What We Discover the Source Code Really Is
Captain Stevens does something in the movie that wrecks this whole explanation of the Source Code – he contacts the “real world” independently (he sends a text message from inside the source code that one of the characters gets outside the source code). Through this, we learn that Captain Stevens isn’t “in” the source code in the sense of being inside a computer simulation – he’s living an actual reality. The source code isn’t a machine for reliving memory, it’s a machine for transposing consciousness… or at least sentience… into alternate universes.
This is where the “quantum physics” technobabble kicks in. One of the possible (and, believe it or not, one of the more widely accepted) explanations for a lot of the craziness that happens in quantum physics is many-worlds interpretation.
One of the big problems of quantum mechanics is that events that have not been observed often can’t be said to have definitively happened or not happened. Rather, they exist in a “waveform” – in a probabilistic state between different likelihoods of happening – technically both happening and not happening at the same time. This phenomenon isn’t guesswork or philosophy (although the explanations for it are, to an extent), it’s experimentally verifiable.
Okay, this part gets complicated, so I’ll allow the illustrious computer-generated Dr. Quantum to explain:
Okay, so, in line with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says we can never know the position and velocity of an observed thing at the same time, observing a wave/particle appears to change it – wave/particles that appear to behave probabilistically instead begin behaving deterministically.
This “waveform collapse” is a counterintuitive result – people don’t generally think of their observing things as having an effect in itself on the fundamental nature of reality, but it sure appears to in experiments. So, yeah, if you’re one of the folks who tends to believe concepts like “common sense” and “what exists exists and doubting it or questioning the nature of reality is stupid and a waste of time” – it turns out that a lot of the things about reality that seem apparent from everyday observation and tradition are a lot stranger than they appear to be – and this is only the stuff we’ve figured out is weird – imagine the stuff we haven’t spotted yet…
Anyway, there are multiple current, somewhat credible explanations for results of the double slit experiment and the “quantum weirdness” it and other experiments detect in the world. Some of them claim that observers fundamentally change the way things work in some way. Some of them downplay that factor and come up with explanations that sounds a little less mystical.
In the many-worlds interpretation, the waveform collapse is explained a little differently – the waveform is seen to collapse – one outcome seems to emerge from a probabilistic outcome – but observing the waveform has not collapsed the quantum phenomenon, it has simply followed the waveform along one of its many concurrent outcomes into a possible universe where only one of them happened. At the same time, from each quantum event, uncountably many other possible universes branch out like a tree, with reality extending into a vast web of all the things that ever could have happened stretching across the oddly shaped loaf of spacetime.
In the movie, this explains how Captain Stevens can access the information outside of what the deceased perceived – he isn’t reviewing a memory record of what happened, he is actually experiencing those 8 minutes in a reality. It’s not the possible universe he has historically experienced up until this point (in that universe he wasn’t on the train and everybody on it died), and the time frame is a bit exotic for him, but it’s part of the fabric of reality – its own succession of universes, where he can free roam across different branches of the web (and create more himself) whilst getting in ill-advised fisticuffs and gunplay until he has three stars, the cops start sending helicopters and he needs to find a spray paint garage.
Except the “inside” of the source code project isn’t a computer program, it’s a reality, so it looks a bit more like this:
I’m a Computer Scientist who uses information theory in my work. That matter and energy are the same thing (e = mc^2) has entered the popular consciousness. What this means is that any system can be described equivalently in terms of its matter or its energy, depending on whether you’re a chemist and care about matter, or a physicist and care about energy. I’m not a physicist, but I do sometimes read what physicists say about information theory. It is my understanding that either energy and information are also interchangeable, or else that whether information and energy are interchangeable is an open question.
(If you care, the relationship is Shannon entropy.) I believe that it has not been ruled out that having sufficient information about a brain (which might be an infinite quantity, and therefore not achievable) is equivalent to actually having that brain. The universe is indeed a strange place.
This is very interesting stuff! Thanks!!
And yeah, the universe is freaking weird.
When physicists talk about information within an analogous framework to thermodynamics, I wonder at the heuristic – are they talking about this comparison because it is true, or are they talking about it because it is usful and predictive – and what is the difference?
