(Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be
World without end Amen)
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be
World without end Amen)
This beautiful seventh century prayer, depending on your allegiances, has enriched, beguiled or cowed those on their knees all through the centuries. For, as I will argue, there is no ‘now’, never has been, and never shall be.
‘Time’; past, present and future intrudes on our everyday considerations and perhaps ‘ever shall be’. Although we can find time to be an irritant; late for this, on time for that; time for most of us is of the essence. ‘Time’ populates our language. After going through the ‘times tables’ last night with my daughter I headed down to my local - let us call it the ‘Gaping Wound’. There is the inevitable ‘footy’ match on the giant screen; much talk of when the ref’ should blow for half time, interspersed with employment talk of being on full time short time and no chance of overtime. I order a beer get a seat near the fire and open my Dickens paperback, I read, '...the best of times and the worst of times,’ I continue reading my Dickens, by the time I look up the punters are baying for the ref’ to blow for full time. I sip my beer, ‘time’, yes; there is certainly a lot of it about. On the way back I think of my doleful friend going through his divorce and my advice to him that ‘time will heal’; yes, time heals wounds. I pass a crumbling building and I think of how time also corrodes.
Still not many of us agonise over time, yet some have. Consider St. Augustine (354 – 430) and his hymnic appeals to his maker about time: Augustine, as he agonised over time, must have been well aware of the Aristotelian notion of time as a ‘measure of movement’. But he continued to torment himself about time. “Where is it (time) coming from, what is it passing through and where is it going? We cannot measure what has no duration. That which passes away is the present yet we admit that the present has no extension. For time passing away necessitates dwelling which infers quasi spatiality. My mind is bursting to solve this intricate puzzle; does time exist and if so, where?” He lamented on, “But if time is of the essence, what is the essence of time? I know what time is, but if someone asks me, I cannot tell him.”
So why 17 centuries later in the Western World, the most time-conscious society of all time, where we live under the data blizzard of late capitalism, do we blithely accept we can be in the ‘now’ without any of the Augustine agonistics. Million selling books, by amiable Scandinavian elves; ‘Oprah’ type chat shows, that have annihilated reticence helps, as does the knowing chatter at dinner parties where bien pensants advocate staying in the ‘now’. However the phenomenon of this quasi religion of ‘living in the now’ which has sprung up is disempowered if one cares to examine what undergirds its claims.
But hold on, I hear you say, I have a first person perspective, you know I am reading this now and I am experiencing it now. It is true of all my states; the egg I had for my breakfast, that bit of bitching this morning with Elise this morning when I left my daughter at the school gates and being caught in a shower on the way back - I experienced all that in the ‘now’. Indeed, without exception, it is true of all my states that whatever I experience, I feel I always experience it now. However, that feeling that you are in the ‘now’, I would argue is a naive realism and the feeling that one is anchored by a temporal internality is a false presumption.
Time appears to us to as one way, tick by tick waiting for no man, yet, space is different, we can go back and forward in space. On the walk back from the school I decide I will cut through the alley and then decide against it as I think I will encounter too many of those lovely dog owners walking their adorable Rottweiler’s... he’s lovely he is, almost talks to you.” So I backtrack; hop over a wall, and jog across the park. I go back and forward in space but not in time.
Time has altered; the workers in the field used to judge time through the rhythms of nature; then the monk’s need of exactitude in time for their ritual of prayers in monasteries maintained observance of time; the 20th century brought the cinema which by prising open and expanding particular moments of events in the past altered our views on time. It is in this historical process that the present ceased to be instantaneous, and merged imperceptibly into the flowing stream of time: culture evolves and private time fragments as public time coalesces.
“Right ‘now’ I feel sad, because I feel time is passing”, confides my rather doleful friend.
Yet what we perceive as ‘now’ as present, is motion. What happens is we notice the passing of time through the changing pattern of our thought. Given the speed of transmission of information from receptors to brain means we only perceive what is past, yet we do not perceive it as past but as present as the ‘now’. It is on this false premise you get beautiful prayers and million selling books and inane chat shows that preach nonsense of a par with giving faith healing the same status as chemotherapy. But let us leave America aside
‘Now’ I look at the computer, I look out of the window, at the sky, the snow falling in Kent this overarching context generates in me the experience of presence. But this first person perspective of all that content I have described is not the island of presence I presume it to be. For perception, that one is in the ‘now’ is a causal process and causes always precede their effects. So despite all those centuries of cups being swirled and the dregs drained to uncover an oracular presence “...see how the tea leaves lie, he’s speaking through me, Doris; have you received a parcel recently he wants to know? Now I see a dark stranger coming into your life.” Tea leaves, the ‘cards’ palm reading, the platitudes of fortune-telling, although all good fun at the fair, are nonsense because causes always precede their effect and it is because of this temporal boundary we cannot tell the future.
When I have that sense of experiencing the ‘now’, looking through the window at the snow falling I have to take account of the fact there is an overarching representational context governing phenomenal (things as they appear) experience. Our understanding that we are experiencing things now is, excuse the jargon, phenomenological (appearance based) and not epistemological (knowledge based).
So what then is this knowledge that is not accessible to me? It is the attentional unavailability of earlier processing stages. The instruments of representation themselves cannot be represented as such, and hence the system making the experience of ‘now’, on this level and by conceptual necessity, is entangled in a cascade of past events. What I have is a structurally anchored deficit in the capacity to gain knowledge about the now.
When we claim to be in the now, we are passing over an inbuilt blind spot, we have indulged ourselves in auto epistemic closure. Auto epistemic closure consists of human beings in ordinary waking states not being able to realize the fact that the content of their subjective experiences, snow falling, inevitably has strong, self-constructed aspects, because the snow falling has representational content, it is comprised of an abundance of past events.
Article by Dr Peter Cheevers
According to Thomas Heidegger (1889 – 1976), there is a conception of time as a series of nows which is shared by ordinary people and philosophers from Aristotle to Bergson. These philosophers and ordinary people (you and me) will view time with its fundamental terminology of ‘past’ ‘present’ ‘future' as primordial entity from which the human experience of time is derived. However, for Heidegger time is not something which exists in the world and is then reflected in the human mind but something which arises from human beings and is then projected on to the world. According to this view it is a mistake to think that human beings passively experience the time of the outside world. For Heidegger, the concept of time in general is actively produced by human modes of being which subsequently temporises our sense of the world. This is in fact what time is, it is the process of temporising. For Heidegger, we must hold ourselves aloof from all those significations of past, present, future. These tensed terms have arisen out of our inauthentic ways of looking at time.
At times like these, to consolidate an argument, one tends to climb onto the shoulders of giants; Einstein for instance who felt that time itself being no more than a man made utilitarian concept, or a colleague, in a hard to better sentence, pointing out that the triadic structure of past, present, future, represent a system which is nothing other than a tautology masquerading as an analytical distinction.
‘Now’, for lack of a better word, I look at this article: is it terse, is it trenchant and have my animosities intruded?
Anyway, watch the chat show, buy the book, but the ‘now’ is not and never has been, Amen.