Philosophy Magazine

The Future is Not Real

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Have you ever been to the future? Neither have I. No one has ever been to the future, because the future is not real. We are only ever in the present, now and always. The present cannot be escaped from. The present is the horizon of realization. The present perpetually realizes from the pattern of resonances and dissonances created by earlier incarnations of the continually unfolding current state of things. These previous presents form a testimonial that we call the past. The past is therefore, and nothing more than, the record of realization. The past is all of reality post-realization. If the present is the horizon of realization and the past is the record of realization, then the future lies over, or beyond, the horizon of realization. The future is pre-realization. Being in a context of pre-realization the future is not yet, and not currently, real. Furthermore, since realization is always happening only in the present, the future is never a realized thing. The future is thus not real.

Time is an arrow. That is, time is linear and asymmetric. Time is not circular, in the sense that the present and the future are, or can be, the past revisited or returned. Neither can time flow backwards, such that the past can become the future and the future can become the past. The circular flow of time and backwards flow of time are both notions that are incoherent with our normal experience of time and corresponding empirical evidence, quantum mechanics aside. The arrow of time supports my theory of the past as the record of realization. The record of realization is the present configuration of reality left by all previous interactions until this point. This sets the stage at each new present moment for the next present moment, each successive present lying after and above the previous present and before and below the next present. This layering effect builds relentless novelty upon novelty in an endless blooming of potentials into fruition. Time is an arrow because the recorded past fills in where the present has just been, pushing the present forward in the only direction that is left open to it. The future lies in the direction that the arrow of time points in, but it is not a part of the arrow. The future is the target that cannot be reached, like a carrot on a stick hovering always just out of reach.

At this point you might be wondering, if the future is not real then why do we think and talk about it all the time? Why do we act with the future in mind, often in a very serious sense, if it does not exist? You may even suspect that I am only able to claim that the future is not real, because I have redefined what it means for something to be real. After all, thoughts about the future pass through our minds just as thoughts about our past experiences. Wouldn’t claiming that the future is not real also throw the reality of our memories and other thoughts into doubt? How can the future be unreal while time itself is real? A complete definition of reality needs its own essay (or volume), but for my purposes here I will just suggest that reality is the totality of things that happen. Time is a property of reality that emerges from the fact that happenings beget happenings sequentially. Space is a property of reality that allows the evolutionary expansion of happenings to become branches correlated by simultaneity in time. The present is the horizon of happenings, and this means that the totality of reality is always growing and includes what has happened and what is happening, but not what may happen.

The notion of tense is important to our understanding of time and reality. When we think and talk about the past we recall and relay what was, but when we think and talk about the future we wonder and speculate about what will be. Thoughts and discussions about the past are distinctly different from those about the future in their relationship to tangible records in reality, like fossils and photos. The future, being without tangible relationships in reality, is simply a tool for imagining what we will be remembering later on. The future is an extrapolation of the record of realization within the mind and functions only as an intellectual and conceptual tool. The future is a special type of counterfactual or thought experiment that has the distinction of focusing on the possible ways in which things could still turn out, rather than on which things could have otherwise been. Memories are about things that happened, but our present thoughts of the future can only be imaginations of possibilities. Since past, present, and future tense are often afforded the same weight in our linguistic conception of time, we have the intuition that the future is equally part of the reality of time along with the past and the present. This is just illusion. Thoughts about the future are real thoughts, but the future itself is not a part of reality separate from thought.

As a professional forecaster of time series data I work on predicting the future on a day to day basis. But what exactly is it that I am predicting? I am foretelling how the record of realization will have turned out after the fact. To do this I analyze patterns in past data. I sift through the record of realization that is available to me at the time; imperfect evidence in the form of snapshots at intervals and effects with unrecorded causes. Models are built from the record using the usual suspects, trends, seasons, cycles, and if you’re lucky some correlated phenomenon. My own dedicated memories, a recollection of specialized facts and situations, are applied in an uneasy synergy with technologically supplemented datasets in order to produce highly educated guesses. The model is the forecaster’s cloudy crystal ball, and the future is nothing more than a model of what could possibly be. The future is only a tool we use, not a time we can get to.

Jared Roy Endicott


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