Here’s why the concept of the “Now” might never be explained by science well enough.

If you’re reading this right now, you’re late.

We cannot be certain when exactly you’ll read this; whenever, whether it was yesterday or it will be tomorrow, we always say that’s right now, just as you’re reading the word “now.” That’s the power of “now.” However, though science devotes all attention to time, yet it doesn’t consider “now” as different from the future or the past. You don’t trust our word for it — Albert Einstein himself had a hard time thinking it through. Let’s explain!

Related media: Time Is But A Stubborn Illusion


The Worried Einstein

This quandary started back in the early 1960s, the philosopher Rudolf Carnap had a conversation with Albert Einstein about what Einstein termed as (you guessed it) the problem of “The Now.”

Carnap described Einstein’s quandary like this:

“Einstein said the problem of the Now worried him seriously. He explained that the experience of the Now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation. So he [Einstein] concluded ‘that there is something essential about the Now which is just outside the realm of science.’”

Image: Albert Einstein

Is It Now Or When?

Throughout the history of science, scientists barely thought about time until Einstein revolutionized our understanding of space and time with his theories of special and general relativity. Though he was never able to explain time itself enough, he did show some peculiar things about it — that, to a stationary observer, time flows more slowly for a moving object, and that the greater the force of gravity, the slower time flows. (That’s special relativity, or specifically, time dilation). But he — and no one since — could explain what made the present moment objectively different than the past or the future.

Interestingly, this quandary points to the fact that science really centers on objective reality, and the present moment is defined by your experience. Considering that thought, some scientists think that the present moment doesn’t actually exist at all. How bizarre!

In an article for Nature, N. David Mermin, a physicist, recalled that he told another physicist that he was writing about “the Now,” the physicist said, “Ah, you’re going to explain why we all have that illusion.” Mermin replied that the present moment isn’t an illusion, but evidence that we need to include personal experience in science’s physical description of the world.

“The problem of the Now is laid to rest by recognizing the mistake behind the conclusion that it is missing from our physical description of the world. That is the very error that led us into the quantum muddle: the exclusion of personal experience from physical science.” Mermin writes. “Einstein’s pain at the inability of science to contain a Now was of a piece with his stubborn refusal to accept quantum mechanics as an adequate view of the world.”

So, do we have a choice? It seems that every scientific observation is somehow in a way altered by our perceptions — whether its by our vision or by our thoughts.


The Time Is Now Or Never

Image: Shutterstock / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Richard A. Muller, a physicist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of ’Now — The Physics of Time,’ also thought about this quandary, has the view that our understanding of science in the 21st century about the Now is no different from the understanding that we held back in the 20th century about gravity.

“I think that only now can we finally understand the concept of now.” Muller writes, “… we think of the expanding universe as the continuous creation of new space; the universe continues to grow as the space between galaxies increases. That recognition makes it plausible that in the ongoing expansion, the universe is creating not only new space but also new time. Each newly created moment is what we refer to as now.”

Einstein even wanted to formularize it with a single equation that would unify all the forces in the universe, but it wasn’t as easy as he thought it is. In fact, that’s because there were several other forces we hadn’t yet discovered; now, we’re finally getting close to explaining gravity.

Right now, with our understanding about the universe with respect to space and time, we might be able to understand “The Now.” And whether that understanding gets us to understanding the objective truths about our individual experiences, we’ll just have to wait until then is now.


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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Thu, Feb 28, 2019.

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