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Why Can’t You Remember Your Future? Physicist Paul Davies on the Puzzlement of Why We Experience Time as Linear

The curious question of how and whether we can tell the difference between an experience and the memory of an experience.

Why Can’t You Remember Your Future? Physicist Paul Davies on the Puzzlement of Why We Experience Time as Linear

“If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail,” French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in his 1932 meditation on our paradoxical experience of time, “we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.” Nowhere is this duality of time more disorienting than in the constant mental time travel we perform between what has been and what will be in order to anchor ourselves to what is. As our lives tick on, gradually robbing the future of potential and robbing the past of relevance, we trudge along the arrow of time dragging with us this elusive curiosity we call a self — an ever-shifting packet of personal identity, mystifying in how it links us to our childhood selves and misleading in how it maps out our future selves.

That puzzlement is what Australian theoretical physicist Paul Davies explores in a wonderfully mind-bending passage from his altogether terrific 1995 book About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (public library), which embodies my three criteria for what makes a great science book.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Davies writes:

When I was a child, I often used to lie awake at night, in fearful anticipation of some unpleasant event the following day, such as a visit to the dentist, and wish I could press some sort of button that would have the effect of instantly transporting me twenty-four hours into the future. The following night, I would wonder whether that magic button was in fact real, and that the trick had indeed worked. After all, it was twenty-four hours later, and though I could remember the visit to the dentist, it was, at the that time, only a memory of an experience, not an experience.

Another button would also send me backwards in time, of course. This button would restore my brain state and memory to what they were at that earlier date. One press, and I could be back at my early childhood, experiencing once again, for the first time, my fourth birthday…

Art by Leonard Weisgard for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman addressed this perplexity in his model of the experiencing self and the remembering self, but for Davies the more interesting question deals not with the pure psychology of the experience but with how the accepted physics of time, seeded by Einstein’s relativity theory, gives shape to that psychological experience. He returns to the larger questions arising from his childhood thought experiments:

With these buttons, gone would be the orderly procession of events that apparently constitutes my life. I could simply jump hither and thither at random, back and forth in time, rapidly moving on from any unpleasant episodes, frequently repeating the good times, always avoiding death, of course , and continuing ad infinitum. I would have no subjective impression of randomness, because at each stage the state of my brain would encode a consistent sequence of events.

[…]

The striking thing about [such] “thought experiments” is, how would my life seem any different if this button-pushing business really was going on? What does it even mean to say that I am experiencing my life in a jumpy, random sort of manner? Each instant of my experience is the experience, whatever its temporal relation to other experiences. So long as the memories are consistent, what meaning can be attached to the claim that my life happens in a jumbled sequence?

In the remainder of the thoroughly satisfying About Time, Davies goes on to probe the answer to this question by examining how the history of human thought, from St. Augustine to Einstein, has left us with a model of time that simply doesn’t reflect the nature of experience, and what we can expect from the evolution of science as we reach for more complete models of this timelessly puzzling dimension of reality.

Complement it with T.S. Eliot’s beautiful ode to the nature of time and Virginia Woolf on the elasticity of time, then revisit the historic debate that shaped our modern understanding of time.

BP

Albert Camus on Strength of Character and How to Ennoble Our Minds in Difficult Times

“We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more…”

Albert Camus on Strength of Character and How to Ennoble Our Minds in Difficult Times

In 1957, Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) became the second youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded to him for work that “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” (It was with this earnestness that, days after receiving the coveted accolade, he sent his childhood teacher a beautiful letter of gratitude.)

More than half a century later, his lucid and luminous insight renders Camus a timeless seer of truth, one who ennobles and enlarges the human spirit in the very act of seeing it — the kind of attentiveness that calls to mind his compatriot Simone Weil, whom he admired more than he did any other thinker and who memorably asserted that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Nowhere does Camus’s generous attention to the human spirit emanate more brilliantly than in a 1940 essay titled “The Almond Trees” (after the arboreal species that blooms in winter), found in his Lyrical and Critical Essays (public library) — the superb volume that gave us Camus on happiness, despair, and how to amplify our love of life. Penned at the peak of WWII, to the shrill crescendo of humanity’s collective cry for justice and mercy, Camus’s clarion call for reawakening our noblest nature reverberates with newfound poignancy today, amid our present age of shootings and senseless violence.

albertcamus
Albert Camus

At only twenty-seven, Camus writes:

We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.

