It was a cold, blustery morning. Kay and I were enjoying that cozy feeling that comes over people who have a brisk fire in their fireplace while snow sifts down off the roof and blows in swift streams down the street. We sipped our coffee leisurely and congratulated ourselves on not having to go out in the stormy weather.
Suddenly there was a metallic click at the door and a muffled thump on the floor. Immediately we exclaimed together, “It’s the mail.”
Looking out the big front window, Kay watched the postman plodding across our snow-covered lawn back to the plowed road. She said sympathetically, “Oh, that poor guy!” then went into the hallway and came back with the mail.
“Anything worth delivering?” I inquired.
“See for yourself,” she said, handing me some junk mail, which I quickly glanced through and disposed of.
She passed me a business letter. “This one’s from the trust company. They probably want your annual contribution to your retirement annuity. At least it isn’t a bill.”
“Right.” I grinned. “They tell me that my payment is really my gift to my future self.”
“That makes you feel better about paying, I suppose. Oh hey,” she exclaimed, tearing the plastic wrapper off a brightly colored publication, “on a day like this, how nice to be given a brand new seed catalogue.” She shivered with delight. “I’ve already got that ‘see how they’re growing’ feeling. I wonder what’s new this year. I must get my order in early.”
“Your seed order will be your gift to your future self, won’t it, dearie,” I said. “I suspect though that my investment in the future is more of a sure thing than yours. Some of your seeds will not get planted. Some that you do plant will not germinate. Those that do sprout may get chewed up by slugs, bugs or rabbits. Maybe it will be a hot, dry summer and …”
“Aw, come on!” Kay protested, whacking the coffee table lightly with her catalogue. “You’re as bad as any summer’s bugs and drought – you’re damaging my dreams. Let me take my chances. I’ll be a winner one day. You’ll see.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” I repented. “You’ve always had a nice garden. I wasn’t trying to discourage your hopes for yet another one. What I had in mind was how uncertain the future is, not only for seeds and gardens but for finance and other plans. When you tangle with time, you’ve got to be prepared for disappointment.”
On my way to the study I gave her a hug. “May your dreams come true. The snow will go and your seeds will grow. I’m off to plant on paper some thoughts about the future. Maybe they too will grow in other people’s minds to be beautiful and productive.”
As we parted, she patted my shoulder and nodded her confidence in me, saying, “Just you wait.”
The future is dicey
A kernel of wheat lay in a dry, crowded bin sleeping and dreaming. Someday it would wake up in a moist, dark place in a field, then stretch up into the gentle heat of the sun. One lovely day it would be rocking its offspring to and fro in the waving grain.
But alas, scooped from the bin and dumped into a truck, the wheat kernel was soon being jolted over a bumpy road to a flour mill. There more than its dream was killed. Its very identity was lost in a sack of flour. After that demise, the only moisture it ever met turned it into dough. Energy which originated in the sun baked the dough into bread – my morning toast. As I am writing this sad little tale about the tragic fate of a kernel of wheat, something of that grain, turned into flour, is being assimilated into my living person – becoming me and my story. The specific future of a wheat kernel is uncertain – as is the future of my words.
The future? The future? What is this future that I’m talking about? Whatever “the future” may be, it hasn’t happened yet. As of this moment, does the future exist? Why is everybody so sure that the future is already on its way? Throughout history, each moment has indeed been immediately followed by another. But what guarantee do we have that such a routine will continue to play on? If the future is already on its way, should I do anything more than just wait for it to come?
On second thought, if and when it does come, it won’t seem like “future” anyway. Today is the future I was wondering about yesterday. If and when tomorrow presents itself, I will be sure to call it “today.” If some future event is actually going to happen, it will have to become just another present occasion. If I wait to see the future as future, I’ll wait endlessly, and there’s no “future” in that!
Some folk believe that the future is sitting somewhere out there ahead in time, full-fledged, just waiting for them to come along and experience it. But I don’t think it’s really that way. The future can often be changed by our own or other people’s unpredictable decisions and actions. The future is neither unalterably settled nor entirely predictable.
This afternoon, if things go the way I’ve planned, I’ll get some writing done. In an hour or so, however, Jack or Marie may call and invite us to come over. Accepting that invitation will eliminate the afternoon of writing from my future. If on the way there, Kay should fall on an icy patch and break her hip, we’ll find ourselves in the emergency ward of a hospital instead of the house next door. We never know for sure what the next hour will bring forth.
The future and its possibilities
What actually happened in the past cannot be changed. What has been done has been done once and for all. I can change my attitude toward past events, but I cannot change what those events really were. When I take some initiative, however, I can change the future.