Yeah, maybe that seems like a silly question, but logical positivism, after all, is a scientific way of thinking and doesn’t aspire to explain all ways of thinking all the time.
Einstein said “The more we are being precise, the less we are talking about reality. The more we are talking about reality, the less we are being precise.”
In the philosophy of science, I am a constructivist. According to this belief system, science has no notion of “true.” It’s not something that we can meaningfully talk about. The only thing we can talk about is whether or not a model of a system accurately predicts observations we can make about the system. If we have two different models that accurately predict our observations, then we try to pick the one that is most “useful,” i.e. the model that makes accurate predictions about the largest number of different systems. There is a trade-off here. I can make a model that describes one system perfectly, but doesn’t apply to any other system. Or I can make a model that kinda describes a bunch of different systems.
So information entropy absolutely describes a hell of a lot of stuff. It’s also the same equation as physical entropy (up to a constant), which describes a hell of a lot of different stuff. Science definitely says that. Does that mean that information and energy are one? Science doesn’t say, cuz science doesn’t do semantics.
PS There are also Platonists out there. They believe that if a model is accurate and useful, well then it’s the mind of god or some bullshit like that. (I’m clearly not interested in giving the Platonists their fair shake.)
Right. The trick is when people use this way of thinking to rule out certain ways of asserting a meaningfulness or truth of things in a nonscientific context (such as describing one’s own personal experience) to rule out certain subject matter – but then go ahead and use those same methods that don’t stand up to scientific muster to describe subject matter that is supported by other explanations.
So, for example, sentience is nonfalsifiable. There isn’t really a way of asserting in a scientific framework that it exists. You can come up with descriptions that use terms like “consciousnes” and can be scientifically confirmed, but they aren’t the same thing – they don’t deal well with qualia, things like that.
So, from this scientific framework, consciousness isn’t realy “true.”
But then people get a lot more comfortable with saying consciousness in a computer is “true” whereas consciousness as an immaterial aspect of a material body can’t be true – when really what our heuristic has done has not been to exclude the immaterial in favor of the technological, but to undermine our very assertions of trueness.
Thankfully, as a writer, performance artist and comic, I am very fond of imaginative conjecture, which I take as license a lot of the time to say and write about what might be true rather than what is.
This is a big reason why I see artistic endeavors as a lot more helpful in going about the business of being human than strictly logical thinking a lot of the time. But that’s just me :-)
My other favorite quote is from Dijkstra. I paraphrase. “Asking whether a computer can think is no more interesting than asking whether a submarine can swim. The real question is whether humans can.”
I agree that math and science don’t say much about the business of being human. But I like it, and it pays well.
This I think ends the utility of my domain-specific knowledge to this topic. I’m a huge overthinking it fan (this site has actually taught me to recognize metaphors, which I was not previously capable of doing), and it was a pleasure to be able to contribute to a conversation.
BTW, overthink this: Avatar + computational complexity theory = humans (the navi) can think, while machines (humans) can’t.
Great read. The one thing I thought I should add is that his email was clearly sent to the Goodwin within the alternate reality that he created at the end of the film, not the one that he originally operated in.
Essentially what they were going for is that once his tether to the old world was broken his consciousness could firmly cement itself within the alternate world and he could live a healthy life.
But hey, I’m a film graduate. I know sod all about quantum physics! :P
Yeah, I definitely should have clarified this – that the message seems to be received in “a real world” but not “our real world.”
Okay, so when he was talking to his dad, he was talking to his dad in the alternate reality as well?
Fenzel, I’m afraid to say that you’ve completely missed the point and have gone off on a completely redundant tangent. It’s like pointing a gun to the sky when the man you intend to shoot is stood right in front of you.
What do you know about EVP (‘Electronic Voice Phenomena‘)? Subscribers to the concept believe that the dead can communicate with us through electronic devices such as radios, televisions and computers. Many scientists working in the field of EVP have come to the conclusion that supposed “hauntings” are actually the result of high ultrasonic interference. They have gone on to suggest that the ultrasonic clusters responsible for this interference may be the product of a bio-electric burst, given off at the time of death.
