We Don’t Remember the Future Imperfect

Author’s Note: I apologize, in advance, for mangling Spanish, misinterpreting quantum physics, and injecting so many puns into this essay.

Time is perfect. We are imperfect. We remember only the past. We don’t remember the future.

The past is always tense, the future perfect.

Zadie Smith

This quote from English novelist Zadie Smith is today’s provocative question (muchas gracias, Fandango). It suggests we remember the negatives and hope for the positives. The future hasn’t occurred, so it can be what our imagination creates. This is also a play on grammar, which is a subject much on my mind these days as I am attempting to learn Spanish. So, for me, the tense is confusing. The present might be more like the collapse of a wave, given that the arrow only goes one direction. But the Multiverses suggest that the arrows might go several directions, if we could but see them, and that would make the future perfect. Let me explain what I mean.

One view of the Multi-verse, photo of Into the Spider-verse by Sony Pictures

Tenses Are Difficult. Futures Are Also Difficult.

The use of the word Tense, in the sense of verbs and grammar, comes from the Old French word for time which was tens. That’s not to be confused with the current French word for time, temps; language has changed. Language, like time, moves forward (and collapses). The word does not refer to “tense” as in stretchiness, which comes from the Latin tendere. This is why Zadie Smith’s quote is a looping play on words, since it mixes emotions and grammatical expressions, and either deliberately or innocently uses them wrongly. Tense does not mean tension. It is a homophone. Which is intense. And perhaps what she intended.

We use verb tenses all the time without thinking about them much. English teachers don’t talk about grammar much anymore, but simply say, “this is how you are supposed to say it.” You only learn about tenses when you study another language.

I have been studying Spanish diligently, at least a half hour per day, since February. I have gone way past “Pedro está in la biblioteca“* and I am now into “Dejé mi traje en la tintoreía.”** But I have hit the wall on verb rules. I can barely remember the distinction between “ser” and “estar“–I understand the difference, but keep forgetting that being in a location, for Spanish-speakers, is different than being. Apparently, I am not really somewhere in the same the way that I am really. This smells like a wave function but– wait! not yet.

Conditional Past Crashes into the Perfect Conditional

If the vase had not been so expensive…
Si el florero no hubiera sido tan caro…
I would have bought it for my mother…
Lo habría comprado para mi madre.

Conditional past perfect (negated) and the Perfect Conditional

The Spanish lessons which used the conditional were the waves that wiped me out. I could not get it. Hubiera What? Hubiera Sido? Habia. Hubia. Ido. Sido. I could almost get the present perfect, “I have finished my work… he terminado mi trabajo…” and I could get the past “I told you…te lo dije…” But I could not get this conditional, especially when it marries the past and the perfect. I found it so difficult that I wrote it on a scrap of paper, hoping that if I looked at it repeatedly, that it would Go In. Success with these Spanish verbs is still a work-in-progress, an unknown and imperfect future.

Si yo hubiera sido mas capaz, ya lo habia aprendido.

The perfect tense is, in fact, not truly a future tense either, although there is such a thing as a future perfect tense. Perfect from a grammar standpoint is another homophone. It does not mean “good” or “ideal” but rather “finished” as in, “I perfected my Pickleball serve.” (Only in a potential wave function, though, not clearly the one I am currently in now.) The future perfect expresses something that will be finished, but is not finished yet. “I will have driven 200 miles by tomorrow.” The wave function will have collapsed, surely by then.

Fred …didn’t know what to think. His tendency to think of the world as a potentiality state awaiting the wave collapse of a decision now mocked him. Yes, the world was a fog of probabilities, yes, one could only learn partial truths by making decisions about what to do. Now it was time to make a decision.

from Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson, the book that I was in fact reading just last night

Collapse of the Wave Function Surfing on the Imperfect Future

OK, so time to dip our toe into just a little bit of quantum physics. This will set up ripples in the pond which interfere with each other, but we won’t have to calculate them. As I was pondering this idea of tenses and futures, I naturally started to think about this lecture series I heard once that tried to explain time. (Sean Carroll, Mysteries of Modern Physics, Great Courses) According to Professor Carroll, time is really just the measurement system, a common way we collectively measure the way that entropy moves forward rather than backward.

This is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which involves energy and math, but to put it simply, when you break the egg, it leaves the shell and spreads out and not the other way around. Perfume spreads in a room. It’s highly improbable, and I don’t know of any recorded cases otherwise, where perfume goes back in the bottle or where the omelette goes back into the eggshell. Reality seems to work in one direction.

