The reality of the past (and the passing)

(Forgive me. I seem to be suffering from an unexpected attack of epigraphomania.)

I die — but first I have possess’d,
And come what may, I have been blest.

— Lord Byron, The Giaour

Einmal lebt ich, wie Götter, und mehr bedarfs nicht.
(Once I lived like the gods, and nothing more is required.)

— Friedrich Hölderlin, An die Parzen

Yesterday don’t matter if it’s gone.

— the Rolling Stones, “Ruby Tuesday”

What it meant to be me will eventually be
A memory of a time when
I tried so hard and got so far,
But in the end it doesn’t even matter.

— Linkin Park, “In the End”

1. The past must be as real as “the end.”

It seems unacceptable that the past should be anything other than real, that it should not in some sense still be there. Keef is right that yesterday don’t matter if it’s gone — and if yesterday doesn’t matter, then nothing matters, because everything sooner or later passes into yesterday and loses its meaning.

My reduced version of Pascal’s wager (the “mere non-nihilist” version): If nothing at all matters then, a fortiori, it doesn’t matter whether you know that or not. Therefore, assume that something matters. (If your assumption is right, great. If not, it doesn’t matter.)

If the past is gone, then nothing matters. Therefore, assume that the past is not gone.

Why doesn’t yesterday matter if it’s “gone”? At first, I thought it was because it had no present existence, and it is the present alone that is fully real. If that were the reason, though, then it would be equally correct to say “Tomorrow doesn’t matter if it hasn’t come yet” — a statement at which intuition rebels! Not only do we consider the future much more important than the past; we even consider it more important than the present. After all, that is what is implied by my own statement in the opening paragraph: “if yesterday doesn’t matter, then nothing matters, because everything sooner or later passes into yesterday and loses its meaning.” The present now will later be past (see my post on that subject), and that’s enough to make it as meaningless as what is already past. Meaning, it seems, lies in what will never be past — lies, that is, in some hypothetical, infinitely-distant future — not in the most real of times (the actually-existing present), but precisely in the least real. We will, following Linkin Park and common usage, refer to this purely hypothetical point in time as “in the end.”

Nothing matters unless it is still there “in the end.” But there is no such time as “in the end.” There is no future-that-will-always-be-future. There is only the past and what will later be past. Therefore, nothing matters. That is the ironclad logic of nihilism that we are up against.

To escape nihilism, we must find out what it is about the always-future “in the end” that makes it meaningful and construct a theory of time that will give those essential properties to the past as well.

A tall order. Here’s a first stab.

2. Possible approaches to the reality of the past

2.1. The timelessness of truth

Nothing becomes true or ceases to be true; whatever is truth at all simply is true.

— Richard Taylor, Metaphysics

Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o’er.
Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst,
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal, unchanged, evermore.

— John Jaques, “Oh Say, What is Truth?”

It fortifies my soul to know
That, though I perish, Truth is so.

— Arthur Hugh Clough, With Whom is no Variableness, etc.

That is not dead which can eternal lie . . .

— Abdul Alhazred, Kitab al-Azif

In the very unchangeableness of the past — in the fact that it always will have been precisely what it was, world without end — there is a sort of permanence, a sort of continued existence.

Once when, at the height of my atheistic/materialist phase, I had to deal with the death of someone to whom I had been close, I found surprising comfort in the thought “She will always have existed.” Though I completely rejected what I characterized as “pipe-dreams of heaven or reincarnation,” it was still somehow reassuring to think that her existence, fleeting as it may have been from the three-dimensional point of view, was an ineffaceable feature of the four-dimensional universe of Einstein. Though expressed in different terms, this was perhaps not so dissimilar to the philosophical consolation found by Boethius.

In the end, though — there’s that phrase again — that just isn’t enough. However “permanent” her existence may be from what even an atheist might figuratively refer to as a “God’s-eye” point of view, the fact remains that nothing of it will ever be experienced by me or her or anyone else but God, if gods there be. And that means that, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Not to us, anyway; not to us humans.

2.2. Stasis

Then gin I thinke on that which Nature sayd,
Of that same time when no more change shall be,
But stedfast rest of all things, firmely stayd
Upon the pillours of eternity,
That is contrayr to Mutabilitie:
For all that moveth doth in change delight:
But thence-forth all shall rest eternally
With Him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight:
O that great Sabbaoth God graunt me that Sabaoths sight!

— Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene

And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal.

— Revelation 4:6

All is flux.

