It is very surprising indeed that man feels the presence of “the past” only when, at “the present,” he recalls his memory. What’s more, even his feeling that “the future” does exist is but a feeling that he derives from the total recall he had at “the present time” of some “sequential conditions” of the past event. Is it not to be admitted that we ourselves feel that we are constantly at “the present” throughout our lifetime? Now, what do all these talks about our having “the past” and “the future” has to do with us? Is there something wrong with our concept of time or is it our memory that is in the wrong?
Yesterday and Tomorrow
No doubt, every one of us often uses both these words in our daily life. And if you would just like to go deeper into the issues they underlie, you would no doubt come to realize how interesting and astonishing the implications are. Let’s take a look at some simple examples below.
When we try to recall our past, the death of someone a year ago, and events a few hours back, are these not just a present attempt to retrieve the things stored as a memory? When we throw a ball from points A to B, for instance, we tend to say that the ball was at point A. Does this not mean that at the time the ball was at point A, the rays reflected by the ball left an impression or were recorded in our brains, and that it is this impression or record that we are trying to retrace at the present? Another example: When we move from our original location (say location A) to another location (say location B), we are apt to say—at the time we get to B—we were at A just now. The only reason for this is that, at the time we were at A, all our senses received a variety of stimuli from our surroundings, and these are stored in our brains as memory. At the time we get to B, we recall them, which consequently lead us to say that we were at A just now. Similarly, when we are driving from one particular place to another, we will, for a similar reason, habitually say that we were at that particular place at the time we get to our destination. Now, what if we assume our earth to be a kind of vehicle? Is it not a fact that the earth rotates around its axis and that we are but objects that have remained stuck on the earth’s crust following the earth wherever it goes? The earth takes us with it as it rotates such that we are able to feel the presence of day and night. At the time we are brought from one position to another by the earth’s rotation, we record a series of conditions, which, when recalled, leads us to say that in “the past” we experienced such and such a condition. Quite surprisingly, however, at all those “moments,” either the ones that we are experiencing or the ones we are recalling, we have always felt that we are at or undergoing things at the present. At the time of recalling we assume that “the past” exists, though in reality we have never felt or experienced the presence of that “past.” Does it ever occur to you that at the time you are reading the sentences above you feel that you are at “the present,” and that even when you start thinking that you have just read the sentences above, you are in fact also doing it at “the present”? It is as if we have, since our childhood, always experienced “the present.” Even a photograph of the past is no indication of the presence of the past, because what is considered the past, which is immortalized by the photograph, is a mere assumption we make at the present. Physically speaking, the photograph itself is in its present condition, though it may have by now been discolored, or faded. We feel that we have “a past” only because the past condition leaves a trace in our brains.
Now that you have already read about what we have to say about the “past,” do you have anything to say about the “future”? Is it true that what man calls the “future” is but a mere result of his ability to recall the memories of the previous condition that is imprinted in his brain? Is it not the common knowledge of all, particularly those who live within the equatorial regions that we experience day and night alternately every day? Obviously, it is the very fact that after the morning comes the afternoon, and then comes the night, after which we have the morning again and so on, that has caused these constantly changing routines to be so strongly recorded as our memory. And it is this very fact too that makes it very easy for us to recall at any time the presence of the “sequenced conditions.” The fact that we have quite often kept saying such words as “later,” “after that,” “tomorrow,” is proof enough that those conditions are so well preserved in our brains as impressions that we find it very easy to recall them. Thus, it is very natural if we insist that such things as “the future” or “tomorrow” do exist. As such, it could thus be said that all those plans for tomorrow are but an imagination added to the outcome of the recollection of “the presence of tomorrow.” If, for instance, we say that we are going to New York City tomorrow, what actually occurs is that an imagination is being created at present of our going there tomorrow. This is so because our idea that there is “a tomorrow” has already been recorded in our brain, and we can recall it. However, since conditions keep changing and we continue to exist, we inevitably pass the night condition. During the time we are in our night condition, we tend to condition ourselves for our sleeping condition. Eventually, we arrive at our morning condition, that is, the time set for us to leave for New York. This is something that we experience daily in our life. Nevertheless, because we have the ability to recall the custom of having a tomorrow, we can at that time imagine what we expect to ensue the next day. Obviously, all these have been made possible because we are able to recall the memories that had once been stored in our brain, or we have been able to condition our selves into a position where we can relate our thoughts to the memories stored in our brain.
Let’s take a quick glance at this assumption on how man has first come to acknowledge the presence of the past and the future and thought of himself as moving from time to time.
Long before the invention of the time scales, the cave men, uncivilized as they were, had already been in possession of memory. It is possible that in those days, whenever the sky lit up at sunrise, the only word they would say (of course, in their simple language) to refer to such a phenomenon was “day,” Similarly, whenever the sky turned dark after sunset, the only word they would possibly say to refer to this change was “night.” Now engulfed by night, they would accordingly feel that they had passed the day. During the day, they would be well aware that the night would soon come. Similarly, at night they would also know for certain that the day would sooner or later return. That the cave men had such awareness was an outcome of the very fact that these changes, apart from being their routine experience, had also been recorded in their brains. Later, however, with the advancement man made in his way of thinking, he began to divide the day into morning, the time when the sun rises; noon, the time when the sun is shining right above his head; and evening, the time after the sun sets.
Thus, whenever afternoon came, he would say, “we have already passed the morning, and soon we shall pass the evening too.” It could therefore be said that even in those days man had already been familiar with such expressions as “things that have passed” and “things that have to be passed.” In sum it could then be said that all those talks about “the past” and “the future” have been made possible only because “previous conditions” have left traces in our brain, which at the time of their “recollection” has enabled us to feel all “the past” that we had once gone through, and all “the future” following it. We only feel that we have “the past” and “the future,” only when we are in a state of recalling things— obviously a state at “the present time.” At other times, however, all we feel is that we are at “the present time” the whole of our life. Remember the first law of thermodynamics? The law on mass and energy conservation, which states that nothing ever disappears from and nothing is ever added to this universe? Does this not mean that whatever the basic matter that forms the contents of the universe is, it must certainly be something that is “always present”? Such is the case, man’s body being made up of like basic matter, which is “always present” in this universe, man must therefore certainly feel that he is “always present” or always at “the present time” the whole of his life. Must we not admit that our assumption that “the past” is that point of time that we have passed is but a result of “the past condition” leaving its traces as memory, which because we recall it at “the present time” has led us to look at it as something that we have passed in “the past”? Is it not a fact that our assumption that we have “the future” is but a result of our routine recording of the changes of condition occurring daily in our surrounding such that we are led to feel that we will soon see “the future”?
Is there something wrong here? Must we lay the blame on the concept of time by which we have come to coin such terms as “yesterday” and “tomorrow”? Is it our memory that is in the wrong?