Collapse of the Wave Function from afriedman.org

But once physicists started finding that gravity doesn’t work the way we think and that space and time could be variables, they also discovered weird things about electrons which might be there or somewhere else. You don’t know where the electron is until you look at it. There is a difference between what we see and what we can see. So there is this notion about a collapse of a wave function.

As afriedman.org puts it, the wave function is the mathematical answer of solving this Schrodinger Equation, “the key equation of quantum mechanics.” The wave function tells you where the particle is. When the wave function “collapses,” then you would have all the possibilities of where the particle might be turn into the real one, where it really is. If I had known where the electron was, I would have predicted the future correctly…Si hubiera sabido dónde estaba el electrón, habría predicho el futuro correctamente.

Apparently, though, the wave function collapsing creates contradictions like that objects don’t exist until we observe them. That’s called the Copenhagen Interpretation, the standard, perhaps simplistic, interpretation that I learned years ago. Schrodinger’s cat is both dead and not dead until we open the box, so perhaps it’s not even in there, until we open the box. (What is the verb tense for dead and not dead?) Anyway, the Many Worlds Interpretation tried to solve such a contradiction of “things aren’t there until we see them” by proposing that when we do the observation, we aren’t limited to the single outcome but rather that all possible outcomes exist somewhere. The wave function collapses to the one we see, but the other ones are actually all out there.

Multiverses Are Just So Last Year

If there are many worlds, then maybe there are multi-verses. Multiple possibilities. It has seemed to me, that if time can be a variable in an equation, then there could be multiple timelines. Certainly both physicists and science fiction writers for years have been taking the next logical step. Another way to come to the multiverse notion was, in fact, described by Professor Carroll and Jennifer Chen. They were trying to understand not only why time’s arrow went only one direction, but also why the Big Bang occurred.

How the Big Bang came about in the first place has been a hot debate for decades. Yes, religious proponents have an easy answer, but let’s suppose that God didn’t just press a button. How did all that hot, dense matter come together in the first place? One argument would be that it came together randomly in our universe because it’s just 1% of 1% of all the possible ways all the matter could be arranged in all the many universes that exist. There are so many universes (besides our own) which do exist that ours being created by a Big Bang wasn’t particularly likely but still could have occurred. All the particles randomly arranged themselves into this tiny singularity from which Boom! It’s improbable but not impossible, because there are so many other possibilities.

This Multiverse, unfortunately, isn’t testable. This has made many other scientists skeptical and antsy. When you look up Multiverse, the description shows there are as many critics as proponents. The skeptics argue that science must be testable, and theories which are untestable by definition are philosophically interesting but not scientifically so. Ergo, waste of time. The Multiverse is a slippery slope. In the Multiverse, there would be a universe where all the ills go flying back into Pandora’s box.

Therefore, the Multiverse is no longer trending. That is so last year. Moreover, once I started researching current information about grammar, wave functions, and the Multiverse, it became clear that these were all tips of giant icebergs. For example, the language Chinese allegedly doesn’t have tenses. (Actually it does, but they aren’t expressed in the verb but rather with other words and characters, draped on like fashion accessories.) Or that the Wave Function is still controversial. Or that the 2013 article I read about Multiverses just two weeks ago is completely outdated.

This search has shown me that Googling things is like going into a traffic circle where you never get out. You go into orbit around the idea or just end up taking an exit that puts you back where you started. The knowledge comes to you in a wave, but you must back out quickly before you are sucked in by the undertow. Some of the information will stay in your brain, so that gaining knowledge is like entropy. It only increases.

Pandora opens the box and Schrodinger’s cat is alive, next to the vase I bought for my mother.

After all, you can not unread this post.

*Peter is in the library.
**I left my suit at the dry cleaners.

*** Actually, it turns out that Zadie Smith often gets misquoted. While I have seen that portion cited, other sites show that the full quote is “…the wicked lie, that the past is always tense but the future perfect.” As Emily Latella would say, Never mind…

6 Replies to “We Don’t Remember the Future Imperfect”

  1. Interesting. When I came across the quote, it didn’t include the part about the wicked lie, but I googled it with that part included, and, along with different punctuation, it that does entirely change the interpretation of the quote.

    1. But then I wouldn’t have been able to write my post, which I’m now rather fond of. So thanks for finding what Might have been a misquote. I’ll never tell.

  2. As soon as I see the word grammar, I am in full retreat. When quantum anything is mentioned, my brain begins to look something like a spaghetti dinner. I appreciate the infusion of good humor even in the incomprehensible.

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