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past and present. time. infinity. time travel.

Updated on January 5, 2016



By Prof. A.D.Sarkar.

In this article the word present is used to mean present time or present moment. To appreciate the present one is bound to think of an event which has a beginning followed by its termination. The present therefore can only be quantified by noting the times when it began and when it ended.

The Zero Hour

We have stated that the present is always assigned a time span but we must also consider the exact moment when the present began or when it ended. That is to say that there is always a zero hour for all events and that is a present moment. Suppose someone wishes to know the exact moment when it was 12.00 noon, which will be the present moment, success will be unlikely. No matter how accurate the measuring instrument or how dexterous the person who is observing it, the exact instant of time, the null point, the present, which was 12.00 noon cannot be ascertained. There is always a time lag between that null point and human perception of that moment, the present in this case. Human reactions to objects around them take time. For example if one is looking at his watch for information about what time of day it was the process of seeing would involve many steps. In an eye, the photo-receptor cells in the retina will convert the light from the object into electrical impulses. These impulses are then transported to the brain via many pathways and an image is presented. We note of course that all this seems instantaneous to us but in fact it is a time consuming process even if the time lag can be measured in nano seconds or less. There will always be an interval of time between fixing one's eyes on an external object and seeing the image of it. All that one can say is that measuring instruments are becoming more precise so that time can be measured in units very close to the zero hour, the present. Nevertheless the exact present that is the null point in any system has to be expressed as an Aristotelian grand mean value with positive and negative limits of accuracy, however narrow.

We should note, however, that in human societies, it is an unnecessary exercise to try to aim for the absolute. Thus we talk about the present century which begins exactly at the moment the past one is completed and ends as the next century commences. It will be amusing if one tries to find the zero hours of the beginning and end of the century. It is certainly not expected in the same manner if one tries to present the distance between A and B as 100 miles plus one metre; it is sufficient for all practical purposes to record the distance as 100 miles.

The Mind

There does not appear to be an authoritative definition of mind. One is told, however, that mind decides to act such as looking to identify an object, wishing to touch some thing or looking for a heat source when the surrounding environment gets too cold. The mind also experiences sadness or pleasure recalling events of the past. It may get excited and plan to act thinking of fulfilling ambitions in the future. It will not be too simplistic to state that the mind decides for an action but it cannot provide the product. It is the brain that receives the signal and its appropriate areas act to fulfil the decision of the mind both physically and mentally. Neuropsychologists state that mind simply reflects the activities of the brain.

Rene Descartes(1596-1650) made his famous pronouncement to convince himself of his existence which was cogito ergo sum which is translated as I think therefore I am. Many thinkers have suggested that it is better to represent Descartes' pronouncement as I am thinking rather than I think. That implies that I cease to exist when I do not think any more. Mind's sole function is thought. From the mind comes two kinds of ideas, viz.,

(1) Derived ideas which appear as a result of sensory stimulation from external sources such as lightning, thunder and rain.

(2) Innate ideas come from consciousness; examples are models derived by thinking or reflections. The idea of innatism is Socratic which was recorded by Plato (427-347 BCE). Noam Chomsky (born 1928) writes that the mind is not a tabula rasa at birth. Instead human mind is hardwired with certain innate properties while progressing in the mother's womb. These properties influence the essence of human mind. By mind Chomsky means the cognitive principles that energise human beings into action.

Descartes created the model of method of doubt. He emphasised the unreliability of sensory perception and the illusory character of dreams. He said that the sky, the earth, colours or shapes are merely the delusions of dreams. His conclusion was that mind was an independent substance engaged solely in the task of thinking. The body was just spatial extension which gave visibility to his own volume of space. We know of course that mind and body interact. Therefore they could not be independent of each other; this throws doubts on Cartesian dualism. It is necessary, however, to explain how an invisible entity as mind can interact with an objective material such as a human form. Thinkers known as physicalists insist that a study of neuroscience shows that the mind functions because of the neural activities in the brain of a sentient being. The brain is an integral part of the body!

