The seeds of Time

There’s something about stretching your mind that is very seductive, don’t you think? Sometimes you reach for an idea, but then, like a leaf somersaulting past in the wind, it slips away. But even a brief touch is precious -like the sudden splendor of a hidden courtyard glimpsed from the drab and dusty street as they close the gates. A place where the imagination can only visit, never stay -or at least so briefly it’s hard to know if it was real.

Imagining infinity is like that, I suppose. And maybe, zero -its opposite. Or perhaps the smell of burning leaves, or a whiff of baking bread from a house across the fence, the hint of lilacs on a summer breeze, cherry blossom petals hurrying down a creek: unattainables all… Ephemeral -and yet all the more valuable because of their transience.

The Future is like that, but in a different way. Like the ever-receding horizon or the end of a rainbow, it cannot be touched; but in another sense, the future is deceptive as well: as we reach out to feel it, the Future dissolves into Now.

It is more than a game of semantics though, as Alison Fernandes, an assistant professor of Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, tries to convince us in an essay in

‘Some philosophers argue that the only way to explain the differences in how we look at the past and future is to employ a certain ‘metaphysical’ picture of time. According to this view, time itself is unfolding, and the future has very different basic properties from the past. According to a ‘growing-block’ theory of time, for example, events in the past and present exist, but events in the future do not – they are yet to be. The reason, then, that we think of the future as open is that it doesn’t exist yet.’ Of course, ‘Fundamental physics doesn’t indicate that there’s anything like a growing-block picture of time, or any kind of account where time itself changes.’ And anyway, ‘Human minds aren’t geared to intuit what fundamental reality is like… [so] it would be very surprising if we had direct insight into the fundamental nature of time.’

Take the Past, for example. It’s fixed, right? And yet… which past are we talking about? History changes in relation to what things are chosen for description. What things are being attended to, what evidence is being used. Not only do each of us remember the Past differently, each of us sees the Present differently, depending on what experiences, what expectations, we carry with us. So why would the Future be any different?

I remember reading something by A.J. Ayer in a university philosophy class assignment that has continued to haunt me even these many years since. I think it was in his book The Problem of Knowledge, where he set his cat among my pigeons, so to speak. I had always assumed that cause preceded effect by necessity; I was inextricably tethered to the idea that the past influenced the future and not the other way around. That there might be a reciprocal relationship did not make sense. But he described a religious community that believed that there existed a divine ordinance that they were either born to go to heaven or to hell, and therefore they tried to spend their lives being good -in effect, so that their future would change their past…

Fernandes, too, touches on the idea of the intermalleability of Past and Future in a sort of opaque thought-experiment. ‘What can time travel teach us about the open future? … time travel suggests that the apparent openness of the future is a ‘perspectival’ affair – it depends on what point of view you adopt.’ Again, how you interpret and remember the preceding events will determine what effects the future has on what has already happened. How often do we re-read prophesies to make them conform to what is about to happen?

When put like that, the future does seem a bit alien -almost like the image in a mirror when you don’t know who’s on which side of the glass, and therefore who’s the one making the face.

For me, Time is a chicken and egg thing. Which came first? Is the chicken the cause or the result, the Past or the Future? The two are inextricably intertwined -it could go either way, and probably does… we just get used to seeing things move in the direction we expect.

I remembering being intrigued by a thought-experiment dreamed up by Alan Watts, the wildly popular philosopher of the 1960 university campuses. Suppose, he wrote, that you are able to look through a rather small knothole in a fence and you see a fuzzy round object go past, followed a short time later, by a fuzzy linear object. This happens several times, but always in the same order. With nothing else to go on, he suggests, you would be entitled to conclude that perhaps the round object was a necessary condition for the linear object to appear. For that matter, you might even be tempted to conclude that one of them caused the other, because -temporally, at least- one of them always preceded the other -was always in the past of the other. Separate from the other…

And yet, how foolish would those conclusions seem when you were able to look over the fence and realize that what you had been seeing through the knothole had actually been a cat walking past -it’s head always preceding its tail. Neither had caused the other; indeed, the temporal sequence was merely an artifact of the limited view.  Altered perspectives, altered conclusions…

Could Time be like that? Is our view of time sufficiently limited that we have misjudged its components and incorrectly assumed a difference between Past and Future -like we assumed there was a difference between the fuzzy round thing and the fuzzy straight thing and didn’t understand it was actually an organic whole -a single cat, in other words? Maybe what we think of as separate entities are just the artifacts of our viewpoint.

Remember Occam’s Razor? An argument is convincing if you don’t postulate more unknowns than you need to explain something.

I’m beginning to think we only need one cat…


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