The Ancient Men with Their “Past” and Their “Future”


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 an 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.” “Time” is thus a term coined by man to distinguish the changing conditions as indicated by the scales on the Sundial, just the way the term “length” is coined to refer to the distance of anything as measured from end to end, and the term “area” to refer to the measurement of a surface.

It is from here that we have come to know such words as “time that has already passed” or “the past,” and “time to be passed” or “the future.”

A sundial is an instrument composed of two parts: a gnomon and a dial plane. The gnomon is a metal plate set parallel to the earth’s axis. It is the shadow-producing part that constantly points towards the celestial pole. The dial plane is the flat surface marked with scales, representing the times of day. Time is measured on the basis of the location of the shadow cast by the gnomon on the dial plane. Since the sundial serves its purpose only in the day-time, when the sun is shining, the dial plane thus takes the form of only a semi-circle, on which are marked the time scales which begin at the western side of the plane and end at the eastern side of it. It was by means of this device that man observed that whenever the sun moves from the east to the west, the shadow of the gnomon that fell on the semi-circular dial plane would instead move from the west to the east, tracing the time scales on it. It is on the basis of all these discoveries—the time scales and the direction towards which the shadow moves—that our present clocks and watches are designed. Thus, when morning comes and the shadow of the gnomon of our solar clock falls on the western part of the semi-circular dial, at the figure 7, for instance, any incident that occurs then is recorded in our brains and is said to have taken place at 7 o’clock. If, later, at 12 noon we happen to recall that incident, we are yet inclined to say that it happened at 7 o’clock this morning. And the reason for this is only that at the time we are at 12 o’clock, we say that the figure 7 is the past, and thus anything that occurs at the time represented by the figure 7 is said to have occurred in the past. Needless to say then, any figures after 12 that the shadow of the gnomon will pass will be naturally referred to as time to come or the future.


Although, like “time,” all other words and their definitions are man-made, what has actually been the matter of concern here is the proximity between these definitions and the reality. While, on the one hand, every condition that man has passed leaves traces in his brain, on the other hand, however, the changes that occur in nature are always measured in terms of time scales. This, as a consequence, has led him to feel any time that he has just passed as being his past. It is, in fact, this attempt to relate the shadows cast by the gnomon on the time scales and the changes that occur in his surroundings that has made man feel that every change of time coincides with the change of condition. What’s more, he tends to look upon every “change of condition” as having close relationships with the “change of time,” only because his brain has recorded the various conditions of what he refers to as “the past.” This is evident in such expressions as, “Everything is determined by time,” and  “We grow older by time.”


Because every change of time scale resulting from the change of the condition of the shadow of the gnomon on the dial plane is also a change in nature, which corresponds to the change that occurs in the surrounding natural environment, we thus feel that we are moving from time to time.

To put it another way: Correspondent to the movement of the shadows on the time-scales and to the changes in the surrounding condition, we thus feel that we are moving from time to time. What’s more, this has subsequently led man to think of the universe as moving from time to time.


Although he knows quite well that the use of time scales is, in the long term, no guarantee for accuracy, man yet looks upon any such defects as merely a result of his own lack of knowledge, and therefore continues to believe in the presence of the past and the future. Despite his awareness that in different parts of the world the time scales show different time, he still takes it for granted that the changes on the earth correspond to the changes in time. Again, that man can have such strong convictions is, in fact, a result of the recording of the “impressions of the past conditions” in his brain, without his being aware of it.


As already described above, man created time on the basis of the changing condition. So we may as well get back to where it comes from. To talk about  “the past,” “the present,” or “the future” is to talk about the “condition” at a particular time. And to talk about the condition at a particular time means to make references to either  the sequence of the condition, a piece of some local condition, i.e. any one-time condition, or to imagine a particular condition. Apparently there is nothing wrong about using such expressions  as “the past condition,”  “the present condition,” and “the future condition,” to the extent that these will serve only as substitutes for the meanings of the terms “the past,” “the present,” and “the future” as they are currently used. We are all well aware that it would just be impossible for us to avoid using these standard terms. The only thing we could do now is to change their currently intended meanings.


A look back at the way the ancient people, by their memory, came to recognize the three periods of time may cause us to wonder: Is there something wrong with our memory, or have we been using time erroneously such that we assume that those three periods of time do exist?



“Memory” as discussed here conveys those generally accepted denotations such as. 1. the store of things remembered,  2. something remembered, and 3. the power or process of remembering.


Now that we have come so far, we may begin to have our doubts about the appropriateness of the use of the word “time.” Nevertheless, due to language constraints we will, in our discussions here, keep using the various adverbs of time.