Looking Back to See Ahead

The future is the past viewed from a different direction.

Consider that statement. You don’t have to agree, but I ask you to think about what it means, about how–or even if–you can disprove it.

We as humans tend to look at time as something linear. It is not hard to see why; our understanding of life begins with birth and ends with death. The widely accepted concept of our universe gives all existence a beginning (the Big Bang) and a notion of some eventual end. Our experience of the universe has a beginning and end, so it is only natural that we see time, the vector through which we have our experience, as having a beginning and end. If that is true, then time must be a line that starts with the beginning of time and ends at the ever-moving present, with the future being the indeterminate cluster of paths the present might take; and thus the past and future are different things.

Okay, I know, this idea of universal linear time has become less and less relevant since Einstein first spoke of relativity, but presenting the older view of time is important to my argument. In my opinion, no theory or fact can prevent humans from at least feeling like time is an objective thing, and that our present reality rests at the helm of a ship sailing into unknown waters.

If time is just another dimension of space, than the future and the past are the same thing. Think about what each really is relative to the present. The future can be effectively interpreted as a sort of collection of possibilities. One of these will be the present someday, but that one is no more real to us than all of the infinite other possibilities. Is the past much different? Unlike the future, it has a definite form in our perception. Memories allow us to recreate past occurrences and recall that they did at one time exist. But what happens when you go beyond memory? The form is much less definite. If you go far enough back, the past is made up in our present minds of numerous theories of what might have happened. Sometimes there is no way of knowing for sure what led us to our present, just as there is no way of knowing just what our present will become. Where is the difference? If you go far enough in either temporal direction, you only find uncertainty.

An old professor of mine, Frederick Turner, puts it best in his epic poem Genesis when his Sibyl says, “Time is a tree whose roots are also branches, whose forked twigs form a globe of growingness.” The roots and the branches are the past and the future (which is which is up to the observer). The more we learn about the past, the more it grows and forks into more possibilities. The more we understand about how events occur, the more possible futures we can anticipate, making the future similarly fork and grow. It is as if the past, present, and future–all we know as time–is a vast globe, a fabric woven into the very substance of the universe. From where we sit in the present, we can look in all directions, but what we see no matter where we look remains the same: possibility, uncertainty, roots, branches. The important thing is that we can look, and that looking at the past and future informs our present.

We can certainly learn from looking back, and we can use the knowledge to learn about the future. We cannot, however, change the future any more than we can change the past. Our place in the Great Globe, the Tree of Time, is now. It is how we try to affect the present that changes both the past and future.

That’s just a bit of how I think of time. I chose to keep this post relatively brief and lacking in examples. I don’t expect this to be my last time-related post.

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