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Science and Society Blog

Science and Society Blog

On the past, the Present, and the Future

Posted on 23 April, 2017 at 22:00

I've often heard the advice from Psychologists "Just live in the present, it's better for you". But we are exposed to history (the past) early in school. Most of us are fascinated about the past, and about the fact that more information about the past is becoming available through Science. Do you realize that the age of our solar system (4.568 billion years) is now more accurately established than most of us remember our own age (e.g. I'm 72, or is it just 71, or is it really 73: I'll have to do some math to be certain!) ?  

But what is it like to live in the present? That's a hard concept to define. What we can see with our two eyes in total at any time is only remembered in our brain for less than a second. What we hear is remembered for only a sentence or two, while our brain reparses the sound to extract the information content of words that we just heard in a noisy environment. And how long does it take to create a single thought? That has not yet been measured. Does the speed of 'thought creation' define the span of the present for humans? That is, do we humans experience the present in steps of one thought by the next thought? Or is the present much shorter - defined by the ultrashort time required by a rhodopsin molecule in the retina of our eyes to capture a single quantum of visible light? To me, the time of duration of "the present moment" must certainly be shorter than a human heartbeat, but exactly how short it is is still unresolved by human physiology.

I have the opinion that psychologists refer to the "present" as the time required to create a short consistent cluster of thoughts. When our thoughts race from one cluster to a totally different cluster continuously, our mental health is in danger because we are at such a time experiencing great cognitive stress. "Living in the present" in terms of the subject of mindfulness, probably means to take life one thought at a time. If your train of thought is interrupted by a secondary different thought, then remember it doesn't really matter. A secondary thought is just a distraction, and you can forget it, and re-direct yourself to the original train of thought (simple monitoring of breathing, for example) without damage. So mindful 'living in the present' is an attempt to consciously reduce the number of 'threads' of thought to the minimum necessary to enjoy a single coherent idea.

So that's the best attempt I can make to explain the idea of "the present" at this point in my life.

But the future is something different altogether. It often appears that we live in a chaotic world, where nothing that comes to pass is actually predictable because everything influences everything else, and there are a lot of "everythings" that we must consider at any given time. But between "now" and the "chaos to come" in the future exist "longer time correlations" between events that we can analyze and study scientifically.

The weather system is chaotic in the long term, as are most other things we face in life. But given a robust scientific models and high-speed computations, we can extrapolate from mere hunches about what the weather will be like tomorrow, to a 5 to 7 day forecast of future weather that is useful to farmers and travellers. So in a sense, we can predict a bit of the future in a useful way.

Climate science has done this for anthropogenic global warming, establishing its reality for all 'men of good will', with the exception of some populist politicians.

So we must remember that useful predictive models just extrapolate our present knowledge ahead into the future, just until our real ignorance of things causes these models to break down in true chaos and catastrophe. 

So beware of those who claim to "predict" the long term future, for these people are nothing but charlatans.

Rather, let us build the future cautiously for ourselves, step by step into the darkness, experimenting to find what strategies are useful in the short term, and which are not. Enjoy the adventures ahead!

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