Living in the Present?

Originally written by me on December 20th of last year:

Do we ever really ever live in the present?

This was a question that occurred to me in a discussion of linear vs. circular perspective of time. While we commonly use the phrase, “live in the present,” what would that really mean, and what exactly is the present? By definition, present (as an adjective) means being, existing, or occurring at this time or now (the definition of the noun is “the present time,” so you can just apply the definition of the adjective before “time”). So, basically, the present is an initial moment, not any time before or after that moment. In this sense, the present is simply a still moment in time, a picture. However, the phrase “live in the present,” seems to imply a close series of events. Therefore, it appears that this phrase is flawed in that it in fact includes at least a short period of the future and maybe a short period in the past. It is truly very abstract to think of living in the present, because doing so would mean living in a still picture, not moving or reacting or doing really anything.


Thus, I again ask the question: do we really ever live in the present. Well, if we define living as simply existing, then yes we can live in the present. However, if we define living as something more substantial – such as taking action, communicating with others, and making a difference – then no, we cannot live in the present. When we commonly think of living in the present, I think that we actually imply short term recognition of the past and present, such as simple cause and effect. For example, if you think of living in the present as focusing on just the day that you are currently living through, then you are still making plans for what to do later in the day and reflecting on what you have already done in order to decide to do certain things during the day. Even if you think of living in the present hour, there is still the impact of the events leading up to that hour and the effects of the decisions that you make within the hour. This can even apply to how you live through a minute, or even a second as the preceding events of your life guarantee your existence and your next breath continues your life. In mathematical terms, this is referring to the limit as x approaches 0. The present, I think, can be mathematically pictured as the limit as t (the variable for time) approaches 0. Theoretically, there is a still point that could be reached, known as the present, when t equals zero. However, there are an infinity number of non-zero variables that we can plug in that will get us closer and closer to the still point without actually reaching it. For example, within this graph below, f(0)=0.5, but f(0.1) is slightly less than 0.5, f(0.01) is very slightly less than 0.5, f(0.001) is even more slightly less than 0.5, and so on.


Therefore, it is my impression that the present is basically just a still moment; nothing more. However, another thing to think about is that we always have a delay of reaction as the nervous system takes time to transmit messages between your brain and the rest of your body. Within this video, Michael Stevens explains this thought very well. In a way, we are always living in the past.


So can we ever really live in the present? This is a much more difficult question than one would initially think. However, I think that much evidence points to an answer of no. Furthermore, living in the present does not seem as spectacular as I initially thought. The present is essentially just a picture, with no movement or action which involve the passing of time.


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by David J. Glowny

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