Let us know our aims then, holding fast to the mind, even if force puts on a thoughtful or a comfortable face in order to seduce us. The first thing is not to despair. Let us not listen too much to those who proclaim that the world is at an end. Civilizations do not die so easily, and even if our world were to collapse, it would not have been the first. It is indeed true that we live in tragic times. But too many people confuse tragedy with despair. “Tragedy,” [D.H.] Lawrence said, “ought to be a great kick at misery.” This is a healthy and immediately applicable thought. There are many things today deserving such a kick.

In a sentiment evocative of the 1919 manifesto Declaration of the Independence of the Mind — which was signed by such luminaries as Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Rabindranath Tagore, Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, Stefan Zweig, and Hermann Hesse — Camus argues that this “kick” is to be delivered by the deliberate cultivation of the mind’s highest virtues:

If we are to save the mind we must ignore its gloomy virtues and celebrate its strength and wonder. Our world is poisoned by its misery, and seems to wallow in it. It has utterly surrendered to that evil which Nietzsche called the spirit of heaviness. Let us not add to this. It is futile to weep over the mind, it is enough to labor for it.

But where are the conquering virtues of the mind? The same Nietzsche listed them as mortal enemies to heaviness of the spirit. For him, they are strength of character, taste, the “world,” classical happiness, severe pride, the cold frugality of the wise. More than ever, these virtues are necessary today, and each of us can choose the one that suits him best. Before the vastness of the undertaking, let no one forget strength of character. I don’t mean the theatrical kind on political platforms, complete with frowns and threatening gestures. But the kind that through the virtue of its purity and its sap, stands up to all the winds that blow in from the sea. Such is the strength of character that in the winter of the world will prepare the fruit.

Elsewhere in the volume, Camus writes: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” Each time our world cycles through a winter of the human spirit, Camus remains an abiding hearth of the invisible summer within us, his work a perennial invitation to reinhabit our deepest decency and live up to our most ennobled nature.

Complement this particular excerpt from the thoroughly elevating Lyrical and Critical Essays with Nietzsche on what it really means to be a free spirit and Susan Sontag on how to be a moral human being, then revisit Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons and our search for meaning.

BP

Hannah Arendt on Time, Space, and Where Our Thinking Ego Resides

“The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere.”

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen remembers the future instead of the past. This seemingly nonsensical proposition, like so many elements of the beloved book, is a stroke of philosophical genius and prescience on behalf of Lewis Carroll, made half a century before Einstein and Gödel challenged our linear conception of time.

But no thinker has addressed how the disorienting nature of time shapes the human experience with more captivating lucidity than Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975), who in 1973 became the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures. Her talk was eventually adapted into two long essays, published as The Life of the Mind (public library) — the same ceaselessly rewarding volume that gave us Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

In one of the most stimulating portions of the book, Arendt argues that thinking is our rebellion against the tyranny of time and a hedge against the terror of our finitude. Noting that cognition always removes us from the present and makes absences its raw material, she considers where the thinking ego is located if not in what is present and close at hand:

Looked at from the perspective of the everyday world of appearances, the everywhere of the thinking ego — summoning into its presence whatever it pleases from any distance in time or space, which thought traverses with a velocity greater than light’s — is a nowhere. And since this nowhere is by no means identical with the twofold nowhere from which we suddenly appear at birth and into which almost as suddenly we disappear in death, it might be conceived only as the Void. And the absolute void can be a limiting boundary concept; though not inconceivable, it is unthinkable. Obviously, if there is absolutely nothing, there can be nothing to think about. That we are in possession of these limiting boundary concepts enclosing our thought within (insurmountable) walls — and the notion of an absolute beginning or an absolute end is among them — does not tell us more than that we are indeed finite beings.

