IS THE PAST REAL? I am aware of the fact that in light of relativity theory physicists have ideas about space and time that are very hard to grasp. For example, as this wikipedia article indicates, the phrase “Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once” has some scientific credentials. It is attributed to Einstein as well as to Woody Allen. Barry Dainton has an article in the Times Literary Supplement (January 8) about what metaphysicians think about time, and these ideas are even more baffling to me than those of the physicists. He outlines four theories that temporal metaphysicians have about how the past differs from the present. What caught my attention was Presentism: “For the proponents of Presentism—much in vogue—reality is confined to the here and now: both past and future are equally (and completely) unreal.” As I said here: “In the division of labor in our marriage, Mary Jane does all the philosophy, and especially, all the metaphysics.” So, naturally, I find Presentism both difficult and troubling. This blog is in part about preserving memories, and I find it hard to get my mind around the theory that what is being remembered is not real. As Dainton says in discussing the difficulties of the various theories, “If the past is entirely lacking in any form of existence, it is hard to see how history can differ from mere fantasy.”

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One Response to IS THE PAST REAL?

  1. Dick Weisfelder says:

    The use of the term “real” seems at the heart of the problem. Memories of the past are rarely complete or precisely accurate. Perhaps a better phrasing is that any history is a selective and partial view of what occurred.

    “Presentism” smacks of the famous Henry Ford quote “History is more or less bunk.” Depending on the skill of the historian (say Doris Kearns, “Team of Rivals,”), I would argue that it is possible to come in very much on the “less” end of that continuum.

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