Then and When,“Instead of Past, Present and Future, I’d prefer Chocolate, Vanilla, and Strawberry.”
I am often asked (in my dreams) how I ever got to be so smart, so wise, so good-looking, so popular and successful. Then I wake up, and the only question in my mind is, how can I get through one more day, with this aging mind and failing body? Here I am, on an inescapable island called Here and Now — yet I have distinct memories (some more distinct than others) of a whole series of experiences in some realm referred to as “The Past” and a vague “not yet” feeling about happenings still on the books somewhere “up ahead” in a mysterious place called “The Future.”
The Past is more familiar territory, not only because I myself have been there (in fact, I’ve been there all my life) — but also because I have explored certain parts of it, in an academic field called History, which is all about what is supposed to have happened in the relatively minuscule span of human existence on Earth of which we have any records.
I collected a bunch of degrees for getting immersed in that field, but never learned much, except that people have never learned much from History. The same mistakes keep being made over and over again. A classic example was Hitler’s invasion of Russia. That mighty effort had been made at least twice before — notably by Napoleon — yet the Nazis thought they were unbeatable.
My highest degree entitled me to call myself a “Doctor of Philosophy” – although I never studied Philosophy (the degree was really in History), and the “Doctor” part means “Teacher” — and my efforts in that direction were never crowned with glory — or even with much satisfaction. My feeling, which has proven increasingly valid, was that, with modern technology, the very best teachers can be made available (at least virtually) to everyone — so there’s little need for all the others.
I did, for some two years, play a role at the University of California in Berkeley as a “Teaching Assistant,” assisting professors of History who had practically no contact with their students, except to give lectures to large numbers of them at a time. In that position, it was my job to explain what it all meant, which was, to say the least, quite challenging, since there was so much that I myself didn’t understand. In addition, I had to administer examinations, read papers, and assign grades — none of which I had ever been trained to do (nor had any of the other T.A.’s).
So much for the Past. What, then, of the Future? It’s a place of which there are no maps, because nobody who goes there ever comes back. Despite that, we know that many people make their living by attempting to guess, judge, foretell, or predict what will happen, in the Stock Market, on the racetrack, or at the roulette table. Yet astronomers can describe with great accuracy the future behavior of any number of celestial bodies. Is it any wonder that nobody ever makes bets with astronomers?
Of course, there are “psychics,” and people who claim they can see the future in their dreams. But their record has not impressed independent observers, any more than that of those who once based key decisions on reading the entrails of dead animals, or who today still read palms or tea leaves or Tarot cards.
But I feel I owe it to you to share my own feelings about “times to come.” I hereby predict that, as a result of various discoveries, the distinction between the conditions we call “Life” and “Death” will gradually fade. (Already, the dead are much less dead than they used to be because of our still-primitive means of recording and preserving sights and sounds.) This will all come much too late to affect any of us. I also predict that distinctions between “Human” and “Non-Human” will become less clear, starting with improved communication between ours and other so-called higher species.
These may sound like very positive prospects, but in the broad outlook, they are only short-term developments, and the Astronomers and Physicists will tell you (as they must tell themselves) that, according to the laws of Entropy, everything in a closed system, such as the Universe, is destined to break down into ultimate total disorder.
That being the case, aren’t we lucky that we have only and always to deal with the Here and Now.