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"Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so."
Douglas Adams
The beginning of another week, once more we continue marching inexorably forward towards the end.

Or do we?

Well, obviously we do, or at least it feels like we do. But during my rambling investigations into the nature of consciousness I began to question the nature of time or at least the nature of our perception of it. Are we really moving forwards at an accelerating rate or is that just what it feels like?

The acceleration of time as we get older is obviously an illusion as I've discussed before, so might its steady passage in one direction also be imaginary? We need to think about how we actually experience time.

What is the present? I'd say the present corresponds to our short term memory; it's the moment in which our consciousness, our sense of being, exists. Looking at theories of the mechanism of consciousness, I'd say the present is probably several seconds long.

What is the past? From the context you can probably see where I'm going with this. For us, the past is our long-term memory. This is of variable length, consisting as it does of everything from the beginning of our lives to where the short-term memory starts.

I'm not going to define the future at this point; partly because from the point of view of the mind, it doesn't exist yet.

So consider yourself now. The spark of self burning brightly in the short-term memory of the present reinforced by the weight of the long term memory, the past. No knowledge of the future; as far as you're concerned you may be planning to have a shower in ten minutes, but there's no guarantee that you will. Smelly.

Consider yourself ten years ago. The spark of self burning brightly in the short-term memory of the present reinforced by the weight of the long term memory, the past. In other words exactly the same as now.

So what would happen if your mind inexplicably leaped from now to ten years ago? I don't think you'd notice. Assuming that memories are encoded inside the brain, in both temporal positions you have the solid memories of the past at your shoulder but no knowledge of the future. If you then leaped to next Tuesday, the effect would remain. Wherever your mind sits in your life it's facing forward, into the future. I don't think that the various presents that make up a lifespan have to occur sequentially at all.

OK, so you feel like it's 2009 and you're reading this near the beginning of October, but you would, wouldn't you? That's what the memories you have in the current present are telling you. But for all you know your previous present was in 2023, and you may shortly be departing for 1977. You'll return here of course - or perhaps you've already been here - as you have to visit every single present that make up your life.

Cosmological theory states that time is merely an aspect of space. Fine - just because our experience of it seems sequential and in one direction doesn't mean that it is. You can travel in both directions in space down the A27 after all, and if space and time are equivalent...

As The Prophets once said: "Linear time - what is this?"


Further reading:

For more ruminations on the non-linear nature of consciousness and reality, see the entries:
If you have enjoyed this entry or found it interesting do please leave a comment. This entry has received a lot of traffic recently and I would be very interested to hear from where it is linked.

1 comments

  1. Sulci Collective  

    Excellent stuff. Not enough writers consider the implications of time in narrative and non-linearity in human thought/consciousness. (Don't mean SF writers, mean literary writers).

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