— Heraclitus

Many have imagined a time, in the distant or perhaps not-so-distant future, when all change will cease — a condition wonderfully captured by John’s arresting image of the sea — the very epitome of constant motion and change — become like glass or crystal, its waves frozen in time, eternally motionless. If the “stedfast rest of all things” is indeed the ultimate fate of the universe, that could in principle solve the problem of there being no such time as “the end.” The end is the sea of glass, the eternal freeze-frame, when the winds of change cease to blow and there is a great calm.

Many have found such a vision appealing — but can there be any human meaning in eternal stasis? Obviously there can be no growth or development, no story, no life. Can there even be joy? (Spinoza’s definition: “the passage from a lower to a higher perfection.”) Can there even be love? Any emotion without motion? Any thought when the stream of consciousness ceases to flow?

All is flux. Without flux, nothing. I began by saying we needed to find a way to invest the past with the meaning-giving qualities of the future, but this theory does precisely the opposite: It gives to the future the same fixed-and-frozen qualities that make the past dead and meaningless. It is a vision of eternal death.

2.3. Footprints on the sands of time

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Psalm of Life

Pride! bend thine eye from heaven to thine estate;
See how the Mighty shrink into a song!

— Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead — when I exist in no one’s memory.

—  Irvin D. Yalom, Love’s Executioner

If I make a mark in time, I can’t say the mark is mine.

— Cat Stevens, “Tuesday’s Dead”

One way in which each past moment could “live on” is in its effects on all subsequent points in time. The future will be what it will be at least partly because the past has been what it has been. Therefore, if the future matters, the past matters, too. Does this logic truly rescue the past from irrelevance?

In a deterministic world without true agency, no particular point in the past is of any decisive importance, since each is simply a function of the last, another step in the passive unfolding of predetermined fate. As  I have commented elsewhere, determinism gives us an incoherent world in which everything is caused, but nothing is caused by anything.

If there is agency, though, then at least some points in time — those at which a free agent exercised his agency and introduced a new First Cause into the world — have the potential to leave a permanent mark on all subsequent points. I say “potential” because in an imperfectly deterministic world, the consequences of one free act could be modified or, in principle, canceled out entirely by a subsequent free act of the same or another agent. In practice, though, it seems probable that most acts have permanent consequences of one kind or another.

But Longfellow’s metaphor of “footprints on the sands of time” is an apt one. Barring the occasional freak accident of fossilization*, how long do footprints on sand persist? Not long, at least not in any recognizable form. A day or two later, the beach looks just as it did before, just as if no one had ever walked there. At the micro level, the precise position of thousands of individual grains of sand will be different because someone once walked across the beach ten thousand years before. Even many billions of years in the future, when the sun has gone red giant and consumed the earth, there will presumably be countless atoms and subatomic particles whose precise location and velocity will be different because someone once walked across a beach in the remote past — but at the level of human meaning there will be no difference that matters. Nothing that truly pertains to our hypothetical seaside pedestrian — nothing that he would recognize as his mark — will remain. Even if I make a mark in time, I can’t say that mark is mine.

Some will leave a more lasting mark than a literal set of footprints, but even the most influential of men — the Homers and Platos, the Alexanders and Muhammads, the Newtons and Shakespeares — will eventually shrink into a song, and then into oblivion, and then into nothing more than a different (but trivially different) configuration of subatomic particles in the plasma of a red giant star.

That the effects of past points in time will linger, in one form or another, until “the end” is clearly not enough. Those effects become so diluted over the years and aeons, so tenuously and insubstantially linked to their original causes, that no meaningful connection remains.

*Synchronicity alert: A few hours after I wrote this section, mentioning (quite unnecessarily, really) the possibility of footprints fossilizing, one of my students brought me an English article she had some questions about. The article turned out to be about the research of Dr. Peter L. Falkingham, a palaeontologist specializing in footprints!

2.4. Continuity

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.

— Woody Allen

When Do Teenagers Die?
Adults Eat Teenagers Alive,
No Record Of Their Death.

— Gene Ray, Time Cube

Suppose we are immortal. (I do in fact suppose that.) Does that solve the problem? Suppose that even quadrillions of years in the future, long after any marks I may now be making on the sands of time have lost their distinctive character and been effectively effaced, I myself will still be around in some recognizable form — and that my character and condition at that time will be direct reflection of all the choices I will have made up to that point, yea, even all these quadrillions of years before. Call it “footprints on the sands of mind.”

This is obviously more satisfactory than the “sands of time” model, but I think it ultimately runs into essentially the same problem: over countless aeons of time, with new causes continually being added to the mix, the effects of any one particular action tend to become swamped and lose their significance. Do most of the specific choices I made when I was seven years old have any discernible effects even now, a few decades later? Then how can I imagine that they can somehow retain significance through the innumerable kalpas of immortality?

