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Thread: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

  1. #1
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    From NPR:
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2011/0...of-the-present

    by Adam Frank

    The night sky is a time machine. Look out and you look back in time. But this "time travel by eyesight" is not just the province of astronomy. It's as close as the machine on which you are reading these words. Your present exists at the mercy of many overlapping pasts. So where, then, is "now"?

    As almost everyone knows, when you stare into the depths of space you are also looking back in time. Catch a glimpse of a relatively nearby star and you see it as it existed when, perhaps, Lincoln was president (if it's 150 light-years away). Stars near the edge of our own galaxy are only seen as they appeared when the last ice age was in full bloom (30,000 light-years away). And those giant pinwheel assemblies of stars called galaxies are glimpsed, as they existed millions, hundreds of millions or even billions of years in the past.

    We never see the sky as it is, but only as it was.

    Stranger still, the sky we see at any moment defines not a single past but multiple overlapping pasts of different depths. The star's image from 100 years ago and the galaxy image from 100 million years ago reach us at the same time. All of those "thens" define the same "now" for us.


    The multiple, foliated pasts comprising our present would be weird enough if it was just a matter of astronomy. But the simple truth is that every aspect of our personal "now" is a layered impression of a world already lost to the past.

    To understand how this works, consider the simple fact, discussed in last week's post, that all we know about the world comes to us via signals: light waves, sound waves and electrical impulses running along our nerves. These signals move at a finite speed. It always takes some finite amount of time for the signal to travel from the world to your body's sensors (and on to your brain).

    A distant galaxy, a distant mountain peak, the not very distant light fixture on the ceiling and even the intimacy of a loved one's face all live in the past. Those overlapping pasts are times that you in your "now" are no longer a part of.

    Signal travel time constitutes a delay and all those overlapping delays constitute an essential separation. The inner world of your experience is, in a temporal sense, cut off from the outer world you inhabit.

    Let's take a few examples. Light travels faster than any other entity in the physical universe, propagating with the tremendous velocity of c = 300,000,000 m/s. From high school physics you know that the time it takes a light signal moving at c to cross some distance D is simply t = D/c.

    When you look at the mountain peak 30 kilometers away you see it not as it exists now but as it existed a 1/10,000 of a second ago. The light fixture three meters above your head is seen not as it exists now but as it was a hundred millionth of a second ago. Gazing into your partner's eyes, you see her (or him) not for who they are but for who they were 10-10 of a second in the past. Yes, these numbers are small. Their implication, however, is vast.

    We live, each of us, trapped in our own now.

    The simple conclusions described above derive, in their way, from relativity theory and they seem to spell the death knell for a philosophical stance called Presentism. According to Presentism only the present moment has ontological validity. In other words: only the present truly exists; only the present is real.

    Presentism holds an intuitive sway for many people. It just feels right. For myself, when I try and explore the texture of my own experience, I can't help but feel a sense of the present's dominance. Buddhism, with its emphasis on contemplative introspection, has developed a sophisticated presentist stance concerning the nature of reality. "Anyone who has ever mediated for anytime" the abbot of a Zen monastery once told me "finds that the past and future are illusions."

    Yes, but ...

    The reality that even light travels at a finite speed forces us to confront the strange fact that, at best, the present exists at the fractured center of many overlapping pasts.

    So where, then, are we in time? Where is our "now" and how does it live in the midst of a universe comprised of so many "thens"?

  2. #2

    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    Quote Originally Posted by AlanLa
    So where, then, are we in time? Where is our "now" and how does it live in the midst of a universe comprised of so many "thens"?
    Yes! Even our sence of now is a delusion.

  3. #3
    Blue Mountain White Clouds Hermitage Priest Taigu's Avatar
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    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    Indeed. So this "now" is already past and as soon as seen it is gone...This is the very nature of reality, ever changing, always transformimg. At the same time, the now that we are living from is not something separated from past and future, this now is fully blown being-time in which all times playfully exist. Same broad circle in which birth and death arise, and yet birth and death not seen as different but made of the very same stuff. This now cannot be described and seen as now as opposed to earlier or later, yesterday or tomorrow.

    gassho

    Taigu

  4. #4

    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    The now is not something to be found, it is something to be lived. The now is not part of time the way we see it, since the time the way we see it is in terms of past and future. The present is part of eternity. When we drop the past and the future we pierce eternity...

