The mind / body dualism of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

This weekend, I watched the movie, ‘Edge of Tomorrow‘, also known as ‘Live. Die. Repeat.’  It’s the latest in a common motif in science fiction and fantasy, the time loop story, where the hero repeats the same events over and over until they find a way to break out.  It’s a concept that’s been explored in the past by films such as ‘Ground Hog Day‘, in Star Trek and Stargate SG-1 episodes, and probably numerous other venues.

In this movie, aliens have attacked the Earth and taken over most of Europe.  The protagonist, a public relations officer named William Cage (Tom Cruise), after being arrested, awakens to find himself on a base, drafted into the infantry, and heading for the front line of an attack.  The attack is a disaster, with Cage being killed, but as he dies, he is bathed in the acid like blood of one of the aliens, and suddenly awakens again at the base with the events of the disastrous attack still ahead of them.

Of course, no one listens to him when he tries to warn them, and the events end up repeating, with minor variations resulting from Cage doing things differently based on his experience from the previous iteration.  But he dies again, and again wakes up at the beginning of the day, and the events repeat again.

As he repeats the day of the attack over and over, he finds allies in other characters that know what is happening to him, gets combat training, and grows as an individual.  This growth is important because he starts the film as something of a dandified coward, arrested when he tried to blackmail a general to avoid reporting from the front lines of the battle.  But gradually as the movie progresses, he becomes battle hardened, experienced, and more admirable and sympathetic.

Cage is primarily assisted by Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the most decorated soldier in the war, who it turns out used to be in a similar time loop.  Just like Cage, she had been bathed in alien blood while dying.  Her time loops lasted until, wounded on the battlefield, she received a blood transfusion.  She warns Cage not to allow himself to be only injured, to insure that he is killed in each loop, to forestall this possibility of his losing the looping ability until they can destroy the aliens.

I enjoyed this film, and I recommend it.  It’s got a lot of action, humor, and character development.  Both Blunt and Cruise do an excellent job in their roles and the visuals are well done.  And the aliens, as we learn more about them, turn out to be an interesting.  Among other things, their blood causing the time loops are their secret weapon, the ability to rewind the day and adjust their battle strategy.

But given the debates some of us have had recently about mind uploading and dualism, one thing that struck me when watching this film, was the strong implication of mind / body dualism in the plot.  And I realized that this applied to just about every occurrence of the time loop motif.  The hero is transported back in time mentally, but not physically.

In this movie, it’s the exposure to alien blood that causes Cage to start looping.  This is interesting because the blood is a physical contamination, infestation, or infiltration that causes a mental shift in time.

I tried to fathom if there was anyway the plot might work without dualism.  Maybe the alien blood had nanobots in it, that analyzed the human nervous system, recorded the brain state, and transplanted that state back in time.  (A type of mind uploading and an engineered form of dualism.)  But this brought up a lot of issues.  The nanobots were intelligent enough to record human brain states, but not intelligent enough to realize they were aiding the wrong species?  And how exactly would the nanobots have transferred that state to Cage’s brain when he woke up, again without realizing they were aiding the wrong species?

Or maybe the alien blood transported just Cage’s nervous system back in time, or some part of it?  But transporting any physical portion of Cage would require that the blood know how to integrate that physical portion with the version of Cage at the beginning of the day.  And doing so would have led to a part of Cage’s physiology being subject to cumulative fatigue as he looped over and over again.  The movie implies that Cage goes through the day of the attack hundreds of times, possibly thousands.  This would only be possible if Cage’s entire physical state was being reset at the beginning of each time loop.

No, the only way the story works is that Cage’s mind is separate from his body, and can be transported and relinked to his body at the beginning of the day.  It also simplifies the mechanism of the blood, since all it really has to do is monitor the connection between Cage’s physical brain and his separate mind, and act when that connection becomes separated.  Of course, the implication is that the aliens have the same dualistic arrangement.

This makes the dualism in the movie of a pretty strong variety.  Cage receives cumulative combat training as he loops over and over.  So it’s not just his high order thoughts on the mental side of the connection, but his muscle memory, his learned reaction times.  It seems to me that such a strong form of dualism is pretty incompatible with current scientific understandings of the human nervous system.

But the concept works for audiences because our common intuitions are dualistic.  We don’t think of ourselves as our body, but as possessing and controlling that body.  Studies looking at children have demonstrated that they consistently have this intuition as infants, before cultural and religious influences have had a chance to be stamped on them, at least on all of them.

