How do we, in contemporary Western society, understand the future? Our awareness of what our present aspirations are tells us what the future should be, and how we should act to realise them. Time is short, so we must make the best use of what little we have. By planning our desired future and negotiating with others a path towards it, we also think of ourselves as having chosen one possible future over all others. Our plans and actions select from the possible outcomes of any given situation.
In this everyday frame of mind, then, the future is the place where we expect our desires to be realised. From within this frame, the future is always yet-to-come. What is real is the present, and the past’s continuing influence on it. This individual and collective attitude to the future is reflected in scientific practice. The capacity to plan, choose and act manifests itself in scientific predictions, and in new technologies. But science diminishes the constraints placed on our possibilities in the present in direct proportion to the possibilities presented to us by technological development. The more technologically-enhanced possibilities presented to us, the more open the future seems. As a consequence, we feel even more that the future can be decided by us as we see fit. Our feeling that we possess a right to our desired future expands.
This understanding of the present and future distinguishes the unreal from real, and this distinction influences our considerations about what we should do. Our common-sense understanding of time is therefore both ontological and ethical. This makes it of interest to philosophers. In this chapter, we shall draw on various philosophical theories to ask whether our everyday assumptions about the difference between present and future capture important features of our experience. We shall also ask whether a philosophical distinction between an abstract, empty future, defined in relation to our everyday understanding of the present, and a living future conceived on its own account, will help us understand better the role played by the future in our lives.
2.Time as a Timeline
Let us first examine our sense of what the difference between present and future is. The present is where our plans for the fulfilment of our desires are formed. It is in relation to this present that the future is a resource, and it is in this present, the time of decision and action, that choices are made about which future we want. It is by thinking of the present and future in these terms that we typically make sense of ourselves, the world that surrounds us, and how things should be. We frame the future as an abstraction from the present, and imagine it as a storehouse of presents which do not yet exist. Our first concern here is to ask what this picture of the future assumes about our everyday experience of the world, and then to ask whether these assumptions produce a merely partial picture by crowding out other aspects of our experience.
Let us examine a typical method we use to understand our experience of time, the construction of a timeline. Consider a child playing with plastic bricks. Suppose that, sitting beside her bucket of bricks, she begins by deciding to build a tower – rather than, say, a house or a castle. Following this, each time she places a brick, a choice needs to be made as to where it should go, based on her past experience of building towers. The tower grows, level by level, its form given shape by the child’s knowledge of what makes towers of plastic bricks topple over rather than stay in place, by her sense of what a tower should look like, and by her taste for colours. Finally, when the tower is complete, the child tells her mother about the history of her tower. ‘I wanted to build a tower...’, ‘then I…’, ‘then I…’. She shows she can give an account of her actions based on a linear timeline marked out in punctual moments, from conception to goal.
Told in this manner, the story exhibits a particular temporal structure. The narrative depicts the tower as having its origin in a desire and an idea, an image of a possible future moment. On this basis, a narrative of action can be constructed, one typical of our accounts of our everyday actions: it leads the listener from an initial sketch of a possibility to its final realisation, passing through intermediary moments that gradually add to the sum of reality possessed by the originally desired object. Finally, the possibility emerges fully into reality: the tower is a real present, having begun as a merely ideal future.
The meaning of the future in the narrative is fixed. The past of the narrative can be framed in different ways, with a lesser or greater reach, but the future can at each stage only be referred to as an empty space, one whose role is only to be occupied by the realised idea. The possibility of the tower harnesses the empty future to it as a set of empty future presents to be colonised, moment by moment, by the realisation of the initial plan.
So the girl’s story places her, the narrative subject, in the role of an active agent, responsible for the creation of in-formed actuality out of unformed possibility. The story is a timeline of decisive instants, each one containing an action. The girl is at once the heroine of this story, the observer who watched it unfold, and now the storyteller. The timeline is a series of points that mark events in which she both participated and did not participate, and which, she feels, have an existence outside of her awareness of them. Even once one of these events is over, we are aware of it having been lived in the present, and so it enters the timeline upon which we locate ourselves and retains a certain reality. We are aware that previous events persist in their influence on our ‘now’.
Thus our everyday understanding of the past, present and future in terms of a timeline relies on the idea of instantaneity. We can imagine our timelines as a series of instants qualitatively differentiated as past, present and future, with the whole being something like a conveyor belt moving from future to past. Unformed future instants pass into the window of the present, take form, like a blank being stamped by a die, and are used up.
Figure 1: Timeline as Series of Instants
The qualitative difference between present and future is most marked, given that the concepts we use to distinguish them tend to harden into an opposition.