Science & The Yellow Submarine

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The Beatles’ iconic 1968 film, Yellow Submarine, is more than meets the eye. Not that the eye…or ear…is ever starved for stimulation in this psychedelic romp. Far from it! But Yellow Submarine is much more than just a delivery vehicle for the Beatles’ great mid-60’s musical repertoire. The film raises a number of important cosmological, ontological and theological issues and it offers a number of truly remarkable scientific insights.

Whether the creators of Yellow Submarine intended to raise these issues or offer these insights is a moot point. Every great work of art transcends the intentions of its creator(s). Res ipsa loquitur (“the thing speaks for itself”)!  Nor is it uncommon for artists’ insights to precede the scientific dicoveries that support them. Picasso was painting in a Cubist style long before Einstein conceived of General Relativity.

Superficially, Yellow Submarine is the story of a journey from Liverpool, England to a magical realm called Pepperland.  But the submarine’s journey is not a journey in space or time. To get to Pepperland you don’t travel through spacetime; you travel perpendicular to spacetime. The voyage runs through a series of ‘seas’ (or branes) that lie parallel to one another (ontologically parallel) and in turn parallel to both Liverpool and Pepperland. Each brane is self-contained with its own mode of extension and its own physical laws; but all the branes ultimately combine to make up a single reality.

Our journey begins in a Liverpool building aptly called “The Pier”. The Pier is a long corridor with doors on either side. Open a door and you glimpse some sort of event. The event may be familiar or utterly fantastic. It may reflect ‘real life’ or it may be a scene from a movie. It’s as if all ontological categories were shaken up and poured out into your coffee table in one big mess.

To make matters worse, whenever attention is distracted, the corridor spontaneously fills up with fantastic creatures, some of whom we meet again later on in the Sea of Monsters. Apparently, the linear self-consistency that characterizes ordinary human experience is a function of self-imposed censorship, not of reality itself. Ringo, for example, sees his world as continuous and complete but we see that he is just selecting self-consistent experiences out of a much broader, non-linear array of actual or potential events.

In essence, we have ‘invented’ by selection the world of space and time, matter and energy, objects and motions we know as Liverpool. Not that these things aren’t real; they certainly are! But they are just one aspect of a reality that is enormously more complex. Yellow Submarine deconstructs ‘the real world’, revealing the layers and aspects that lie “beneath the sea” of our everyday experience.

In 1966, Hugh Everett wrote his “Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”. In this essay, he argued that everything that can happen does happen…in some universe. The Beatles have presented a similar idea, graphically, in Yellow Submarine. However, the Beatles do not suggest, as Everett did, that the universe bifurcates at every decision point; in the Beatles’ model all possible events co-exist in a single, albeit ‘thicker’, universe. If each Everett universe has N-dimensions, the Beatles’ entire universe has (N+1)-dimensions.

But now it’s time to set sail. First stop: the Sea of Time.

“What time is it?…It’s time for time…Look, the hands (of a clock) are slowing down…Maybe time’s gone on strike…”

John invokes “Einstein’s time-space continuum theory” to explain the unusual phenomena but actually something far more interesting is afoot here.

“I don’t want to alarm you but the years are going backwards. If we slip back through time at this rate we’ll all disappear up out of our own existence,” warns the sub’s admiral, Young Fred, who’s come to Liverpool from Pepperland in search of “help”.  Initially, to ‘disappear up out of our own existence’ seems very different from what people mean by ‘dying’. We don’t normally think of dying as annulling our existence. But if time is reversible (even just theoretically), then existence actually can be erased…retroactively. But if existence can be erased (even theoretically), then in what way can it lay claim to ever having been actual at all? If my current existence is not a settled matter of fact, if it can be annulled at any time, then at best it is a ‘virtual existence’, not a real one.

Yellow Submarine explores the famous “Grandfather Paradox” (I can’t go back in time and kill my grandfather because then I wouldn’t have been born in the first place so I couldn’t have traveled back in time and I couldn’t have killed him), but it reaches an unorthodox conclusion: of course you can go back in time! But good news: you won’t harm the old guy after all! Once you pass beyond the moment of your conception, you no longer exist and can do no damage. You annul your own existence by going backwards in time, not your grandfather’s..

