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Future Past, Past Future

David Cowles

Oct 19, 2023

“When we experience past events via memory, it is much like watching a B-movie in which each of us, naturally, is our own star.”

We take it for granted that the past is different from the future, but Newtonian physics says otherwise. According to that model, past and future are symmetrical segments of the timeline, bracketing the infinitesimal point known somewhat bizarrely as ‘the present’ (‘bizarre’ because ‘the present’, by definition, has no ‘presence’, i.e., it has zero duration). 

But this is not how we experience the world. To our pre-scientific eyes, the past is radically different from the future. For one thing, past events are thought to be immutable, while future events are nothing if not mutable.

Past events ‘feel’ different from future events. The past feels heavy, it presses on your chest, it compromises your ability to breathe, it’s enough to make Houdini claustrophobic. Except it usually doesn’t feel that way at all. 

When we experience past events via memory, it is much like watching a B-movie in which each of us, naturally, is our own star. Come to think of it, it’s much the same as what we experience when we imagine future events. Memory and imagination, two faces of one phenomenon!

You may object here if you wish, “Imagination is mutable, and memory isn’t.” Really? Repeated studies have shown (I won’t make my AI Bot retrieve them) that our memories are ‘flexible’ – meaning that they often diverge massively from ‘objective records’ of the events themselves – much like our ‘dreams and dreads’ of the future.

But you might say, “The memory of a past event is not the same thing as the past event itself.” This time, you’d be right! Nor is an imagined future event the same thing as the event itself. Memory and imagination, if not clones, are at least kissing cousins. Events themselves are another species of res vera altogether.

Experiment: Recall a somewhat unpleasant event from your childhood. Perhaps, it’s a Saturday in June. All week long, you’ve suffered in a stiflingly hot classroom, sustained (barely) by your expectation of spending today at the beach with family and friends. Instead, it’s raining cats and dogs, and you’re stuck inside the house for the entire day with no one to play with and nothing to do. An unpleasant memory to be sure.

If this didn’t happen to you, you can still imagine what it must have felt like. Memory and imagination, flip sides, one coin.

(Note: This must have happened before 1,000 channel cable TV, smartphones, and PlayStation. Today, children have no painful experiences, do they?)

Now imagine that you’re actually 8 years old again and have to relive that awful day, moment by moment, without the benefit of your current ‘adult’ perspective. Hours sitting at the window, lonely, bored, clinging to the ever newly frustrated hope that the skies might yet clear. OMG! Can you even breathe? 

A memory, a dream, a night at the opera – different phenomena, cut from the same cloth. Actual experience on the other hand…that’s a horse of an entirely different color; in fact, it’s not a horse at all, it’s more of a T-Rex. Fantasy (past or future) is made palatable by the knowledge or expectation that we will survive it; real life comes with no such guarantee. At its core, every agony derives its horror from the fear that we might not be able to bear it. Then what?

Memory and imagination are like the event horizon (surface) of a black hole; they are two-dimensional projections of a higher dimensional whole. Experience is the black hole itself, including the inevitable singularity (death) with its constant tug; by contrast, the surface is finite but has no singularity and no boundary. 

How is it that fantasy differs from reality? Memory and imagination are experience, outside-in. You’ve trudged through the garden, and now you’re standing ankle-deep in potting soil, staring through the window, into the well-lit ‘living room’ of someone’s life. Perhaps you witness a child being tortured, and you feel sympathy…from your detached perspective.

Experience is a bit different. Now you are in the living room, and you are the child being tortured. You feel nothing but agony and panic. This is experience, inside-out; it’s not the same thing as fantasy…not at all. 

What’s different is that ‘you are there’ in one case and not in the other. And who R U? In this context, you are the reflective self, aware of itself, aware of its world, and aware of itself being aware of its world. U R the Wicked Queen’s sentient mirror from Snow White. Just like mirrors in a carnival Fun House, you add another dimension to reality; you add depth. 

Like any mirror, you will in your time reflect many images…but you will remain the same. You are mirror! You harbor no images per se; that is what makes it possible for you to reflect every image, no matter how gruesome.


Per Parmenides (c. 450 BCE), the father of Western philosophy, you are unchanging Aletheia, perpetually reflecting the ever-changing kaleidoscope of Doxa. So what makes you so special? Nothing! You’re not special. Reflexivity is a hardwired feature of reality; it’s part of the topology. It is an indispensable aspect of everything that is. In fact, it is what makes ‘it is’ be. 

How we experience this reflexivity is another matter. Human neural networks have evolved in such a way that we can be perpetually conscious of events in our world. How other entities, organic or inorganic, tap into reflexivity is a subject for another day.


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