Tag Archives: past

Perpetuating Reality: Time is not real

Two students in my Rhet. & Comp. class claimed on Friday that time does not exist. I’m writing this now, describing a memory as an idea, and if you’re reading this now, you’re constructing these words and sentences into your own abstract ideas.

One of my students said she’d like to discuss time’s reality for her assignment to craft a philosophical argument. So we start by defining time as that which flows along, carrying all existing things in its current (the current moment). Clocks don’t measure this time, because clocks just measure events — electric clocks measure AC cycles or quartz crystal movements; atomic clocks measure the behavior of certain atoms — and clocks do not measure time itself.

We talked about how objects degrade over time — metal left outside rusts, wood breaks down. But this “wearing down” of physical objects isn’t caused by time but by the action of other physical things on this objects — chemical reactions cause rusting, mechanical erosion causes scratches, etc.

Physical objects can only be affected by materials and energy — time, being neither of these, does not exist physically.

So perhaps time exists only in our ideas, our minds, our conscious understanding. We can look at an old building and see the rust on the door hinge and the softening brick and think that this house is old. But then, we can think anything.

But objects exist in a perpetual now — there is no past, no future, for an object. (And even this description threatens to fall into thinking of objects as having their own form of consciousness — it’s hard not to think this way.) A homeowner might look at a rusting hinge and think that it should be replaced, because the hinge no longer lives up to the homeowner’s expectation of what should be. But someone, like an artist or scientist, who just wants to see what is might just see the object in the present moment without regard to what it was or could be.

As an artist myself, I can enjoy looking at dilapidated barns, for example, and appreciate their falling-down-ness, whereas if I owned those barns, I’d see trouble and expense and a physical world that wasn’t matching my expectations. (I can recognize that feeling, though, when I have a certain class session that isn’t happening the way I’d like it to be happening.)

It’s such a part of my consciousness, of my way of understanding reality, to think of time as being an ongoing thread (or flowing river) connecting all my experiences throughout my life. I suspect that this is one of the features of the cultural software that was constructed as a framework for thinking as I grew up.

I developed the late 1970s/early 1980s version of this software, in which certain things — TV, microwaves, nuclear arms race — already existed, and in which certain values — divorce is normal, women have careers, and it’s OK for boys to cry — were normal. I suspect that the 1930s-era software my grandparents grew up with (during which time the metaphor would not have been “software,” of course — but player piano rolls? timing gears?) had different technology and different values and so they no doubt have trouble understanding things like the satellite television remote and the value of racial and ethnic diversity. No doubt I myself will find it difficult to understand change as my system-software ages. But this is also why it’s pointless for old people to say “In MY day, we didn’t do that” — as long as one is still alive, one might as well adapt.

So, yeah — there may be no time at all. It’s so easy for me to think of the past as these experiences I remember, and the future as things I will do, that it’s easy to overlook that the only time I’m really alive is right now (see also here). I’ve got 20 years of journals — but “years of” anything is an empty idea. What I should say is that I have notebooks and print-outs (and computer files, even) that are marked with dates from 20 years ago, but these notebooks, etc., still exist now, and when I read them, I’m reading them now. I’ve long tried to figure out how to understand the writer of these past writings, which writer’s handwriting looked like mine, and some of what the writer said sounded like something I’d say, but which I don’t remember saying it. Was it Younger-Me? But Younger-Me is not Now-Me, so then, is it a different person? Well, maybe it might as well be. My old writings are just ink on paper that exists in that form today. My memory of having written a certain page (or my not-having such a memory) doesn’t really matter. Without memory, there is no past, anyway.

And probably there is no “reality,” either, other than whatever “reality”-image we construct in our minds, our mental models of the world. Even terms like “reality” and “the world” are abstractions, and what really seems to exist — matter and energy, physical things — exist without the names of “matter” and “energy” or “atoms” or any science label. We can think about the physical world — that’s what science is, thoughts about the physical world — but we don’t really know what’s there. We perpetuate reality only by perpetuating the idea of reality.

And if there’s no time-river, and no time-thread, then there’s no place for events or experiences to be saved, and so there’s no such thing as “truth” that any statement or story could correspond to. So in a criminal court, the verdict of any trial is the constructed story that the jury finds most realistic.