The Grandfather Paradox assumes implicitly that we have an existence within time that is independent of time. Somehow we can go back 100 years before we were born and still be 52 years old. This is the result of a gross confusion of ontological categories. Later, we will discover that we do indeed have an existence that is independent of time…but that existence is outside of time entirely;  it is a-temporal (or eternal). It does not leave us swimming around in time like a character from Back to the Future.

John is undaunted. “Can’t we do something to the clock?…Move the hands forward, see what happens.” If you don’t like the way time’s going, change the way you measure it: adjust the clocks!

When Yellow Submarine was created, it was already understood that how you measured a quantum event could determine its outcome. It was not yet imagined, however, that time might be nothing but the metric (clock) we use to measure it. Roger Penrose was among the first to propose this surprising theory in Cycles of Time (2010); but the idea somehow pre-dated Penrose…in Yellow Submarine.

Applying John’s insight, our intrepid crew succeeds in reversing the direction of time (again), saving the crew from self-annihilation…for now. One is reminded of the ideas of Wilhelm Reich: Treat the symptoms and that will modify the underlying causes. But there are unexpected consequences:

“Funny…a submarine remarkably like our own…There’s someone in it…And they’re waving…wave back.”

“…I would suggest that yonder submarine is ourselves…going backwards…in time.”

John’s adjustment saved the crew from the risk of retroactive non-existence but it exposed them to the alternative risk of impending death. Now the crew is growing older at an alarming rate! Earlier we pointed out that conventional wisdom distinguishes dying from ‘disappearing up out of our own existence’,  but Yellow Submarine shows that this distinction is not valid after all. Conventional wisdom is wrong, as it so often is. Never-existing and ceasing-to-exist turn out to be mirror images of one another.

Yellow Submarine illustrates time as a loom shunting back and forth between past and future. Temporal reality is like Penelope’s textile in Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope weaves during the day but unravels her weaving every night so that she doesn’t ever have to produce a finished product. Temporal existence per se is like that textile, perpetually poised somewhere between not-being-yet and not-being-still but never really being.

This is in fact how we view the world. Everything seems poised somewhere between “coming to be” and “perishing”. We are so used to this that we accept it with little thought. But Yellow Submarine demonstrates that this common sense notion of reality actually makes no sense. Ceasing-to-be is the mirror image of never-having-been and the shunting loom of time puts us perpetually at risk of one or the other inevitable fate.

If we can cease to be then we are not, we never were and we never will be. If we are, on the other hand, we can never have not been and we can never cease to be! In the 5th century BC, the Greek philosopher, Parmenides, had a similar insight:

“…How could what-is be in the future and how could it come to be? For if it came to be, it is not…Thus coming to be is extinguished and perishing not be heard of. What-is is ungenerated and imperishable.”

Parmenides understood that if existence were dependent on capricious time, then it wouldn’t really be ‘existence’ at all. For Parmenides, ‘it is’ or ‘it is not’, period.

It turns out that you do not need to be able to travel backwards in time in order to see that the notion of real existence in a purely temporal continuum is a fallacy. Since death is the mirror image of never-having-been-born, acceptance of the reality of death is sufficient to disprove the reality of life. But there’s just one problem with this. Life is real! We know that because we’re living it, experiencing it. So reductio ad absurdum, we are left with only one possible conclusion: it is death that is not real! Yet I can and do witness the deaths of others. True, I cannot experience those deaths, nor can I ever experience my own death, but they seem real enough. So what gives?

Yellow Submarine opens with the line, “Once upon a time or maybe twice…” Things only happen ‘once upon a time’, i.e. they only happen once in time. Everything that happens in time happens only once because time is linear and every event occupies a unique position on the timeline.

The timeline is infinitely divisible, or at least virtually so, so time does not include a real ‘present’. At best the present is an infinitesimal point of zero duration, a mathematical fiction. From the perspective of this point, everything that happens in time happens either in the past or in the future.

Yet everything that happens must happen in the present or it wouldn’t happen at all. Happening only occurs in the present. We call what happens an ‘event’. Events by definition cannot be instantaneous; they must have non-zero duration. So therefore nothing that happens can happen in time; everything that happens must happen outside of time!

However, once something has happened, that event now occupies a region on the timeline in the past of some events and in the future of others. (Actually, there are more complicated scenarios but they don’t matter for purposes of this discussion.) The present therefore must be a-temporal (eternal). So everything that happens does happen ‘twice’, once in time and once in eternity.