Some people, even some scientists, believe that the future is permanently fixed. They agree with those who say, “What is to be will be.” Fatalistic determinists maintain that, at the beginning, the gods or the Creator foreordained the exact character of every single event, large or small, which will occur throughout everyone’s life and the whole of history. But if every single detail of a preplanned show is already known to the powers that be, why should all of us poor creatures be run through our miserable, painful parts? Many sensitive and thoughtful people have been alienated from faith in God by the belief that the dreadful occurrences they have experienced were entirely predetermined by the Creator.
Astrologers, psychics and fortune-tellers make their living by retailing their alleged access to knowledge of things to come. Personally I’m not searching for a reliable crystal ball. I don’t think that any human being could be aware of all the presently existing chains of concurrent events which could come together in people’s lives. Local weather, earthquakes, lightning strikes and “accidents” are notoriously unpredictable.
In bowling and curling, the future position of pins, balls or rocks at the rear of the pack will depend largely on which ones up front get hit and how they are hit. That in turn depends upon the bowler’s aim. When a moving object bangs into another object which is at rest, the other tends to move off, perhaps to bang into another, and so on. Billiard ball collisions and dominos falling in a line provide common illustrations of the way in which past “causal” events can change the future layout and conditions of things.
Thinkers with a scientific bent usually have confidence in the universal and inevitable principle of causality. Some have claimed that, if at a given instant one could know the exact position and state of motion of each and every bit of the entire universe, as well as the forces acting upon it, using the laws of nature a super-clever mind could calculate with certainty everything that had ever happened and could also foretell for sure everything that will ever happen. No mortal, however, possesses such extraordinarily detailed and comprehensive knowledge.
Mechanical causation may roughly explain what happens in collisions, but it doesn’t explain inertial, gravitational and atomic phenomena. If I push on a stalled car it will push back at me. If I try to pull a loaded trailer, it will pull back against my tug. If a boat is coming into a moorage bay at a wrong angle and I try to change its course by pushing at it from the wharf, it will resist me. Why? Although gravitation doesn’t stop at service stations to tank up on energy, its pull on everything never ceases. Electrons keep whizzing around atomic nuclei although perpetual motion is held to be impossible. When a magnet is approaching a needle, before the two actually touch each other the needle will suddenly jump and cling to the magnet. In particle physics, scientists have long since given up trying to predict precisely the future behavior of a radioactive particle.
Human thoughts and emotions develop into decisions, technology and purposes. Although these are nonmassive and notoriously unpredictable, they can produce profound changes in the future of the physical world. It is clearly wrong to maintain that mechanical causation alone is sufficient to account for the future history of the world.
The future’s possibilities
Imagine one of those great carousels or moving belts in an airport where arriving passengers retrieve their checked luggage. The future seems to come toward us like that, laden with alternative possibilities. There are lots of things we’d like to do sometime – places to go, projects to finish, skills to hone, relationships to develop – if only an opportunity would open up. From time to time, however, as circumstances change, the right situation does come along with the future and at last we can accomplish what was not previously possible.
Truly dramatic liberating developments don’t occur very often in the course of ordinary living. However at every moment every day, time presents us with a roster of possibilities which demand our decisive thought or action. What job will I undertake today? How long should I wait before I phone? What will I serve for the birthday dinner? It’s awesome to realize that at every moment the entire universe is being loaded with a vast array of new possibilities.
Throughout the whole world the cosmic time-process keeps changing relations between things, between things and people as well as between people and people. Some of these changes may remove conditions which formerly favored or blocked the actualization of certain possibilities. What was once a possibility may, after a certain change, become forever an impossibility. Conversely a breakthrough may render possible what once was impossible. When certain changes occur, corresponding adjustments automatically and immediately take place throughout the menu of future possibilities.
Threatened by an aggressive dog, a cat tries to escape through an empty space in the traffic. It is killed before it reaches the other curb. Now it will be impossible for that cat to curl up on its owner’s lap. However, with its sad departure, new possibilities have arisen. Its owner may decide that, with no cat to look after, it’s the right time to go on a long-dreamed-of trip. Or if a hungry, abandoned kitten, mewing pitifully, should come to the owner’s door, it might receive a grateful welcome.
Replacing present circumstances entails a corresponding change in the roster of future possibilities. Because we can’t keep track of all the changes which are taking place right now in all directions around us, the future can never be entirely knowable.
Even though the future contains hordes of conceivable possibilities, time doles them out sparingly, never offering all of them at once. In any set of circumstances the range of possible actions is restricted by the presence of opposing forces and effective barriers. If a bad storm is raging, the launch of a space shuttle must be delayed. If the alignment of Earth and other planets ceases to be favorable, the launch control authority must wait for the next “window” to come along. We always have to work within constraints. No menu ever offers an unlimited choice of foods.
