“close up photo of gray-eyed man” by Quinten de Graaf on Unsplash

Are We Remembering the Future?

Some things I have learned about physics in the past few weeks

On Facebook, I recently shared a video that was clearly intended to inspire people to envision the future they want. The video suggested that when we think about the future, we are actually remembering it. It encouraged viewers to choose to remember a preferred future so that it will be more likely to manifest. A couple of my friends who watched the video claimed that it was unscientific and false.

The perspective in which all of reality is only one thing, in which time and space are an illusion, is real and legitimate. I can personally confirm that this perspective is possible because I hold it. Nobody is able to remove my subjective experience of reality, not even me. From this perspective, the idea that, in our illusory existence, our thoughts about the future are actually memories of it, seems totally plausible.

However, this is a very unconventional perspective on reality. The more conventional perspective is that time proceeds from the past to the future, that the past really happened and is knowable, and that the future has not yet happened and is unknowable. From this more conventional perspective, the idea that when we are remembering the future seems preposterous. I totally agree with that assessment because I too can hold the more conventional perspective.

The history of science is defined by beliefs being shown to be false by the careful examination of data. In fact, the essence of the scientific endeavor is to set our beliefs aside in the pursuit of truth. Breakthroughs in science come from intuitive insights gained from a curious engagement with data, insights which are then transformed into hypotheses, hypotheses which we then attempt to disprove. In fact, especially when constructing experiments (including thought experiments), we direct our sincere effort towards attempting to prove that the “null hypothesis” is true. The null hypothesis is the hypothesis which, if true, proves that the original hypothesis is false. We do this to counter confirmation bias: we should seek to confirm that our original hypothesis is wrong, not that our original hypothesis is right.

According to the Western historical record, we used to believe that Earth was at the center of the solar system, the center of the whole universe in fact. In the 3rd century BC, Aristarchus of Samos suggested that perhaps Earth revolved around the Sun, but nobody cared. In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus put forth a mathematical model for a heliocentric system, and in next next century, Johannes Kepler added elliptical orbits and Galileo Galilei presented data that supported the theory. By careful examination of the data, it was possible to dispel a false belief held by most people, people who had not been paying close-enough attention to reality.

After Isaac Newton laid the foundation of classical mechanics in the 17th century, time was believed to proceed in equal measure in all places in lockstep. This seemed obvious and true until Albert Einstein showed in 1905 that it was false. By engaging with the data, Einstein reconciled the laws of electromagnetism with the laws of classical mechanics, producing special relativity, a theory that has now been thoroughly supported by additional data. According to special relativity, time and space are intertwined in spacetime. Events don’t happen at some specific time and location as defined by a universal tape-measure and clock, as Newton’s mechanics demanded. Instead, the location of any event in spacetime is relative to the location in spacetime from which it is observed. Spatial locations, sizes, distances, times, ordering of events (causality maintained), and durations will all be measured differently from different vantage-points in spacetime. Another compelling but false belief was dispelled.

In 1915, Einstein extended special relativity beyond non-accelerating reference frames, to subsume gravity and acceleration in general relativity. Before that, gravity was thought, as formalized by Newton, to be a mysterious force that the earth exerted upon us, pulling us down. Einstein showed that the mass-energy of the earth actually distorts spacetime such that its surface is accelerating towards us. When we are on the surface of the earth, we feel the force of that acceleration pushing against us. What is actually happening, as described by our best models (and confirmed by objective data), is profoundly nonintuitive.

Planets orbit around stars not because they are being pulled towards them by a force called gravity. There is no such force. Planets orbit stars because they are obeying the principle of least action, following the path through which they can maintain inertia because there is no force acting upon them. The planets are following a curved path only because the mass-energy of the star has distorted spacetime. The way that this mechanism works is so counter-intuitive that even a century after it was discovered it’s still not understood by most people. Just today, I read an article in Wired Magazine in which the author seemed to think that there is a “force of gravity” separate from a force caused by acceleration.

