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?

Richard Taylor’s fatalism

In his book Metaphysics, the American philosopher and beekeeper Richard Taylor tells the story of a man named Osmo, who one day discovers a book that relates in great detail the story of his own life — his entire life, including the parts that are still in the future, right up to his untimely death at the age of 29. At first, of course, Osmo is skeptical, but as his life goes on, everything in the book keeps coming true with perfect accuracy, leading Osmo to the inescapable conclusion that every detail of his life is predetermined, fated, and that no other future is possible for him than the one laid out in the book.

Taylor then proceeds to argue that Osmo’s conclusion is justified — and that it would be equally justified even if the book did not exist! In other words, we who have not found a book that infallibly predicts every detail of our lives, are just as justified as Osmo in embracing fatalism. Here, taken from pages 58-60 of the third edition, is this extraordinary argument.

Is the doctrine of fatalism, then, true? This amounts to asking whether our circumstances are significantly different from Osmo’s. Of course we cannot read our own biographies the way he could. Only people who become famous ever have their lives recorded, and even so, it is always in retrospect. [. . .] None of this matters, as far as our own fatalism is concerned. For the important thing to note is that, of the two considerations that explain Osmo’s fatalism, only one of them is philosophically relevant, and that one applies to us no less than to him. The two considerations were: (1) there existed a set of true statements about his life, both past and future, and (2) he came to know what those statements were and to believe them. Now the second of these two considerations explains why, as a matter of psychological fact, Osmo became fatalistic, but it has nothing to do with the validity of that point of view. Its validity is assured by (1) alone. [. . .] This was ensured simply by there being such a set of statements, whether written or not, whether read by anyone or not, and whether or not known to be true. All that is required is that they should be true. [. . .]

The presupposition of fatalism is therefore nothing but the commonest presupposition of all logic and inquiry; namely, that there is such a thing as truth, and that this has nothing at all to do with the passage of time. Nothing becomes true or ceases to be true; whatever is truth at all simply is true. [. . .]

[W]e can distinguish two mutually exclusive but exhaustive classes of statements about any person; namely, the class of all those that are true, and the class of all that are false. There are no others in addition to these. Included in each are statements never asserted or even considered by anyone, but such that, if anyone were to formulate one of them, it would either be a true statement or else a false one.

Consider, then, that class of statements about some particular person — you, let us suppose — each of which happens to be true. Their totality constitutes your biography [. . .] — absolutely everything that is true of you.

Some of these things you have already experienced, others await you. But the entire biography is there. It is not written, and probably never will be; but it is nevertheless there, all of it. If, like Osmo, you had some way of discovering those statements in advance, then like him you could hardly help becoming a fatalist. But foreknowledge of the truth would not create any truth, nor invest your philosophy with truth, nor add anything to the philosophical foundations of the fatalism that would then be so apparent to you. It would only serve to make it apparent.


The genius of this argument is to show that fatalism does not in any way depend upon causal determinism. Determinism is the doctrine that, given complete information about the present (or a past) state of the universe, it would in principle be possible to predict all its future states with perfect accuracy. Taylor’s argument is that the future need not in any way be predictable from the past, not even by some purely hypothetical being like Laplace’s demon. Even if the universe contains true randomness or true agency, and is thus fundamentally unpredictable even in principle, its future states are nevertheless inevitable by simple virtue of the law of excluded middle — by virtue, that is, of the fact that all possible statements about future states of the universe are already either true or false and that this truth-value can never change (because nothing ever becomes true or ceases to be true).

Taylor’s argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. Premise: All well-formed propositions are either true or false.
  2. Therefore, all possible statements about the future are already either true or false.
  3. Premise: The truth-value of a proposition can never change. What is true can never become false, and vice versa.
  4. Therefore, all possible statements about the future state either what inevitably will happen or what inevitably will not happen. (This is true whether or not anyone ever actually makes, or even thinks, those statements.)
  5. Therefore, the future is inevitable, and fatalism is true.

