Time: Past, Present, Future

Past, present, and future form a convenient segmenting of our thoughts about time. But three more dissimilar ideas would be hard to find. The past, where things are forever static, the future, where things are yet to be, the two linked by the fleeting present moment.

We know of the past from our recollections and from what we surmise from what we observe around us. But recollections are notoriously fickle and books interpret what the author may or may not have observed. Geology, archeology, and the stories known only through oral history are all interpreted and reinterpreted to form a picture of the past.

We know the future not at all, but spend a lot of time speculating on what it might be. Our fascination with the future is pathological for there we find fear, avarice, lust and ambition. This is the stock in trade of those who would be politically influential, as they attempt to control the future.

And we glimpse the present only fleetingly as it emerges and quickly moves into the past. In that glimpse we can experience Jesus’ “freedom and actuality,” or we can miss it as we speculate on the future.

I wrote about this freedom in my book The Boiler Room Boys in chapter 14, drawing on the Greek work parrhesia that was translated “openly” to convey Jesus’ freedom: “I have spoken openly to the world” (John 18:19). This freedom requires that you live in the present moment; its something you can see in the past, as Jesus’ used the past tense “have spoken”, and you might hope to use in the future, but which you can only actually experience in the present moment.

This was drawn from

The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, chapter 15.

We Can Change

Addiction to streaming videos has exposed me to movies that I wouldn’t have paid directly to see. Many excellent movies, but some are problematic, especially those that have limited character development. In those, I find an underlying theme that people don’t change, indeed maybe can’t change.

In The Boiler Room Boys, I describe why I grew up agreeing with my father that people can’t change: his unfortunate encounters as a young man in a church and his experiences in WWII. I also describe some of my own experiences leading me to the same conclusion: suicides, both attempted and real, movies, like “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, leaving my classmates behind in our small logging town.

But I also describe my personal experience of God and of how that changed me in more recent years, showing me personally that people can change. My book ends with a chapter titled “Freedom to Change” and an epilogue that points forward. We can change.

Another theme in TBRB is that Jesus emphasized that we are free to choose our steps, and yet responsible to choose carefully.

These two themes, our ability to change and our freedom with responsibility, are linked.

Race: Looking Backward

James Watson in an epilogue to his autobiography offered this comment on genetics, evolution, and intelligence:

As we find the human genes whose malfunctioning gives rise to such devastating developmental failures, we may well discover that sequence differences within many of them also lead to much of the observable variation in human IQs. A priori, there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of people geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically.


Watson, James D. Avoid boring people: Lessons from a Life in Science. Knopf, New York, 2007

Watson, James D. Avoid boring people: Lessons from a Life in Science. Knopf, New York, 2007

On its face, this statement seems like sensible genetics, but hidden in it are several concepts about which there is little agreement among scientists. Watson’s reference is to “IQs”, not directly to intelligence, and by that he means scores on standardized tests. The observed differences among people from different geographical areas have been extensively discussed (ref), and may be due to a raft of different factors (list). Watson’s focus on genetics is protected by his disclaimer “we may well discover.” Deeper is a concept of race, revealed by the words “people geographical separated in their evolution.”

But in his interviews shown in the 2019 documentary “Decoding Watson” his meaning is more transparent, especially statements like: “All our social policies are based on the fact that African intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.” Revealing words: “African intelligence” and “the same as ours.” Trivially, his meaning was more likely “people from Africa,” that is who were separated from others over long periods of time. The allusion might be towards the frequency of sickle cell anemia resistant genes in people from some areas.

But “the same as ours” is more troubling. Who exactly is included in the term “ours”?

But still, are Watson’s 2007 and 2019 censures by the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory political correctness or legitimate censure? Where is Watson’s parhesia?

There is more back there to examine.

Time: "Forever guessing the future and fabricating the past."

Steam Punk Time Traveler?

The 2001 movie “Kate and Leopold” opens at a dedication in 1876 of the Brooklyn Bridge. The bewiskered orator begins:

Time, it has been proposed, is the fourth dimension.

And yet, for mortal man, time has no dimension at all.

We are like horses with blinders, seeing only what lies before us.

Hear Hear!

Forever guessing the future and fabricating the past.

The orator is referring to the idea then-becoming-popular idea that time forms a continuum with the physical dimensions of height, width, and length. We know how to move ourselves and objects around in the 3 physical dimensions: around the house, around the solar system, or recently beyond the solar system. For example, by 1990 we had moved Voyager 1 to the edge of our solar system, where it took this picture of us.

However, contrary to the premise of that movie, we do not know how to move either backward or forward in time. In the movie “All one had to do was to develop formulae to forecast portals . . . natural windows in the fabric of time.” Given a formula, entering a portal still was not easy, requiring the characters to leap from high on the Brooklyn Bridge at a precise moment and achieve a velocity of “the speed of gravity.” And further, moving in time could have possibly catastrophic effects: what if you interrupted an ancestor at the instant of your conception, possibly affecting which Y chromosome was successful?

Contrary to our attraction to time travel movies and novels, there is no evidence at all that we can move backward or sideways in time, or move forward faster than the cadence of an atomic clock adjusted for relativistic effects of velocity. Neimroff and Wilson (2014) attempted to find evidence for time travel to the past, searching for records from actual time travelers, which we might expect to turn up now and then if time travel eventually proved possible. Sufficient to say that they found no such evidence.

Despite our limited access to time, it is an extremely powerful dimension and we use most of our limited instants of time to thinking outside those instants. For example, there is an impeachment trial of our president happening now and although the outcome appears all but certain, an enormous amount of energy is going into predicting various steps along the way.