When we experience past (or future) events, we experience them from a third person perspective; we refer to them as he, she, it or they. But when we experience present events, we experience them from a first person perspective; we say I or we. As far as we know, all experience contains both a third person aspect and a first person aspect. Experience is always dual: it includes the experience of things outside itself, things in its past or future, but it is also includes the experience of itself, the present. Experience inherits from the past and projects toward the future (3rd person) but it also injects an element of novelty (1st person) which is uniquely present.

This eternal present explains our experience of death as a 3rd person only pseudo-phenomenon. At the same time, it also salvages the reality of our experience. What happens outside of time cannot be erased by time. From the perspective of 1st person experience, there is no such thing as ‘death’, and of course, ultimately 1st person experience is all there really is. 3rd person phenomena are real only in so far they enter into 1st person experiences.

We draw the same conclusions when we look at things on a cosmic scale. If we accept the current consensus that spacetime begins with a Big Bang (not-yet-being) and ends with a Big Freeze (ceasing-to-be), then what postures as the history of the cosmos will ultimately be erased. In fact, Roger Penrose argues (Cycles of Time) that the Big Bang and the Big Freeze are one and the same event. Understood this way, all existence is potential, virtual, never actual. About all one can say about such a world is that it is not, never was, and never will be!

Once again, we turn to Parmenides to solve our dilemma. As I understand him, everything that exists exists in two modes: once in the mode of doxa (seeming), once in the mode of aletheia (truth). Doxa is the spatiotemporal world while Aletheia is its eternal correlate. Doxa is the world of past and future, perpetually becoming and perishing. Doxa is the world in the third person. Aletheia, on the other hand, is the changeless world of the eternal present where everything is conserved. It is the world in the first person. About all one can say about such a world is that it is, always was, and always will be!

Like the Sea of Time (and all the other ‘seas’ we’re about to meet), Liverpool and Pepperland are part of a network of ‘branes’, autonomous extensive continua, each with its own peculiar characteristics. Liverpool, for example, is characterized by a relatively flat spacetime, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity. In the ‘Sea of Time’ on the other hand, time is entirely plastic. It is no longer a quasi-objective ground on which subjects create figures; it is the subject, it is the figure. “It’s time for time!” Later we will encounter a ‘sea’ (the Sea of Holes) where non-being is the figure and being the ground.

20th Century British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, believed that the phenomenon of ‘extension’ per se was universal. However, he believed that the particular way in which extension expressed itself could vary from ‘cosmic epoch’ to ‘cosmic epoch’. The system of branes (or ‘seas’) that connects Liverpool and Pepperland consists of essentially autonomous cosmic epochs, each expressing the phenomenon of extension in its own unique way.

The notion of ‘branes’ as an explanation of cosmic phenomena was not fully articulated until Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages (2005); yet this idea pre-existed in Yellow Submarine.

Fortunately, the voyage through this temporal Scylla and Charybdis suddenly ends. The submarine passes out of the Sea of Time into a new sea and its crew members return to their ‘normal’ ages.

Next stop, “the Sea of Science”. If the subject of the Sea of Time was time itself (“it’s time for time”), the subject of this sea is space. The sea is characterized by its rectilinear grid and the Platonic solids that populate it. It’s ‘Plato meets Descartes’. Against this rectilinear background, various waveforms undulate. This sea can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is a two dimensional surface or a three dimensional space. Objects emerge out of a flat background and enclose space only to undergo contortions (technically ‘deformations’) that project them back onto a two dimensional surface.

Years after Yellow Submarine, it was discovered during the study of black holes that there is actually no difference between a two dimensional surface and a three dimensional volume. They both contain the exact same amount of ‘information’. Likewise, a hologram is a three dimensional image generated from a two dimensional film; the film encodes all the information needed to create the object. Once again, Yellow Submarine arrived at this understanding long before the mathematicians.

The voyage to Pepperland deconstructs everyday experience into its components. We began with time, then space. Now we move on to the objects and events that populate time and space. But these are not just the familiar objects and events of every day life for now we are heading into the Sea of Monsters, “the Monstrous Sea”.

This sea (or brane) is populated by a variety of creatures that embody physical traits found on earthly creatures but embody them in radically different combinations. These traits include features we would classify as artificial and mechanical as well as those we would recognize as organic.

