The Future Doesn’t Exist (And Why You Think It Does)

By Emily Lehman

The beginning of Daylight Savings Time left me meditating sleepily on what time means in modern America. What does it mean to “save daylight,” exactly? Do we have daylight to save? More importantly, do we save any by a perverse practice of waking up an hour earlier once a year?

The answer to the last question is no. The answers to the first two might become more clear if we think more carefully about the answer to the last. We don’t save any daylight because (as our weary bodies and those irritating birds outside make us acutely aware) the earth keeps on turning. We remember to set our clocks, our circadian rhythms eventually adjust, and life goes on as usual. But the sun really sets at the same time—at sunset. Traditionally, it’s sunset that tells us what time it is, rather than our dictating to ourselves what time the sunset is. Some farmers still get up when the sun does and might work as long as the light lasts. But many of us don’t think that way—in our minds, hours are like Lego blocks, to be manipulated and reconfigured at will. Why?

The answer is, not surprisingly, complicated. But I’ll propose a fairly simple answer as an umbrella for all that complexity: we think that the future exists.

The future is what St. Thomas Aquinas would call contingent. That is, the future is full of things that depend on other things. For example, when they say in spy movies that they want to be prepared for every possible contingency, they mean they want to be prepared for everything that might happen, everything that could happen in a way different from what is planned.  Human beings are, in an odd sense, one of those things: they don’t have to exist. Since human beings have free will, their actions are also contingent: they don’t have to happen. In explaining how God’s foreknowledge relates to the freedom of human beings, St. Thomas claims that contingency still exists even though God knows all things. In other words, things follow from one another; it is not exactly as if God sees a giant timeline on which all things exist, even though He does know everything. Things happen because of other things, though God knows that they will happen; they are known but not therefore necessary.

That’s what the entire future is like—from here on out, it doesn’t exist. Nothing in an imagined future “has to happen.” It hasn’t happened yet. I’m sitting here typing away at this article, but the time that you are reading this article, and the deadline for the article itself, don’t exist yet (even if the deadline’s a little too close for comfort). Since contingency is an element of human living, the future is not a reality into which human beings can look like settlers in a wagon on a long straight road to Oregon.

The ancient Greeks had a completely different image to describe their relation to time (the whole future-doesn’t-exist thing comes from Aristotle, in fact). The Greeks envisioned themselves as always traveling forward in time but looking backward (picture a train car with backward seats from which you can watch the scenery roll by). Their way of looking at things may make more sense than ours, even though the Oregon Trail image of Americans looking forward into the future has appealed to our country for so much of its short life. The Greeks realized that if we look forward, there’s nothing to look at. If we look back, there’s a lot to see—and we don’t have to search the abysm of contingency for an outline of what we’re heading for. We might, paradoxically, see a great deal more of reality by looking backward—perhaps even to the point of knowing a little more about where we are headed.

“I absolutely refuse to make any statements about hypotheticals,” said one of my professors recently. “They don’t exist.” As soon as you say, “If this happens, then . . .” you’re in the realm of unknowability. I don’t want to make any claims about
absolute unknowability (I don’t know about that), but I do make the claim that one can multiply hypotheticals to the point that it compromises one’s relationship with the truth. If I finish this article, and then someone reads it in Washington, D.C., and then if they really like the article and want to publish it in their famous magazine, and then if I become a famous journalist, and then if I become a millionaire and own six cheetahs and a letter-from-the-editorsrhinoceros . . . . at that point we’ve strayed so far from the reality of what’s actually happening here that I might have perverted my relationship to the world that exists here and now. If I’m writing this article thinking that it connects me in a meaningful way to my future as an exotic animal collector, not only will it not help me write the article, it’ll probably harm the article. The article might become in my mind the key to getting me six cheetahs and a rhinoceros. I might even start to forget about all the hypotheticals between the article and the rhinoceros. And in so doing I might compromise my ability to write well in relation to the real situation in which I find myself, here in Hillsdale, Michigan, looking out the window at untimely snow.

You might claim that nobody thinks like that, but let’s look at the narrative life of a typical high schooler in America. You need to take the SAT, because if you do well on the SAT you’ll get into a good college, and if you get into a good college you’ll get into a good grad school, and if you get into a good grad school you’ll get a good job, and if you get a good job you might become the CEO, and if you become the CEO you might get rich enough to retire at 35 and if you retire at 35 you might go live in Hawaii for the rest of your life.

SAT to Hawaii. Article to rhinoceros. It’s all pretty far-fetched. And with our delight in scheduling and rescheduling, in five-year plans and preparation for contingencies, in manipulating the colored blocks of our already-present future into beautiful castles or spaceships that can be smashed up and reconfigured into whatever shape we choose, I think we forget a very important aspect of being contingent beings: we might not be there for that. Medievals, unable to isolate themselves from contingency  the way we can, were deeply aware of the reality of death. Children died in infancy. Natural disasters and disease destroyed members of the community while others looked on. Wives died in childbirth. For people who saw death more clearly, perhaps it was harder to formulate a twenty-year plan, a five-year plan, or even a nine-month plan. I might have fewer pie-in-the sky ideas about wild animals in my basement if I thought more about the fact that I might not even make it to dinner tonight.

And maybe that’s not quite as dark as it sounds, since thinking about the world that way could perhaps make dinner itself (almost) as exciting as wild-animal collecting. Since the future doesn’t exist, the natural reaction should be wonder that the present does. The fact that I can probably anticipate sitting at this table in the library for another hour or two might, if I thought about it the right way, be more exciting than an imagined trip to Hawaii—because I ought to marvel at the fact that I am living at all, apart from any grasping for the future. A real present is much more adventurous than any imaginary future, if only because it’s real.

So how should we change our behavior? Delete the calendar apps from our phones? Never plan another dinner date? Start telling our professors that we didn’t think about the paper until the night before because we have such a robust sense of the contingency of the world?  Obviously not. There’s a practical aspect to planning for the future as if it exists, and if not taken too seriously it’s probably a helpful imaginative exercise as well. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t cling to our little chain of hypotheticals as if they connect us to something real. Imagining that what we desire must necessarily follow from our posited hypotheticals could be crippling if one of them falls through—the moment when I think I’ll never get a rhinoceros since The Forum isn’t distributed in D.C. If I haven’t locked myself into a plan that I think will necessarily lead to my desired conclusion, I lose a great deal of perceived control, but it also means that setbacks aren’t catastrophes. It’s probably worth it to let go of the control I’ve constructed for myself by imagining the future, since one of these days I’ll find that it didn’t really give me any control anyway. Someday a rhinoceros might just lumber its way into my life without my lifting a finger to make it happen.  We shouldn’t forget that, for good or for ill, something could happen within the next three minutes that would transform our lives forever in a way that we never anticipated or instigated. Just being alive is adventure enough.

If we realized that, we might conduct life in the present differently. Maybe we could even spend a day or two in our lives without a color-blocked plan. We could take long detours and occasionally miss a deadline. And we could probably ditch Daylight Savings Time.

Emily Lehman is a junior studying English.

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