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“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” – Alan Watts


Now that is some seriously specious present…

There have to be a few thousand ways people advise us to, “Live in the now”.  Each one of them makes me want to angrily bludgeon the speaker about the head and neck.  This is not because I’m steadfastly convinced there is a past and future that have discrete existences and direct relevancy to “the now”, it’s that folks who advise such tripe are generally either ascetic saints or committed hedonists (thus either considerably more serene or having a great deal more fun than me).  And it’s not even that I’m so bothered by the notion of being present in the moment.  Such behavior is clearly adaptive as it improves your listening skills when dating and guarantees you a good statistical shot at reproducing.  Sadly, there are those of us neurotics out here in the universe who prefer to ask annoying, yet pointed questions when faced with pithy exhortations to live for the moment, such as “Which moment should I live in?” and “Exactly how long is the now?”.  Irritating, isn’t it?  Try being married to me.  Yet, the question isn’t as facetious as it superficially appears, especially as such things touch upon hypothetical phenomena like precognition.  That’s right.  You want to know the future?  You better start asking what “now” actually is.

First, you have to deal with the question of whether past, present, and future exist at all.  That is, is time a real thing.  Surprisingly, time is rather controversial.  Most of us grew up learning simple ideas.  Time has flow (it moves).  Time has direction (it moves forward).  Time has order (one darn thing after another).  Time has duration (you can quantify a period between events).  When it comes to time only the present is “real”.  Of course, the crux of the problem is whether any of these charming features are realities of the physical world or imaginative constructs of human consciousness.  And you can find respectable physicists lining up on both sides of the aisle.  I try to spend as little time in reality as possible.  It’s insufferably dull there and terribly crowded.  No room for those ghouls and goblins.  No space to explore one’s extrasensory perceptions.  The extraterrestrials may exist, but they’re way too far away.  And ghosts are just as likely to result from bad plumbing as a grisly murder.  That’s why the more I read about time, the more I appreciate it, or rather its insubstantiality.  Or maybe it’s malleability.  Leastwise, if we’re going to give any credence to weird phenomena like precognition.

Now, scientists, philosophers, and theologians of every stripe have been mulling over time for, well, quite some time.  Somewhat less so about the nature of time and its relation to prophecy.  This is mostly because there has traditionally been a lot of divine noise mixed in there, what with our legions of celestial critters that have populated the heavens at one time or another.  It used to be easy to predict the future.  You just hire yourself an Oracle, make a donation to the temple, and Bob’s your Uncle you’ve got a map to upcoming events.  What they lack in accuracy they entirely make up for in ambiguity.  Once folks settled into a more civilized lifestyle and started asking questions about the mechanisms behind the natural world, it got a little messy because nobody could tell us what time was, let alone how some savvy individual could perceive the future.  So the human race did what we do best.  We came up with a bunch of theories.

Certainly, these theories range rather widely in content if not in character, but can be reliably grouped into a few recurrent classes in reference to explaining precognition: (1) There are other dimensions of time, (2) Time is part of a multidimensional space, (3) We live in an “Eternal Now”, (4) We live an existence of eternal recurrence, (5) non-physical critters interfere in our affairs, and (6) the physical world is just an effect and real causes lay at some deeper level of consciousness.  These are rather broad brushstrokes, so let’s give a few examples.

If there were multiple dimensions of time, as proposed in Dunne’s Experiments with Time, and if time is considered to be flowing along a line from past to present to future (that is “serial time”), then being able to observe the flow of time requires a point of reference from which to observe time.  We need a second time.  And the present of that second time could be the future of our ordinary time.  There is of course a nasty little infinite regress involved to the point of some “observer at infinity”, but nobody likes to talk about it.  Dirty little time secret.  When it comes to time as part of a multidimensional space, think Flatland, presuming we are three dimensional creatures living in a four dimensional universe, for example.  Living in the “Eternal Now” seems like a good description of my last few jobs, but really requires the presumption of some omniscient and omnipresent super-consciousness (God, the Universal Mind, yada yada…) that is just the end all be all of reality.  In short, all things that were, are, and will be already exist as part of some big, amorphous everything.  Eternal recurrence is exactly what it sounds like – the same damn thing over and over again (you know, like every role Russell Crowe has ever played).  Interfering non-physical critters sounds to me like the usual conspiracy theory, with whatever label gets applied to these beings.  Not very helpful.  Not even enough there for a passable Oliver Stone movie.  The physical world just being an effect sounds tempting, but the question would be an effect of what, to which traditionally the answer has been human consciousness.  It’s kind of “dig us” don’t you think?  But there is one parsimonious little explanation for precognition as it relates to time that I haven’t mentioned yet, mostly because I find it very warm and fuzzy.  I’m going to love it, and keep it, and name it George.  Obviously I’m teasing, since I can’t keep a secret.  Neither is it particularly secret.  I’m talking about the “Theory of the Specious Present”.

What is the Theory of the Specious Present?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  The Specious Present is the hypothesis “based on the psychological fact that what we call the present moment is not actually a moment; or, to be more exact, it is not a point-instant without duration. In other words, the “present” has a certain length as far as our consciousness is concerned. Our awareness of events and objects even in the immediate moment of apprehension which we call the “present” is always accompanied by a sense of time passing, which is duration. A “present” without duration would be a mathematical abstraction, as are points, lines and so on” (Osborn, 1961, p132-133).  Basically, this suggests that the past and future are abstractions, only the present is real, but that the boundaries of that present are not fixed from person to person.

Briefly, the theory is this: If in a given moment of perception there is a certain duration, then if in some cases this duration period were extended, it would embrace more events. Anyone experiencing this expanded “Specious Present” would, compared to another person whose “Specious Present” was normal, see both past and future events as though they were present…Let us suppose that our consciousness is a spotlight which is focused on what we call the “present moment.” Within this present moment there are, let us say, three events, B, C, and D. These three events, we will assume, are perceived simultaneously by the average person. Suppose, however, that the spotlight of another person’s consciousness within his immediate present embraced a longer train of events, A, B, C, D, and E; it is clear that for the first observer, event A is something which happened in his past and £ is an event which has not yet occurred; that is, it is in his future. For the second observer, however, whose specious present embraced the longer series of events, all the events A, B, C, D, and E would be in his present. Therefore an observer perceiving event £ would from the point of view of the first observer have experienced precognition (Osborn, 1961, p134).

As a theory, it’s tasteful, yet stirring.  Although should you find yourself endowed with the power of prophecy, I don’t recommend strutting about telling people your present is bigger than theirs.  That’ll just get you beat up.  And if you feel you’ve got a fairly expansive specious present, don’t hang out a shingle until you’ve considered Hubert Humphrey’s observation that, “The difference between hearsay and prophecy is often one of sequence. Hearsay often turns out to have been prophecy”.

Osborn, Arthur Walter, 1891-. The Future Is Now: the Significance of Precognition. New Hyde Park, N. Y.: University Books, 1961.