The tree ring model of time

Let’s add this “fourth take” to my Three Takes on Time, starting with a William Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun, 1951).

Pushing off of the linear model, our conventional way of looking at time – with the past as a thread disappearing into some distant space that no longer exists – is actually counterintuitive. Doesn’t it make more sense to see the past as something very much still with us, but at a depth, providing the real-time substructure of the present, just as the rings of a tree do not disappear as years go by but rather continue to provide the real-time substructure of the tree? Indeed, the rings are the tree! In the same way, the cultural “past” is not gone, but is right here, at a depth, providing in real time all the folds and substructure without which the cultural present would collapse as a paper-thin surface with nothing underneath. Doesn’t this make more sense?

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22 thoughts on “The tree ring model of time

  1. As Joni Mitchell sang: “He’s got me thinking about the future and worrying about the past.” So yes we carry that past with us at all times. Your fourth take re-enforces the notion that time is to some extent just a construct. But while my past memories (or more accurately the stories I tell myself about the past which make up that “memory”—whether objectively accurate or not) may make up ‘who I am’ in some sense, I cannot literally live in the past. So I don’t see your fourth take as a model of time. It may be a model of how we carry time with us. That may be a distinction without merit but I’ll have to think about it more, as time goes by. MTT

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    • You can’t live in the past just as the tree can’t change its rings once they’re layered in. Your everyday consciousness evolved as a function of the surface (where the tree interfaces to the world – the outer bark that is in the process of forming the next ring). But all the other rings are still here — at a depth. Whether viewing the past as something still here but at a depth is a model of time in its own right – I guess we’ll have to think through the implications to determine whether it merits that status. So keep thinking (and I will too).

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  2. The human mind is capable of boundless modeling to take it where it wants to go (and often away from its individual expiration date). It seems so infinitely capable as to compare with the universe itself. Acorn and tree???

    “Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but man needs both.”

    – Fritjof Capra

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