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Past, Present, Future

Jan 15, 2023

“The Past” does not exist – by definition. It consists of events that once happened or might have happened but are not happening now. “The Future” does not exist either – also by definition. It consists of events that will happen or may happen but have not yet happened and are not happening now. What exists is what is happening now, and neither the Past nor the Future is happening.


That leaves “The Present”. According to post-modern deconstructionist, Jacques Derrida, the Present consists of all events (potential as well as actual) that are neither elements of the set of actual or possible past events nor elements of the set of actual or possible future events. Derrida follows the Via Negativa; he defines the Present, not by what it is, but by what it is not.


This scheme presupposes that every event is unique. No two events, however similar they may seem, can ever be the same event. Cosmic censorship will not allow an event to happen more than once. Among other things, this allows us to assign each unique event to a specified coordinate region. No two events can have the same coordinates. Otherwise, the world be irreparable chaotic: “…without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.” (Genesis 1: 2)


While innumerable events could occur in any specified coordinate region, only one event does occur in that region.


Broadly speaking, there are three popular models of time: Linear Time (e.g., the relentless progression of birthdays), Static Time (all events occur simultaneously), and Cyclical Time (aka Eternal Recurrence).

Eternal Recurrence (Nietzsche, et al.) presents some of the same philosophical problems as Time Travel. In the latter case, ‘the past’ is never a settled matter of fact. Instead of living their lives in the Present, time travelers focus on adjusting the Past to create a different Present. Of course, it’s a fool’s game because any modification of a past event, no matter how slight, can have unanticipated, and possibly catastrophic, consequences. Or it can also have no perceptible consequence at all. Either way it is unpredictable and therefore uncontrollable. Time can amplify or dampen, but it can never just conserve or repeat. 


Now suppose a time traveler were to go all the way back to the primordial event, Big Bang, and prevent that event from occurring: no universe…and no nosey parker to modify it. A universe in which time travel is a possibility is a universe that does not exist because it is self-erasing.


With Eternal Recurrence, the Past cannot be modified but past events can pop back-up anywhere in spacetime. Here, too, the past is never totally in our rearview mirror. Unless the universe is micro-determined, the reoccurrence of a past event does not necessarily ensure that the future will repeat as well…but neither does it preclude such a possibility. And since the possibility is not precluded, we must assume that that will happen at some point. Once that happens, the universe will just ‘seize up’ eliminating any notion of novelty or freedom.


So, it turns out that the universe did not have a lot of options when it came to structuring time. Time cannot be recursive! Whether we alter the past to change the present or bring the past forward in order to relive it, time would no longer include a real future, and without a real future, time would not be time.

Cain left Eden to earn a degree in urban planning. Abram left Ur to find the Promised Land. Moses left Egypt to create a just society. Generations of Americans went west in pursuit of liberty and/or luxury. None of these ‘heroes’ had any interest in changing the past, or in conserving it for that matter. They understood life as perpetual change, and they sought to harness that change in pursuit of novelty and progress.  


Time Travel and Eternal Recurrence take that away. Progress is no longer a hope, a dream, a goal, or a project; now our future is found in our past. We look to improve the present not by building a new future but by resuscitating or modifying a spent past. It’s the myth of a Golden Age.


Now back to the real world. A world with a non-degenerate dimension of time. This world – the world - consists exclusively of unique events, both actual and potential: (1) whatever happened or might have happened (Past), (2) whatever will or might yet happen (Future), and (3) whatever did not happen and could not happen either in the past or in the future (Present).


Present events, then, are not at all like past or future events. The present is the realm of pure potential; it is ever fresh. The Present inherits the past and anticipates the future; therefore, no event is ever either random or determined. There are no efficient or final causes at work in the Present. Whatever happens in the Present is a function of free will, acting on the past (without changing it) and projecting toward the future (without limiting it). 


The great 20th century physicist, Richard Feynman, took an alternate route but, like Robert Frost, he ended up at the same destination. He defined the Present, positively (rather than negatively), as the sum of everything that might have happened in the past, whether it did or did not, and everything that might happen in the future, whether it does or does not. He called this method, Sum over Histories.


Relative to the actual past, the Present may appear random; relative to the actual future, the Present may appear irrelevant. But relative to a Past that includes everything that might have been, whether or not it was, the Present precludes randomness; likewise, relative to a Future that includes everything that might yet come to be, whether or not it does, precludes any repetition. Either way, you can’t go home again. 


The Present, as you can see, is stranded on an ontological island. Parodying a Christmas special, the Present is the island of misfit events. Neti, neti – neither past nor future, that is the present.


The Present is not an alternate Past or, for that matter, an alternate Future. Since the Present consists of only those events that could not have happened in the past and that cannot happen in the future, the Present is unique – perhaps the paradigmatic example of uniqueness since any overlap with non-present events is strictly prohibited – again, by definition.


Traditional Western metaphysics, according to Derrida, defines the Present positively in terms of “what is”. Borrowing from Exodus, chapter 3, the Present “is what is”, it is the “eternal now”. Derrida correctly, in my view, and bravely, acknowledges that any such positive metaphysics must inevitably point to the existence of God, which he, of course, being a 20th century intellectual, denies.


To resolve this dilemma, Derrida suggests we define the Present negatively, in terms of what it is not. The question of what it is, if anything, is left open. Present becomes an undefined term in his ontology. ‘God’ is odd man out.


In any event, this post-modern Present is not the infinitesimal point posited by Newtonian physics and illustrated on the Real Number Line. It may yet turn out to be an infinitesimal point, or more likely a Planck unit, in which case the set of the present events would have no members (it would be a null set); but we don’t know that yet. It is something to be discovered, not assumed.


Our initial hypothesis must be that the Present is a region like the Past and the Future. If the region turns out to be empty, so be it. But ‘region’ implies ‘extension’. If the present occupies a region on the timeline, then presumably, it must have extension along that line. But that would mean that the present was a combination of past and future elements; it would not be ‘Present’ at all, at least not in Derrida’s sense of the word.


I see protestors gathering outside my first-floor window. They’re singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying: Save the Present. Sidebar: if you look closely, you can see that on many of the signs, the word “Present” has overwritten the scratched-out remnants of “Planet." One superannuated hippie is carrying a sign on which “Present” appears to have overwritten “Whales."


There is only one way to salvage a real Present: you must assume that ‘Present’ denotes an extensive region on the timeline which, experienced internally, is timeless. Viewed from the outside, the so-called Present appears to have duration (a form of extension); but not when viewed from the inside.


The Present is a process, but ‘process’ does not necessarily imply ‘sequence’. We are used to process unfolding in time. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is no ontologically compelling reason why process needs to be a function of sequence or vice versa.


Example: I am listening to the 5th Brandenburg Concerto. It takes about 20 minutes to perform. That performance occupies a place in the spacetime continuum and, if necessary, the experience can be analyzed minute by minute. But as soon as that happens, the Concerto itself disappears. We are no longer ‘experiencing the Concerto’, we are no longer in the Present; now we are dissecting measures written down 300 years ago and/or anticipating the experience of hearing the Concerto performed at a later date. We have allowed the Present to dissolve into the Past/Future.


Subjectively, we incorporate the Past and the Future into our experiential Present as Faith and as Hope, respectively. If Anaximander is right and Being occurs only when potential entities self-actualize by giving each other ‘reck’, then the Present is constituted simply as Love.


 

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 david@aletheiatoday.com.

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