The Past and the Future


In the language of physics, which gives a reasonably exact and economical description of natural events, there exists no word or concept equivalent to “now.” Most human cultures have such an idea, together with terms implying that “now” progresses from the future into the past. This paper attempts to identify aspects of the physical world which in contributing to the human experience of time give rise to metaphors of passage. Two facts are discussed in the language of physics: that our knowledge of the past is of a different kind from our knowledge of the future, and that while our acts have consequences for the future, there is nothing we can do to change the past. Both these facts are corollaries of the general increase in entropy asserted by the second law of thermodynamics, which in turn depends on the laws of physics and the overall history of the universe. To carry the analysis further and distinguish what depends on law from what depends on history seems impossible within the present disciplinary limits of science because to distinguish between scientific law and scientific fact requires that one can believe the fact could have been otherwise, and contemplation of the universe gives no grounds for such an opinion. Finally, it is suggested that the “passage of time” can be considered as a metaphorical expression of the pervasive consequences of the general increase in entropy required by the second law.


Human Consciousness Plain Language Pervasive Consequence Time Asymmetry Entropy Flow 
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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1978

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  • D. Park

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