    Gassho

    Seiryu

  5. #5

    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    by Adam Frank ...

    Buddhism, with its emphasis on contemplative introspection, has developed a sophisticated presentist stance concerning the nature of reality. "Anyone who has ever mediated for anytime" the abbot of a Zen monastery once told me "finds that the past and future are illusions."
    That is too simple a description of the perspective(s) on time in Buddhism. We discussed this recently regarding Dogen's many view(s) on time(s) ...

    For those folks unfamiliar with his writings, Master Dogen had some very interesting perspective(s) on time. And I emphasize the word "perspective(s)", because he wrote of an infinite variety of ways of looking and experiencing time (and "no time") ... some seemingly contradictory, each true in its own way.

    viewtopic.php?p=57396#p57396
    I also see some discussion in the professor's article about something else regularly pointed out around here, that (according to both traditional Buddhist theory and modern researches on the senses, brain and mind) we live in a kind of "holo-deck" virtual (re?)creation of "the world and our self" ...

    viewtopic.php?p=52723#p52723

    But, ultimately, we cannot be apart from where we are, who we are all along. In fact, chasing after these things actually drives them away (at least mentally). It is very much like a dog chasing its tail ...



    Just be, rest perfectly still (a "still", however, that includes both times of moving and times of sitting still) ... and there is here, today is tomorrow, yesterday is last year ... even as the clock moves tick tick tick ... .

    Gassho, J

  6. #6
    Senior Member kirkmc's Avatar
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    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    The best example of the present/future I have seen is any of those fast-motion films of a flower opening, a plant growing, or anything that we see as static, but, which by the magic of fast-motion photography, are revealed as being in a permanent state of flux.

  7. #7
    Treeleaf Unsui Shokai's Avatar
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    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    ... and there is here, today is tomorrow, yesterday is last year ... even as the clock moves tick tick tick ... .
    Tomorrow never comes but, at least, you are getting good mileage on the "dog chasing his tail" picture. Fits well in both posts

  8. #8
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    I tend to think of NOW as totally full and richly effervescent, but this article gave a sort of scientific "proof" that N-O-W is really empty, which is enlightening in its own way. Thus the post.

  9. #9

    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    My now began when existence began, and I imagine it will end in similar terms. Even though the night sky I see shows me what those stars looked like millions of years ago, I see them like that now. Perhaps the star's now is different, who can say? Even if something happened centuries ago, if it touches my life through its karma, then it is part of my now. The beauty is that every now is a whole new existence with all the promise of a new world, born, living, and dying in an infinitesimal measure of time.

    When I look at the night sky, I don't wonder at the age of the image I see, or how the star might look now, or even if it's still there. I don't know what I'd do with that information if I had it. I simply look, and enjoy them.

  10. #10

    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    Quote Originally Posted by JohnsonCM
    My now began when existence began, and I imagine it will end in similar terms. Even though the night sky I see shows me what those stars looked like millions of years ago, I see them like that now. Perhaps the star's now is different, who can say? Even if something happened centuries ago, if it touches my life through its karma, then it is part of my now. The beauty is that every now is a whole new existence with all the promise of a new world, born, living, and dying in an infinitesimal measure of time.

    When I look at the night sky, I don't wonder at the age of the image I see, or how the star might look now, or even if it's still there. I don't know what I'd do with that information if I had it. I simply look, and enjoy them.
    _/_

    Seiryu

  11. #11

    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    Quote Originally Posted by JohnsonCM
    My now began when existence began, and I imagine it will end in similar terms. Even though the night sky I see shows me what those stars looked like millions of years ago, I see them like that now. Perhaps the star's now is different, who can say? Even if something happened centuries ago, if it touches my life through its karma, then it is part of my now. The beauty is that every now is a whole new existence with all the promise of a new world, born, living, and dying in an infinitesimal measure of time.

    When I look at the night sky, I don't wonder at the age of the image I see, or how the star might look now, or even if it's still there. I don't know what I'd do with that information if I had it. I simply look, and enjoy them.


    That's poetry... Puts me in a beat club with someone plucking a bass.

