Skynet and 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. At the very least, we must admit that if Skynet is aware of the paradoxes associated with time travel, this artificial intelligence has solved Nietzsche’s riddle and answered, “Yes,” to the question of life’s eternal recurrence.