When is Then?

I am sometimes amazed with the outlook that Age affords. Maybe it was there all along, and I was too busy to give it much attention, or maybe as the years wore thin and the leaves began to fall away, there was a better view of things around me, but whatever the cause, I started to realize just how tiny now really is -how small a space in time I actually occupy. It’s a perspective that didn’t seem terribly applicable until recently. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I wonder how I could not have noticed it’s relative size before.

It’s interesting to think about temporal, as well as spatial awareness in Art, for example. The first known picture to use geometrically fashioned perspective, and its famous ‘vanishing point’ is usually thought of  as being created by an architect from Florence, Fillipo Brunelleschi in 1415. In fact, however, perspective was apparently tried for theatrical scenery around the 5th century B.C.E in Greece, and then much later in various frescoes in Rome and even in a Villa in Pompeii, although with apparently little awareness of the value of a so-called vanishing point. What I’m saying, however, is that once it re-emerged in art all those centuries later, it became an essential ingredient for a realistic portrayal of reality. Something that would be missed if it were absent or done incorrectly.

So can we think of Time as, in a way, analogous to Art? And is there a way of projecting ourselves into the future towards a similar vanishing point to envision how the present should look? I mean, we do it to the Past all the time: we criticize decisions made long ago for problems we now have to try and solve. Think of both the advantages the petrochemical industry offered its citizens and the current problems it has created for us and our climate as the years have unfolded. So we were, in fact, colonized by a past thinking no further ahead than its needs at the time.

As it occasionally happens in the leisure time imposed by retirement, I discovered an essay by the public philosopher Roman Krznaric, apparently a research fellow of the Long Now Foundation, that seemed to address some of my questions. His opening sentence immediately captured my attention: ‘Humankind has colonised the future,’ he writes. ‘We treat it like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste – as if nobody will be there.’ It is a  perspective that invites -no demands– further consideration. https://psyche.co/ideas/future-generations-deserve-good-ancestors-will-you-be-one

Interestingly, he goes on to compare the British colonization of Australia, ‘which was based on a legal doctrine today known as terra nullius or ‘nobody’s land’, in which the continent was treated as if there were no indigenous people there when they arrived,’ with what seems to be the current societal attitude of what he calls ‘tempus nullius’. ‘The future is seen as ‘nobody’s time’, an unclaimed territory that is equally devoid of inhabitants… ours for the taking.’

I have to admit that I hadn’t thought of the future like that, but merely as a ‘then’ where I did not live, and where might never take more than a few hesitant steps. It remained for me more of a terra incognita, free entry into which was forever barred by the present. And yet, as Krznaric points out, ‘our political systems disenfranchise future generations in the same way that slaves and women were disenfranchised in the past… Future generations are granted no political rights or representation. Their interests have no influence at the ballot box or in the marketplace. This leaves them vulnerable to multiple long-term threats, from rising sea levels and AI-controlled lethal autonomous weapons to the next pandemic that lies on the horizon, whether naturally occurring or genetically engineered.’

But, with political systems that concentrate on short-termism, how can we ever hope to convince those in power -not to mention those who put them there- to change? Were they to come up with a plan for the next day -after a fire, say- yes of course we would think that was reasonable; a plan for next year -a new school perhaps- well, that would probably be a good idea, too. But how far ahead are we willing to plan? Most people have trouble saving enough for their retirement a few years away, so how (and why) would they plan for even further afield? Should we be willing to sacrifice anything for unknown generations to come? Things are difficult enough now aren’t they? Let them deal with it, just as we are forced to do now.

Krznaric has come up with ‘three compelling reasons why we should commit ourselves to protecting and promoting the interests of future generations far more than we do now. The first has to do with ‘Scales’ -comparing the number who have ever lived on earth, with the number who will do so over the next 50,000 years: ‘around 100 billion people have lived and died in the past 50,000 years. But they, together with the 7.8 billion people currently alive, are far outweighed by the estimated 6.75 trillion people who will be born over the next 50,000 years… Even in just the next millennium, more than 135 billion people will be born. How could we possibly ignore their wellbeing, and think that our own is of such greater value?’ Something to think about, for sure.

He calls his second argument the ‘Arrow’. If you shot an arrow (or a bullet) into the air and it injured someone far away, are you not still responsible? Think of the same issue with our attempted disposal of radioactive waste…

And then the ‘Baton’ -a rewording of the Golden Rule reminding us that ‘we have a duty not to impose harm or dangerous risks on future people that we wouldn’t be willing to accept ourselves… a Golden Rule passed on from one generation to another – a golden baton.’

I like that idea, if only because I know my parents sacrificed for me; they’re my example of why caring for the future should be important to us all. It’s not a distant neighbourhood, just an unoccupied house right next door. And our children, and their children will be living there. The future is not really ‘then’ is it? Its roots are buried here; neither now nor then are empty…

What about Now?

