This essay is part of a Circles in Time series called ‘Seeing Ourselves as Systems’. Subscribe here to get access to future posts.
I turned 31 this week.
As a result, my mind naturally moved towards thoughts about the past, the future and the nature of time more generally.
Here are a few insights and observations that I have been reflecting on:
A Scientific View of Time
The scientific view of time is fascinating on many different levels. For those who are interested in exploring this further, here are a few books that meet at the intersection of physics and the neuroscience of time:
The findings, theories and insights discussed in these books paint fascinating pictures of time’s nature, as this complex, counterintuitive phenomenon, far removed from the simple, linear arrow of time that seems so obviously true at face value.
Most of us have had surface-level exposure to breaks from the conventional conceptions of time. E.g. Einstein’s Relativity teaches us that because of gravity, our heads are older than our feet.
This is just the beginning, though.
There are other findings that we often just ignore because they don’t chime with our conventional arrow-like understanding of how time works.
Here are two:
We never really ‘see’ now. When I look at you, I am building a representation shaped by memories and light that takes time to hit the photoreceptors in my eye. The content of perception is not the same as presence.
Disorder is in the eye of the beholder. According to quantum physics, entropy (an assumed property of the 2nd law of thermodynamics) is subjective— a macroscopic effect. Our perception of time’s flow depends entirely on our inability to see the world in all its detail.
An intellectual inquiry into the nature of time is interesting, but what I have found much more enriching is a phenomenological inquiry. To really go into the experience of time, past, present and future.
All the head-scratching and confusion created by physics and neuroscience gets resolved when we see through the illusions of time that the brain presents us with.
A Phenomenological View of Time
We assume that time flows from the past, through the present and into the future.
Is that true? Do you ever really experience the past or the future?
Sit with that question for a moment.
When I sit with the question, it becomes obvious that I only ever experience the present. Or at least, some kind of temporal bubble that I call the present.
Realising that there isn’t anything experienced outside of the present, I see the past and the future for what they really are—thoughts constructed by the mind, fueled by memory.
Nothing more than representations of how I think things were and how I think things will be.
Do you see that?
I may assume these thoughts about the past and future to be accurate, to be predictive, to be coherent. Sure... that is fine. But they are never actually true. They can’t be. They can only be thoughts.
Here is another way to understand this:
When I look at a flower and think—‘that is a Cape Protea. I know it blossoms in Autumn and doesn’t require much sunlight to grow’. What I am doing is bringing about botanical knowledge from memory.
These concepts may be useful but they also come between me and actually seeing the flower. When I am thinking about the flower, I am seeing a thought about the flower (or a set of thoughts), not the flower itself. It’s an image, not the real thing.
The past and the future are similar.
They are thoughts that make their way into the present, derived from memory.
These thoughts are representatives of the past and the future, not the actual past and future. The actual past and future are never actually experienced. All that is experienced is the illusion of the past and future, created by thought, arising in the present.
Can you see that?
In other words, the past and the future are just a particular set of thoughts that I label and ascribe as the past and the future.
What are the Implications?
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have thoughts about the future or past (to be honest, most of us don’t have a choice). They’re useful fictions that are necessary for explanation, navigation and coordination.
Like all thought, though, it is important to realise the illusory properties of their nature and where they aren’t serving the present.
The future may not exist, but the felt sense that it does affects the present and so should be handled with great care and responsibility and used as a tool to enrich one’s own life and the lives of those around them.