Now is Strange

Image courtesy of Paul at

Image courtesy of Paul at

Now is strange. We only experience things in the present. Our access to past and future is through reconstruction and prediction. So much of our lives is spent in our heads, living in thinly disguised fictions of time gone and time to come. This seems obvious, and at the same time it seems so surprising.

And yet in another sense, when we are young, all we will ever experience is in the future, and as we get older, all we have ever experienced is in the past.

The adage is that tomorrow never comes. Like a Necker cube though this seems both true and false at the same time; or rather as we consider it our perspective shifts and we see it from one angle and then another. Tomorrow never comes because we always only live within today. But on the other hand tomorrow is always coming, that is the solution to our problems and the problem for all our solutions.

Time is strange. We worry about the upcoming trip, the exam, the surgery, but then it is already behind us. It is all already behind us. We are already back from the trip, we have taken the exam; we are already old, we are already infirm, we are already dead. Everything we will ever experience will be now. Everything we will ever experience is now. Acting as if it will happen at some other time or to someone else is delusion.

But then, believing it will happen to ourselves is delusion too, in the sense of happening to some unchanging thing that persists in its entirety throughout. For we are always changing, first gaining and then losing bits.

And yet in the moment there is only this, no losing and no gaining.

The present moment is strange. It is our eternal locus of effort, that point at which we strive, or at which we lay aside striving, to be aware of arising and passing. And yet the present moment is, if it is anything, an instant in time: an extensionless point on the knife-edge between future and past.

If that edge is the present moment, it is not the place in which we live. For the place in which we live is a place of change and motion, and there is no motion without extension in time and space, the passage from here to there, the change from this to that.

The world given us through our senses is dead and gone by the time it rises to awareness. Information propagates through our eyes and ears to our brain and we become aware of the now, but that now is already past. The subtlety of its passage is due to the relative slowness of the apparent change that surrounds us: all is past, yet all seems the same.

When we look to the stars we look into the past: the light that we see left the star’s surface long ago, perhaps long before we were even born, or long before the Earth was formed. But this is simply a matter of degree: when we look to the world at our fingertips we also look into the past. It is a past of instants rather than aeons, but past is past. Be it a second or a billion years, it is always and forever out of reach to us now.

The future is only predicted in our head, but in order to act successfully we must undertake a countless number of predictions, the information from our senses being already out of date. We take the expired data and form little theories that guide our body’s dance into the next moment. That we have only very rarely stubbed our toes against reality shows how good we are (or have been!) at this, and not only us but so much of the living world around us. Marvel at how slight the bird’s present moment must be to wing between branches as it whirls to its nest.

We live within the fiction of what E.R. Clay termed the “specious present”: an instant that seems to have duration, an extensionless place of change and motion, a fleeting experience of there and not-there, an evanescent spark of now that is forever slipping through awareness into the past.

It sometimes seems as though what is now is all that is real: as though the universe is a kind of three-dimensional instant of simultaneity centered around us, with past and future no more than odd mental fictions. But time is strange: it cannot be so. For what is past and what is future are only relative, since simultaneity itself is relative. This is what Einstein showed. You and I may coincide in a simultaneous glance, and yet what is future to you is past to me, and vice versa. It is all a matter of relative motion.

The upshot of Einstein’s (amply confirmed) thought experiment is rather the reverse of what we sometimes seem to think. It is rather that the now is the illusion. Really all is spacetime, and past and future are as real as left, right, up, and down.

So the specious present is doubly illusory. It is an illusion in revealing an instant in time as extended in change. It is also an illusion in revealing apparent flow from future into past where there is none, where in fact the laws of physics present no flow and no notion of now.

To what does our awareness turn when we lay it on the present moment?