One of the most persistent facts about human beings as that they believe they have enough information to make accurate determinations about the state of being. We know enough about “the universe” or “being” or whatever we wish to call “it” to say what it is. The four elements and the four humors and the function of organs and the Linnaean catalogs and the crystalline spheres and human nature and the unconscious mind and the great chain of being and Oxfordian authorship have—along with endless other reapings—been asserted with such unquestioned certainty that it seems that intellectual hubris may be the fundamental condition of the human brain. Nothing’s ever tentative. Revelation, reason, and observation held the stool firm and level—until one of them rotted away. But even the loss of revelation has not been a problem. The stool seems still to be miraculously sound. There’s still nothing we don’t know—or if there is, it’s such a small bit it can safely be ignored. It’s just detail. We’ll get there. The grand unified theory, once we get it, will be the puzzle piece that reveals what’s at the end of that stick that guy is holding. Dark matter, dark energy—we may never know what they are, but it will be enough if we can measure their effects on the stuff with proper names. The puzzle is already essentially complete.
We’ve never not thought that the puzzle was essentially complete. We’ve never been right about this, but that’s never worried us much. We’re always right now.
Evidence suggests that this is a foolish position to take. Evidence suggests that we accept the fact of our lack of sufficient understanding of being—I’ll call it being. We know a lot beyond dispute. We can trust science to tell us what happens if we pump too much CO2 into the atmosphere. But the big picture we don’t have. We don’t have the first idea what reality itself is, what it looks like. In fact our best understanding is that “understanding” is itself a problem. Seeing, modeling, representing—everything is second hand, derivative. And there’s no way around that, not even with math.
We need the best models. But we need to understand that they are models, that the story always has a narrator, and the narrator is always part of the story.
So let’s speculate about time—which we know almost nothing about, despite Einstein’s advancement on Augustine. Does the past exist? If so, in what sense? Science has come up with some elaborate ways in which it would be, in theory, possible to get there. They are not practical ways, of course. We can’t actually do it. They involve things like the expenditure of massive amounts of energy in the field of black holes. But if the past does not exist, or does not exist like a room on the other side of the wall, then our trip back into would come up against unforeseen obstacles even if it were practical. To ask the question another way, is there such a thing as “now”? If there is, we know we’re not all in it, or quite in it or perfectly in it. And yet at the same time, in apparent contradiction, there be no way for anyone or anything to ever not be in it. Everything we see is in the past, however fractionally. We see what was. But we see it now. We’re behind a little. But the fact that the trace of the past exists doesn’t necessarily mean that the past itself exists. We see from earth distant stars that if we were in the vicinity of we’d know they aren’t there. But the trace of the past isn’t the past. We know that time passes at different rates under different conditions. But that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as now. The twin in his speeding rocket ship goes out into the universe and comes back to find his brother is twenty years older than he. But how is that slowing of time to be understood in relation to “now”? Is it a short cut? Time passes at different rates under different conditions. But “now” is always now. Or is it? Do we know? Is there any way to know? Do we have to live with contradictory vocabularies due to the limitations of our evolved minds?
Or does the past actually exist? Nietzsche thought of time as a line in his myth of eternal return. (How seriously he believed in eternal return is disputed, but that doesn’t matter.) In infinite time and infinite space, the same conditions must repeat forever (he surmised). But he was still thinking of time as a line. If the past exists then eternity returns eternally not in a line but as a static fact, like a movie that’s always playing.
But how much like a movie then is it? The Purple Rose of Cairo. Is there any way to know that the past is set? If Einstein is right and we could go back into it if it were only practical, then we could change it. Then it can change. Then we should not say “the past has happened,” but “the past is happening.” If the past is a wave, we can change now, from the future, if we can alter the wave. Is there any way to know that we don’t? Is there any way to know in fact that this is not something done routinely, at every instant? Changing the past changes the future. But there’s no way to know that we are not constantly changing and being changed. The persistent sci-fi belief is that you don’t want to change the time line. But there’s no way to know that the time line isn’t in constant flux. And there’s no reason to believe there is a proper timeline. (The imperative to maintain the timeline is never fully thought out.) It’s not unreasonable to believe that every life exists for one fleeting moment, less time that it has taken me to type a single word, and that at the same time, every life is eternal.