The Scottish philosopher David Hume(1711-1776) proposed that sentient beings are just agglomerates of varying perceptions. These perceptions are in a continuous state of flux. They jump from state to state and never remain the same as time moves on. Hume considers the mind to be the venue for a drama where perceptions appear for the audience, act out the part assigned to them and exit through the wings. These perceptions are the mind. They are not in the mind.

Antoine Arnauld(1612-1694) posits the idea that the principal operations of the mind are conceiving, judging, reasoning and ordering.

John Locke millennia after Socrates and Plato and about a couple of centuries before Chomsky stated that the mind is a blank slate at birth. The mind gains experience and knowledge with time by encountering simple ideas or events which provide sensory stimulation. Examples of simple ideas are those provided by the sense organs such as the colour yellow seen by the eyes. Complex ideas are formed by internal mental operations. Examples are real objects such as chairs but there are many imaginary ones as well.


Many of the attributes of mind so far presented in this article already existed in Indian thinking. Advaita Vedanta, a popular Indian philosophy in the west, was enunciated by Shankara(788-820). Essentially it states that the senses cannot perceive the true nature of our phenomenal world. Shankara says that suppose a person encounters a length of rope during his evening walk in a place in India. Suppose the light is dim because the sun set a while ago. The person mistakes the rope for a snake. Startled, he raises his walking stick and goes near. Fortunately, because of the proximity, his mistake is corrected. He knows now that the object on the ground is a length of rope albeit having the shape and size of a snake. It was an illusion, bhram, until the moment of reality. We can now make the following comments:

(1) The rope is sat (real).

(2) The snake is asat (illusory).

(3) The reason for the person's mistake is avidya (nescience).

(4) The adhar (receptacle)for this avidya is the rope which is sat.

(5) The rope is the substrate for the asat, viz., the imagined snake.

(6) We conclude that sat is the substrate of asat.

(7) It will be fair to state that sat is smeared with one or more layers of asat.

We can make further observations as follows:

(a) The rope is mistaken for a snake at a particular time of the day by a person so that the view is in the viewer.

(b) The snake was real for the person during a time span however small the way a dream appears to a man in his sleep.

It is pertinent to say therefore that nature as perceived by our mind is illusory or what we observe is really a giant dream. The question then is, ' is the viewer illusory?' Is the view a mirage? Who views what then? If it is a dream who is the dreamer?

Visnu's lila (drama).

A modified version of Advaita Vedanta proposes that the phenomenal world as we see it is a dramatic play, presented by Visnu a very superior Hindu deva. The world becomes manifest with all its plurality as the play begins and becomes unmanifest as the curtains come down for the final time. Nobody can record the present which has a time span of a few billion years. Of course if it is a play then the phenomenon world of ours is asat.


An ancient philosophical system called Sankhya darshan was enunciated about 2,500 years ago. Its author was Kapila who was tutored by his mother. Sankhya states that this world as we see it appears as a result of the union between female matter called prakriti and immaterial male entities called purusas There are countless purusas but only one prakriti, vast in size. The male constituents which are sterile suddenly activate prakriti, resulting in the emanation of cosmic buddhi, the power of discrimination. A part of it evolves into ego. Ego gives rise to mind and by a process of progressive evolution appear sense organs, organs of action etc. The world becomes manifest which is perceived by the mind through the senses. The present in this case lasts for eons beginning with the appearance of buddhi and disappearance of the apparently visible world by a process of involution.


Gautam Buddha (563-483 BCE) declared that the very ancient concept of atma in Indian thinking was erroneous. He introduced the term anatma-no atma. In western

literature atma has been variously translated as soul and self. Instead of the atma, as believed by many, taking residence in a biological frame during many reincarnations, the coming to be and ceasing to be is explained in terms of four elemental parts in all sentient beings. These are feeling, perception, volition and consciousness, all of them being independent components of what is known as mind. A fifth element is also included which is the gross structure of a being viz., the body comprising bones, muscles, bood etc. Each of these five elemental parts is known as skandha in Sanskrit and khandha in the ancient Indian language, Pali. The five skandhas remain as a group in a state of quasi equipoise, provided they are beyond one another's field of attraction.