With endless life must come endless change (or else stasis, which is death). Teenagers do not live on but are gradually cannibalized to produce adults, dying bit by bit. Woody Allen’s quip is funny because it is absurd to imagine an immortal being living on “in his apartment” — as the same sort of being, living the same sort of life, forever.

Chinese folklore has it that even as psychologically simple a creature as a mouse or a cypress tree can eventually morph into something intelligent and uncanny, a daemon or a “god” (better say “ghommid,” perhaps?), provided only that it lives long enough.

Whatever lives long enough, will eventually have changed so much that its past life will have become largely irrelevant to what it will by then have become. Whatever lives long enough will eventually have undergone cumulative changes so numerous as to add up to a transformation as total as that to be suffered by the earth when the sun explodes. If stasis is one kind of death, the sea-change is another.

2.5. Remembrance of things past

We’ll always have Paris.

— Rick, Casablanca

Every sha-la-la-la, every wo-o-wo-o still shines.

— the Carpenters, “Yesterday Once More”

The persistence of the faint, indirect effects of past events — whether those effects should be expressed in the world at large or (supposing immortality) in the very person who experienced or created the event in the first place — is just not enough. What is required is that events themselves should persist in some form, and that brings us to memory.

The ordinary memory of ordinary mortals is not enough, of course; the past can live on in memory only so long as those who remember it remain alive. But supposing we postulate a perfect, immortal form of memory — either the personal memories of immortal individuals, or else a free-floating “akashic record” — does that solve the problem?

Partly. Living on as a distinct memory is definitely a step up from living on as a set of diffuse, unrecognizable, and irrelevant causal echoes. But it isn’t really satisfactory. Don’t even the most vivid memories leave us aching with nostalgia — with the unshakable sense of le temps perdu, of something that is gone forever? Remembering something just isn’t the same as actually experiencing it, and mere memory is not enough.

2.6. Eternal recurrence

The last whispered wish of age
Is to live it all again.

— the Moody Blues, “Never Blame the Rainbows for the Rain”

Now you swear and kick and beg us that you’re not a gamblin’ man;
Then you find you’re back in Vegas with a handle in your hand . . .
You go back, Jack, do it again, wheels turnin’ round and round
You go back, Jack, do it again

— Steely Dan, “Do It Again”

Crimson and clover, over and over
Crimson and clover, over and over
Crimson and clover, over and over
Crimson and clover, over and over

— Tommy James and the Shondells “Crimson and Clover”

One step beyond memory is the doctrine of eternal recurrence — that we will not merely remember but actually experience the very same events again and again and again, world without end. Nietzsche’s version of the doctrine, laid out in The Gay Science and revisited in various of his other works, is the most familiar, but different versions of the same idea have been formulated by Anthony Peake (in his misleadingly titled book Is There Life After Death?, whence the adjective Itladian) and by J. W. Dunne (in The New Immortality and elsewhere).

Nietzsche’s version is the most straightforward: the literal physical recurrence of all past situations in the course of ordinary one-dimensional physical time. Nietzsche assumes that space is finite but time is infinite. The number of possible configurations of matter and energy in a finite space is itself finite, though of course enormously large. Given an infinite timeline, each of those possible configurations will necessarily appear infinitely many times. Nietzsche’s is the same logic that tells us that the (infinitely long) decimal representation of pi must contain infinitely many occurrences of each of the 10 possible digits. Whether we’re talking about 10 possible digits or googolplexes of possible states of the universe, the logic is the same.

Anthony Peake’s version of the theory is a good deal weirder, and it relates to subjective time as experienced by a human percipient, rather that to time as an objective dimension of the physical world. In certain cases, very long periods of subjective time can be experienced in a brief moment of objective time (as, for example, when a seemingly very long dream takes place in just a few minutes of REM sleep), and Peake believes that there is no limit to the possible extent of this subjective time dilation.

Peake’s theory is that when my physical life (call it “Life 1” for reasons which will shortly become clear) reaches its final moments, my brain will trigger a replay of my entire life from the beginning. This “life review,” in which one’s entire life flashes before one’s eyes, is a familiar feature of the near-death experience. Peake believes that it “flashes” only because the brain, once it realizes that this is only a near-death experience and that the review has been triggered in error, puts it on fast-forward; when actual death is imminent, the review is played in what is subjectively experienced as real time, as a “Life 2” which appears to last a full threescore years and ten and is experientially indistinguishable from Life 1. When Life 2 in turn reaches its final moments, subjective time dilates again and Life 3 begins, and so on ad infinitum. From the outside perspective, the person dies and that’s that; from each person’s own perspective, they never die, because time keeps dilating to keep that final moment from ever arriving. It follows that the life you are now experiencing is extremely unlikely to be your actual physical “Life 1” but is almost certainly a replay of a replay of a replay of something that will keep replaying, without the slightest variation, forever.

