Science and the Yellow Submarine Part I

David Cowles

May 29, 2022

Yellow Submarine is much more than just a delivery vehicle for the Beatles’ 1960s musical repertoire. The film addresses important ontological and cosmological issues, and it offers some truly remarkable scientific insights in the process.

Science & the Yellow Submarine – Part I

The Beatles’ iconic 1968 film, Yellow Submarine, is more than meets the eye. Not that eye…or ear…is ever wanting for stimulation in this psychedelic romp. Far from it! But Yellow Submarine is much more than just a delivery vehicle for the Beatles’ 1960s musical repertoire. The film addresses important ontological and cosmological issues, and it offers some truly remarkable scientific insights in the process.

Whether the creators of Yellow Submarine intended to raise these issues and 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’ intuitive insights to precede the scientific discoveries that support them. Picasso was painting in a Cubist style before Einstein conceived General Relativity.

Yellow Submarine is the story of a journey from Liverpool, England to a magical realm called Pepperland. But to get to Pepperland, you don’t travel through spacetime; you travel perpendicular to it. (Who knew?) I am reminded of Harry Potter boarding the train to Hogwarts on track 9¾. Just like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the more we travel, the more we stay right where we are.

We travel to the ends of the earth. We travel on business, we travel for vacation, and sometimes we travel just for fun (or at least we used to), but somehow we always end up in Liverpool. To travel to someplace other than where we are now, like Harry Potter, we have to travel ‘between the snowflakes,’ so to speak.

Our voyage (in this essay) will take us through a series of ‘seas’ (or branes) that lie parallel to one another (ontologically parallel, that is) and in turn lie parallel to both Liverpool and Pepperland. Each brane is a self-contained manifold with its own mode of extension and its own physical laws, populated with its own characteristic entities. These branes are what 20th century British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called, ‘Cosmic Epochs.’ (More Whitehead to come.) Together, these branes, the ‘seas’ plus Liverpool and Pepperland, constitute a ‘universe,’ or perhaps better, a ‘multiverse.’

The film breaks ‘the real world’ into primary categories (time, space, matter, thought, etc.). Then it explores each category, illustrating the full range of potential configurations and finally demonstrating how we can mix and match content from these branes to generate a multiplicity of unique universes.

Yellow Submarine is a cosmogenic cookbook! When I was a kid, we had books and pamphlets on things like, “How to tie a square knot.” Yellow Submarine is a video on “How to build a universe.” How cool is that!

Our journey begins at a building in Liverpool aptly named “The Pier.” The Pier is a long corridor with a series of doors running along both sides. Open a door, and you catch a glimpse of 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 (e.g., King Kong). It’s as if all our ontological categories were shaken up and poured out onto a coffee table like dice. “Yahtzee!”

To make matters worse, whenever your attention is distracted, the corridor spontaneously fills with all manner of fantastic creatures, some of whom we will meet again…in the Sea of Monsters! (Science & the Yellow Submarine – Part II, AT Magazine, Issue #2, 9/1/22)

As predicted by Quantum Field Theory, things on the Pier behave much differently when they are being observed than when they are not. Early on, we learn that the linear self-consistency we all take for granted is just a function of self-imposed censorship. Ringo sees his world as continuous, complete, logical, almost necessary, while we see that he is just selecting self-consistent experiences out of a much broader, non-linear array of potential events. We build our own lives!

Years ago, before GPS and Google Maps, AAA produced something called a Trip-Tic. Essentially, a Trip-Tic is a map with a line drawn across it, showing the traveler’s recommended route. We live along that route. Yellow Submarine, on the other hand, explores the entire field (i.e., the whole map).

We invent-by-selection the world of space and time, matter and energy, object and action, that we know as ‘Liverpool.’ Not that these things aren’t real; they most certainly are! But they are just one expression of a reality that is much more varied, one aspect of an enormously complex reality.

Traveling perpendicular to spacetime allows us to see the world from the inside out. Now we’re seeing the ‘underside’ of the oriental rug. We learn how a gaggle of seemingly random ‘knots’ can produce a gorgeous pattern on the obverse side of things. Now, we’re able to deconstruct the universe, revealing the constituent layers that lie “beneath the sea” of everyday experience.

