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The Present Is Not An Illusion

Standing right in the present

I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.

This one is from one of my favorite philosophers, Alan Watts. I have actually spoken about him very briefly before, but I will go into more detail about this quote for this post. I will first discuss what this quote means to me and then follow by talking about the different parts of it, namely the past, the future, and the present. I will also be writing a post about randomness in the near future. A bit weird mentioning the future in a post that is dispelling the myth of such a thing. I know, and the irony is not lost on me, which will discuss our place in the world.

The Past

The past has already happened; we cannot change it.

Don’t get me wrong; we must always look to the past, as many famous thinkers have often mused. But to try and change it, to think about what you could have done differently, is most definitely an exercise in futility.

We have all made many mistakes, many good decisions and bad ones too. We have all loved and lost, loved too much or too little. We, all of us, have been at the bottom and at the top. Everything we have ever done has happened in the past and is unchangeable.

The past is an illusion that exists in the present

It can only exist in the present because only the present exists. Bare with me here, as I am aware that it’s becoming slightly cryptic. But the main point is that there is no point in thinking about something that no longer exists.

With each passing second, the past is annihilated, and the present springs into life. With such a beautiful flower being born every second, why would we look back to nothingness?

There are certain scientific and philosophical schools of thought that discuss alternate and separate universes where our lives play out in every possible permutation, but for us here and now, the past can only ever be an illusion.

This is especially true when you think that the past was once the present. Every moment in the past was also the present.

When they built the pyramids, it was the present. When the seven kingdoms of China went to war, it was the present.

Can we have both the past and the present existing simultaneously? I think not because when we look at the past, we are looking at a former present time; the past simply does not exist anymore, or indeed has never existed!

Just as when we look at the sparkling ocean of stars in the black night sky, we are looking at light that has traveled many light years, possibly millions. Each light year indicates the distance that light has traveled in one Earth year, so every twinkling light transmitted hundreds, thousands, millions, or even billions of years ago.

The stars that emitted that light could be long dead already, or civilizations on the planets surrounding them expanded out into the universe, but we are looking at its light as it was when it emerged from its interior furnace. We are not looking at the past but rather the present. The light that has traveled through the sea of space is the same as it was when it was first created in the depths of the burning heart of its sun.

Look to the future
Photo from skitterphoto

The Future

Just as the past is an illusion, so is the future. We think we know that it will happen, but we cannot be sure how it will turn out.

As the tree grows

Just like we know that as a tree grows, its branches extend into the sky. However, the shape and direction of the branches are unknown.

We have no way of knowing how its branches will extend, and its flowers unfurl. We know that something like a tree growing will occur, just not the details.

We can certainly try to predict the future, but does that mean our predictions are correct? One could predict that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but how do we know that is true? How can we be sure? We base these things on inductive reasoning; that is to say because something happened yesterday and today, it will happen again tomorrow.

Perhaps I might die in my sleep, in which case the sun would not be rising for me. I can predict that it will, but I cannot prove with any kind of real certainty that it will happen because it has not happened yet.

If I have only ever seen black dogs ever in my life, it would be inductive reasoning to assume that all dogs in existence are black. Of course, this would make perfect sense to someone who has only lived in one place and only ever seen black dogs, but those who have seen real life know that this statement is false.

Just like the past exists in the present, so too does the future.

Any prediction of the future can only ever take place in the present time. It can happen in the past also, but as we have seen the past is also an illusion rooted firmly in the present. Therefore a prediction made in the past has also been made in the present. Any prediction of the future is also made in the present.

If your brain is hurting by now, I apologize, but this is complicated stuff! I would also love to hear in the comments your opinions of the past, present, and future.

The present is not an illusion

This is not an illusion. The present exists right here and right now.

When I studied philosophy, I learned a small amount about reality, and from those studies, I learned something interesting.

We can not actually be certain about when the present is. Is it this second, millisecond, or microsecond? The problem is that the further down the numbers we delve, the further away from the present we become.

Just like Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise:

In the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, Achilles is in a footrace with the tortoise. Achilles allows the tortoise a head start of 100 meters, for example. If we suppose that each racer starts running at some constant speed (one very fast and one very slow), then after some finite time, Achilles will have run 100 meters, bringing him to the tortoise’s starting point. During this time, the tortoise has run a much shorter distance, say, 10 meters. It will then take Achilles some further time to run that distance, by which time the tortoise will have advanced farther; and then more time still to reach this third point, while the tortoise moves ahead. Thus, whenever Achilles reaches somewhere the tortoise has been, he still has farther to go. Therefore, because there are an infinite number of points Achilles must reach where the tortoise has already been, he can never overtake the tortoise

Wikipedia (verbatim)

However, we know this to be a paradox because, in real life, Achilles would, of course, overtake the tortoise! So for all practical intents and purposes, we can say that the present is a moment in time that we can understand as right now. Or now, wait, I mean now. No, actually, now. Well, you get the picture…

One could say that technically, the present does really exist either. However, while this may be true, the present is all we have as Alan Watts says, so we had better make use of what we have that is tangible.

Everything we have ever done or will ever do was done at a certain moment in time that we would classify as the present.

Standing right in the present
Photo from unsplash

What it means to me

This is a nice quote because it is not forceful in its assertions like the last quote we covered, but it sets up a point that, when we really drill down into it, is very hard to deny or refute.

It is possible to pick it apart as I did in the previous section, but the message is still there, and even if all of the truths in its body have been proven false, the meaning will remain intact.

The message that I get from it is a message of hope and reality. Why do we focus on illusions? Sometimes they are fun to see, such as when watching a movie or reading a fine piece of fiction. These things do not exist in real life, but they are fun to interact with.

But for our lives, for our real, living lives, we must try to focus on what we can achieve, what we can actually do in our lives to improve them.

I used to focus too much on the future. I used to think very far ahead and, as a result, forgot that I was living in the present! I would think about what I could do to make money; if I was x years old, then I would have x many years to make some money. The problem with this was that I would get nothing of substance done in the only place I existed, the present.

I discovered that by working for each day, things would fall into place in a somewhat smoother fashion, and I would get the future that I wanted by just focusing on what I needed to get done today, right now.


To sum up, what I think this quote says, I made up a short rhyme:

The course of the past has run,

Our lives in that time are illusions.

the future has not yet begun,

To think in them are delusions.

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