The argument is valid. Should we be fatalists, then? Well, no. “We should reject fatalism” is possibly a true statement. “We should accept fatalism” cannot possibly be a true statement — because under fatalism, there is no “should.” If everything is inevitable, that applies as much to my acceptance or rejection of fatalism as to anything else. Either I will accept the doctrine or I will reject it, and whichever happens was inevitable all along, so there’s no point in asking whether I “should” accept it or not. Of course, there’s also no point in saying there’s no point; either I will ask that question or I won’t, and whichever happens was inevitable all along. And there’s no point in saying there’s no point in saying there’s no point, because . . . well, you get the idea. Endless, recursive pointlessness, a completely useless philosophy.

If I reject fatalism, my stance is either (a) correct or (b) completely inevitable. Therefore, so far as it lies in my power to reject fatalism, I should do so. I find that I can reject it, and so I do. Perhaps I am right in so doing, or perhaps it is my inescapable fate to adopt incorrect philosophical positions — but I won’t waste any time considering the latter  possibility, because, as I may have mentioned once or twice, there’s no point.


But Taylor’s argument is valid, so the only way to avoid the conclusion is to challenge the premises: namely, the law of excluded middle, and the principle that nothing ever either begins or ceases to be true.

The law of excluded middle — that every well-formed proposition is either true or false — is pretty strongly grounded in intuition, and few would challenge it (though we may end up having to do just that if necessary).

Taylor’s other premise, though — that truth “has nothing at all to do with the passage of time,” that whatever is true, is true timelessly, from all eternity to all eternity — well, that has a good deal less intuitive support! The natural, naïve response is that of course things can become true and cease to be true. For example, the statement “There is a full cup of coffee sitting on my desk” is currently true (let us say); but it wasn’t true an hour ago, when the cup was in the kitchen; nor is it likely to be true an hour hence, when I expect to have drunk all the coffee in it.

It might be replied that this response unthinkingly invests a grammatical feature of the English language with metaphysical significance. Suppose I argue that all truth is relative — that what is “true for me” may not be “true for you” — on the strength of the fact that the sentence “There is a full cup of coffee on my desk” is true when I say it but may be false when you say it. This is obviously an artefact of our use of the deictic word “my,” the meaning of which depends on who is speaking. If we simply rephrase the sentence as “There is a full cup of coffee on William Tychonievich’s desk,” its truth or falsehood will be the same no matter who is speaking. But the verb “is” is similarly deictic, though less obviously so, because the meaning of the present tense depends on when the sentence is uttered. A sentence in the present tense may be true when spoken now but false when spoken an hour from now, but this is of no more metaphysical significance than is the context-dependent meaning of the word “my.” The underlying proposition — which is tense-less and thus not perfectly expressible in English, but is something like “There is/was/will be a full cup of coffee on William’s desk at 4:30 pm on May 1, 2018” — is either true or false without regard to the time at which it is uttered.

I’m not so sure the parallel is a good one, though. No one thinks there is any fundamental ontological difference between my desk and your desk, but there is an apparent ontological difference between the present state of the universe (which is uniquely “real”) and its past and future states. That English forces us to put all assertions in a particular tense is a feature, not a bug; in this instance, English grammar reflects deep metaphysical assumptions which should be accepted unless there is some compelling reason for rejecting them.

The theory of time touched upon in my previous post (qv) begins with the assumption that truth is fundamentally tensed, not timeless: it builds on the intuitively understood distinction of what is the case from what was or will be. And while there is a higher perspective from which it is true that I was in the kitchen at 8:00 this morning, this level of truth is not timeless, either, but represents a sort of second-order meta-time which has its own past, present, and future, and so on through as many different orders of time as you care to consider. Reality is tensed all the way down. While any given order of time appears timeless from the standpoint of the next higher order, there is no such thing as pure timelessness, no escaping from some form or another of time.