Clear thinking about possibilities is seldom easy. Classical two-value logic firmly maintains that anything conceivable must either exist or not exist. In matters of existence there are only those two mutually exclusive possibilities. Yet although a certain possibility has not as yet become an actuality, it already possesses a strange kind of reality which neither is an actual existent nor absolutely nothing at all. That’s why it’s so difficult to get a firm handle on the future.
Suppose that by playing the stock market, a certain family makes a sizeable financial gain. To the husband their increased bank balance may suggest the possibility of purchasing a new car. To the wife, the windfall may present the possibility of buying new furnishings and redecorating their home. The fulfillment of either person’s desire is a possible possibility. But if the available cash is not enough to pay for both the car and the furnishings, purchasing both with the same amount of money is an impossibility. A difficult either/or decision must be made.
Any conceivable event which is not prohibited by the laws of nature can be considered to be a conceptual possibility. When everything which is essential to the attainment of a possible goal exists and is available, and when nothing stands in the way of that attainment, reaching that goal is definitely a possible possibility – which status is more determinate than that of a mere conceptual possibility.
Sometimes one is confronted all at once by an impossibility, a merely conceptual possibility and a truly possible possibility. Under those circumstances, deciding what to do can sometimes be difficult. A child pulls a mass of frog’s eggs out of a pond. Can those eggs swim or jump? That’s an impossibility. Eggs have no arms or legs. But the child’s father knows that all the resources necessary to develop an egg into a lively frog exist in the pond from which the eggs were taken. Swimming and jumping as the future of those eggs is a conceptual possibility for the father. If he insists that the eggs be put back into the pond, their development into a generation of frogs becomes a truly possible possibility.
My mother used to say that something or other was “as impossible as flying to the moon.” She didn’t live long enough to see Neil Armstrong’s footprint in moon dust. What seems impossible today may become possible tomorrow. Even two contradictory opposites can both happen if time brings them into being sequentially. A caterpillar can’t fly, but when it becomes a butterfly it will be able to take off and flit from flower to flower. Although no two material bodies can occupy the same space at the same time, at different times the same space can be filled by different objects. Time enables different bodies to occupy the same relative space. Time makes amazing changes possible throughout the universe.
Between future and present
Time’s relation-changing process does not take place in the past, for changes that have already occurred have become “frozen” and fixed. A moment which is being presently experienced has also already happened, so it is really only the “trailing edge” of the actual present. The future hasn’t happened yet. If the relation-changing action of time does not take place in the past, the present or the future, how and when do things get changed?
Because light or sound takes time to travel from an event to my senses and brain, there is a necessary time lag between that actual occurrence and my perceiving it. This leads me to conclude that future possibilities must be changing into present actualities somewhere just “offstage,” out of my ken. The creative frontier between the future and the present is therefore unobservable. At that frontier the last moment’s unique form of things somehow gets reshaped. Some features of its elements are eliminated and some which were former possible possibilities become actualized and are added. At the same time some former conceptual possibilities may turn into possible possibilities. The next moment I experience will be the product of this hidden, offstage revising.
Time’s factory, where the inaccessible future is becoming the present, is located just beyond Now’s little open clearing beside the foggy forest of the future – so near but, oh, so far.
When possibilities first begin to arise in the future, they are diffuse and general. When the atomic structure of matter was first experimentally demonstrated, no one could specify the full range of the chemical and electronic possibilities which were entailed by that discovery. As time went on, however, the vagueness of those possibilities gradually dissipated as they became more and more definite. Eventually they became definite enough to be accepted, rejected or applied. That’s what invention is all about. Our present Internet was once only a vague future possibility.
In ancient times Daedalus was alleged to have tried to fly. In the renaissance Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks reveal that he was speculating about how to get humans into the air and under the sea. Many years later Jules Verne wrote fancifully about submarine travel and rocketing to the moon. The Wright brothers, however, actually flew an airplane at Kitty Hawk. Even then no one envisioned world-circling airlines, supersonic flight or shuttles to space stations.
I am sitting at the keyboard of a computer. None of the people who assembled the components of this particular equipment knew where it would go or who would purchase it. Their painstaking activity was entirely destination-neutral. Yet here in my study, their labors are now contributing immensely to the possible future of my work. This keyboard offers me an untold number of possible ways to make meaningful markings on my screen. These symbols will eventually reappear as printed text on paper. In the immediate future I could be choosing to press any of the hundred keys in sequence. I hope that my computer, my research and personal potentials will combine with the presently possible possibilities of future circumstances to produce statements about time which will be much more definitive than were my original notions.
