Piecing Apart the Past

It’s time for a thought experiment! A thought experiment about time.

First, close your eyes…


Well, now that I think about it, it might help if you keep them open until I give you a bit more information. 😆 To be perfectly frank, I’m nothing more than a series of letters on a website. You can’t really “hear” me unless your eyes are open. 👀 (That raises the question of which letters “I” am. Am I the letters you are currently reading, all of the ones that come together to form this post, or the entire Philosophical Bunny blog? Furthermore, do I reside in your mind, your computer, or WordPress?)

We can set those curiosities aside for now. What I would like for you to do when you finally do shut your eyes is to imagine the following scenario:

You are a teacher who has been assigned to help a young child learn the meaning of one, and only one term: the past. This child is very patient, so she is more than willing to sit through an “explanation” of any length (even if it lasts for weeks on end). But you might have noticed that the word, explanation was sandwiched between quotation marks in the previous sentence. That’s because this child does not know English. In fact, for some odd reason, she has never before seen or heard a single word in any language at all.

You can use whatever tools you would like to teach her what “the past” means, but you can only use the term, “the past,” point at/use props, and mime various ideas to her. In other words, you cannot utilize any other terms to aid in your explanation.

Now close your eyes and spend a minute or two thinking about how you would approach such as task…


Any ideas?

People from Western cultures typically associate the past with the left. Comic books, calendars, timelines, and blog posts are almost always written from left to right. Perhaps you could say, “the past” while you point to the left. However, what would prevent the child from confusing “leftness” with “pastness”? Furthermore, how could she have already come to associate the past with the left after having lived a speechless life?

No, that won’t do. It might be a useful part of an explanation, but there has to be more. The past has a lot to do with memories. While our memories are in the present, they are about the past, right? Maybe you could point to a teddy bear that she always carried with her when she was young, saying, “the past.” However, you would have to point at a few more things to make sure she doesn’t think that her bear’s name is, “the past.” Perhaps you could take a picture of the room and point to it in a week, or have her mark an X on a calendar every day and point to the previous X’s. Hopefully, by doing all of this, she will associate “the past” with the common elements of the things to which you have pointed—chiefly, that they pertain to the past.

All of this might give the child a much better sense of what “the past” means, but there’s one more problem. Those explanations may leave her with the impression that her memories ARE the past. How on earth could you get around this difficulty?

Well, you might be able to hum a complex tune into a tape recorder, play it back for her, and point to the recorder while saying “the past.” In addition to this, you may show her an intricate drawing on a piece of paper, before 1) miming to get her to try to recreate the picture, 2) showing her the original, and 3) pointing at it while repeating “the past.” These parts of your lesson would introduce a feeling of objectivity to her definition of the past. She would realize that, while the past is to a large extent encompassed by the things we remember, tape recorders and pictures somehow have the ability to override the authority of our memories in determining what’s really past and what’s merely pretend.

You might need to use a few more specialized techniques to refine your student’s understanding of what the past means, but at this point, it seems that this child would have a pretty good working understanding of the term, doesn’t it?

Real-Life Applications

In fact, the way in which this imaginary child learned about the past is probably similar to the way that you learned about that concept when you were young. You created a bundle of associations between thoughts, feelings, and objects, e.g., leftness, your memories, tape recorders, pictures, testimonies, and the term, “the past,” over time. This bundle—this primitive definition—came to become the meaning of “the past.” After all, the meanings of terms are simply what we define them to mean. If we defined unicorns as objects with steering wheels, windows, tires, and metal encasements, then it would follow that we all ride unicorns to work. (Although, admittedly, this redefinition would make unicorns much less interesting…)

It is hard to introspectively break our concept of the past up into its various parts like what we’re trying to do here. But if we do this successfully, we will see that that past is made up of nothing but that group of thoughts, feelings, and objects. However, if the past IS this group of things, that means that it is dependent on them. If we took away our memories, the objects that store records of events, and other people’s beliefs about the past, then the past itself would disappear. So, in a very real sense, events that were not recorded in history did not happen. This also implies that if everything changed to make it look as though humans once lived with dinosaurs or worshiped bicycle gods, history would rewrite itself to make it so.

The past is not something that’s woven into the fabric of reality. So why worry about it? It isn’t any more real than the monsters we once thought were under our beds or the imaginary cake that I am handing you right now. 🍰 All of the embarrassing and difficult moments of our lives, the things we missed out on, and the things we have come to regret only exist in our minds and our mementos. And just as we can move past troubling thoughts, we can all move past the difficult parts of our pasts.

Stay present and stay philosophical,

—The PB


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