And if there’s no time-river, no time-thread, then there’s no time in which one could jump (it’s so easy to think of time-as-distance this way), and so there can be no time travel. Time might be how we explain change, or we extrapolate from perceiving change (which perception requires memory), but time itself doesn’t need to exist. (Though, of course, some abstract explanations for how matter-and-energy work invoke the idea of time, such as space-time).

It’s so hard for a conscious, abstracting mind to escape abstraction. Abstracting is its habit, its process; abstracting is what the mind does. It’s exhausting, sometimes. Yet, I live in a world of abstractions — following rules and curricula, teaching theories and ideas — those are what keep the physical roof over my head and the physical food coming to my body. But no ideas are real in the same way that anything I can touch is real.  That may be why I so desperately enjoy, at certain moments, letting go of thinking and lying down flat on my back and just not-abstracting (which can’t be directed by thinking but can seem to be allowed to happen) — some people might call this mediation, but I often just fall asleep. This not-thinking allows me to just be now and not think about anything else.

The past is not -7: Remembering to forget

I’m not sure it helps to think of time in a linear way, as if time were on a number line (with the present at zero, the past as negative numbers, and the future as positive numbers). This seems to suggest that we could time-travel by jumping to some other spot on the number line. Maybe the past is only memories, the future is only conjecture, and the present is — is the only thing that’s real but even the present can’t be defined.

Hell, time may not exist outside of one’s consciousness at all.

But what I have in the present moment is a lot of pages of writings that seem to be in my handwriting (and those things that are not in my handwriting — those things I typed — do feel a little less mine, somehow). I’m glad I have these writings. Sometimes I can look back and read about things I said I did but no longer remember doing. Sometimes I’m surprised by how wise I was years ago, or that an idea that seems recent was in my mind several years ago. (Sometimes this makes me wonder if I’m really ever doing anything new, or just refining — or spiraling back over — things I first said 20 or more years ago.)

And I’m tempted, at times, to look through these older writings and get passages to write here on the blog. There are some reasons why I don’t do this more often, namely that doing this seems boring. I don’t feel like I really wanna go back over all those old things. A dip into the past, a glimpse back, are fine, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time typing up stuff I wrote when I was not the person that I am now.

Besides, I’m tempted to not be limited creatively by what I did in the past. I want to be doing new things, not thoroughly wringing out whatever life was in an ideas I had once. Ideas come all the time when I’m open to them, and I’d rather keep having new ideas than feel some obligation to a past idea just because I’ve spent a lot of time on it. I want to do what I want to do, creatively speaking, and what I want to do is keeping having new ideas — by “ideas” here, I mean new perspectives, new understandings, new points of view. But even modest ideas are new ideas.

I’m not explaining this well (a familiar feeling: words suck, and yet, they’re what we have, unless we also have other things).

But, hells bells, that’s OK, too. Why does every explanation need to be good? Eff that. I’m alive and I do stuff and I think stuff and that’s all. I mean, my writings are, in a way, just a by-product of my consciousness, anyway. My texts are by-products of the creative process, of the mind engaged in writing, of my conscious mind seeming to take dictation from the mind-voice that is the source of the words. It’s easy to think of the writing as the product, rather than as the by-product — it’s the writing that sells, that can be shared, not the experience of writing, and yet, the libraries and used book shops give away books filled with ink all the time. Empty books would have more value than a lot of the books filled with words. It’s easy to focus on the thing, the material object, rather than on the immaterial, subjective experience, and yet, why would anyone do something just to make a dead product.

And one of my older ideas is that my completed journals feel dead to me. Once I’ve filled all the pages with my writing, the notebook goes on a shelf and I get a new one that feels more vital. Of course, the words I wrote even moments ago are already past, and dead to me. This is how we live, of course, with every moment being new; revision pretends that things can be done over, re-lived. I understand that writing is not speech, can’t always be compared to speech, and yet writing that is worried over is dead in a way that speech never is — and how weird it’d be if we went back and revised our conversations. Sure, sometimes we wish we hadn’t said a thing, but, eh, life goes on. Apologies can be good. But we don’t get to revise our lives, of course; those continue. Each moment is new.  (However one defines “moment,” which is awkward of course. I like the metaphor of a mind crystallizing, coming into focus, around a feeling, idea, or perceived pattern, say, like recognizing a face, either a real person’s face or a face in a cloud). Living is fluid, is an act, is a process — we often will talk about a life, or one’s life, as if it were a thing, an object, when of course it is nothing but an abstraction.