Now can be a tricky thing to police, I think; it keeps changing its clothes, and each time I think I finally recognize it, I realize I’ve mistaken it for somebody else. Someone from a different time, perhaps; someone who looks a lot like a friend in another place, but who is a stranger here with a similar face…

We should all try to live in the now I’ve read, but where, exactly, is that? And if I ever did run across it as I wander along the streets of my life, how would I recognize it? Or, perhaps more to the point, how could I pause there long enough to know I was in the right place -long enough to use it before it vanished as if it never really was?

There’s a lot of mystery to a now, you have to admit. Quite apart from it being infinitely evanescent, I imagine each one of them is different, if only by shades. A now on, say, Thursday, is no doubt different than a now on any other day, although I’ve never stopped long enough to analyze the contents, let alone committed any one instance to memory well enough for an accurate comparison.

Still, even if each now is in fact unique, why should any one example be privileged over any other? With an ocean to choose from, what advantage can be accorded to a single drop? And anyway, if the drop merely attests to the value found all around it, and is merely a representative of the whole, then is it sort of like the trailer-teaser of a movie, or the sample of a product that is intended to interest you in buying more? In which case, it is the whole that is being advertised, not the part. The part is incomplete: one page of the story, only.

And is any previous now equivalent to any new one? If not, are there any characteristics that should mark it for special consumption? Or should we just draw lots, throw dice, to choose? Even if I could stop long enough to find a now and valourize it, I am concerned I’d end up being saddled with the wrong one. A plain one; a defective one…

Metaphysics is certainly confusing; I see why it, and the most famous of its three children -ontology- has become the province of the Philosophers. Fortunately I stumbled upon an essay on the now in an essay by John Martin Fischer, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside; I have to confess it took me innumerable nows to read it, however. There’s nothing surprising in that, I suppose -still, it made me wonder if I could ever stay put in a now. https://aeon.co/essays/the-metaphysical-claims-behind-the-injunction-to-be-in-the-now

Fischer outlines the belief of various adherents -religious and otherwise- that ‘although it might seem to us that other times – past and future – are appropriate targets of attention, we can come to understand (intellectually and affectively) that in a fundamental sense… there is only the now, and thus our attention should be focused on it.’ The singularity of the now.

He is not convinced of the uniqueness of any particular now, however; he suggests that although we are, in reality, only present in the now, it is actually a trivial observation. Indeed, ‘now is an indexical term. That is, it’s employed flexibly to point to the particular time when it’s used, not the same time every time it’s used.  Similarly, the term here is an indexical term, employed flexibly to refer to the place where it’s uttered, not the same place wherever it’s uttered. Now is a temporal indexical, and here is a spatial indexical.’ I like that.

‘It’s thus not true that it’s always now, in the sense that it’s always the same time… Interpreted so that it’s correct, the intuitive idea that it’s always now doesn’t support the crucial inference that we should focus on the present because of its singularity.’ To paraphrase that apocryphal woman who, when challenged to answer what supported the turtle she believed held the world in place, it’s nows all the way down -an infinite number, in fact. Each may well be a singularity… but so what? What makes any one of them so special? There will no doubt be others each claiming to be exceptional, but only because they are indeed different from the rest.

As Fischer says, ‘it’s that there’s no necessity or inevitability to focusing only on the present moment, based on the fact (if it is a fact) that it’s the only moment that exists or is real.’ And, since it is obviously true that we can neither act in the past, nor in the future and only in the present -the now– then shouldn’t we try to stay in it…? Uhmm, I’m not convinced there’s an option, frankly. And anyway, there are inevitable consequences of acting in any given now that spread into the future and so are not a part of that special ‘singularity’. So, let me repeat, why is it so special -and why would I ever want to privilege it as if it actually contained something more than temporal instantaneity? After all, as Fischer points out, ‘every way of inhabiting the now (including ‘being here now’) is also a way of taking up the past and orienting ourselves to the future.’

No, I’m afraid I’m not really convinced there are any special values to the nows that flash past us like individual frames on a celluloid movie reel. It’s the movie as a whole that is ultimately what each now contributes to: the story. That’s where we all live, after all.

I suppose that if we find the story unpleasant in passages, we might benefit by pausing for a now or two -perhaps in meditation, or conversation with a friend- but in the end, we have to join the succession of picture frames and get on with our lives. It’s how it works.

As Fischer concludes, ‘We have a choice about what we focus on, a choice not dictated by the unique present, if there is one. We are free to choose how we wish to be. We should indeed be here now, but not because the now is all we have.’ We think in Time, we love in Time, we live in Time. Perhaps we should enjoy what we have left of it. All of it…!