In 1966, Hugh Everett published his “Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.” In this essay, he argued that everything that can happen does happen…in some universe. The Beatles present a somewhat similar idea, albeit graphically, in Yellow Submarine. But 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 single ‘Beatles universe’ has N+1 dimensions. We could spend some time further exploring the implications of this last sentence, but too late, it’s time to set sail. (Saved by the boat whistle!)

First stop, the Sea of Time: “What time is it? …It’s time for time! …Look, the hands are slowing down…Maybe time’s gone on strike.”

Here, time flows at a variable rate…and it flows backwards as well as forwards. In Liverpool, time flows in only one direction and at only one ‘speed,’ but in Pepperland…

“It’s time for time.” In fact, the Sea of Time is the ‘womb’ of all possible versions of time; it is ‘the mother of all time,’ literally and figuratively.

In 1992, Alan Lightman wrote Einstein’s Dreams, a ‘novel’ that explores what it would be like to live in various alternative spacetimes. In Lightman’s novel, spacetime itself is the main character, the book’s ‘hero.’ Yellow Submarine does something similar in the medium of film.

“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 newly commissioned admiral, Young Fred, who’s come to Liverpool from Pepperland searching for “heeelp” for his beleaguered homeland.

To ‘disappear up out of our own existence’ seems very different from what people usually mean by ‘dying.’ We consider death to be the terminus of a living thread. We don’t normally think of dying as annulling the very existence of that thread. But if time is reversible (even just theoretically), then existence can be erased…retroactively! If existence can be erased, even if it is not erased, in what sense can it claim to be or ever to have been? If my existence is not a settled matter of fact, if it can be modified, or even annulled, after the fact, then at best it’s a ‘virtual existence.’

For if a world can self-annihilate, it will (Everett) and it will self-annihilate retroactively, as well as proactively.

If Being can be annihilated, then it isn’t really ‘being’ at all, is it? When something ceases to be, without recourse to some fixed (permanent) reference point beyond itself, it ceases to have ever been.

Without reference to some ‘transcendent point’ outside spacetime, it is inevitable that all possible worlds will self-annihilate; and if all possible worlds are doomed to self-annihilation, then no world can ever possibly exist. (Whatever can ‘not-be,’ is not now, is not ever: it cannot be!)

Yellow Submarine begins as a ‘secular’ (flat, democratic) ontology with no transcendent reference point to act as a lifeline; but it quickly proves that no consistent secular ontology is possible. Being, as we shall see, turns out to be incurably hierarchical (i.e., value driven)!

So, it turns out that we can go back and forth in time as much as we like, but we can’t go back and forth in time and still exist. Bummer!

John is undaunted. “Can’t we do something to the clock? …move the hands forward, see what happens.” In other words, 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 known that how you measure a quantum event influences the outcome of that event. It was not yet imagined, however, that time itself 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 pre-dated Penrose by decades…in Yellow Submarine. Applying John’s insight, our intrepid crew succeeds in reversing the direction of time (again), saving the crew from annihilation…for now.

I am reminded of Wilhelm Reich: Treat the symptoms, and that alone will cure the underlying cause. But, as always, there are unintended consequences:

“Funny…a submarine remarkably like our own…There’s someone in it…And they’re waving…wave back.” Citing Einstein, John suggests “that yonder submarine is ourselves…going backwards…in time.”

Outrageously, Yellow Submarine proposes that time is, in fact, a function of the clocks that measure it, not the other way around as we have mistakenly supposed. Surprisingly, many 21st century cosmologists would agree!

John’s adjustment saved the crew from ‘retroactive non-existence,’ but it exposed them to the alternative risk of ‘impending doom.’ What a world! Now, the crew finds itself growing older, but at a similarly alarming rate!

Conventional wisdom distinguishes dying from ‘disappearing up out of our own existence,’ but Yellow Submarine conducts a ‘thought experiment’ in the Sea of Time, showing that this distinction is not valid after all. Conventional wisdom is wrong again, as usual. Never-existing and ceasing-to-exist turn out to be mirror images of one another. If ever I will not be, then I never was!

These days, talk of ‘life after death’ is frowned upon by our intellectual elites. So instead, people say things like, “Well, at least I lived my life, nobody can take that away from me!” But in fact, they can take it away from you, they will, and they have done. Ceasing to be turns out to be the same thing as never having been at all. Better yet, ceasing to be turns out to be never having been at all.

