Can the Present Change the Past?

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.

7 thoughts on “Can the Present Change the Past?

  1. All of these ways of understanding the past include the implicit ontological belief or background assumption that there is a past. Just as what we have been calling Domain Two includes the implicit belief in the “I” of individual identity.

    Please consider that just as in Domain One there is no “I”, no individual identity, the past and the future are also simply artifacts of language, culture and biology.

    As Chris says, “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…”

    What if we modified this to say: A memory is an experience occuring now in what we call the present, generated by our nervous system coupled with a linguistic structure which includes words such as “past, present, and future.” Past, present and future only occur right now — inside our listening and speaking as a combination of human biology, coupled with automatic conversations and cultural practices.

    The past exists only in the linguistic interpretation we are making with our bodies now, now, now. Even when we are “lost in memory” this only means our body and brain is engaged in an internal conversation which self-referentially claims to be from or of “my” or “our” past. This “lost in memory” conversation only happens now; can only happen now.

    There is no actual past or actual future; only right now. But because of how language and identity are constructed, because of how human bodies and brains function, in the ever-present now humans speak of a past, the present, and possible futures. All of these temporal distinctions are nothing more than specific types of conversations and body sensations occurring now.

    Temporal distinctions such as past, present, and future, allow stories to be created which make sense of the ever changing now. These stories — grounded in the invented distinctions of time — increase the survival chances of our offspring, which is why the distinctions of time are conserved and passed on by evolution.

    Most people simply always automatically assume that time is true. It is not. Time in all its variations is an invention of human beings. This past-present-future invented time which we experience is distinct from the physical time of space-time; the time of a light cone. The past and future, precisely like the “I” of individual identity, are simply persistent, automatic, and usually useful, linguistic-neurological/biological-cultural illusions.

    When we are aware that our past and our future are illusionary, any suffering associated with that particular memory or speculation about the future, is diminished or eliminated.

    It is useful and even necessary in our day-to-day lives and coordination with other people to act as if there really is a past and there really will be a future, to act inside of Domain Two. Never-the-less, both past and future are inventions in the present, inventions occurring now, now, now, now. When this is observed, then the conversation occurring now in which the past and future live, can be modified — reducing or eliminating suffering… right now.

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    1. Nicely said, Jesse. From the perspective of Domain One, non-duality, there is no past or future–there is only now. From the perspective of Domain Two, duality, we speak of pasts and futures and coordinate around them. Both perspectives have value.

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  2. I will admit to having read this post several times to get my head around what you are proposing. Like many moments, this was one where the interpretation I arrived at seems straight forward yet far from easy. The string analogy – the string keeps its integrity or shape when moved because the consequence of the movement was meant to be?

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    1. Merle, the string metaphor was about the science fiction idea that the stream of time maintains a unified coherence, even if events have to shift in the past and future to maintain that coherence (that’s the bending of the string). Again, it’s science fiction. The relevant analogy to our lives would be that our narratives always maintain coherence, even if our understanding of the past and future has to shift to maintain that coherence.

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  3. Chris – Great post topic. I’m always amused by the human time travel trope because the person speculating about being able to time travel always seems to assume s/he is the only one jumping around in time and therefore there is just one “string” to account for. Such is the power of the presumptive “I.” I am (presumptuously) of the belief that there is no string (in the tabletop metaphorical sense). As you stated, our narrative is always being written and revised. The pages that came before are written in invisible ink. The coherence we claim is an illusion of the present; it’s the stories we tell ourselves to assure ourselves we exist so we can motivate ourselves to act by calling forth human conceits such as “meaning” and “purpose”; it’s the kinship and clanship we cling to to reinforce our stories – the witnesses to our being. Storytelling is what we do, who we are, and it has only one tense. So when it comes to speculation about the unholy trinity – past-present-future – the only meaningful question is, What now?

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    1. Thanks, Dave. I like your addition to the time travel conundrum: multiple travelers compound the coherence challenge.

      On the more relevant point, I concur, the only tense that truly exists is the present.

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