The Present Moment Does Not Exist

It is just past Christmas and the turning of the decade so I thought it would be worth capturing a train of thought on time and space.

  • The future doesn’t exist yet.
  • The past no longer exists.
  • The present moment is vanishingly small.

Consider the sounds you hear in a piece of music. Sound is the changing in air pressure that moves our ear drums backwards and forwards. To hear Middle C we need to listen to a sound for a long enough period to judge that the air pressure is changing around 261 times per second. At any one moment our ear drums are stationary. There is no sound in the now. To have sound we need to store in our minds all the changes in pressure we have encountered recently. What is now is a static record of what has happened (or appears to have happened) in the past – the log of all the backward and forward movements of our ear drum. The log exists now but the movements don’t. They are in the past and so non-existent.

As with sound all our senses require change. Photons (as waves or particles) must hit the retinas of our eyes for light to occur. Pressure must change on our skin for touch to be sensed. Chemicals must combine in our nose for smell to occur. All the senses rely on the electrical and chemical actions of nerve cells to occur in sequence over time. At any one moment all is still. Nothing is sensed. Nothing is perceived.

Although this all follows logically from high school science it appears to have absolutely no relation to what we experience as now. We feel like we have an intimate relationship with the world in realtime. Perhaps there are two types of now. The logical now (I’ll use now with a small n) and the experienced now (Now with a big N as it is the one we care about here).

When listening to a piece of music we have a sense of Now that includes not only our memories of what occurred before now (necessary for sound to occur at all) but also our anticipation of what is to come. Music, like life, would be nothing without rhythm and suspense. We therefore project forward in time to imagine what sound should happen next. The musician can induce pleasure by either creating sound as expected or sometimes deviating from what we expect. In this way our experience of Now, unlike now, expands both forward and backwards within this notional linear time.

You may think this madness but time is often thought of as illusory: “The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent” (Einstein 1955)

If this objective sense of Now is true of time is it also true of space? Taking the schoolboy approach to Euclidean geometry it would seem so. ‘here’ could be taken as a point without any dimensions (vanishingly small like ‘now’) but then it would be difficult for me to say something like “See you back here in 15 minutes?” Neither of us would fit into here. Indeed nothing fits into here by definition. Nothing can be here – yet things blatantly are. We therefore have our own experiential ‘Here’ that we adapt to the context. “There are no lions Here.” means there are no lions in a reasonable distance. On the other hand “The aliens are Here!” could mean anywhere on earth rather than just this room. When I talk to a friend on the phone it is as if he is Here but it must seem to him that I am There also. Where exactly the conversation takes place is complex.

Suppose you are saddened by the loss of a loved one. They are no longer with us in the here and now. But how can this be? They were never with us in the rational here and now as these things are vanishingly small. They can only have ever occupied the experiential Here and Now that we make up as we go along. Why then are we sad? We are sad because we choose (in some way) to consider them no longer part of our experience.  We shrink our Now to a point that does not include them. Our grief wells up to fill our entire experience but only because we have a narrow definition of what our Now is. We can choose to have a broader experience that includes before and after our current grief – making it a richer bitter-sweet experience. Indeed this richer experience is present before they die as we can experience that they are not with us in the future as they weren’t with us in the past – all in the Now.

I believe this is an aspect of the contemplative religions and one of the ways in which mindfulness based practices basically make us happier and more compassionate. Through practice we can become more adept at expanding and manipulating our Here and Now. Concerns of time and space can be optional – at least from an emotional point of view.

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