‘Faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’ This bible quote from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 13, verse 13) is famous enough to be widely known beyond the ranks of Theology alumni. Present, past and future are equally inseparable. After all, all pasts were once futures, and the same goes for every present. By the same token, all our futures will eventually become the present before fading into the past. In analogy to Paul’s classic quote, I found myself wondering: which of the three is the most important? And which is there more of?
I’ll leave that last question to the philosophers. Is there more future, or more past? Anyone who read the IPCC climate reports last summer would be tempted to answer: more past. Still, that’s a very human perspective. Having spent some 200,000 increasingly reckless years on Earth, humanity may be past the halfway mark. Still, the Big Bang happened 14 billion years ago (a rounded number, I’m told). Let’s say you’ve got a sandbox with 70,000 grains of time sand: one of them would represent mankind’s entire history. (We should point out that a sandbox containing 70,000 grains really isn’t much of a sandbox. If you assume each grain is 1 cubic millimetre — which is already quite large — 70,000 grains would equal 70 cubic centimetres, which isn’t much bigger than a Rubik’s cube. The universe will have some way to go after we’re gone. If time never ends, there will always be more future than there is past. After all, time has a starting point. That means the amount of past is finite, and the amount of future is infinite.
The question is: which of the three is best? Which is of most use to us? The present is an indivisibly small moment. Infinitesimally small, as a mathematician would say. Our life is the sum total of an infinite number of infinitely short presents. While you may only have one past and one future, you will have experienced an infinite amount of presents while reading this article! To be honest, you shouldn’t really try to live in the past anyway. We’ll just keep it at those three then: the past, the present and the future. But the greatest of these is the present.
Jan Beuving studied at Utrecht University for nine years, completing a Bachelor's programme in Mathematics (2008) and a Master’s programme in the History and Philosophy of Science (2009). After that, he became a comedian and cabaret artist. See janbeuving.nl for his performance schedule. See the archive of the columns Jan wrote for previous editions of Illuster.