Like the ‘Midgard Serpent’ in Norse Mythology, Being is an ouroboros: it is capable of consuming itself, tail first. (We’ll talk more about this strange topology in Science & the Yellow Submarine - Part II in the Fall Issue of AT Magazine, 9/1/22.)

Time, according to Yellow Submarine, is like 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 never has to produce a finished product.

We are all, each of us, Penelope! (“I am Spartacus!”)

We linger in the ‘zone’ of the cosmic loom for as long as we can, knowing that eventually there will either be a finished textile, or no textile at all. ‘Same difference’ as we used to say as kids, the rough equivalent of ‘whatever’ in today’s parlance. Bottom line, either way, finished textile or no textile at all, Penelope is doomed and doomed to the exact same fate either way. We saw (above) that ‘ceasing to be’ is the same as ‘never having been.’ Likewise, a finished textile is the same as no textile at all.

Again, reality is an ouroboros: the head is connected to the tail. (We’ll talk more about this when we discuss ‘non-orientable topologies’ in Science & the Yellow Submarine - Part II.) She (we) cannot avoid that fate; we can only try to postpone it by staying in the ‘zone’ for as long as possible. According to this model, without some reference point beyond itself (i.e., without ‘transcendence’), any possible world will self-annihilate; and if all possible worlds are doomed to self-annihilation, then no world can ever actually exist. If we can cease to be, then we are not now, never were, and never will be.

Mortality is the poison pill sitting at the bottom of the Great Well of Being.

But on the other hand, if we are, if we truly are, then we can never cease to be! But that ‘true being’ can only be conferred on us by participation in that which is eternal. In the 5th century BC, the Greek philosopher Parmenides, in his epic poem, On Nature, drew a similar conclusion:

“…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 to be heard of. What-is is ungenerated and imperishable.”

Whitehead (above) said that Western Philosophy is nothing but a collection of footnotes on Plato’s Timaeus; I would go further and say that Western Philosophy is nothing but footnotes on Parmenides’ On Nature. Parmenides understood that if ‘existence’ were dependent on the caprice of time, there wouldn’t be any ‘existence’ at all. We mistakenly view time as ‘the cradle of becoming and perishing.’ It is not that!

Time is entropy. In the words of the Bhagavad Gita, time is “death, the destroyer of worlds.” You do not need to travel backwards in time to see that the notion of real existence in a purely temporal continuum is fiction. Since death is the mirror image of never-having-been-born, true acceptance of the reality of birth and death is sufficient to disprove the reality of life.

Life and death are not ‘opposites’ as we have supposed; they are entirely ‘incompatibles.’ ‘To be or not to be’ is not a choice, but a sentence! But there’s just one problem with all this. Life is real! We know that it is because we’re living it, experiencing it right now. Cogito ergo est.

So, reductio ad absurdum, we are left with only one possible conclusion: it is death (non-being) that must not be real, and thankfully, that fits nicely into the cosmologies of Parmenides, Whitehead…and the Beatles. (Otherwise, I’d have nothing to write about.) Yet, I can and do witness the deaths of others.

True, I cannot experience those deaths directly, nor will I ever experience my own death, but they seem real enough. So, what gives?

As usual, Yellow Submarine has the answer. The film opens with the line, “Once upon a time or maybe twice…”

Things only happen ‘once upon a time’ in spacetime. ‘Uniqueness’ is a defining characteristic of ‘event’ (so no two events can ever be the same). If they could be the same, they wouldn’t be events at all.

As we shall see in Part II of this essay (9/1/22), there is a cosmological barrier that works to enforce the uniqueness rule. We might call it ‘the Ringo Starr Exclusion Principle’ (in honor of Pauli’s Exclusion Principle). Everything that happens in time happens only once because time is linear; every unique event will come to occupy a unique position on the timeline.

But something is still missing! But what? O yeah, assuming that the timeline is continuous and infinitely divisible, we’re missing a ‘Present.’ We have signed on to a spacetime that does not include a real ‘Present.’ Brilliant! It’s as if we bought a used car ‘as is,’ but neglected to check to see if it had an engine. This would seem to be the cosmological equivalent of ‘painting yourself into a corner.’ But, as we shall see, we have a way out.

