The Myth of the Present

“By the time you look at something it’s already history,” sings Bruce Cockburn in his song “Tie Me at the Crossroads.” I’ve been pondering this fact a lot lately. Every image, every event, must be perceived by the observer through senses that take time, however fractional, to perceive.

The eye takes in light (which even before it hits the eye has already traveled away from the initial event), then processes the light and sends that picture to the brain, which must itself process the picture to give the observer information about the event.

So too with the ears receiving sound waves, the nose taking in smells, the tongue reacting to tastes, and the skin registering the pressure of touch. Our senses give us their impressions of the past. We never truly experience the present in the present; we are constantly processing our sensory experience of history.

But what even is the past? Is it anything more than the collected observations of various people, ultimately the picture of events painted inside their minds based on their own limited processing capabilities?

Recently I finished reading Andrew Parker’s The Genesis Enigma, in which he notes this fact with the observations of a scientist. Parker has spent much of his career studying the inner workings of the eye and tracing its development throughout biological history, yet he says that only recently has it really sunk in for him that we truly live in a virtual reality world.

He is referring not to digitally-created realities – which in this understanding now become  secondary virtual reality – but to the world we all – and each – perceive. Parker reminds us that the “real world” actually does not contain colors, but only light waves of varying lengths. It is the apparatus of our eyes and brains that makes color a reality to us the observers.

Birds can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, so their eyes see markings on flowers and insects that humans’ can not. Dogs’ range of hearing and smell, most of us know, are greater than those of humans.

What if, Parker asks, there is all sorts of information around us that actually exists, which we simply cannot access with our range of senses or our current scientific instruments?

For thousands of years people have held that there are two modes of reality, two worlds, two tracks. The physical and the spiritual; the material and the mystic; the temporal and the eternal. But what if there has only ever been one reality, one unified system of everything?

What if those “spiritual” sensibilities we speak of having, impressions of truth, beauty, sadness, love, longing, and such things which cannot be scientifically explained, actually come from something as real, as material even? – as the light waves hitting our eyes, the sound waves received by our ears?

What if these impressions are just as measurable as cold or pain or depth or distance, but science has yet to fashion the instruments needed to detect them or explain how humans have the access we do to such things? What if they are just as real as anything else we observe, but at this point we can only dimly access them?

Would this prove or disprove anything about the existence of God?

This is me thinking out loud. I’ve got no hidden agenda or point to make, except for one brief observation that both atheists and science-denying religionists often begin from the same basic assumption – that “God” must be defined as a supernatural being responsible for all the things that science can’t explain. I’m going to leave it at that and ask readers to think out loud here along with me. What do you think?

3 Comments

  1. Julia, I haven’t thought long or deeply enough about this to have much of an opinion, but you’re the third person in the last month who has suggested some variation of this idea to me. Apparently, I’m meant to consider it. I appreciate your questioning; often it echoes my own.

  2. This reminds me of Nathan’s tangent last month, Julia, he started speaking of particle physics, we sort of rabbit trailed from there, it seems to me both science and faith seek a “Grand Unified Theory.” Scientist seek ultimatly an equation, a theory of existance, this of course would be the final bringing-together of scientific inquiry and metaphysics. Faith seeks this more intuitively, I guess.

    Your idea of “truth, beauty, sadness, love, longing…” as being “real” in a perhaps material sense is intriguing, like what if there is a sadness particle, or a love wave, I’m kidding here, but not completely. After reading this post I searched my house for a book I read a while back, “THE TAO OF PHYSICS” it was called, I couldn’t find it. Anyway, the writer asserted that Eastern philosophy has, for thousands of years, penetrated far deeper into the nature of reality than our Greek based philosophy. If I understood the main idea of the book, (much of it was over my head, lots of math in it, buy it for Nathan!), reality is indeed a whole, a unified creation, this was understood mystically by the ancients and is born out empirically as science unfolds itself.

    I just re-read your post, I’m not sure if my response is quite in line with your questions, but no matter, it was fun to think about.

  3. -And fun to read! Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Nnox. Interesting to think about science and faith both ultimately seeking the same thing with different methods. Thanks for the book recommendation too!

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