Echoing Thomas Mann’s assertion that “the perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life,” Arendt adds:

Man’s finitude, irrevocably given by virtue of his own short time span set in an infinity of time stretching into both past and future, constitutes the infrastructure, as it were, of all mental activities: it manifests itself as the only reality of which thinking qua thinking is aware, when the thinking ego has withdrawn from the world of appearances and lost the sense of realness inherent in the sensus communis by which we orient ourselves in this world… The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere.

T.S. Eliot captured this nowhereness in his exquisite phrase “the still point of the turning world.” But the spatial dimension of thought, Arendt argues, is intersected by a temporal one — thinking invariably forces us to recollect and anticipate, voyaging into the past and the future, thus creating the mental spacetime continuum through which our thought-trains travel. From this arises our sense of the sequential nature of time and its essential ongoingness. Arendt writes:

The inner time sensation arises when we are not entirely absorbed by the absent non-visibles we are thinking about but begin to direct our attention onto the activity itself. In this situation past and future are equally present precisely because they are equally absent from our sense; thus the no-longer of the past is transformed by virtue of the spatial metaphor into something lying behind us and the not-yet of the future into something that approaches us from ahead.

[…]

In other words, the time continuum, everlasting change, is broken up into the tenses past, present, future, whereby past and future are antagonistic to each other as the no-longer and the not-yet only because of the presence of man, who himself has an “origin,” his birth, and an end, his death, and therefore stands at any given moment between them; this in-between is called the present. It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change — which we can conceive of cyclically as well as in the form of rectilinear motion without ever being able to conceive of an absolute beginning or an absolute end — into time as we know it.

Discus chronologicus, a 17th-century depiction of time, found in Cartographies of Time

Once again, it is our finitude that mediates our experience of time:

Seen from the viewpoint of a continuously flowing everlasting stream, the insertion of man, fighting in both directions, produces a rupture which, by being defended in both directions, is extended to a gap, the present seen as the fighter’s battleground… Seen from the viewpoint of man, at each single moment inserted and caught in the middle between his past and his future, both aimed at the one who is creating his present, the battleground is an in-between, an extended Now on which he spends his life. The present, in ordinary life the most futile and slippery of the tenses — when I say “now” and point to it, it is already gone — is no more than the clash of a past, which is no more, with a future, which is approaching and not yet there. Man lives in this in-between, and what he calls the present is a life-long fight against the dead weight of the past, driving him forward with hope, and the fear of a future (whose only certainty is death), driving him backward toward “the quiet of the past” with nostalgia for and remembrance of the only reality he can be sure of.

This fluid conception of time, Arendt points out, is quite different from its representation in ordinary life, where the calendar tells us that the present is contained in today, the past starts at yesterday, and the future at tomorrow. In a sentiment that calls to mind Patti Smith’s magnificent meditation on time and transformation, Arendt writes:

That we can shape the everlasting stream of sheer change into a time continuum we owe not to time itself but to the continuity of our business and our activities in the world, in which we continue what we started yesterday and hope to finish tomorrow. In other words, the time continuum depends on the continuity of our everyday life, and the business of everyday life, in contrast to the activity of the thinking ego — always independent of the spatial circumstances surrounding it — is always spatially determined and conditioned. It is due to this thoroughgoing spatiality of our ordinary life that we can speak plausibly of time in spatial categories, that the past can appear to us as something lying “behind” us and the future as lying “ahead.”

[…]

The gap between past and future opens only in reflection, whose subject matter is what is absent — either what has already disappeared or what has not yet appeared. Reflection draws these absent “regions” into the mind’s presence; from that perspective the activity of thinking can be understood as a fight against time itself.

This elusive gap, Arendt argues, is where the thinking ego resides — and it is only by mentally inserting ourselves between the past and the future that they come to exist at all:

Without [the thinker], there would be no difference between past and future, but only everlasting change. Or else these forces would clash head on and annihilate each other. But thanks to the insertion of a fighting presence, they meet at an angle, and the correct image would then have to be what the physicists call a parallelogram of forces.