It is interesting to note the non-monistic Cartesian dualism where the mind is distinct from the body. However, Descartes also thought of interactions between body and mind. In Buddhist thinking there are frequent instants when one or more of the mental skandhas interact with the material regime of a sentient being and energise karma in the process which ceases once they separate. The duration of an interaction and hence the life of a pertinent moment is unpredictable.

Past, Present and future

There is a school of thought which advocates the idea of the past, present and future of all events to be happening now. That is the past is nothing but a chain of discrete moments. We can substitute a moment by the word now and may state that the past is a collection of impermanent nows to be stored for possible recollection in the immediate now. The present could also be a series of perceptible nows, the future waiting with the imperceptible ones. According to the premises presented in this article so many factors have to cooperate and converge to achieve an objective, the nows cannot be grasped wholly either. In that case could we consider the parallel case of post-modernism and think of post-now or post-just now?

The popular examples of post-modernism is given through developments in the areas of art. Thus suppose a person sits outside to paint a landscape. He or she will certainly spend from a few hours to a few days in completing his or her work of art. This time delay should change aspects of the landscape due to environmental factors alone. The light may vary in brightness from time to time; a sudden gust of wind may disturb the foliage; birds may settle on the tree. The view then at the end of the artist's work will be different from what it was when he started painting. So the artist has been obstructed from reproducing the now or he has not been able to grasp the present.

Paul Cezane(1839-1906) acknowledged that the reality, that is, the Aristotelian substance can not be achieved no matter how hard one tries. For a landscape we could say that its many constituents are subject to at least minor changes with time. The question is which moment or which now has he or she grasped in the final painting? His advice was to present paintings as a collection of spheres, cylinders and cones. This became known as cubism, the famous example being the modernist painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, of Pavlo Picasso(1881-1973), produced in 1907. Picasso's cubist painting in 1910, Girl with a Mandolin, shows, as told by modernist painters, that a scene which is ever changing can be rendered stable by cubism because cubes of imagination will remain as cubes as cones and cylinders will. This allows one to grasp the present or shall we say fix the moment of post-just now although an amount of time has lapsed while the painting was being processed.

Mind and Body

We can thus say that post-modern art is the nascent state of, say, a painting which has begun and is progressing but is not the final article yet. In Hindu festivals, such as Durga puja, which celebrates the home visit of devi Durga, a clay image of her is built which will be returned to the river providing the clay at the end of the ceremony. The process starts with the construction of a wooden frame which is covered with straw. The next step is to sculpt the desired shape in clay obtained from the river. The final act is painting.

We should say that sculpting began when the mind created an outline of the image and appropriate areas of the brain became alert to excite the relevant limbs of the body to begin and finish the construction. In this case the present has a time span. The completion of the image will be assigned a time such as n number of days. Nobody will be curious about the time when the sculptor began and when he finished. It is of great importance, however, that the image is finished in time for the rituals to begin, the exact time of which is fixed according to astrological charts.

We should be allowed to say that the present for the image began with the idea of its form in the mind of the sculptor and ended with the mandatory immersion in the river, from whose bed the clay was borrowed, at the end of the festival. We could also say that this present, with a time span, comprised a series of nows or post-nows, to copy the idea of post-modern, and will remain in our memory as ever increasing numbers of nows which is the past.

Concluding Remarks

In a person's lifetime there are myriads of moments with varying degrees of time span. Each of these moments is a present or a now. The word now or post-now may not be acceptable to everybody but we can safely use the word present for each of these moments. We cannot argue successfully against someone saying that these moments waited in the future to become the present. To all of us the moments perished as the present ended. Can we measure the time span of the present with total accuracy? We cannot because the present is not graspable to humans at least not in its entirety. However, we may be allowed the view that the present disperses in the imperceptible past with inconsistent historical reproducibility.



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