t need to publish anything. It was always a journey of self-discovery.

For so long I thought every moment was worth saving… was worth sharing. That was the flaw of my artistic theory.

IX.

It seems to me that the purpose of zazen is, maybe, to make what we have come to refer to as unconscious thought processes into what we know as “conscious” thought processes. With the unconscious conscious, the unconscious becomes controllable. Controllable, we gain power over our inner lives. Gaining power over our inner lives, we attain self-mastery. Mastering the self, the external world no longer has control over us by appealing to previously “unconscious” drives. Maybe, it’s time for me to start zazen again.

VIII.

What is thought does not have to be actualized. That is desire. What, then, is thought?

It’s not the shoddiness of Freud’s system that matters; rather, it is the structure that it engendered: evidence of the self-perpetuation of a human idea (false).

VII.

Logic is limited. The question remains: Does logic express the actual way in which thoughts are connected by the mind? Also, does logical symbolization exhaust the possibility of how thoughts are expressed within the mind itself? The further questions of cause and effect, existence and non-existence are still perplexing.

VI.

Might it not be the case that in his merging of Nietzsche and Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze is bringing together the great post-Pythagorean argument between Heraclitus and Parmenides (strife and monism)?

V.

Physics is the determining factor in the European intellectual tradition. And physics as metaphor becomes the basis for European logic.

Why did physics take hold in Greece?

IV.

How can one build in the nothing? How do we make our first step? Where do we land? How does one find an authentic point from which to begin? Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, even Freud… Plato, Aristotle, Confucius… Descartes…

Something happened to me once upon a time. I don’t know what it was.

III.

Philosophy must be overcome.

II.

What is the subject is the question.

I.

It is evident that what underlies this world is nothing.

א.

Logic is absurd.

The State of Nature and Non-Conformity

Commenting upon the state of contemporary affairs, one often recognizes two aspects among our current society. One of these is the speed at which society desires pleasure rather than repose among the beauty of nature. Another quickly discernible modern trait is the desire to conform that society presents to its youth and adults.

At the point where we’re at today, the beauties of the earth are quickly overlooked so instant pleasures can be achieved. We rip apart our forests to make room for “progress”, a word I use lightly since it could hardly be considered “progress” to destroy the Great God of the Wood to create money for the community. The beautiful green of nature has been replaced by the sickly green of the dollar bill, and we are content with this.

I often wonder where our place to relax is. We sit at home and waste our minds on television. We have grown to be in such a hurry that even restaurants cater to our fast-paced lives, and the streams where we used to swim as well as the forests we used to wander have been moved aside for our society to make headway in what seems an eternal struggle to destroy itself. We often seem to forget that humanity is nature and nature is humanity. Without nature, humanity cannot survive, and humanity gives nature a purpose. We work together in peace, but for some reason we feel the need to destroy that which provides our collective life. What a wonderful way to say thank you for the fruits nature bears us and the love nature shows us in its streams, brooks, and forests. I live myself, but I shall return to my mother, the earth, when I die.

However, as sad as our struggle with our environment is, our struggle with ourselves is even worse. Today, we struggle to turn ourselves into what we simply are not. And we wish to be what we are not so we can fit into the categories others provide for us. These categories apply to adults, the elderly, teens, and children. Is it possible to be happy when you live another’s life? I can’t see any happiness in such a life. I can only see happiness in ourselves. For, we provide our own. In truth, no one can provide it for us. But some people grow their hair. Other people cut their hair. Some people spend thousands of dollars on clothes. Other people shop at thrift stores simply so they can put forward the image they wish to portray. I say grow your hair and wear a suit, or cut your hair and wear second hand clothes. Anything to show your individuality, but do what you want to do. Don’t fall into the trap of conforming to non-conformity. For, many “non-conformists” conform more than those who aren’t. They say, “If you don’t have a Mohawk, then you conform,” or, “If you don’t have long hair, then you conform.” But they refuse to show their individuality because they’re too concerned with showing how different they are, and that is conformity as much as the man in the suit who trudges off to work every day.

There are no true non-conformists. Everybody conforms in some way. However, there is individuality and the ability to be original. How can you tell the difference? It’s simple. If you do what you want to do, you’re being an original. If you’re doing something solely because it’s different, you’ve fallen into the rut of conforming to non-conformity. For the individual, it’s quite difficult to always be original. However, they’re still doing better than most in this society. At least, they’re trying.

Before I leave you, I want to say a prayer with you that, once again, we will love to live with nature and, for once, all will be individuals. Such a prayer may never come true, but that’s not the fault of the Great Spirit. It simply stems from a flaw in human nature, a flaw that someday we may be able to transcend, but at this moment, I’ll simply continue to be myself and seek my solace among my friends who bare seeds. Perhaps, you will, too, my friend.