Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Landscape of History | The Present

"St. Augustine doubted that the present even exists, describing it as something that 'flies with such speed from future to past, as not to be lengthened out with the least stay.' But the historian R. G. Collingwood... took just the opposite view: 'The present alone is actual,' he insisted... So what's the problem here?

It may be that neither Augustine nor Collingwood had heard of singularities, those strange things that exist at the bottom of black holes (if black holes have bottoms) which cannot be measured, but which nonetheless transform all measurable objects that pass through them. I prefer to think of the present as a singularity... a funnel... or a wormhole...through which the future has got to pass in order to become the past. The present achieves this transformation by locking into place relationships between continuities and contingencies: on the future side of the singularity, these are fluid, decoupled, and therefore indeterminate; however, as they pass through it they fuse and cannot then be separated...

By continuities, I mean patterns that extend across time. These are not laws, like gravity or entropy; they are not even theories, like relativity or natural selection. They are simply phenomena that recur with sufficient regularity to make themselves apparent to us...

By contingencies, I mean phenomena that do not form patterns. These may include the actions of individuals take for reasons known only to themselves... They can involve what the chaos theorists call 'sensitive dependence on initial conditions,' situations where an imperceptible shift at the beginning of a process can produce enormous changes at the end of it. They may result from the intersection of two or more continuities: students of accidents know that when predictable processes come together in unprecedented ways, unpredictable consequences can follow. What all of these phenomena have in common is that they don't fall within the realm of repeated and therefore familiar experience: we generally learn about them only after they've happened.

We might define the future, then, as the zone within which contingencies and continuities coexist independently of one another; the past as the place where their relationship is inextricably fixed; and the present as the singularity that brings the two together, so that the continuities intersect contingencies, contingencies encounter continuities, and through this process history is made. And even though time itself isn't structured this way, for anyone who's stuck within time--and who isn't?--this distinction between past, present, and future is close to universal..."

John Lewis GaddisThe Landscape of History pages 30-31.

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