Sources of possibilities
Human beings like to dream up strange creatures such as flying horses and mermaids. To exist and do what they are said to do, these imaginary beings would have to be supplemented and sustained by extraordinary conditions quite unlike those in our kind of world. The relatings which are actually possible here between things, persons and ideas are strictly regulated by physical and logical principles, as well as by time.
Birds, bats and aircraft are able to fly because of the actual structures and powers which they possess. Peter Pan and Superman lack the necessary structures and power sources to fly in our world. Such bogus beings and activities can “subsist” only in make-believe. The actual properties of air, gravitation and the laws of motion are not actually nullifiable at the whim of a writer or cartoonist.
When writers or artists tinker with the nature of something but neglect to change its whole systemic neighborhood, they are sure to run into serious incompatibilities and contradictions. A sleigh big enough to hold Santa’s presents for all the children in, say, North America, would require a team of dozens of full-size reindeer to pull it on a snowy road, let alone get it airborne. Such a rig could never land on the roof of any house. I’m sure too that the old gentleman would have to lose a lot of weight before he could descend through any of the chimneys in this neighborhood. The time required for Santa to make his rounds throughout the whole world, even at the most terrific speed, makes it unlikely that he would be able to make delivery stops anywhere during his one-night journey.
What is really possible in the future depends largely upon past technological developments. Columbus needed sailing ships before he could “discover” America. Colonization by Europeans and the formation of new nation states in the Americas then became possible. When ways of generating and controlling electricity had been developed, electric lighting and heating, as well as radio and television, became possible. After the transistor and other complex silicon chips had been invented, personal computers and other electronic wonders also became possible. As the history of technology unfolds, feats that earlier generations would have deemed to be impossible turn out to be possible.
Technology keeps kiting up. When early humans had learned how to control fire, cooked food and the art of cooking came into being. Fire enabled skilled potters to produce long-lasting vessels for cooking, serving and storing food. Fire also led to domestic heating, illuminating devices and metal smelting. Metallurgy brought forth tools, swords, ornaments, plows, cannons, machines, engines, ships, cars and aircraft. The future offers unlimited possibilities for entirely new technological breakthroughs as well as for the recycling, remodeling and renovating of what has already appeared.
The past supplies materials, energies and information which may be rearranged, reshaped, transformed, exploited and utilized in the future. Liquid water or water vapor may turn into myriads of different forms: snowflakes, delicately beautiful frost patterns, assorted hailstones, sheets of ice and icebergs, clouds, rainstorms, streams, waterfalls, steam, fog and rainbows. When energy is applied to an object, it may be moved, rotated, vibrated or heated so that it radiates light or turns into plasma. Information may be translated or encoded for transmission in many different media: speech, handwriting, print, electronic impulses, light signals, smoke signals, drum beats, radio waves, music, mime, dance and drama.
The effects of anything that ever happened never entirely disappear. Ages after a long-forgotten event occurred, traces of its having happened, though undetected by generations who never knew of it, remain in the fabric of the continuing world. Aspects of the past which are remembered or recorded can cast a recognizable shadow or shed a suffusing glow over things to come. Recalling conquests by foreign powers, crucial battles, cruel injustice, unmitigated lies and inexcusable insults can perpetuate vindictive and retaliatory attitudes generation after generation, poisoning interfactional relations on and on through history.
In times of great sorrow people sometimes console each other with the saying, “Time is a great healer.” I suppose it can be. Blessed are they who have not only a good memory but a good forgetory.
Everyone at some time has been a victim of wrongdoing by others. If we are to void the noxious impulse for revenge, we must be possessed by a mind-set which can not only neutralize the sting of past evil, but turn it into thankfulness, care for others, and a determination to exert only positive influence. Is that possible? Christian thought treats all harming of others as a wounding of God by wrecking God’s dream of creating a loving, cooperative world. All human offensiveness must inflict perpetual suffering upon the heart of God. This suffering of God was revealed in the Cross of Jesus as one of its deepest meanings. Yet in response to an instance of evildoing, the Creator does not immediately retaliate and destroy the wrongdoer. Against a conceivable background of deserved instant or prolonged punishment, the prolonging of a wrongdoer’s life can be construed as divine forgiveness. Some may take the absence of instant divine retribution as proof that there is no God. As for me, considering what I have been, done and not done, I see each new moment of my life – each hour, every day, the further extension of my lifetime – as a proof of divine forgiveness. If God has forgiven me, surely I can forgive those who trespass against me. Belief in this “Gospel of Time” could help to heal human hatred.