While the concept may be considerably more complicated (and, okay, kooky), Peake’s eternal recurrence is essentially no different from Nietzsche’s in terms of what we experience: the same damn thing again and again forever, with no awareness of ever having experienced it before.

J. W. Dunne’s “new immortality” offers eternal recurrence with a twist. Its theoretical underpinnings, like those of Peake’s, are too involved to explain here, but the upshot is this: After death, we will be able to re-experience (in a subjective time that Dunne conceptualizes as a second temporal dimension, one of an infinite series of such dimensions corresponding to ever-higher levels of consciousness) any and all past moments of our lives — but not necessarily in linear order. Instead, we can choose which moments to revisit and in what order, juxtaposing what was never juxtaposed in life and skipping whatever parts we’d rather not relive.

Dunne compares the successive moments of a person’s life to the series of notes on a piano keyboard. In life, we have no choice but to play the notes in order, traversing the keyboard from left to right — bo-ring! — but after that preliminary glissando (“after” in the second dimension of time), the real music begins. Free to revisit the keys in any order, we can transmute even the most ordinary of lives into a sonata of breathtaking beauty.

Dunne obviously finds this vision of the afterlife inspiring, but I find it unconvincing. Endless freedom of repetition and recombination might enable meaningful creativity when it comes to the keys of a piano or the letters of the alphabet, but temporal slices of life? Imagine taking a movie and using video editing software to copy and rearrange the individual frames to your heart’s content, without making any other changes or adding anything that wasn’t in the original film. Would you then be free to make countless new movies, and movies that would be deeper and more interesting than the original material in the same way that a sonata is more interesting than a chromatic scale? It’s hard for me to imagine being able to construct anything much above the level of that video where they make George W. Bush sing “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” But perhaps the unfamiliarity of the medium leads me to underestimate its potential.

All these versions of eternal recurrence seem to suffer from the same problem: Because only repetition is possible — because there is no choice but to go back, Jack, and do it again — agency is out of the picture. Without the freedom to act, one does not so much re-live one’s life as passively watch it again and again. This is clearest in the Itladian model, which seems to rule out agency entirely and lead directly to nihilism. Nietzschean recurrence also eliminates agency, since you will do absolutely everything that it is possible for you to do, infinitely many times, leaving no freedom to choose to do this rather than that. The Dunnean model at least gives you the freedom to scramble up the frames of the otherwise unalterable film you are destined to keep playing forever, but that seems like a pretty feeble sort of freedom.

2.7. Reliving the past with agency

To them, the future is like a pool of water to their right, the past a block of ice to their left. . . . They seek back into the past to melt, change, and re-create, then refreeze their history.

— Whitley Strieber, The Secret School

. . . and with strange aeons even death may die.

— Abdul Alhazred, Kitab al-Azif

I began this post by noting, with some surprise, that the reason the past does not matter is not that it is no longer present, but that it is no longer future. The source of meaning is not the present moment but the future — in particular, the hypothetical always-to-be-future time we have dubbed “the end.” And why does the future alone matter?

The answer seems to be agency. We act in the present, but our actions are defined by their effects, which take place in the future. We can, to some degree, decide what the future will be; therefore, we need to take it into consideration — it is relevant — it matters. As for the past, if nothing we can do could ever have any effect on it, there’s no reason to give it a second thought. Water under the bridge. Spilt milk. Yesterday don’t matter if it’s gone.

This leads to the strange conclusion that the past is real and meaningful only if it can be changed — which is the polar opposite of the position we began with, namely, that the absolute unchangeableness of the past makes it permanent and therefore meaningful. We seem to have run into an insoluble problem. To be meaningful, the past must be both permanent (meaning unchangeable) and subject to agency (meaning changeable). And as everyone knows, you can’t have your cake (or Paris) and change it, too.

Of course, the very idea of “changing the past” (like the idea of time “passing”) is strictly self-contradictory if only one temporal dimension is recognized.  People intuitively understand what it means, though, because they naturally think in terms of two-dimensional time without realizing that that is what they are doing. (See again my post on this subject.) A theory of multiple temporal dimensions (i.e., Dunne’s theory or something very much like it) might offer a way of meeting our seemingly contradictory demands. In Dunne’s theory, the n-dimensional world changes, but that series of changes constitutes a static state of the (n + 1)th dimension. The (n + 1)-dimensional world also changes — including, potentially, those parts of it that are “past” from the n-dimensional point of view — but that series of changes constitutes a static state of the (n + 2)th dimension, and so on ad infinitum. All changes, all is permanent.