One is reminded of Stephen Gould’s Wonderful Life (1989), an exploration of the explosion in species differentiation during the Cambrian period. Gould argued that our world might have been a very different place if the chaotic course of evolution had been tweaked ever so slightly.

D’Arcy Thomas in On Growth and Form found parallels between biological and non-biological patterns. Ultimately, technology and biology are not far apart; if a form works in one sphere, it may well work in the other. Yellow Submarine goes even further; it treats organic and artificial forms as ontological equals. Form is form and that’s an end to it. Our precious ‘ontological categories’ are reduced to ‘ontological soup’.

One of the creatures in this monstrous sea is the ‘dreaded vacuum’. Like a black hole, this creature sucks into itself everything in its environment.

“We’ll be sucked into oblivion…or even further,” and sure enough, they are. The ‘dreaded vacuum’ not only sucks all objects into itself, it also sucks up the fabric of spacetime itself. Ultimately, it even sucks itself into oblivion. The seas of time and space and monsters (forms/objects/events) are now annihilated. Now, we are left with ‘nothing’ in the most literal sense of the word. Nothing that is except Jeremy Hillary Boob, Phd…and the Yellow Submarine itself.

(Note: even though the submarine is sucked up by the vacuum monster, it avoids oblivion because it is the present. It exists both in the spatiotemporal seas and in Pepperland, the land of eternal presence. Therefore, it cannot be erased, annulled or destroyed.)

At the time Yellow Submarine was produced, it was generally believed that black holes annihilated information as well as objects and fields. Years later, Stephen Hawking proposed that information was not destroyed by a black hole but was conserved, albeit in a form that was entirely useless. Astoundingly, Yellow Submarine proposes the exact same theory. (If Stephen Hawking got his idea from the Beatles, he should have given them proper credit.)

After the vacuum has done its worst, we are left with a Boob, Jeremy Hillary Boob to be exact, and the Boob is pure information. Jeremy is a repository for all the information that existed in the world prior to the world’s (black hole’s) collapse but in Jeremy the information is entirely disorganized. Entropy is so extreme that the Boob’s information cannot be harnessed to do any actual work. For the Boob’s information to be useful it must be organized and Jeremy must display certain ontological features:

(1) Place, orientation, a sense of ‘past’. (2) Purpose, aim, a sense of ‘future’. (3) Relation, a sense of ‘other’. (4) Identity, a sense of ‘self’.

These four ontological requirements are remarkably similar to those proposed by Alfred North Whitehead (Process and Reality):

Every ‘actual entity’ comes to be in a specific place along the extensive continuum. That continuum is constituted by the unique set of defined relations that each actual entity has with every other actual entity in its ‘actual world’. Every actual entity comes to be (Heidegger’s ‘Dassein’) by virtue of its subjective aim, its appetite for something beyond its actual world, something novel. Every actual entity comes to be what it is (Heidegger’s ‘Wassein’) by virtue of the qualities it prehends in other actual entities. Finally, every actual entity achieves ‘satisfaction’ when it becomes a settled matter of fact and its ‘superject’ becomes available for ingression into other actual entities.

As the film continues, we witness the nowhere man, Jeremy Hillary Boob, and his information gradually becoming ‘useful’ and ‘useable’. The Boob’s evolution begins when he enters into a relationship with the Beatles and puts his knowledge to use fixing the submarine’s motor. For the first time, he has an experience of the ‘other’ (JP Sartre, Being and Nothingness), he forms a purpose and he organizes and applies information to accomplish that purpose.

But this is not yet sufficient to carry Mr. Boob over the ontological threshold. True relation is not just an encounter with ‘other’; the encounter must be reciprocal. Furthermore, JHB has not yet assumed a location or an orientation along the extensive continuum. Fortunately, however, all that is about to change.

“Mr. Boob, you can come with us if you like.”

“You mean you’d take a nowhere man?”

“Come on, we’ll take you somewhere.”

JHB still has a lot of growing to do…and he does it! But once he accepts the Beatles’ offer to accompany them to Pepperland, he crosses the threshold from nothing to something, from nobody to somebody. Now he has a place in the world, a purpose, a reciprocal relationshp with others and a sense of himself in community with others.

The ultimate theme of Yellow Submarine is ontogenesis and that makes Jeremy the film’s hero. Much earlier in the movie, we met Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie, the film’s anti-heroes. These denizens of Liverpool, no doubt good people, fail to achieve personhood because they fail to satisfy the four conditions outlined above.

