Time Asymmetry and the Experience of Future
I was in a cab, headed home late at night. Coming down the road towards us was an ambulance, lights flashing. As the cab pulled over, I had a flash-vision of the ambulance smacking into cross traffic. I wonder why that doesn’t happen more, I thought. And then it happened.
I dreamt of an airplane smashing into a building, billowing orange flame and falling debris. A man came running out of the flame and smoke crying: “Call 911! Call 911!” I awoke from this strange dream fifteen minutes before the first plane hit.
In the world we normally experience, time is an obvious, undeniable aspect of our life. We remember the past, experience the present, imagine the future. The “flow of time” brings the future (correctly imagined or otherwise) into the (now inalterable) past. We generally think of the past as fixed and knowable, while the future is fluid and unknowable. Throughout human history, much effort has been made predicting the future, with, shall we say, mixed results.
As we came to understand the basic structure of manifest reality, a certain curious thing came to the notice of physicists: within classical mechanics and basic particle physics, there was no apparent reason for the direction of time. The equations that predict particle interactions are time reversible. That is to say, in the equations, whether t is positive or negative we get a perfectly symmetric action of the equations. Visualize:
This is patently not the case at the macroscopic level of the observable world. We’ve all dropped our cup of coffee at once or twice, but never in the history of humanity, has that liquid coffee leapt into the reassembling cup and flown up into our hands. (Physicists do understand this: this is the inevitable consequence of the second law of thermodynamics.)
But, if you were considering just the particles, there is absolutely no reason the particles couldn’t do exactly this, given the right pre-conditions.
Our experience of the world and our observations of the non-reversibility of time, as well as the structure of our mental faculties of memory and imagination, lead to a universal understanding that event A brings about or causes event B. I drop the coffee, it spills, I mourn the loss of my coffee… and maybe my favorite mug! The past is obviously inalterable: there is nothing I can do now to prevent that spill earlier. What’s done is done. The future is arguably (and the arguments are fierce!) not yet determined: my choices now may or may not result in my spilling the second cup of coffee. This model of reality invites us to think about past and future as states of reality that in some form or another exist.
In our time-travel stories we imagine visiting the past-that-was or the future-that-might-be.
Through the lens of tantric understanding of consciousness and reality, all of this is nonsense. There is no such “thing” as past or future. We create a mental model of a universe in which times other than the present exist and can be experienced in memory or imagination, or in our wild fantasies, visited in a subjective present.
… there is something.
Because the more we tune in to the subtle movements of reality, the more we realize that the present moment is determined not just by events that have taken place, but also by events about to take place.
Oracular pronouncements and prophecies of the future have been a pretty good business throughout recorded history. For the most part, this seems to be the shady work of con-artists taking advantage of the fears, gullibility, and cravings of the desperate. Ambiguous language is stock-in-trade.
But presentiment is a very common human experience.
Most of us have had that morning of dread resulting in an afternoon disaster with no conceivable causal or knowable element. At a smaller scale, it’s quite common to hear the phone ring and know who is calling even before picking up (or looking at your screen). Our experience of what is works in ways that continue to defy rational explanation.
Sometimes its a dream. Sometimes it’s an eerie thought. Sometimes it’s a felt sense of what is coming.
What is it?
Looking to quantum physics for answers is generally a fool’s errand. Quantum physics is a mathematical description of something completely alien to our experience of the observable world, and fine nuances of this mathematics can suggest and support wild speculation. Moreover, beyond the basics, the mathematics continues to be explored. Even with regard to time reversibility, there are competing mathematical models. Some extend the time-symmetry of classical mechanics into the quantum field models; while others hypothesize quantum-level asymmetry that explains our observations at the macroscopic level.
But there is one common thread that is quite interesting:
Quantum physics offers no mathematical justification for our mental model of cause-and-effect. And this is not just theory. Physicists have been dealing with probabilistic behavior from subatomic particles since the beginning, and certain technologies such as microprocessor design need to take this unpredictability into account.
Now, this doesn’t mean cause-and-effect is dead: it could quite simply be a case of incomplete information. Some mathematical models suggest dimensions beyond our ability to experience. In the extended-dimension reality, cause-and-effect remains classical, but our inability to perceive the causes gives us the false impression of random or unpredictable behavior.
And while we must be cautious about looking to physics for answers that physicists simply aren’t ready to answer, there is a beautiful and curious connection to tantric teachings on consciousness and reality.
From the perspective of quantum physics, “reality” is an incomprehensible complicated interaction of energies, and all of the ordinary, macroscopic reality that we deal with is only our brain’s interpretation of this nearly infinite complexity.
Which is very much the teaching of tantric philosophy taken from a different angle: a detailed study of what it is to be conscious. The tantric science of consciousness suggests that our mental model of reality is one layer of a multi-layered manifestation of reality. What we would today call the “materialist view” of reality, tantra refutes as intellectually insupportable. The only provable reality is consciousness itself; and everything that consciousness is normally conscious of is known only by the internal creation of a mental model. Our engagement of the universe is through information from the senses or actions of the mind — both of which are obviously and inherently unreliable. What is absolutely reliable is consciousness itself.
Tantra and quantum physics agree here: what we call reality is a brain-induced model. Physics is engaged in a centuries-long inquiry into the objects of our awareness. Tantra is engaged in a centuries-long inquiry into the nature of awareness itself.
All of this returns us to a curious aspect of our model: time.
Tantra offers a framework for understanding how the essence of reality in its actuality becomes the model of reality within which we normally exist. This framework is the collected 36 Tattvas. Time (kāla) is the first aspect of the modeled reality, also called manifest or differentiated reality.
In tantra, the only “true” reality is that which is experienced in the fluid now. Time itself is part of the illusion; past and future mere artifacts of brain function. When we are “locked in” to our illusion of past, present, and future, we are in a prison of our ideas of cause and effect, with the particular delusion that our model of reality itself can be one of the causes — ie., the delusion that we can somehow manipulate or control outcomes in the future.
One of the great clues to this delusion is the experience of presentiment: this noticing that the now seems to be influenced by what we call the future as well as what we call the past.
Because of our wayward coffee cup, and every other spilled or broken thing ever, we know that time as we commonly understand it doesn’t flow backwards. But even as causality is looking like a tenuous human invention to physicists, and time has at least some symmetric mathematical models at the most fundamental level, so our actual conscious experience of time as less one-directional invites us to wonder: if reality is not what we think it is…
What is it?