The theory of general relativity predicted that light from distant stars should be deflected as it passes large masses (such as our sun during an eclipse) en route to our telescopes. This “gravitational lensing” has been observed. The effect is not due to the photons being pulled off-path by a gravitational force. Photons have zero mass and therefore would not be affected by a Newtonian gravity. The photons are diffracted as they pass the sun because spacetime is distorted by the mass-energy of the sun. The photons are merely taking the most direct path through spacetime.

Another consequence of the universe being constructed from four-dimensional spacetime is that we are probably experiencing space on the surface of a four-dimensional sphere. This means that if we could travel at infinite speed in a straight line (from our own perspective) in any direction, we would return to the same place we started. On the other hand, most of us think there is a physical edge to the universe somewhere, an edge that we could potentially step over.

I hope you can now understand that how we perceive reality through our senses, and from our conventional perspective, keeps being shown to be profoundly incorrect. This is without even considering quantum mechanics and all its weirdness.


With all of that said, I started wondering what we do know about time, consciousness, and memory. I spent some effort investigating, and what follows is my assessment of the reasonableness of the following hypothesis:

When we think about the future, we are actually remembering it.

Even though I have a lot of training and experience in engineering and psychology, I am not physicist nor a mathematician. I’m going to do my best to summarize what I’ve learned, but I’m not going to make this into a scholarly paper. This is my best effort at summarizing what we know about this topic, from my perspective, in a popular science format.

What is time?

We have no real understanding of what time is in any fundamental sense. We can say that events occur in sequences in spatial locations. We can, and do, use repetitive movements to create clocks to form a time axis for measurement at any given location.

Relativity shows us that time (as measured by clocks) advances at different speeds in different locations based on relative velocities and the warping of spacetime by mass-energy. For example, clocks run faster at higher altitudes on earth.

Many physicists view the universe as a block of spacetime, in which all of space and time exists as one four-dimensional block, and an event is located in spacetime using all four coordinates. This perspective is actually necessary to interpret the equations of special and general relativity.

In the area of theoretical physics that attempts to find a “theory of everything” (TOE), a reconciliation of general relativity and quantum mechanics, there are two main approaches. On one hand, string theory posits that time and space are emergent properties of underlying processes; on the other hand, loop quantum gravity posits that both space and time (spacetime) are quantized and do not really exist below a certain granularity.

What is the future?

We understand the future to be events in spacetime that have yet to occur from our perspective. From a relativistic standpoint, there is really only a personal future. What is in the future for us can be in the past for another observer. Note that special relativity maintains the ordering of events in the same location regardless of observation point. That is, it maintains “causality.”

Even when considering this personal timeline, there is nothing in physics which demands that time flows in one direction only. All of the laws of physics are symmetric and reversible. The time axis is like any other axis. If an object can move from A to B, then it can also move from B to A. All of the parameters can be reversed and the equations still hold. The same is true of time-based parameters. If the laws of physics explain how a process unfolds in a sequence A then B, there is nothing that prevents it unfolding as B then A.

Causality means that events are ordered in a certain way on the time axis given that time flows from past to future. There is nothing in the laws of physics that says that if time flowed backwards, effect could not produce cause.

What about entropy and the arrow-of-time?

Entropy is a measure of the amount of disorganization in a closed system. The second law of thermodynamics states that if a system starts in a configuration that is relatively ordered then it will tend, over time, to become disordered. For example, if you were to take a cup of hot water and pour it into a bowl of cold water, then over time the two would mix and become consistently warm.

This tendency for entropy to increase appears to be happening everywhere throughout the universe. Even though we have a clear model for how it happens, we don’t know why it happens. It’s caused by randomness that ultimately arises from quantum effects.

The second law of thermodynamics is the only law in physics that defines time to be asymmetric. It produces what we call and arrow of time, which is the direction of the time axis that we appear to move along.

We humans have an experiential understanding of the increase of entropy and we understand that the future is a location in spacetime in which entropy has increased. It seems obvious to us that this is what the future is, but it’s actually not obvious at all. There are no laws in physics that define the future like this. The future could just as well be when entropy has decreased.

