A friend recommended a very interesting novel that proposed an interesting conception of time travel. The classic paradox of time travel is that someone traveling to the past might alter the conditions that lead to the present (indeed, I would say it is not a matter of “might” but a matter of “would,” given the interconnectedness of all things), thereby potentially canceling out their existence or the conditions that allowed them to time travel. The currently popular alternative is to say that their travel to the past is really the creation of an alternative line of reality—the line of reality from which they came continues without them ever having entered its past, while the line of reality they have created unfolds differently from the original one from the moment of their arrival.
This novel posited a third possibility: we can travel forward or backward, and everything shifts to accommodate the changes created while still maintaining the conditions that allowed for the time travel to take place. The analogy offered was of a piece of string on a table. If pressure is applied to cause a bend in the string at one location, the rest of the string adapts to accommodate the bend, but the string retains its unity. I liked the conception, even if I do not see time travel as a possibility. And it raised a question for me: can the present change the past?
We have no trouble seeing that events in the present affect the future. Could it be that present events can also affect the past? If we add in observers and meaning-makers, it appears to be plausible. And in the spooky aspects of quantum theory, there are some events at the sub-atomic level that might validate the claim. So how does it happen?
First, as we let go of our belief that our memory records true accounts, the past becomes less solid. A memory is an experience generated in the present by our nervous system, which has been shaped by everything to which it has been exposed before. Therefore, the memory is not a recording, but a new invention, shaped by previous experiences, but some of those may have had nothing to do with what is now being “recalled.” Research has shown, for example, that people incorporate scenes they have seen in movies into their experiences. So, if I appreciate that my memory is erroneous, from the point of view of recording objective facts, then I become open to the “facts” (what I believed to be the facts) of the past changing.
Second, the past is always understood and interpreted in the present. We can change our view of past events—how we understand them and what meaning we give them—even if the known facts have not changed. In terms of our experience, meaning is more important than facts—meaning is how the facts matter to us. Most of us experience this kind of change regularly. Sometimes we see it as a matter of correcting a previous misunderstanding about someone. Other times, we gain a new framework for understanding what has come before. In these cases, the present has reached back and altered the past.
There is a third way in which the present changes the past. Right now, you are reading these words. And now, your past includes that you read those words. Your past has changed. The events of right now become part of our past, thereby altering it.
Who we are includes our past. If our past changes, we change. If I want to change my identity, even to myself, I have to create a different past, which means doing different things now so that my past includes them. If I want to know myself as someone who exercises, I have to exercise in the present to create a past that validates that identity. I change who I am by changing my past, which I can do now.
So, yes, the present can change the past. Without even looking for quantum spookiness, we have found three ways in which it does:
- The “facts” that we believe to be true can change, especially those based on our memories.
- Our interpretation of the meaning of past events can change.
- Our actions in the present are always creating our past, thereby changing it.
What does it mean? The past is less real than it usually appears. We are far less trapped by our past than we often believe. Is 2016 locked in stone as we turn toward a new year? No, not really. Happy New Year, all.