Professor Rutledge explains that the Source Code is composed of two elements, not just the 8 minute memory log of the deceased but also the aforementioned bio-electric burst that occurs at the time of death, which itself may contain the aforementioned 8 minute recording, combined with the neurological data of the deceased. Therefore we can assume (at it isn’t actually clarified) that surrounding the site of the attack there is a bio-electric/ultrasonic field of sorts. I would imagine that ‘Beleaguered Castle’ possessed detailed readings of this ultrasonic field and the Source Code utilised that data to create a digital reconstruction of the incident.
But what actually happened, as we find out at the end, is that the Source Code not only re-constructed the context surrounding the bombing but also created a world within our world, much like The Matrix. When Goodwin received that text she didn’t receive it on our world, she received it within the digital/alternate reality created by the Source Code.
Did you see the last ‘Star Trek’ film? Same idea. Stevens either exists within a separate timeline or a parallel, digital reality.
It’s really that simple, and it was explained well enough for me to fill in the rest of the blanks.
But if that is the case, and the world only exists within the source code, and not as a separate branch of reality, why are we given the impression that it persists after the movie is over?
If it’s like the Matrix, and the computer creates and sustains this reality, then when the computer is turned off or repurposed for another project (which must be imminent when the movie is over), the Matrix should stop working.
And if the Source Code created a world within our world via a sort of simulation – rather than branching one off in a multiverse sense by through a quantum event – why does Goodwin exist in that world? No information about her is in the source code, and she was nowhere near the train accident.
I definitely missed the “bioelectric pulse” bit, but wouldn’t that have to do with most of the same stuff I talk about and Peter talks about above – information, the physical body, multiple realities and consciousness?
It doesn’t seem that different…
Also, don’t know off the top of my head if you’re a regular, but on the site, we have a tradition of including a “Well, ACTUALLY…” in posts like this ;-)
Hope you enjoyed the read!
Oh, and I’ll add it’s definitely clear the Goodwinn who receives the text isn’t the Goodwin in our world. It seems pretty clear it was a Goodwinn in an alternate universe, however or wherever that universe was created.
Benjo has an interesting point and it holds up, but perhaps the solution is not that a world within a world is being created, but that a “whole new world” is being created, each time the Source Code is used. In this way, what Rutledge believes is a simulation of 8 minutes is in fact a splitting off of a new, parallel reality, that will continue to coexist with our own, even after those 8 minutes.
The implication of this is that each time the SC is used, and Colter fails at his mission, Rutledge is responsible for an entirely new reality where a terrorist event occurs.
Also… Sean Fentress loses any hold he has to any given reality where Colter replaces him. By movies end, Colter has killed Fentress in order to save the passengers on the train. One of two casualties at the “happy ending.” (the other being the new Colter now to be found in the parallel reality, still trapped in his incubator.
Just a thought.
Yeah, I think Rutledge did mention that the Source Code is a sort of ‘quantum manipulator’. While he believes that the system does not enable time travel, its manipulation of spacetime inadvertently creates parallel universes.
In fact, this is science fiction at its best, in the sense that it acknowledges that the best scientific discoveries are often made accidentally during a separate line of experimentation.
This is similar to ‘Tron Legacy’, where Kevin Flynn was attempting to engineer the perfect operating system but unintentionally made a far more significant discovery: Isotopic Algorithms. Of course C.L.U — having been tasked with eliminating incongruous results — slaughtered all but a few of them.
Well, ACTUALLY… I can see where you’re coming from :-D. I’m not a regular — this article was linked to on IMDB’s front page.
I expected the film to end when Goodwin terminated Stevens’ life support. In fact, initially I was disappointed when the film continued after that rather touching 3-dimensional tableau of Stevens kissing Christina while the rest of the passengers are laughing with the comedian.
But to address your counter directly: while Stevens’ life support may have been turned off, the Source Code was still active.
Who’s to say that the Source Code isn’t self-contained, and that it is in fact a matrix of manufactured universes? (linking back to your points regarding multiple universes) Even if the program is rebooted for a new mission the system may keep a record of previous contexts which continue to perpetuate; like in ‘Minority Report’ where visions of previous murders can be downloaded from the Precognatives’ memories.
