How Soon Is Now? Is there anything beyond now—is there a future? Was there a past? What better occasion to reflect on this than the turn of a new year, of a new decade?
Now is easy. It right here, and here, and here, and here… and interminable series of heres. The past is easy, too, we were there—the accumulation of former heres—, so at least we can claim it was real at the time—or as real as we could perceive and can imagine. Memory frailties notwithstanding, the past is indelible. Whether we are or can be aware is another story.
Past is different to history. Past is an event or events. We may not even become aware of these events until they have passed—perhaps centuries or millennia later. These may be historicised. History is a story. In French, the terms aren’t even separated. L’histoire is simultaneously a story and history, a reminder of how inextricable they are.
But what about the future? A conceptual future is a fairly new human construct. Some events occuring after now have happened since the beginning of time. In fact without time or the invention of a notion of time, there can be no future or past. It’s been said that time is what keeps everything from happening at once.
We talk about the future, but when we reference it now, it’s only some speculative future—some admixture of uncertainty and probabilities. There are no guarantees any given event will actually manifest, whether we will be there to experience it, or whether any future will even arrive. This is a known limitation of empiricism. That the sun has risen for some 4 billion years doesn’t guarantee it will rise tomorrow. There is nothing necessarily preventing the universe from ceasing to exist tomorrow or in an instant, pardoning the nomenclature of time.
Where our perception of now is already quite limited in scope and experience, any notion of future is decidedly worse. And of all of the possible threads and imagined threads, only one will manifest—unless you subscribe to parallel universe models, in which case you can still only experience one and only one, at least for the time being.
From the perspective of now, the future, like history, is just a story. In these times of COVID, we should realise that some stories hadn’t been written. Similar storylines had been imagined and authored, but the one that manifest was different still. Truth is stranger than fiction—and worse.
But does the future exist? Can we discuss the future other than conceptually? Is the notion of future reserved for a privileged few? One so-called cognitive bias is that humans favour now and near-term events over further future events? From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. First, I am here now, and whether I am here to experience the future remains to be seen. This bias is the basis for why most people don’t save enough for a comfortable retirement—a retirement with a comparable standard of living and quality of life as one’s ‘productive’ years.
One consideration is expected lifespan. Actuarially, a person might be expected to live on average, say, 76 years. If people my family historically live to 65 and I expect to retire thereabouts, saving past that is inefficient—transferring wealth across generations notwithstanding. If I die at 65, there is no mismatch. If I die at 76, then oopsie. Retirement income and savings is predominantly a First-world problem—a challenge for people who live in an income-based, consumerist society, so worrying about the future takes on a more relevance.
Even if I expect my village, tribe, or family care for me in my twilight years, there is still a notion of future to consider. Will they be there for me. But from an evolutionary perspective, this doesn’t necessitate a future beyond a generation, so the probability of an uncertain event is lower than, say, a thousand years from now.
NB: What had been a concept riffing on Hoffman’s evolutionary argument against reality was intercepted by the related notion of the future. I hope to return to Hoffman presently—if the future allows.