When it comes to the nature of time, physicists for the most part are at as much of a loss as the rest of us, who seem hopelessly swept along in its current. The mystery of time is connected with some of the thorniest questions in physics, as well as in philosophy, like why we remember the past but not the future, how causality works, why you can’t stir cream out of your coffee or put perfume back in a bottle.1 The central metaphor in Stephen Jay Gould’s entertaining book, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, is that the history of life can be thought of as a video tape. One can imagine rewinding life, and by some divine miracle, changing a pivotal scene at the beginning, and then rerunning life again from that point. If we turned out the lights, flipped the cassette at random, and then played it, would a visitor from another universe be able to tell if the tape was running properly forward or unconventionally backward?2
And who’s to say what’s “properly forward” or “unconventionally backward”? We, and almost all cultures in the world are shaped by the notion of a past, a present, and a future. The main presumption of existence is that life is one thing after another. Time, whether marked by the tick of the clock or the majestic expansion of the universe, so permeates our senses, so defines memory and expectation, that it is elusive by its ubiquity. One can’t even be sure whether time is an abstraction, or as real as rocks. But one thing seems clear to the average person: Time is a one-way, no return, take-your-lumps deal. Hence the mild surprise with the question whether time has to go one way and not the other, and whether the universe could not run backward perfectly well …3
Past, present, and future, is a conceptual way of speaking about time and being. Our existence is a past, present, and future kind of existence, yet, past, present, and future aren’t immutable facts. But before we go further, consider how our current notions of time actually play out. Instead of three kinds of time, it’s more the case that it really splits into two: a past/present and a present/future kind of time. We are never really in the present—mostly it’s as if we’re floating between the past and the future. We are localized in the present, yes, but our overlay—our relationship to the present—is never just the present itself, it’s either the past/present or the present/future. Of the two, the pull invariably is for the past/present.
We can see this past/present pull everywhere—especially when we have a particularly good or bad experience. If it’s a bad experience, like getting bitten by a dog, let’s say, we’re prone to be wary of dogs (no matter how much we may subsequently learn about dogs being friendly). If it’s a good experience—some great success, receiving a special acknowledgment—we log that into our future, too. We try to remember the steps that got us there, hoping to capture the specifics for future use, or as Tom Robbins amusingly puts it, “we become frozen in that glad ice, turning ourselves into living fossils for the remainder of our existence.” Whether our experiences were good or bad, instead of locating what happened in the past, we put those past memories and the decisions we made about them out in front of us—into our future. Our future then becomes shaped, and filtered through those decisions, limiting what’s even seen or imagined as possible.
When I was a kid, I owned one of those magic slates. You drew on it with a plastic stylus, and when you’d lift the plastic sheet and all the marks you’d etched would disappear—a clean slate would appear each time. (Would that it were so easy with our lives.) Since the past is registered and etched and filed into the future, it appears as if it is the past is what determines the present, but it isn’t. What actually does have the influence is the future we’re living into. It is the future that shapes who we are being in the present. Think about it. What inspires us, and what moves us, or what stops and defeats us, is essentially due to how we see the future in front of us. We don’t have much experience, maybe none, at taking the past out of the future. But if the past was taken out of the future—either by putting it back where it belongs, or by virtue of recognizing it for what it is—it would no longer have the impact and influence it once had. We would have a lot more freedom—way more room to move. Or in Robbins’ words, “Living fossils [would] begin to unfreeze themselves from the glad [or bad] ice and come back to life.”
When the past is no longer calling the shots, the question becomes: “If I weren’t my past, who would I be? What would be possible?” The ways we know ourselves, what we can and cannot do, what’s possible or impossible, would no longer be a given. Standing in the future, informed but not limited by the past, the possibilities for our lives multiply exponentially. It does not merely change our actions or give us new choices, it gives a completely different quality to life in the present.
Possibility is an element of temporality. Starting from possibility reverses the flow—it becomes a future/present pull. This future/present pull changes the game entirely. Even at its earliest stages, possibility leaves us with power and freedom. Altering the temporality of things is not just a matter of time—it’s a matter of the quality of our lives. Kurt Vonnegut said in his last book: “I think one of the biggest mistakes we’re making has to do with what time really is. We have all these instruments for slicing it up like a salami, clocks and calendars, and we name the slices as though we own them, and they can never change—‘11:00 AM, November 11’ for example—when in fact they are as likely to break into pieces or go scampering off as dollops of mercury. Might not it be possible, then, that seemingly incredible geniuses like Bach and Shakespeare and Einstein were not in fact super-human, but simply plagiarists, copying great stuff from the future?”
1 Dennis Overbye, “Remembrance of Things Future” (from The New York Times), from Brian Greene, Editor, Tim Folger, Series Editor, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2006, p. 181.
2 Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, New York: Perseus Books Group, 1995, p. 408.
3 Charles Petit, “Time Trajectories,” review of The Arrow of Time: A Voyage Through Science to Solve Time’s Greatest Mystery, by Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/30/91.