As for Goodwin not being present and thus not a part of the internal digital reality of the Source Code: perhaps our consciousnesses are interconnected by a medium such as The Force of ‘Star Wars’ or Ewa of ‘Avatar’, allowing us to involuntarily share information telepathically. The true nature of the Source Code may be that it is actually a digital replication of the entire telepathic system, including the memories, feelings, experiences and neurological data of every human being on Earth. New data is then applied upon acquisition of the bio-electric readings.
The above is only a possibility. The film certainly leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions, but that is why I feel that you missed the point.
The narrative of the film is structured around a technology that our present scientific understanding cannot make full sense of. You’re thinking in terms of A leading in to B, when the answers lie at point C. You can’t get to B yet because there isn’t sufficient scientific knowledge to fill that gap.
God knows you’ve tried, and I certainly found this article to be a great read, but it was about halfway through when I thought “Hang on, how can you possibly criticise a scientific discovery that is yet to be made?” In 50 years this film may make perfect sense, but for now I can see why it inspired a raised eyebrow.
At the end of the day it’s futile to use present scientific knowledge to criticise speculative fiction. You can try, but fiction will always be 50 steps ahead of you.
“At the end of the day it’s futile to use present scientific knowledge to criticise speculative fiction. You can try, but fiction will always be 50 steps ahead of you.”
I disagree with this, as a major purpose of speculative fiction is to explore how science develops and affects lives, so tracking the course of present science by comparison is really the point.
I agree and disagree with your disagreement :-).
The most effective way to convey my counter disagreement is to divide speculative fiction into three categories: at one end you have Science Fact, at the other you have Fantasy and in the middle you have Science Fiction.
An example of a piece of factual scientific product is Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ (given that it is theoretical). In contrast an example of a piece of fantastical product is ‘The Lord of The Rings’.
Product like ‘Source Code’ is smack in the middle of these two extremes. It has the grounding of Scientific Fact, but the flexibility of Fantasy. This is what I believe to be the nature of Science Fiction.
Scientific fact is the anchor that moors the imagination of the artist. “What if?” takes priority over “How?”. That is why I feel that Fenzel missed the point.
Just had another thought regarding the concept of the Source Code being “a replication of the entire telepathic network”.
Imagine that ‘Beleaguered Castle”s HQ is like a weather station, but instead of monitoring temperature, wind speed and humidity it monitors bio-electric activity on a national, if not global scale. Maybe there are sensors fitted all across the globe, recording bio-electric information that can be reviewed and revised within the Source Code.
It raises many questions about the right to privacy, but if I recall there was quite on uproar in the States when it was believed that the government were monitoring phone calls after 9/11. This is addressed in ‘The Dark Knight’ when Bruce Wayne re-engineers Lucius Fox’s sonar technology to monitor the entire city in his hunt for The Joker.
Having said that, you could argue that if they had bio-electric information on every person on the planet they could find the bomber simply by digging through the recordings pertaining to the attack. Or perhaps the information cannot simply be read, but has to be experienced within its wider context. For example, when I look at lines of computer code I see only a sequence of commands, but when I see what those commands create (e.g. a web page) I can better understand how the code is utilised to generate the image/system/illusion.
Hoo boy … yeah. Well, I’ll say this — never in history has there been a website so perfectly, accurately named as this one!
Thanks! We try to stay “on mission” around here.
