Always now but never still – our strange relationship with time

We are always situated in time — unsurprisingly, since “always” pretty much means “at every time”. Anyway, we can observe that we are always at some particular point in time. Yet, we are also moving “forward” in time (again, redundant considering what time means), and the conjunction of these two facts has strange consequences.

If something is in the past, then provided its effects are not still present, we can justly say that it’s gone. So we can say “thank goodness it’s over” about something unpleasant, or have to acknowledge that something pleasant is gone already. This isn’t so paradoxical. What’s in the past is gone, save for whatever effects may linger now, and it remains gone. But what about things in the future?

Since now is always now, and the future isn’t, it might be thought that we don’t need to be bothered by whatever lies in the future. Sometimes, this really is the case. We may not be too bothered by the thought of the end of the world in billions of years, or our own death decades later. In general, more remote things seem to matter less. But we do worry about future things. If you were told that you’ll die in a year, you might certainly worry about that. But why? Sure, it’s normal to think that things closer in time matter more — but they’re still not now, so why worry about them now? From this point in time, any point in the future is in principle absolutely inaccessible. Of course, if you wait… But that’s still not now. Times that are closer are closer to now, but still not now.

Yet, we can’t really think that way. Suppose something is only five minutes away. Then it’s practically upon us. It may be removed from the static now, but if we hang around, we’ll soon notice it has become now. And even if the thing is years away, we will eventually notice we’ve got there, provided just that we continue to exist.

So in some sense, we are always absolutely in the present moment, but in some practical sense, we’re not just there, because the future is so… imminent.

We can also look at it this way: Every experience we have must be at some particular time. Yet every experience presumably takes time in some sense. Whatever the specifics of how experience emerges from matter, it almost certainly involves the processing of information. This is a process. Every process takes time, having earlier and later parts in time, between which there is a difference. If nothing had changed, nothing would have happened. If there were not two different sets of properties at two different times, there would have been no change.

So every experience, and every thought or observation about time, is always situated at a particular time, but is also a process that takes time. By the time the experience is finished, the present is a different instance than when it began. This is why we have to “travel forward” in time, as we are made up of processes where something happens, and all that happens takes time. A static version of ourselves could not think. Probably not even have experiences, although questions about that are hard to answer.

If we combine these two points of view, even experiencing the present that is the only time present to us will take time. Probably this means that our experience of time is coarse-grained — that we cannot distinguish in it indefinitely small spans of time. Even so, this still quite doesn’t explain why the future matters, and matters more when it’s closer. I don’t have a ready answer, but one could think of an answer such as that the reason it really matters is because there is time for fewer things to happen in between. Of course, intuitively it’s because the closer future will be upon us sooner, but that’s just tautological.


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