Dunne may have stumbled upon something far deeper than a theory to explain precognitive dreams. His “piano immortality” is obviously inadequate, but his underlying theory of time is looking more and more like it might be the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

Unfortunately, Dunne’s theory of time is also abstract in the extreme and almost impossible for most people, even highly intelligent people, to wrap their heads around. I have set myself the task of explaining Dunnean time so that the average person (including myself!) can understand it — and not just understand it intellectually, but grasp its human significance. I want to make Dunne human-readable.

In other words, I’ve set myself an impossible task. Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

6 thoughts on “The reality of the past (and the passing)

  1. I followed this and it seemed to make sense until you gave the answer, which induced a kind of brain freeze. The solution immediately struck me as meaningless, in the sense that anything which tries to use infinities as an explanation is more complicated than that which it is trying to explain.

    Is the idea something like the following? Every time this past is changed it makes a new copy of the past, while leaving the original one unchanged. So the past has as many ‘layers’ as there are changes.

    My problem is way back at the beginning concerning the chunks of events – what is an event? What are its boundaries? What actually are the real units of the present that get-into the past – each being complete and discrete: the whole thing and nothing else?

    This immediately strikes me as unanswerable: that there are no such chunks or units.

    I agree that this is a very important matter – so what do I personally think is the right answer?

    For a start, I distinguish between a real and an unreal – I think much of ‘what happens’ is unreal, and doesn’t leave any permanent trace. And reality I conceptualise in a ‘dynamic’ kind of way; more like a ‘process’ than made of units.

    In short, I would regard the permanent thing as being like the traditional idea of an underworld or Ancient Egyptian dwat. It is ‘inside’ everything – and it is accessible from everywhere – by only by agents/ persons. This is where agency works.

    The rest of our experience is like a temporary froth. We could probably say that it is deterministic – it is merely a model, or representation, of reality.

    But I would want to stop using maths/ geometry/ physics ways of explaining. The universal reality is ultimately and really a realm of interpersonal relations; which are intrinsically dynamic. It ‘works’ by interpersonal-type motives – desire, hatred etc.

    The best way to ‘model’ this would, presumably, be using our understanding of interpersonal relationships, as the endure and change – translated to a linear, sequential but end-less scale.

    Reality involves thinking; takes place by and in thinking. So a ‘real memory’ just is real (it is not a memory ‘about’ something; the memory is as real as anything can be; because it is thinking the things (not thinking ‘about’ it).

    So, memories are stored/ located in the thinking of minds and their ‘interactions’. (Memories cannot be detached from thinking.) Thinking could leave the past unchanged – which is contemplation; or it could build-upon the past – which is creation.

    But a new creation would ‘contain’ past real things, unaltered – and (I think) with their personal provenance included. Because any new thinking, creation, is by a specific, agent mind – so necessarily includes something of that mind.

    Something ananlogous to the ‘layering’ would be that there was an original, simpler creation from ‘God’; and then people have elaborated that original creation, extending, and extrapolating it. In a sense there are added layers, each the ‘work’ or a particular person.

    (But these layers are probably better modelled as strands added to a rope, which grows through time.)


  2. I think the understanding of time can only be secondary to a more general way of thinking (metaphysics). I first got interested in time after reading a book called ceremonia Time about which I wrote this:

    Currently I am reviewing a new book called The Shadow of the Machine: the prehistory of the computer and the evolution of consciousness by Jeremy Naydler, where he traces the steps from ancient to modern thinking – he regards the invention of the medieval clocks (which would display a model of the solar system) as having been a major change in the way people thought about reality, the first step in the assumption that reality *is* the mechanical model – a step en route to the computer.


  3. Bruce, I always value your comments. We recognize many of the same problems as important, but deep temperamental differences ensure that we usually approach them in very different ways. Your comments quite often constitute a reframe of the whole question and serve to jog me out of whatever dogmatic slumbers I may be slipping into.

    As usual, you have given me something useful to brood over.


  4. Thanks for drawing that to my attention, T. Greer. My Chinese isn’t usually good enough to read classical poetry, but this one is relatively easy. After Google-Translating it back into traditional characters (I was really thrown off by the use of 后 “queen” for 後 “after” in the version you posted!), I was able to read it without difficulty.

    For those of my readers who don’t read Chinese (i.e., pretty much all of them), you can read an annotated translation (and, in the comments, my own quibbles about the translation) here:


  5. Pingback: The Throne and the World | From the Narrow Desert

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