For my money, the previous titleholder for approppriately named websites is http://www.unicycle.com – but my past hobbies have perhaps left me biased ;-)
well, actually, the thing you apparently missed altogether (thus once again underscoring the appropriateness of your url) is that there is a more obvious and plausible (well, that would be subject to debate) (and digestible for american general audiences) interpretation of the ending: the idea that commander brokeback, after his final hurrah 8-minute round on the holodeck, did really and finally for real i mean it this time actually die, dead dead forever dead, but that … and wait for it … his death was a pleasant and peaceful one, and maybe he had at some point accepted jesus as his personal savior (and perhaps also as a reward for his meekly following orders and carrying out american foreign and military policy), and thus was allowed to go to heaven. a heaven which is defined subjectively for him as a place in which the continuity of his experience and his theoretical understanding of the basis of his time-travel / parallel-universe-jumping was pleasantly borne out, and coincidentally, all those people who had died in the previous world (i.e., the kingdom of man) were then all just fine laughing at the failed america’s got talent comedian’s inability to please a woman in bed. you get me? going with this interpretation, one is still left with unanswered earlier questions about how it is that the computer machine mixed up with 2 dead guys’ brains extracts certain previously-unknown, unperceived phenomena, such as the license plate on the white american terrorist’s white american van? well, one solution, if you’re inclined to accept the heaven-after-death interpretation, is that this was all facilitated with god’s intervention. not very neat, but it does bring it all back to quantum leap.
by the way, i think i found this website last night by googling “source code quantum leap terminator avatar groundhog day” and i guess i should have added “back to the future donnie darko inception matrix” … i really appreciate your thoughts!
So I’m reading this article as a debate over how embodiment relates to consciousness, which explored in the book by N. Katherine Hayles “How We Became Post-Human” It talks about how information was defined during the computer revolution and how that affected how we interpret our body and mind, and is a rebuttal against the sort of Kurzweil mind-scan theory where the body is just a medium for information that’s doing a poor job and if we upload we’ll live forever in perfect health.
So I think maybe Source Code, by keeping the physical body such a important necessary thing and having death happen every 8 minutes is making the case that we can’t live forever and mortality is inevitable aspect of existence regardless of what medium consciousness is contained.
“I think the way the movie becomes a bit more elegant is if it goes significantly darker – if instead of discovering that his experience is a reality rather than a simulation, the movie left out the second explanation and just challenged Captain Stevens with the existential problem of what to do as a basically dead man trapped with only 8 minutes of another man’s experience.”
While I agree with you, inevitably what happens when purposing that life is a simulation is that people think they can hack it and turn it into whatever they want. Because you have to start that thought experiment hypothetical, “Ok, you’re in a computer simulation and…[doesn’t matter what you say at this point because computers can be hacked] So it’s value as a thought experiment is shot, A. Computers are hackable, or B. If this simulation isn’t hackable and the rules are just like real life the difference is moot, making imagining a simulation an unnecessarily clumsy way to suspend disbelief.
So why I think it was a better choice to go the way Source Code did, is because it shows the body matters, and if they said he was a computer simulation the whole time, everyone just goes “If that was me I’d find the source code and hack it.” So if Source Code’s point is to get you thinking about death and whatnot it was probably better to have some foot in reality, even though it’s kinda plot holed either way.
Thanks for explaining this movie. I was really wondering what the hell was going on there.
This movie reminded me very much of a similar, though rather more in-depth use of the MWH in fiction, in Stephenson’s Anathem, whereupon it is possible to move between universes provided they are similar enough (because this makes them proximate in configuration space), by the process of observing another universe as the ‘prime’ (in essence, real) universe. And thus whilst there are numerous universes available to view, that which the viewer who can ‘choose’ between them focuses upon is the ‘real’ thread of space and time that continues. This process is what I felt was occurring when Colter was going back for the final time, but of course is inconsistent with the time he just got Christina off the train; of course, what differed was his persistence in the universe – he was forcibly separated from it on previous attempts by being brought back to Beleaguered Castle.
Also, Scott Bakula played Colter’s father. So clearly they were away of the links. I guess that, compared to Moon, we should expect some of the stepping back from complete explanation to come from the big budget and studio, but maybe that’s me being cliched and cynical.
Very nice analysis fenzel, thank you very much for posting this.
One bit to add is maybe that in terms of finding a more consistent explanation of the movie and “Source Code”, we can actually exclude the fact that Colter sends a text message to an alternative universe at the end of the movie, and that the past has somewhat been changed as suggested. The Goodwin that received his message there would logically be a different Goodwin, namely in his final continuation of reality, so he did not change anything with regards to the reality of the lab that we are first confronted with; that’ll still exists in its own right, as before.