In future posts I will be attempting to use the conceptual tools of the Dunnean “serial” model of time to attack Taylor’s seemingly ironclad argument for fatalism. The argument itself tacitly assumes a second dimension of time (when it says that it “is” already true that I “will” do such-and-such tomorrow), and making that assumption explicit will, I think, lead us to a solution.

The present now will later be past.

The thing about time is that it elapses — obvious, really, but nevertheless a fact that has been ignored or denied by time theorists from Boethius to Einstein to my own past self. Any adequate model of time must take account of the fundamental fact that time passes. It just does. No static model can be considered a model of time.

One person who made a valiant effort to deal with the fact that time elapses, and to work out the ramifications of that idea, was the philosopher and airplane designer J. W. Dunne. He first published his ideas in An Experiment with Time, where his theory of time, expressed in confusing mathematical jargon and illustrated with even more confusing diagrams, was overshadowed by that book’s more sensational claims about dreams and precognition. He followed up Experiment with the even more abstract and confusing The Serial Universe (tying Dunne’s theory of time in with then-new developments in physics), and then with the relatively lucid The New Immortality, Nothing Dies, and Intrusions? — but by then no one was paying attention. Of his works, only Experiment was ever widely read, and by now even it has faded from public consciousness.

Nevertheless, Dunne was right — or at least partly right — or at least he approached the problem from the right angle, and it is on his foundation that we must build in trying to solve the riddle of time and its passage. This post represents my stab (perhaps the first of many) at reformulating Dunne’s key insight in my own words.


It was sometime in September or October 1963, a month or two before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, that Bob Dylan wrote the lines that will serve as our theme: “The present now will later be past . . . for the times, they are a-changin’.” In the discussion that follows, it will be convenient to adopt the fiction that that point in time is the present — since the real present is a moving target, and the real future is unknown. Let us suppose, then, that it is currently the autumn of 1963, that Kennedy is alive and kicking, that Ed Sullivan has discovered the Beatles but not yet booked them for his show, and that Bob Dylan is at this very moment jotting down some lyrics for a song which will later give its name to his third studio album.

Now let’s consider some states of affairs that (from the standpoint of our designated “present”) are the case, some that were, and some that will be. Ideally, we should be looking at entire states of the universe, but it will be simpler to limit ourselves to one constituent fact of each such state: the identity of the sitting U. S. President. We will represent these states of affairs graphically, as below.


As should be fairly obvious, each of the head shots above represents the fact of that person’s being the sitting President. The red frame around Kennedy’s photo represents the fact that he is the President, while the other fellows (from left to right, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, the bluegrass fiddler Clarence “Tater” Tate, and Truman) are not.

While Kennedy’s presidency is uniquely real, the other five are not equal in their unreality. Truman and Eisenhower were Presidents in the past, which is something anyway, and Johnson and Nixon will be, but nothing of the kind can be said of Tater Tate. We can add this information to our diagram by means of additional colored frames to indicate the ontological status of each state of affairs: black for past states, green for future ones, and no frame at all for the one that is wholly counterfactual.


Notice that we still don’t have a timeline, per se; the photos are arranged alphabetically by last name, and all we can say about the fact represented by each is that it is true, was true, will be true, or none of the above. We do not as yet have a way of expressing the idea that, say, Truman was President “before” Eisenhower. That will come later.

But first, let’s tackle Dylan’s obvious-yet-cryptic statement: The present now will later be past. How might we represent that? Kennedy’s presidency is present now but will later be past. Our diagram must represent it as both present (red) and past (black), and must further indicate that the former is its status now (red), while the latter will be its status later (green). The only way to represent this is with two different levels of colored frames.


As before, red, black, and green frames represent present, past, and future states of affairs, respectively, but every state now has two different levels of temporal status. Kennedy’s photo appears in both a red frame (for “present”) and a black one (for “past”), but the red-framed Kennedy is inside a larger red frame (indicating that this state is the present now), whereas the black-framed Kennedy is inside a larger green frame (indicating that it will later be past).