These two forces, which have an indefinite origin and a definite end point in the present, converge into a third — a diagonal pull that, contrary to the past and the present, has a definite origin in the present and emanates out toward infinity. That diagonal force, Arendt observes, is the perfect metaphor for the activity of thought. She writes:

This diagonal, though pointing to some infinity, is limited, enclosed, as it were, by the forces of past and future, and thus protected against the void; it remains bound to and is rooted in the present — an entirely human present though it is fully actualized only in the thinking process and lasts no longer than this process lasts. It is the quiet of the Now in the time-pressed, time-tossed existence of man; it is somehow, to change the metaphor, the quiet in the center of a storm which, though totally unlike the storm, still belongs to it. In this gap between past and future, we find our place in time when we think, that is, when we are sufficiently removed from past and future to be relied on to find out their meaning, to assume the position of “umpire,” of arbiter and judge over the manifold, never-ending affairs of human existence in the world, never arriving at a final solution to their riddles but ready with ever-new answers to the question of what it may be all about.

The Life of the Mind is one of the most stimulating packets of thought ever published. Complement this particular portion with Virginia Woolf on the elasticity of time, Dan Falk on how our capacity for mental time travel made us human, and T.S. Eliot’s poetic ode to the nature of time.

BP

Love of Life: Albert Camus on Happiness, Despair, the Art of Awareness, and Why We Travel

“There is no love of life without despair of life.”

Love of Life: Albert Camus on Happiness, Despair, the Art of Awareness, and Why We Travel

“Those who prefer their principles over their happiness,” Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) wrote in his notebook toward the end of his life, “they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.” Indeed, our principles tend to harden into habits and although habits give shape to our inner lives, they can mutate into the rigidity of routine and create a kind of momentum that, rather than expanding our capacity for happiness, contracts it. In the trance of routine and principled productivity, we end up showing up for our daily lives while being absent from them.

Few things things break us out of our routines and awaken us to the living substance of happiness more powerfully than travel. Camus knew this. Decades earlier, when he was only twenty-two and still a long way from becoming the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, he explored this human perplexity with unparalleled intellectual elegance and spiritual grace in a gorgeous essay titled “Love of Life,” eventually included in his posthumously published collection Lyrical and Critical Essays (public library).

albertcamus

Recounting the sight of a young woman dancing deliriously in a Spanish cabaret, Camus — whose entire life was undergirded by the ethos that happiness is our moral obligation — writes:

Without cafés and newspapers, it would be difficult to travel. A paper printed in our own language, a place to rub shoulders with others in the evenings enable us to imitate the familiar gestures of the man we were at home, who, seen from a distance, seems so much a stranger. For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat — hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone). I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.” Travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a thought in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it, insofar as it summarizes our own life at the moment. When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable.

But this contact with absolute bliss, Camus cautions, necessitates an equal capacity for contact with absolute despair:

There lay all my love of life: a silent passion for what would perhaps escape me, a bitterness beneath a flame. Each day I would leave this cloister like a man lifted from himself, inscribed for a brief moment in the continuance of the world… There is no love of life without despair of life.

Echoing Kierkegaard’s unforgettable admonition — “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy,” the Danish philosopher wrote in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness — Camus considers how the trance of productivity robs us of the very presence necessary for happiness:

Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time, if in doing one loses oneself. Today is a resting time, and my heart goes off in search of itself. If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver… At the moment, my whole kingdom is of this world. This sun and these shadows, this warmth and this cold rising from the depths of the air: why wonder if something is dying or if men suffer, since everything is written on this window where the sun sheds its plenty as a greeting to my pity? I can say and in a moment I shall say that what counts is to be human and simple. No, what counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world? My cup brims over before I have time to desire. Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.

[…]

The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death. Besides, how can I define the link that leads from this all-consuming love of life to this secret despair? If I listen to the voice of irony, crouching underneath things, slowly it reveals itself. Winking its small, clear eye, it says: “Live as if …” In spite of much searching, this is all I know.

Complement the altogether beautiful Lyrical and Critical Essays with Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, his illustrated wisdom on love, and the beautiful letter of gratitude he wrote to his childhood teacher after receiving the Nobel Prize.

BP

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