I think what makes this movie interesting is to some extent the gaps it plants in explaining the “Source Code”. In that way it does engage the curious viewer to find his own, better, explanation, and without knowing enter the philosophy of mind, because the source code can only be meta-physical, and pondering some of the most challenging problems of science and philosophy. ;-)
I just saw the movie last night and a SERIOUSLY important piece of information is being left out from this ongoing argument… Please recall when Captain Stevens slips back into the “alternate universe” (As I believe this is what it is). After a few times of slipping back to the 8min mark, he begins to have memory flashes of his own life, eventually after slipping again, he begins having memory flashes of the body he takes over… Here comes the KICKER! In one frame of those flashes, Captain Stevens becomes CLAIRVOYANT! TUN TUN TUN! HE ACTUALLY SEES INTO THE FUTURE of this alternate universe. Which memory flash is it you ask? It is the one where he sees himself and Christina in front of the Chicago bean… How does slipping into an alternate universe play with time travel or him foreseeing future events? I’ll leave it at that just to stir the pot some. ; )
Before i forget, this theory is confirmed at the end of the movie when he asks Christina if she believes in fate! :D
Yes, that end scene completely brought down my entire thought process to rubble once I realized that he was having flashes of the “future”. But perhaps it had to do with the mixing of present and past, the two universes coming together unnaturally until it was finally caught up. Or perhaps he was seeing an alternate to the “alternate” reality he was trying to save, and once the 8 minutes were up he transitioned to that alternate reality.
I myself wondered more about how the story would progress from there, his being in someone else’s body. There’s a complete personal history that he knows nothing about, family and friends he wouldn’t know. I would’ve preferred that he woke up again on another mission, would have made for a better ending (in my own opinion).
Well, my introduction with the idea of alternative realities was with the ‘Back to the Future’ movies. Remember the scene where good ol’ Doc draws something like a railroad map trying to explain to the bewildered McFly why the hell the world is upside down as per him. Heck, that was pretty basic stuff compared to the one presented in this movie. And your talk of wavelength brings to mind the Angel Castille in the ‘Supernatural’ series talking about existing in the form of Wavelength as he battles the Heaven. Anyhow, the entire thing about alternative realities is every time you choose to do something else a new world pans out, where you took the other decision. I’m guessing I must have created atleast two hundreds worlds till now, eh? There goes one more! The fact that i decided to strike ‘space-bar’ instead of ‘;’ is proof enough. Wonder what my alternate version is doing out there with the ‘;’.
Great discussion of the film here. I’m happy to stretch disbelief enough to accept the parallel universe at the end- I wonder if the filmmakers made that decision after getting Jake Gyllenhaal for the part, as he ‘has previous’ in this kind of thing? But it does leave a major moral problem- the poor teacher has had his whole life stolen, and Jake’s now got to be even more Don Draper than Don Draper. My ‘director’s cut’ ending for the film would be for life to continue after the kiss- but for Jake to have been replaced by the guy he sees in the mirror, who’s a little bemused about where the last 8 minutes have gone, but happy to go along with it. That might actually make more pseudo-scientific sense- at the moment Jake’s consciousness is turned off, the suppressed identity resurfaces.
One more thing- I like the way the film hints at alternate realities at the very beginning, with the identity of the coffee-spiller changing- ‘It’s the same train but different’. Already at this point it’s clear that we’re not looking at a strict reconstruction of a dead man’s memory, but something altogether more fuzzy. I wish though that the film had pushed this theme a little harder, with a few more incidental details inexplicably changing- the problem is that when Jake is insisting that he might be able to affect ‘the real world’, the only evidence we have to support that is the sheer impossibility of all that he experiences being contained in a dead man’s memory- and the film requires us to accept that premise in order to suspend disbelief in the first place. If we take the ‘common sense’ approach, that what Jake experiences must draw on sources other than the dead memory, then the scientists who developed the technology look like idiots for not realising that too…
If by doing so I could get with Michelle Monaghan for 8 minutes, I’d be all up for that.
We don’t really die we have always existed and multiple facets in the universe allow us to redirect and relive again when we die or disappear we simply will be living in another time or another dimension the movie source code makes me cry because it explains best the strange situation we find ourselves in and we will become Ascension beings in time and are like an onion with many skins