No doubt I’m putting far more thought into this than the actual filmmakers did, but that only shows that they themselves likely held the dualistic intuition, probably without even explicitly thinking about it.

What do you think?  Is there a way I’m missing that the time loop story can work without mind / body dualism?

9 thoughts on “The mind / body dualism of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

  1. How are the mind and the body separated? I mean, what is the mechanism? Going by the history of science, there have been repeated instances where something that was not connected to what was known was proven to be connected.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Within the context of the movie, I think death separated them.

      Or do you mean, in real life, how would they exist separately? Not sure. That’s always been one of the many problems with traditional dualism.


  2. Having not seen the film I can’t say for sure, but it does seem to me that your case is well argued, and that dualism is the only way to accommodate the plot.

    Thinking your question over, something that occurred to me is that there is nothing about time travel in general that commits one to dualism, but there does seem to be something about the time looping storyline that does seem to imply dualism. In connection with your comments on our common intuitions in favor of dualism, I wonder if the time looping storyline is meant to be a more plausible form of time travel, as we can imagine ourselves stuck in a rut, deja vu and all, more than we can your more straightforward time travel, a la back to the future. I don’t mean to say that we have intuitions here of the kind we do about general theories of mind, but we have dispositions not to believe, and in seeing a sci-fi flick we are asked to suspend disbelief, and it seems easier to ask the audience to suspend disbelief about time travel in the more modest form of a looping story than controlled time travel. If the looping story seems less farfetched than straightforward time travel does despite this commitment to dualism then that is interesting in itself. But the question becomes whether looping time travel is less farfetched to the audience precisely because it is based in dualism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect you may be right. Time loop stories, or any story that involves mental travel through time rather than physical, probably is seen as more plausible, and that’s probably because of the implied dualism, although hardly anyone realizes it.

      What’s interesting is how often this occurs in science fiction. I’m reminded of the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Captain Picard finds himself mentally shifting between three different time periods. I seriously doubt the writers of that episode would have considered it a pro-dualism story, but looking back at it, that appears to be the implication of the story. (Of course, the omnipotent alien Q was involved, which means that they could always excuse it as some very advanced engineered and temporary form of dualism.)


  3. You’re right that dualism is embedded in our intuitions from a very early age, probably before any explicit discussion or education takes place to indoctrinate a child. Every small child has imagined what it would like to “be” a dragon, mouse, tree or rock (where “be” means transfer of the “self” into the physical body of the other creature or object.)

    We are seemingly hardwired to believe in the myth of dualism. Religion and fairy tales thrive on it, so why should the producers of a Tom Cruise movie give it a moment’s thought?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think you’re right, SAP.

    I enjoyed the movie, but there are a few plot holes that bother me in the same way.

    ****HERE BE SPOILERS****

    Firstly, how could Blunt or Cruise ever know they had lost the ability to jump through time? Blunt just states that she had a transfusion which took away her power, but how could she possibly have realised this? Cruise, having been primed with this more or less assumes he has lost the power after his own transfusion, although he also mutters something about “feeling it”. I don’t buy it.

    I also think it’s problematic how blasé Blunt is about killing Cruise. She doesn’t reflect at all on what it means for her. Either it means her world is destroyed (including her) so that Cruise can go back in time to meet an earlier version of herself, or even worse, her world is not destroyed — from her perspective Cruise is simply dead and now she finds herself being arrested for murder. I guess it doesn’t matter much either way if the world is going to end, but there was no thought given to this side of it at all and her killing of him is altogether too automatic and unreflective. Not that I would necessarily change it, it added a certain amount of humour at times.


    1. Wow, good point! It never even occurred to me that she had no way to know that she had lost her looping ability. It’s not like she could die and observe her failure to loop. No doubt the “feeling” was the script writer’s attempt to cover that hole.

      On the timelines continuing after Cage’s deaths, I think that’s an excellent point. I thought the same thing when Vrataski kills Cage when they fail to escape the general’s headquarters. If that timeline continued for her, she was screwed.

      The film almost always cuts away the instant Cage dies, but the first time he attempted to role under the truck, he gets splatted, and we get the sergeant asking, to comical effect, what he could have been thinking. It’s the one time where the timeline seems to continue after Cage’s death. (Of course, since we don’t actually see Cage’s mangled body in that scene, the filmmakers could always claim he wasn’t quite dead until the cutaway.)


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