The Illusion of ‘Now’

Consider the human being. He is a creature existing in four dimensions. A man may be six feet tall, a foot-and-a-half wide, nine inches deep and seventy years long.

That last dimension is as real as any of the others in an absolute sense, but it is not perceived. What the man perceives is ‘now’.

The reason he perceives now is purely down to how the mechanism of perception actually works. At any point along the time line, the individual experiences the ‘now’ as an agglomeration of previous experiences in memory, affects on personality, an immediately preceding thought being followed by the one being had at that moment. At any one moment, the perception is that that is all that exists. The past is present only in memory. The future is unknown.

This sense of the ‘now’ is so pervasive within our experience that it has shaped the way we view the universe. The past truly is gone, and the future has yet to exist.

However, that is purely perceptual. At any point along that timeline we think the same thing and, on one level, we are quite correct. In order to be at this point on the timeline we have to be sandwiched between the now immediately preceding, the now immediately to follow.

Take a spatial analogy, and here we have to mess with it given that we tend to think of ourselves facing forwards given the direction in which we face tends to be the direction in which we’re moving, (unless you’re Chinese and taking your morning exercise). To make the time analogy work, we have to accept that we’re always facing backwards, that is what we actually see, and all we can see. The future is off behind the back of our heads, we can’t see it, nor can we turn around and take a look at it. We see our pasts while walking backwards into the future, then, to use this analogy.

The place at which we stand is the place at which we stand. We cannot be in two places at once. However, we know that those places exist and we can move to them, change our location.

Let’s, then, make this spatial analogy more like time. We are on a train. It has one set of tracks to ride on and a set schedule. At any one moment, we will be where we are, nowhere else, and that position strictly defined in accordance with the timetable. Moreover, let us say we are strapped to rear-facing seats and cannot turn our heads. We can only know the terrain through which we have already passed from what we see out of the windows. We cannot know what lies behind us, (which is to say ahead of us in terms of our journey).

If we had been born that way, lived our lives that way, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the next station along the line does not exist until we reach it, that the one we passed a half-hour ago is gone forever. That is, after all, our experience. What we know, however, given that our existences are not so circumscribed, is that both stations have their own actual existence. Neither will ‘come into being’ nor ‘go out of being’.

The problem with even this analogy is it, of itself, is circumscribed by time which is, in our experience, inescapable. Thus though we may say that the stations before and after exist, my point is that the man at the stations before and after, the man between the stations, all exist equally in reality, and this is where the analogy breaks down given that we tend to think of the man where he is ‘now’.

Maybe I’ll come up with a better analogy – and a better way of saying this – later, but for now I have a headache and the cat’s pawing my leg in need of lunch. Hopefully, though, you’ll have some idea about what I’m driving at now. All moments in time are co-existent. That they appear to be otherwise, that the ‘now’ has supremacy, is merely reflective of our perceptions.


2 thoughts on “The Illusion of ‘Now’

  1. So what you are saying, albeit so eloquently, is that our “now,” which has no fixed point in time, is really a glissando on the space-time continuum upon which we all travel backwards into the future, going in different directions. My question is this. Is the space-time continuum upon which we travel a straight line to infinity, or a circular line upon which we will eventually return to our starting point, and thus, after one lap, know our future. If the latter is the case, will we be able to deviate if we don’t like the future we have already experienced in the past?

    • It was a difficult piece to write, George, and I fear I’ve confused you. ‘Now’ does indeed have a fixed point in time. As does ‘now’. And ‘now’. They are just different points along the time line. Our apparent movement along the time line, in my idea, would be illusory, resulting from the way in which memory works. Go forwards along the time line, memory is cumulative. Go backwards, it would be subtractive. We exist at all points on the timeline ‘simultaneously’ if we could but step outside time and look at it. There is no time coming into being and time destroyed with the only time existing the ‘now’. It all exists. The idea of ‘moving forwards through time’ is essentially illusory and results from the way in which experience accumulates in memory.

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