Some of that energy is aimed not just at predicting the future, but also at influencing how what will actually happen, and more importantly, how the events will be remembered. For example, the National Archive recently admitted that in documenting a political rally shortly after the recent election, it “blurred references to the President’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy.” But engage they did.

We stand precariously on the fine edge of the past and future, and like the blindered horses of the orator of “Kate and Leopold,” we are left to be “Forever guessing the future and fabricating the past.”

  • Robert Nemiroff, Teresa Wilson, Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers. The Winnower 2:e140984.46096 , 2014 , DOI:10.15200/winn.140984.46096

Reality is more than sense perception

During a recent two week trip to Los Angeles to consult with Reasons to Believe staff, I became a Visiting Scholar:

https://reasons.org/about/tim-smith

I submitted a blog post while I was visiting about some aspects of reality that are outside of the physical world, particularly reason and knowledge:

https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/voices/read/voices/2019/11/08/reality-is-more-than-sense-perception

This blog hinges off of statement by Dallas Willard that I discussed in an earlier blog.

More on the Periodic Table

I submitted a couple of paragraphs relating to TBRB to the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, sponsors of the Periodic Table celebration that I wrote about recently. They were good enough to include it amongst many other submissions. You can see it, along with this new picture of a boiler room, at:

https://www.raci.org.au/events-awards/stories-from-the-periodic-table/uranium-by-tim-d-smith

Image by MichaelGaida, pixabay.com

All of the submissions can be seen at:

https://www.raci.org.au/events-awards/stories-from-the-periodic-table

Shadows of other worlds

In TBRB I identified several aspects of reality that can help in the creation of knowledge. Our self-awareness and desire to find meaning are important motivators each of us, though perhaps differently. We have two cats, littermates, who approach novel situations very differently. One retreats and the other investigates. Like those cats, people differ in their motivation to engage.

We see shadows of other attributes of reality within the sense-perceptible world, for example in the appearance of design and beauty, in morality and self-consciousness, and in the existence of life itself. We perceive such shadows and wonder. Some try to explain those shadows from within the sense-perceptible world, and when they fail they write those shadows out of their understanding of reality. Others engage with the shadows and investigate.

Exploring the shadows that reality casts on our senses is fascinating. C.S. Lewis identified one shadow, that of commonality of what is ethical across cultures and history. This commonality suggests that there is a source of ethics that is beyond what the sense-perceptible world. Similarly, altruistic behavior suggests that ethical principles are greater that suggested by Darwin’s struggle for existence.

Of all of the shadows that have been identified, ethics is one that can not be relegated to the bottom of a list. It is essential that ethical principles be understood as standing outside the sense-perceptible world.

In the Epilogue to TBRB I recount a disturbing evening when a young man spoke to me about the shadows I had become increasingly aware of. He said “God invented our lives, he invented us to work the way we do, and he invented us to create and think and conceptualize and theorize and equate and conclude. He created all of those thought processes.” This struck a chord within me, one that is still vibrating.

More than the sense-perceptible world allows

In TBRB I wrote about human cognitive faculties in Chapter 8, especially beginning on page 138. My question there was about whether our cognitive faculties could reasonably have developed from the random genetic processes envisioned by naturalism. Plausible, I thought initially, given enough genetic variability and survival advantage to having such faculties, and enough time. Implausible, I was coming to understand as the full depth of our cognitive faculties washed over me.

Lately, I’ve been thinking less about the source of our cognitive faculties and more about what would be impossible if naturalism were true. Kind of a backward question, but one that Dallas Willard put in my head when I read a transcription of his address at a 1998 symposium at Biola University. That day he said “Reason and knowledge are not to be found in the sense-perceptible world. It’s just that simple.”

That we have the ability to use reason to make knowledge is affirmed in Romans 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” So when I use reason to produce knowledge I am stepping outside of the sense-perceptible world and into a greater reality than allowed by naturalism.

The fascinating question is what are the greater attributes of that larger reality, and how do we engage with those attributes to form knowledge?

The International Year of the Periodic Table of the Elements

On page 2 of The Boiler Room Boys I described Dmitri Mendeleev’s 1869 creation of what we now know as the periodic table of the elements. This table is based on Mendeleev’s periodic law: “Elements arranged according to the size of their atomic weights show clear periodic properties.” The Boiler Room boys had become fascinated with this table in the 1950s. This year, 2019, his creation has stood the test of 150 years and is being celebrated in the International Year of the Periodic Table of the Elements (IYPT2019).

On page 15 of The Boiler Room Boys (TBRB) I stated that Mendeleev’s conclusions were based on his using “inductive logic.” I had concluded that based on Mendeleev’s statement: “All the comparisons which I have made … lead me to conclude that the size of the atomic weight determines the nature of the elements.” However, Dr. Brian Larsen (Simpson University, Redding CA) recently pointed out that the logic behind the periodic table was more sophisticated than I had claimed, merely induction.


A handwritten draft of Mendeleev’s periodic table, in which he organized the elements by atomic weight to reveal the periodic law, showing how elements had similar properties at regular intervals, or periodicities. (From
https://www.sciencenews.org/article/periodic-table-history-chemical-elements-150-anniversary

Looking at the 150-year history of the development of the periodic table, I have to agree with Larsen that the logic behind it is much more than just induction: it also involves abductive logic (or retroduction as he would have it). In TBRB I emphasized the importance of abductive logic in studying non-repeatable events, for example the history of the universe. Larsen’s observation points out how abductive logic can also be used for studying repeatable events.