This introduction of a second level of time is necessary in order to model Dylan’s statement; otherwise “will later be past” would be a flat contradiction in terms. At best, it could be interpreted as a counterfactual — as meaning “If what is in fact the future were instead the present, then what is in fact the present would instead be the past.” If we want to ascribe any sort reality at all to the past-ness of Kennedy’s presidency, to represent it as anything other than a purely counterfactual hypothesis like that of the Tater Tate administration, we need this second level of time.

This new diagram also allows us to express the idea that Nixon’s presidency comes “after” Johnson’s: In the larger frame where Johnson’s frame is red, Nixon’s is green; where Nixon’s is red, Johnson’s is black. We are therefore now justified in arranging our five successive states in a sequential timeline — or, rather, in five timelines forming a two-dimensional “time-plane.” (At this point, we can also dismiss Tater Tate from further consideration; he has served only to emphasize that past and future states are not non-existent in the same sense as purely counterfactual states.)


This two-dimensional arrangement of states gives us a convenient way of referring to the two different levels of time: the “horizontal” time in which Kennedy comes after Eisenhower and before Johnson, and the “vertical” time in which red-Kennedy comes after green-Kennedy and before black-Kennedy. (This is, I repeat, simply a matter of convenient terminology. There is obviously nothing actually “vertical” or “horizontal” — or “red” or “green” — about either type of time, nor am I necessarily trying to say that they should be considered two actual “dimensions” in a physical sense.)

We can therefore annotate Dylan as follows: “The present (in horizontal time) now (in vertical time) will later (in vertical time) be past (in horizontal time).”


One problem raised by the above diagram is that it seems to mean that the future “already exists” in some sense and is therefore predetermined. Kennedy is President now, but it is already true to say that he will be succeeded by Johnson and then by Nixon — which seems to negate the free will of the assassins and voters responsible for that series of events.

One possible solution is to deny that future states have any sort of existence at all — to say that now, while Kennedy is President, Johnson’s presidency has no more reality than Tater Tate’s. But this seems inconsistent both with Einsteinian relativity (specifically, with the relativity of simultaneity) and with the data of precognition (since no one could see the future unless there were something to see). Fortunately, our model allows for another solution: that the future already exists but can be changed.

The idea of “changing the future,” while common in our everyday thought and speech, is strictly nonsensical in a one-dimensional model of time, just as much so as that of “changing the past.” To say that the future “was” A but “later” changed to B is meaningless and self-contradictory without a second dimension of time. Our two-dimensional model allows us to express the idea that the future was literally changed by the lone gunman on the grassy knoll or whatever they call him.


The diagram above expresses the idea that Kennedy was going to serve a full term or two, after which some of his charm would wear off, the other party would get its turn, and he would be succeeded by Nixon and then by that other guy. You know the one I mean. (Notice how neatly our English expressions “was going to” and “would” — past-tense forms of future constructions — denote the green-within-black states of our two-dimensional model.) But at this very moment Mr. Grassyknoll has just made his fateful decision to take out Kennedy prematurely, so as of now the future has changed and Johnson is going to be the next President (though, with the grim inevitability of Greek tragedy, Nixon’s turn in the White House will still come round in the end).

Now whether people actually can change the future (or the past, for that matter) is an open question, but the point is that this model of time at least allows us to ask it, whereas the standard one-dimensional model would rule it meaningless and not-even-false.


The ideas laid out in this post represent a first step only in creating a satisfactory model of time, but I think it is an important one. I hope to get deeper into Dunne’s theory, and my interpretation of it, in future posts. (I might throw in a bit of Ouspensky for good measure.) The question of agency is inseparable from that of time, so finding or creating a workable model of time — one which, whether ultimately “correct” or not, will at least give me a starting point from which to think — is a high priority.