Does the Present Create the Past?

Richard Bach published his book Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah in 1977 and when it came out, I was eager to read it. The book was a follow up to his amazingly popular Jonathan Livingston Seagull, one that I had already read more than once. I still refer to quotes from Illusions because they inevitably stimulate me to deep thought. Here is one I like:

You are always free to change your mind and choose a different future, or a different past.

The first part, that a person can change his or her future, is a statement that is easy to agree with without a lot of contemplation. However, the addition of the last words “or a different past” makes me pause. What did Richard Bach mean? Many years later, I figured out my own meaning, and that is the subject of this essay.

By logical reasoning, the past certainly appears to be rock solid, something contained in an unchanging history of events gone by, a chain of events that leads to and defines the present moment. The past is fixed and permanent. Or is it? I have concluded that it is not.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the physics of time. One thing I have come to accept as fact is this: time is not what it appears to be from our everyday human perspective. Albert Einstein rocked the world over a hundred years ago with his special theory of relativity and its central tenet that time is not an absolute or fixed entity. He said time stretches and contracts. Time can even come to a standstill. When I first read that, it blew my mind. What is time if it does not pass? I wondered. Time cannot be what we think it is if it does not flow. And if time is not what we usually think it is, what does that do to the concept of “the past?”

What then is time? I do not pretend to have a conclusive answer but it is fun to think about it. Consider what Einstein said on the death of one of his colleagues:

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

An illusion? Wow. If there is no fundamental difference between the past, present and future, we are left with the notion that in some odd way, the three are one, they occur simultaneously. Time itself must be an illusion. But how can that be? Let us take a deeper look.

The well-known “double-slit” physics experiments demonstrate that elementary particles (photons, electrons and even small atoms) are created by observation.


This raises a thorny question about how consciousness is involved in the creation of matter. It is the subject of the book,  Quantum Enigma by Fred Kuttner and Bruce Rosenblum, both physicists at the University of California. In the kind of double slit experiment discussed in the book, an atom was shot into one of two boxes by an automated device so that the experimenter could not know which box it wound up in. The atom could exist as either a particle or a wave function. It could be one or the other but not both at the same time. The wave function, the probability that it will be found in one box or the other, is in both boxes simultaneously. The atom itself, the particle, is in neither box until an observation is made. The observation (the act of looking into the boxes) is said to “collapse” the wave function and then the atom is found in one of the boxes but never both. As Kuttner and Rosenblum put it, “The atom wasn’t in that box until it was observed to be there.” Odd as it sounds, most quantum physicists accept this interpretation of nature even though they hotly debate what it means. (Those who do not buy into this interpretation believe in an interpretation that is even more weird than this one.)

Double slit experiments have been around for a long time and a lot has been written about them, so the conclusion that observation created matter was not new to me. However, the authors said something that stopped me in my tracts. They took the results a step further than I had read before, saying that not only was the atom created by observation, the act of observation created the atom’s history too. This brought time into the picture and after I thought about it, it made a lot of sense. If the atom was found in one box, it had to have taken a certain path to get there. If it was in the other box, it had to have taken a different path. Therefore, the observation created the particle’s history “backwards in time,” as Kuttner and Rosenblum put it. I thought about this statement a long time. It gave the answer to the question I had pondered over years earlier about Richard Bach’s quote.

Only the present moment has any reality. The past is an illusion that can be altered by consciousness just as the future can obviously be. I have concluded that the past is merely that which it must be in order for the present moment to exist with the characteristics it has. The present moment creates the past, not the other way around. The key to understanding this is to keep in mind Einstein’s comment: the distinction between the past, present and future are illusions. They are not separate entities; they are one. If the present moment can change in a way that the past no longer supports it, the past has to alter to fit. However, the past that changes is not limited to a solitary event in the past, rather the change applies to the full chain of history right up to the present moment, including our memories of whatever the “new” past is. Since our memory of events necessarily changes too, we cannot directly be aware that a change has occurred.

I know that this is a mind stretching idea and perhaps most people will discard it as crazy. Nevertheless, it is a most logical conclusion if we are going to listen to what science is telling us. If it is not the true nature of things, then quantum physics is amiss. While that is possible, the fact is that it is the most successful scientific theory ever conceived. I believe that, to quote Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution, whom I heard speak recently, science is God’s highest form of communication with humans. If science establishes that the assumptions I have made are wrong, I will alter my thinking accordingly. If that happens, the change is not likely to be more logical than this interpretation, however. In the meantime, I will continue to accept the notion that our human-level reality is merely an illusion, a dream if you like, and the real stuff resides at a higher level of consciousness.

One thought on “Does the Present Create the Past?

  1. Dear Doug,
    Just found your website. Looking forward to reading your essays. We are very interested in Quantum Physics. Your favorite quotes are among those we like very much. Very much enjoyed Bach’s Reluctant Messiah…great story…love bi-planes. Keep writing.
    Love and Blessings

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