At best, the present is an infinitesimal point of zero duration, a mathematical fiction. From the perspective of this point, everything that happens, happens either in the past or in the future. But nothing happens in the past or in the future! Everything that happens must happen in the Present, or it couldn’t happen at all. ‘To happen’ is to be present, and to be present is to be happen’n.

“What’s happen’n’?’”

Therefore, nothing that happens, happens in spacetime. All happening must take place in the universal and eternal Present, which is outside of time. Here, it is possible to get confused, so let’s take a moment to sort this out.

There is no ‘space,’ no interval, between the past and the future; there is no space on the timeline for an event to occur. So, everything that happens must happen outside spacetime, i.e., in the a-temporal (i.e., eternal) Present.

However, when something happens (in the present), that event enters cosmic history as something ‘past;’ only now does it earn a spot on the timeline!

From the point of view of someone inside time, it looks as though being is the continuous conversion of the indefinite future into the settled past. This continuous conversion process is what misleads us into thinking that the past somehow determines (causes) the future. And why not? It sure looks like causation, but of course, it isn’t. Inside time, a happening is experienced as the instantaneous conversion of future to past. ‘Happening’ per se, is what converts that indeterminate future into the decided past.

So, what can we say? (1) everything that happens, happens in the Present; (2) we live in a cosmic epoch where spacetime includes no Present; (3) therefore, nothing happens, nothing ever has happened, and nothing ever can happen; we live in an immaculately sterile universe.

Except, of course, we don’t! We live in a universe teeming with events. So, what are we missing?

It turns out there is a Present after all…you just won’t find it on any timeline. The Present is a-temporal (eternal). So, in a sense everything that happens does happen ‘twice’ – once inside time, once outside. All experience is bipolar: it’s the experience of something outside itself (i.e., things in its past or future), but it is also its experience of itself (i.e., the Present).

Experience inherits from the past and projects into the future (third person), but experience also necessarily injects an element of novelty (first person) into every event. This ‘novelty’ is what we mean when we talk about the event’s ‘unique Present.’

From the perspective of first person experience, there is no such thing as ‘death,’ and of course, ultimately, first person experience is all there really is. Third-person phenomena are real only insofar as they have the potential to enter into first person experiences (per Alfred North Whitehead).

Roger Penrose argues (Cycles of Time) that Big Bang and Big Freeze are one and the same event. The Poetic Eda of Norse Mythology and Penrose’s Cycles of Time, both tell the same tale, the tale of a Universe capable of consuming itself tail first: an ourobos! (Yes, I do like this word, and I do plan to keep using it; sorry!)

Understood this way, all existence is potential and virtual, never actual. About all one can say about such a world is that it is not now, never was, and never will be!

Once again, we turn to Parmenides for help. 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 corresponds to the spatio-temporal world, while Aletheia is its eternal correlate. Doxa is the world of past and future, the world of perpetual becoming and perishing. Doxa is World in the third person.

In the language of twentieth century existentialist theologian Martin Buber, Doxa is the realm of ‘I – it’ relationships. Aletheia, on the other hand, is the changeless world of the eternal Present. It is the world ‘conserved;’ it is the world ‘conserving.’ It is the eternal aspect of every spacetime event.

Aletheia is World in the first person, and it is the realm of Buber’s ‘I – Thou’ relationships. About all one can say about such a world is that it is - without qualification!

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;’ that network ultimately comes to be what we call ‘Universe.’ In Liverpool, spacetime is ‘flat.’ In the ‘Sea of Time’ on the other hand, time itself is plastic. In Liverpool, spacetime masquerades as the backdrop against which events occur. In the Sea of Time, on the other hand, ‘time’ is center stage; it’s ‘in the spot’ so to speak. It is not a medium in which events occur or a ground on which subjects create figures. It is the subject…it is the figure. “It’s time for time!”

Alfred North Whitehead, cited above, 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 potentially contains all possible modes of extension. 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 (1968).

Fortunately, the voyage through this 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,’ Liverpulian ages.

In Science & the Yellow Submarine – Part II (AT Magazine, Issue #2, 9/1/22) we will encounter new seas, new creatures and new adventures; and we arrive at long last in Pepperland. In the Beatles’ words, “There are rough seas ahead…Join us!”


Image: A scene from “Yellow Submarine.” Credit: Subafilms


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at

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