Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas

Time Is What We Are – Uncertain

Time is subjective and always about a changeable past

Time Is What We Are

Time is everywhere we are. Maybe that’s why we take a lot of things about it for granted: for example that the past is fixed and unchangeable, and that the future is open and changeable.

The Present

When is now? As crazy as the question seems at first – after all, now is, surely, right this moment in the present – we also realise that any instant of now will be over before the thought is completed. The present is an amorphous period with fuzzy edges within a continuum of past and future, so we don’t know where it begins or where it ends. All we can know is that our now instantly becomes the past. Although we seem to feel and know what the present moment means that doesn’t make it a temporal fact. Vienna Circle philosopher Rudolf Carnap recounted how Einstein told him that ‘the experience of the now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics.’

According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, time is not absolute but relative, and dependent on the location of the events that are being timed. There is no one ‘now’, in fact, since it is impossible that two distinct events occur at the same time if those events are separated by space. Now is different for each person. We do not see things at the same time as anybody else does. Since two people cannot be in exactly the same place at the same time, the light from, say, an apple, takes different lengths of time to reach each person. As Leibniz put it, there cannot be two identical objects, since even if they seem similar in all properties, such as shape, colour, etc., they are different because they are in different locations. The fact that no two people see the same apple (because they are seeing it at different times) means there can be no claim as to which the real apple is. To put it starkly: since everyone looking at an apple sees it differently, there is no one objective apple; everyone sees it subjectively from their temporal point of view.

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"There is never ‘now’, since it immediately moves to the past, into our memory"

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What I am claiming goes even further: not only is there no one, individual now, there is never ‘now’, since it immediately moves to the past, into our memory.

So, arguing that the present doesn’t actually exist is a reasonable conclusion – if we think of ourselves as being in constant change, continuously moving back into our memories. There is no getting away from this non-intuitive position. This has consequences on our identity too: we will always see things at a fractionally different time to everyone else, even to ourselves. So, we will never see ourselves as we are, but as we were!

The Past

But do we know what we were truly like? Our memories are often precarious and dissimilar from other people’s, even if they regard an event we witnessed together. Yet this shouldn’t surprise us, since there never is ‘a same event’, and so there cannot be one memory recalling that event. Moreover, our own memory is itself constantly changing.

The way perceptions and memory interact makes any claim to objectivity about experience problematic. After all, if what is happening is often influenced by the memory of the last event that (possibly) happened – be it positive or negative – how can we be sure that what we experience is anything other than a changed memory? How, in fact, can we reconcile our experience with our memory?

The idea, popularly believed, that it isn’t memory that changes, but merely our perceptions of what happened, leans on the assumption that there is such a thing as a ‘real memory.’ We cannot assume, though, that our memories are ever of ‘the real thing that actually happened’, despite the absolutely clear feeling that they are, since there was never any static now on which they could reliably be based. Andy Warhol summoned back memories by sniffing at perfumes he had worn in the past – his personal ‘scent museum’ – so that he was instantly brought back to those periods. It’s a comforting thought that one can do that. But can we? Is an intense memory necessarily a real memory? We have no idea; there is no way of knowing. Perhaps Mark Twain said it best: ‘I am a very old man and have suffered a great many misfortunes, most of which never happened.’

If we are now on shaky ground, there is a reason for it. The fact that our view of the past changes constantly when new evidence comes to light indicates how tenuously theoretical the past is. If we don’t know what our real memories are, how can we posit the reality of an objective past? We are in the same boat as we were when we considered what an objective apple is, which leads us inevitably onto the unsteady ground upon which objectivity stands.

The Future

Just as we can’t know what actually happened in the past, so we can’t know what will happen in the future. The future is supposition based on (uncertain) past experiences. The further back our memories, the more uncertain they are. The same with the future: the further forward we try to see, the more unreliable this future is. Just as the past is about what we believe did happen, the future is about what we believe will (or might) happen.

fake news Could Fake News Create Fake Memories? Read more In which way is there a future? If it can be said to ‘exist’, it is only as potential. And as potential, the future is not of what will happen, but of what can possibly happen, perhaps even probably happen. Even for events that we are absolutely positive will happen, we can go no further than probability (even if we consider it to be 100% probability). The future can be seen only after it has happened, i.e. when it is the past. Perhaps that is a good way of summing up the future: a continual movement towards yesterday, a prediction of the past!  And bearing in mind the unreliability of the past, it would seem that the probability of the future is akin to the probability of the past. When Alice complains in Through the Looking Glass that she cannot remember things before they happen, the Queen responds testily that ‘it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.’ While Alice claims that we have no memories of the future, this is not what people feel when they go through the uncanny feeling of déjà vu.

Between Past, Present and Future

Many of the phenomena that we have come across are explained through that probabilistic now. It would explain why, for example, the future is a range of possible events based on an uncertain past, and so cannot be one of prediction. And it explains why change is always discerned after it has happened.

The link between past and future is so strong, that the loss of one (memory) impairs the ability to produce the other (prediction of the future). Without the past there is no future; without the future, there is nothing.

The looped intertwining of the past and the future says a lot about us, trapped as we are within what we were. And it’s an explanation as to why we can never arrive at the future: the inexorable pull towards memory of the past. We stride towards the future on a metaphorical escalator that is itself moving in the opposite direction, back into the past into our memory.

So prisoners we are. We cannot help looking back, just as we continue looking forward. Their interdependent cyclical existence combines the relevance of the past with the potential of progress in the future, or as the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan put it: ‘We look at the present through a rear-view mirror,’ so that ‘we march backwards into the future.’ Two hundred years ago, Søren Kierkegaard summed it up similarly: ‘Life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forward.’

Depending upon the uncertain past in order to give us our future, we depend upon tomorrow, not because of what it will bring, but because there will be a tomorrow. The uncertainty of what will be is mitigated by the uncertainty of what was. Perhaps it is that dissonant balance within time that makes us human.

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