All is fluid, is act, is process — or I should use verbs here and say, flowing, acting, processing (and these verbs are, of course, as abstract as the nouns are). And these labels we use are, of course, our own mental shorthand — these labels are not anywhere in nature, in physical reality (unless some human has written them there).

And I’ve said this before. But that’s OK, too. It’s a funny thing to be alive. I’ve long thought that there can be no statement of a meaning of life — statements are inadequate. We experience. We can think about what we see, and then we can think about it again. We do things whether we understand what we do or not. Maybe we never know why we do a particular thing. Maybe that’s OK.

And I think it’s fine that we try to understand things through words and labels and concepts and models and such, just so long as we remember that all of this has very little purchase on or intersection with our experiences, our bodies, and the things our bodies interact with. So long as we remember to forget all we think we know.

A Doctorate in Here and Now

2013_06_15_mh (51)_doctorate

I want to study the everpresent present, and I want to study particular things in the omnipresent, momentary present.

I want to understand these things without knowing any facts about them. Facts are abstract, telling about the things, without being the things themselves. Colleges grant degrees to people who know lots of facts and ideas about certain things. I want a degree in not-knowing facts.

Which is not to say that I want to be rewarded for laziness. No. It’s just that knowing facts seems too easy. As a culture, we’ve been forming ideas about particular things for thousands of years now. We’ve been comparing this thing to that thing, seeing how things are similar to each other and how they’re different, and proposing ideas as to how things came to be. This is OK, but it should hardly be the end of our mental processes, I’d think.

I’d like something beyond mere idea-making. Rather than labeling a thing, I’d rather resist from labeling it. Of course, I’m still stuck in my own mind here, but my mind seems capable of doing things other than just thinking about other things. I want to sharpen my mind on the whetstone of particulars — or, rather, I’d like to aim my abstraction-apparatus on what may be the most abstract of all: particulars.

It’s not too hard to think about things once we separate ourselves from them. I can think about yesterday because it’s not today, and I’m not still living it, and for that reason, it’s even easier to think of a longer time ago. I can look at ants, say, and look at how they move and how they’re not me.

But to look at the present moment is perhaps to look at my looking itself. To look even at those sensible (sensory) things around me is to try to bring my mind back from abstraction-land. To think is an attempt to get distance. So don’t seek distance, by not-thinking? To not-think is to be open, to be close, to be whole, to be here, and now, but that’s also unable to communicate.

Do I need to communicate? Well, maybe one reports back to people on shore after diving. Shoot — I don’t want image or metaphor here. Language be simple. Simple be my language of now-studies.

This is second draft of this text, and the first draft was chatty, and I now see that I was communicating my mind, my mind-voice, instead of giving a lecture in here-now-ness. (Perhaps edit out cleverness, neologisms, and allusions to Heidegger’s “Dasein” nomenclature?)

“Reality Studies” sounds fun, but it’s pretty abstract already. Maybe new language is needed for non-abstract studies?

Generalized knowledge (abstractions) lasts for long time — is never alive and so can never die. Perhaps present-moment-studies (to label already is to limit?) can’t be recorded? Can only be fleetingly seen and not held onto?

The earlier draft of this post had this idea that seemed exciting when it came to mind: Only the present exists, but we don’t know when that is. As I type, the present is becoming the past. The future is only an idea, and the past is only an idea — the present is what happens between two ideas?

And now I’ll close this draft because things that are not abstract — things that are particular — cannot end. And perhaps what I’m grasping toward here, a no-word place of observation, of fleeting thoughts and letting go, is actually (it just now comes to mind) related to (or is exactly the same thing as?) the experience I have of creating, of having my attention obliquely focused as I write?