Friday, September 2, 2011

Past, Present, and Future

Light (whatever it is) travels at 186,282 miles per second. It's fast. Right? The mean distance from the Earth to the Sun is 92,955,807.3 miles. This means that, on average, it takes light emitted by the Sun about 8.32 minutes to reach our pupils. In other words, the Sun could have exploded 8.32 minutes ago and we would just be finding out.

Am I the only one who is really freaked out by this? If you think about it, we can extend this principle to every last thing we can see. For example, if I ride the elevator to the top of the Omni Hotel in downtown Fort Worth and look east I can see Reunion Tower in downtown Dallas 30.32 miles away. From this distance, I'm viewing the Reunion Tower of approximately .16 milliseconds ago.

Bottom line, even though the time differential remains relatively small, the world you are currently experiencing is actually the world of the past. To make the situation even worse, because the distance between you and specific objects in the world around you varies, each visible object is actually seen at a slightly different point in its existence. Add to all that the 30 odd milliseconds it takes for your brain to process sensory data it receives from your eyes, and the world suddenly seems quite a bit further away than it did before.

What does all this mean? It means that there can be no truly present and immediate perception of anything. One can never really know what is going on in the "now." Everything we perceive is actually the very recent past.

Does it matter? What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comment box.


  1. I guess blind people are the best off! But on a more serious note, do you really think a few milliseconds actually matter? Nobody is going to quote "gather ye rosebuds while ye may" to you because you're not living in the millisecond. It does get a little disturbing thinking about the stars though, they are years in the past! Our eyes, luckily, are not our only connection with reality. But I guess you could argue that it takes a few milliseconds for our minds to register sensations. I've often wondered what counts as "the present." It is the most recent 5 minutes? 5 seconds? 5 milliseconds? How wide is the present?

  2. This reminds me that even though we live in the 'present,' if you consider time at the smallest granular increments, we may also be living a tiny bit in the past as well as a bit in the future.

  3. It seems to me pretty universally accepted that the present is the infinitesimally small moment occurring right now. Of course, one can neither measure nor define it except as it has passed into the past. Nevertheless, it exists, and we are all in it, even if we can't know anything about it until after it has gone.

    We know things via sensation. As Aristotle said, "There is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses." That is to say, we perceive things and abstract a nature from those sensations. Over time these learned natures (forms) are remembered and stored in our minds as experience. Which is to say, the vast majority of substances we know, we know as a result of the distant past. I imagine, then, it shouldn't make much of a difference if, when we come to knowledge of new substances upon encountering them, this should occur in the recent past, as opposed to the present.

  4. Even though we are seeing things as they were in the remote past, it is our present. The question then is: Can we ever see things as they are or only as they were?

  5. Seeing as beings (e.g., persons, dogs, trees, etc.) have an unchanging, immaterial reality beyond their ever-changing bodies, their essences can be known as they are. Their non-essential (i.e., material) qualities, on the other hand, which are always subject to change (like being a certain height, weight, hair color, etc.) can only ever be known as they were. The same is true of events and reactions amongst individual beings.


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