In summary, there does seem to be a time axis in spacetime, although we cannot measure time directly, and we don’t know what time is. We have an understanding of what entropy is and how its change relates to an asymmetry on the time axis. However, we don’t know why we appear to experience time as moving from the past, through the present, to the future.

What is time-flow?

Time-flow is the experience of time flowing. In our conventional perspective, we seem to be experiencing that we are in a present time and we believe that we remember a past time and that we can imagine the future. From the perspective of physics, this is absolutely bizarre. We seem to always be trapped in the present time and the present location, and we seem to experience time flowing in the direction of entropy increase.

We’re so used to our conventional perspective on reality that it’s very hard for us to comprehend how bizarre this is. We have a block spacetime model of the universe with essentially symmetric time, but we seem to be stuck experiencing it in one tiny instant of spacetime and we seem to be experiencing time-flow in the direction of increasing entropy.

It’s easy to say, “of course it’s like this.” Or even to co-opt science and say, “science explains why it’s like this.” But what we know through scientific examination, thus far, does not explain this.

The whole concept of present, past, and future only shows up in relationship to consciousness. Without consciousness, what we call the future could just as easily be called the past, since time-flow has no meaning nor measurement outside of the experience of it.

What is consciousness?

There are many perspectives on what consciousness is. Consciousness is considered by philosophers of mind, psychologists, physicists, and many others. What consciousness is and how it arises is an area of much research and debate. A perspective that I think makes most sense, given what we know, is that consciousness is the qualitative, subjective experience of reality.

While consciousness might arise as an emergent property of complex physical systems, consciousness itself is clearly not a physical thing. As a proponent of Occam’s razor, I see no reason to invent some kind of “consciousness slime” when that is not necessary to explain consciousness.

Consciousness is clearly a transcendental property of reality, just as the transcendental properties of a perfect circle exists without physical embodiment. There are probably no circle-trons, just as there are probably no consciousness-trons.

Some (most?) materialists side-step the hard problem of consciousness by stating that subjective experience doesn’t exist at all; claiming that it’s not real. Meanwhile, I assume that it’s not necessary to argue with entities that claim that they don’t exist. (Materialism can get super-woo-woo.) It does seem hypocritical, however, to claim that subjective experience is not real, but then also to advocate for the objective reality of time-flow.

Time-flow, the experience of time flowing from past to future, seems to be a phenomenon of consciousness, which seems to be subjective experience. In support of this, we have no objective confirmation of time-flow; how could we?

What is memory?

Since we’re looking at remembering the future, we have to take a look at what memory is. As far as we know, memories are stored in the brain as configurations of neurons. When we remember an event, our brain reconfigures such that it appears as though it is experiencing that event. In fact, we know that we don’t really remember the past. Instead, we imagine the past. What’s more, we’ve found that every time we “remember” the past by imagining it, our ability to accurately recall what objectively happened changes. Forensic science knows that the more times we attempt to remember, the more distorted our memory gets.

In fact, we know from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of the brain that imagining something happening in the future is functionally indistinguishable from experiencing it in the present (or remembering it in the past). So, from a purely objective standpoint, ignoring time-flow, imagining anything functions the same way, whether we are imagining something in the past, the present, or the future.

We know from sports science that imagining a behavior in advance increases the successful execution of that behavior. While we can argue that this is completely explainable through materialist-approved hypothesized pathways in the body, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is one example of another kind of “memory” of the future.

More possible connections between consciousness and time

You might have noticed a pattern so far: we know very little about either time or consciousness. We often see people co-opting science to support their beliefs about reality, beliefs rooted in their misguided subjective experience through their senses. As we have seen throughout history, this overstating of what we know, incorrectly attributed to some authority, has been the force that has prevented us from furthering our scientific understanding of reality.

The subjective experience of time-flow is that time flows in a direction in which entropy increases. We have studied the relationship between statistical thermodynamic entropy and information-theoretic entropy. Time-flow is also perceived in the direction of never-decreasing information. Information in this sense is the number of possible states that can be represented by the system.