  12. #12
    Senior Member kirkmc's Avatar
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    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    One of my favorite Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes:

    If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

  13. #13
    Senior Member Hoyu's Avatar
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    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    To understand how this works, consider the simple fact, discussed in last week's post, that all we know about the world comes to us via signals: light waves, sound waves and electrical impulses running along our nerves. These signals move at a finite speed. It always takes some finite amount of time for the signal to travel from the world to your body's sensors (and on to your brain).
    I have always pondered this very thing when thinking about how one can actually be in the present. Our perception of the now is based on senses which are perceived at a slower rate than the actual event/stimulus that is taking place. All physical senses take time to reach the brain, then the brain has to sort out all that info and then form perceptions on the stimulus. Sure it happens amazingly fast but there will always be that lag time. Does it really matter in the end, I would say not, but it is interesting to wonder about.

    Gassho,
    John

  14. #14

    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    Quote Originally Posted by JRBrisson
    To understand how this works, consider the simple fact, discussed in last week's post, that all we know about the world comes to us via signals: light waves, sound waves and electrical impulses running along our nerves. These signals move at a finite speed. It always takes some finite amount of time for the signal to travel from the world to your body's sensors (and on to your brain).
    I have always pondered this very thing when thinking about how one can actually be in the present. Our perception of the now is based on senses which are perceived at a slower rate than the actual event/stimulus that is taking place. All physical senses take time to reach the brain, then the brain has to sort out all that info and then form perceptions on the stimulus. Sure it happens amazingly fast but there will always be that lag time. Does it really matter in the end, I would say not, but it is interesting to wonder about.

    Gassho,
    John
    That is interesting thing to ponder! yet, at the same time it is still assuming that the present is part of time, part of something to be measured...the present is part of eternity...It doesn't matter how long it takes for us to process anything because at that moment, the moment of awareness is our present. If we stay present we will see clearly that the present is not part of time at all and therefore cannot be measured in time...everything that has ever happened, happen in the present...and that present is what is in front of us right now, what we have access to at any given moment if we are willing to turn our attention to it.

    We have a tendency to think of the present as a very short period of time...maybe a second, or a snap of the fingers, because of this these questions really strike us...Let the practice of Shinkantaza open you up to the fact that the present is not a small thing, but the entire universe contain in each breath, each movement, each smile...

    _/_

    Seiryu

  15. #15
    Senior Member kirkmc's Avatar
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    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    Quote Originally Posted by JRBrisson

    I have always pondered this very thing when thinking about how one can actually be in the present. Our perception of the now is based on senses which are perceived at a slower rate than the actual event/stimulus that is taking place. All physical senses take time to reach the brain, then the brain has to sort out all that info and then form perceptions on the stimulus. Sure it happens amazingly fast but there will always be that lag time. Does it really matter in the end, I would say not, but it is interesting to wonder about.
    The thing is, your brain actually receives stimuli long before (on a micro-level, of course) you react. In other words, your brain knows that something happened, but your reactions are delayed for many reasons, not all of which are physical.

  16. #16
    disastermouse
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    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    Where is time when you don't think about it? I'm not talking about clock-time - I'm talking about one's sense of time?

    Chet

  17. #17

    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    Quote Originally Posted by disastermouse
    Where is time when you don't think about it? I'm not talking about clock-time - I'm talking about one's sense of time?

    Chet
    Agreed, without thinking there is no time or space. Like the dude said, 'Everything is made by mind alone'. But now what do I do?
    Besides just sitting the precepts are a good starting point.

  18. #18

    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    Thanks for sharing the article, even with its off-base notion of Buddhism. I think that Taigu linked flux with this "present" in a way that's far more useful:

    Quote Originally Posted by Taigu
    So this "now" is already past and as soon as seen it is gone...This is the very nature of reality, ever changing, always transformimg. At the same time, the now that we are living from is not something separated from past and future, this now is fully blown being-time in which all times playfully exist.
    I got into a conversation with someone at my local sangha about the verb tense of "gate" (as in the Heart Sutra's "Gate, gate"). While most translate that Sanskrit as the past participle "gone," there are those who translate it as the present participle "going." While this is all over my head, the idea that this present is going, going, gone by the time we conceptualize it seems to fit nicely with the perspective Taigu details.

  19. #19
    Treeleaf Unsui Shokai's Avatar
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    Re: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

    And the auctioneer announces, "Going, going, gone; sold to the highest bidder in the blue shirt sitting in the third to last row."
    Thank you all but, mostly thank you Rafael (and Taigu) for hitting this nail dead on. NOW is not the present moment. The present moment belongs to time. NOW is the unique NOW; and only ours to share with the universe if we might.

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