The problem with that lame cliché is that the future is not only with us now but – to scramble the possibilities – the future actually influences the past. Astrophysicist-author John Gribbin, whose challenging new book ‘Six Impossible Things’ help mere mortals like me accept the crazed conceptualizing of God-like physicists, makes just this case. The implications may possibly be profound.
Deep in the subatomic underworld of spectacularly tiny particles and waves is a measurable physical behavior – especially wave behavior — that, to me at least, is weird. It turns out that some waves carry their negative energy back into the past while some push it forward into the future. In effect this happens with no intermediary blocking the way (such as what we call the ‘present’). Author Gribbin explains: “The idea is that part of the quantum wave really can travel backwards through time … in stark disagreement with our intuition that causes always precede the events that they cause.”
But where does the wave ‘travelling in reverse’ come from? There is only one answer: the future. If so, then the future continually influences the past in the minutest degree of reality.
Think of time as a bustling two-way street. If the future influences the past, then we have been looking at the world upside down – or, rather, past to future. But reality is not one-way simple, which is why it is often nearly impossible to accept.
The great advantage of diving into neurotic but utterly science-based quantum physics is it requires you to think outside the box. Physicists, notably in quantum theory, conceptualize aspects of the physical world, often with the help of thought experiments, that are hard to see or measure but are essential to understanding physical existence. The hitch is they often wind up taking us so far away from a comfortable ‘common sense’ (or dogmatic) world view. In ‘real’ life, for example, we think of time as moving in military formation, one/two/three — from past to present to future. Ok. Let us try to sort this time thing out differently. Let us assume there is no substantial now because the very moment we observe or do something, it becomes the past; and, what’s more, that somehow or other the future affects the past in unexpected ways. Now let’s apply this idea to the coronavirus epidemic.
You may have noticed that the President of the United States and our scientists sometimes seem not to agree on rather basic aspects of the coronavirus epidemic. As you know, Covid-19 simmers globally without the slightest humanitarian instinct and in a fiercely non-partisan way (there is no Republican or Democratic or Communist immunity from infection). And for all anyone knows, the epidemic might not resolve itself quickly enough or, possibly, ever go away entirely. The future-soaked past is still revealing itself day by future day.
How much global corona has already come in from the future to plant itself and fester in the past to comprise our reality so far? For the relatively brief time that the U.S. has existed as a nation, its pragmatic, let’s-get-at-its penchant for problem-solving has helped it survive and prosper no matter how steep the challenge. As the philosophical pragmatist John Dewey once famously noted, “Acceptance of dogmatic rules as bases of conduct in education, morals and social matters, lessens the impetus to find out about the conditions which are involved in forming intelligent plans.”
Basic science cannot be beat for that purpose. In the case of global corona, we should add impossible thinking, if in fact the future does influence the past. Wuhan is an ongoing part of the past, but out there in the unseen future, feeding into new pasts, are very possibly other kinds of Wuhans. We don’t know where they are. But we had better find them quickly and stop thinking as if they were in the past. If you believe that globalization will remain a big factor, as it has been up to now, probably a measure of ‘Wuhanization’ in many other places has to be assumed. We cannot close down the world the way the Chinese, out of a proper abundance of thoughtful world view, creditably closed down the metropolis of Wuhan. We still have no idea how much more trouble is out there, or where it’s at. You might suspect, as I do, that the epidemic is historic and the belief that everything will be okay and work itself out is beyond optimism … maybe really nuts. So this is the huge next new thing – but for the scientists, not for the political leaders to take over. The latter just don’t get it. It’s too hard for them. They will build their aircraft-carriers and nuclear missiles, mindlessly, when it would be far smarter to attain enhanced international national security and peace to be building patient hospital ships in unprecedented quantities and more labs to decode the enemies of the future.
The future has just now told us what is in the future: specks of little things that are coming in from the future to change the past that we thought we had more or less tamed. Humankind is wrong again. Our best bet is to keep thinking impossible things and figure that the future may be trying to change very many things.
So we note, as does Gribbin, this exchange from Alice’s immortal Adventures in Wonderland: ‘Alice laughed: ‘There’s no use trying … one can’t believe impossible things.’ Said the Queen: ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Tom Plate is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Pacific Century Institute’s vice president.