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Wednesday, October 24, 2018


Consciousness confers on us the unusual powers of memory and imagination. These allow our minds to create the illusion of past and future. Unlike most of the concepts consciousness introduces into experience and implants in language, the illusion of past and future is easy to expose.

On the last leg of a six-day cycling race in France, I fell in with a young guy from Boston who, unlike most people, was enthusiastic after he asked about my work and I said I’d been a philosophy professor. As we rode along, he asked for an example of the sort of things I think about.

I told him about once seeing a sign in front of a tavern when we’d been hiking around Zermatt. It said: FREE BEER TOMORROW.

“Why don’t they ever have to give away any beer?” I asked. He hesitated. “Because it’s never tomorrow?” he said. “Just so,” I said. “So that means,” he said, “there’s always only today.”

I agreed with him again. “Yesterday” and “tomorrow” don’t name locations. They are projections of memory and imagination. Time, in other words, is a function of human consciousness. There is indeed a flow of events and processes, but it is we who divide it into periods, in the same way that we impose things like longitude and latitude upon the world and section the planet into time zones.

So the world and time don’t have qualities apart from our interests. Similarly, the world and our lives in it have no meaning. No meaning, that is, other than what we designate as meaningful. In this way meaning is like our feelings: it originates in us just feelings are not caused by things but assigned to them by me.

So the world has neither qualities or meaning, until we interpret it.

It would be no surprise if you found this assertion threatening. For it does threaten our desire to have the world answer to our needs; to have our lives fulfilled in some way by history. But the universe has no purpose, just as it’s expansion has no direction.

Of course an important ingredient in this desire of ours to have the world answer to our needs is our awareness—also uniquely human—that we will die. I have at some point to give up my life, though other lives, and the course of the world, will continue. It’s a frightening thing to know. So much so that we are anxious to avoid directly addressing death.

We want our lives to go on, and have, over all the millenia since consciousness arose, invented schemes and stories to tell ourselves we can live forever. Such beliefs are fantasies. Yet in every language and culture there have been those who have questioned beliefs of this sort. Questions are the path to wisdom…


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