We know from the delayed-choice quantum eraser (DCQE) experiment that observation of a quantum system collapses its wave function. This particular experiment addressed a prior assertion about double-slit experiments: that it is the effect of the physical intervention for the measurement that causes the wave function to collapse. In the DCQE experiment, the effects from interference due to measurement are ruled-out.

Materialists still claim that it’s not observation from consciousness that causes the wave-function to collapse, but rather observation by “anything.” I’ve never heard a compelling description of what a non-conscious observer would be. Occam’s razor would suggest that an observer is just consciousness; we don’t need to imagine something beyond that.

Of course, if you don’t believe that your consciousness exists, then it can be challenging (in more ways than one) to argue that your non-existent consciousness is shepherding reality into existence. The wave-function seems to collapse based on the system somehow knowing whether the path that the particle took would ever be observable to any observer. It’s like we’re living in a simulation and the simulator optimizes by not choosing a specific particle path if no one will ever have to know definitively which path the particle took.

The DCQE experiment is even more striking because it shows that the wave function collapses retroactively based on choices about observability made in the future. It’s not unreasonable to hypothesize that when we observe events now, we are causing a cascade of wave-function collapses potentially going all the way back to the big-bang.

When the wave-function of a particle collapses, its location or path become known. In this process, information in the universe is increased. It’s not unreasonable to hypothesize that observation, by consciousness, increases information in the universe.

According to the holographic principle, the amount of information in the universe is constrained to be less than that which can be represented on its surface. The universe may be expanding because information has to increase, because wave functions are collapsing, because consciousness is observing.

Consciousness, which is perceiving time-flow, may actually be creating the unfolding of the universe by increasing information and therefore entropy, and even possibly causing the expansion of the universe. This might sound crazy, but it’s not impossible or even particularly unlikely.

What else is consciousness?

I have already addressed this from an individual perspective: consciousness seems to be the subjective experience of reality.

Furthermore, there are respectable theorists (in physics, philosophy, and psychology) who posit that consciousness is actually primary and that everything else arises from it. The relationships between information, thermodynamic entropy, and observers may go some way to making these hypotheses seem even more plausible. As another datapoint, I, and others, have personally perceived this to be true from careful examination of consciousness itself.

If individual consciousness, strangely and continually trapped in the here-and-now, is in fact an aspect or expression of a universal consciousness, a meta-observer, a foundational subjective reality from which all of our objective reality arises, then the ability to transcend time-flow would fall-out naturally. A universal block-observer would actually help to reconcile our physics with mysterious aspects of our reality, such as time-flow.

The ability for individual consciousness arising in the substrate of a particular body-mind to configure itself to imagine being present in other points in spacetime not only seems plausible, but sensible; we actually do it all the time. However, whether and to what degree that configuration in the spacetime location that the imagining brain resides has any correlation with what is happening in another spacetime location is less certain.

Conclusion

This article has examined the following hypothesis, taking into account what we currently know about reality through physics, philosophy, and psychology:

When we think about the future, we are actually remembering it.

I have spent time and effort exploring what we do know about these topics, and I have concluded that not only is there nothing in our science that precludes it, but that the evidence we have actually points towards it being a possibility.

I’m not going to claim that this hypothesis has been proved to be true according to our science, because it has not. I will also not claim that it has been proven to be false. What I can say about it is this: it seems like a reasonable hypothesis.

We sometimes hear the statement from skeptics (as reported by Carl Sagan), “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” This is a meaningless statement apparently intended to shame and ridicule people who are willing to suspend disbelief long enough to examine the evidence carefully. I believe that what is actually meant by this statement is, “Keep an open mind, but not so open that it challenges my beliefs about reality.”

Most people feel comfort in certainty, and many people believe that they can get the need for certainty met by science. Science, in its essence, will rock your world, pull the rug out from under you, destroy your beliefs, and make you doubt your own senses. Science revolutionizes everything.

The truth is that there is no security anywhere, and the sooner we can accept that, the more content we will be. Religion is a strategy to gain a sense of security at the expense of disconnecting from reality, which is a form of denial. This is true also for scientism, the religion of science.