But let’s return to our journey. The hierarchy of quasi-physical ‘seas’ (branes) was disrupted by the vacuum monster. The physicality of Liverpool is now entirely gone. What remains? Besides the ontologically indestructible submarine (and its crew), and the Boob of course, all that is left is disembodied subjectivity. Next stop: the Headlands.

This is a sea of transparent heads without any functioning bodies. Thoughts lack orientation, consistency, purpose, coherence. Things go in circles…or they go nowhere at all. The musical score likens this sea to the experience of LSD: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

Much earlier in the movie, before the journey actually begins, Ringo notices that George is driving his car: “Wait a minute, that’s my car…How do you know it’s your car?…I’d know it anywhere…What does it look like then?…It’s red with yellow wheels.” But when they look back, it’s not; it’s “blue with orange wheels”. George’s conclusion: “It’s all in the mind.”

Ringo and George are staking claims to opposite sides of a great philosophical divide. Ringo sides with Aristotle and Marx (‘materialism’); his world view incorporates Sartre’s ‘en soi’, Heiddeger’s ‘Dassein’, Whitehead’s ‘actual entities’ and ‘physical prehensions’. George, on the other hand, comes down with Plato and Hegel (‘idealism’); his world view incorporates Sartre’s ‘pour soi’, Heiddeger’s ‘Wassein’, Whitehead’s ‘eternal objects’ and ‘conceptual prehensions’.

Who wins the debate? It’s unclear; in a certain respect they both do. And perhaps that’s the point. Any world view that does not incorporate and account for both matter and mind cannot ultimately be successful. In the Headlands, however, we see the consequences of an ‘all-in-the-mind’ ontology and it’s not pretty. Bottom line: Mind matters but mind matter!

After the Headlands, as promised, comes the Sea of Holes. Now we have passed into the realm of ‘negative space’. The usual relations of figure and ground are reversed. The sea itself is the ground and the holes in that ground constitute the figure. Nothingness has become concrete, so concrete that Ringo is actually able to put a ‘hole’ in his pocket.

The topology of this sea is radically non-orientable. There is no consistent sense of directionality, no spatial ordering. It’s like an Escher drawing on steroids. But if the Sea of Holes is evidently non-orientable, then it can be proven that the entire universe in which it is embedded, including Liverpool and Pepperland, must also be non-orientable, albeit less obviously so. We may say that the other branes are ‘locally orientable’ but that the universe itself is non-orientable.

In a non-orientable world, there are no privileged points or directions. However, every point in the universe has two distinct and opposite orientations (e.g. up and down arrows on a Mobius strip). These opposite orientations may correspond to the temporal and eternal orientations of events in the real world.

Now at last we are ready to cross over into the anti-world, Pepperland…if only we could find it! We must first past through the Sea of Green. “Sea of Holes into the Sea of Green!” Fortunately, our Argonauts do find the one and only ‘hole’ that functions as a passageway to the Sea of Green, and when they do, they immediately find themselves in Pepperland. The Sea of Green turns out not be to a proper sea at all but merely an ontological membrane separating the Sea of Holes from Pepperland; it has zero depth.

Once the Beatles arrive in Pepperland, they discover that they bear an “uncanny” resemblance to four permanent residents of Pepperland, “the originals”, the members of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course, we later learn that the Beatles actually are the Sergeant Pepper band!

Initially, “the originals” are separated from the rest of the Pepperland by the dome of a “big glass bowl”. It is as if the cosmos were censoring itself: if the Beatles are Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, then they cannot coexist; one of them must be confined on a separate mini-brane. The “big glass bowl” creates the separation that maintains the cosmic order.

But that order is about to be broken! Remember, Ringo has a ‘hole’ in his pocket (from the Sea of Holes). Ringo applies the hole to the “big glass bowl” and through the medium of nothingness the ontological barrier dissolves and the two realities meet on the same extensive plane. Just as the Sea of Holes ultimately connects Liverpool with Pepperland, so Ringo’s hole connects the Beatles with their alter-egos.

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the Beatles under the aspect of eternity (Parmenides’ Aletheia) while the Beatles are Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band under the aspect of history (Parmenides’ Doxa). When Ringo’s hole connects the two realms we finally see clearly that temporality and eternity are complementary aspects of a single reality.