How Do You Prove the Past Existed?

Time machineHave you ever seen a disagreement where one party claims something happened in the past and the other party says, “Prove it!”? I have. But how do you prove the past exists? I mean, how do you know you’re not the only truly living being, trapped in a virtual reality manipulated by a giant computer that creates and destroys the world just beyond your horizons?

The past doesn’t exist in a virtual world. It can only exist as part of a real world. But if that is the case, then can time pass in a virtual world? How many times can you relive, replay an event if no time is passing?

Such questions creep into the minds of many young people. Am I real? Why do I exist? What is my purpose? Why am I here?

It’s a bit unnerving to realize that, from an evolutionist’s viewpoint, you’re only here for the sake of passing on DNA that you didn’t even create. It’s someone else’s DNA that you inherited. Maybe, if you’re a lucky 1-in-whatever random winner, your DNA does include an actual minute, miniscopic mutation that signifies you rather than all the moms and dads who led down the evolutionary chain to you.

We have the relics of the past all around us. Every tool and utensil we use was made at some point in the past. If you make a tool as you read this sentence, by the time you read the next sentence the tool has become a relic of the past. Your memory serves to remind you that you created the tool, and you know as the seconds tick by how far in the past the moment of construction lies behind you.

Time is an ever-moving conveyor belt for us from which we cannot jump. We are trapped in the present, forever moving toward a future we cannot see or grasp, always leaving behind a past we can no longer touch or interact with. The past becomes fixed in the wink of the mind’s eye.

Stephen King tried to dismiss that past with his book The Langoliers, who eat everything that human time leaves behind (what would be their evolutionary purpose?). Isaac Asimov tried to dismiss time travel as being contrary to the evolution of human experience with his book The End of Eternity. If we can step outside of Time, we’ll try to manipulate it and use it to our personal advantage. But doing so will destroy us or doom us to a destruction we cannot foresee or prevent — except as it was imagined for us by people who wondered what it would mean if we could look at the past from the present with the ability to touch the past.

There are few people left alive who actually remember the First World War. There are no people alive who remember the Franco-Prussian War, the 1848 revolutions that rocked Europe, or the Napoleonic Wars. So we have no living memories of those wars. One day, there will be no living memories of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Korean War.

Living memory of an event is a bridge between the event and the future perception (and subsequence comprehension) of the event. An event has four stages of life: occurrence, living recollection of the occurrence, indirectly confirmed recollection of the occurrence, lost recollection of the occurrence.

We lose recollection when we lose evidence or record of an event. For example, on what day was the city of Athens founded? Who were the founders? Why did they choose that location to build their homes? Why did they leave their former homes? We have no way of knowing the answers to these questions.

Archaeology can give us estimates of when such events might have happened. It can also provide us with clues about what the founding of Athens would have entailed in the way of clearing land, architectural practices, maybe even number of people. But the archaeological record is not a historical record — not in the sense that actual knowledge of an event is preserved.

We learn through archaeology what might have happened, what sort of happened, but rarely what actually did happen. If an archaeologist uncovers a monument that tells the tale of a great battle or campaign by a long-forgotten king, we recover some of our indirect recollection of the event. But it’s only a matter of time before the indirect recollection is lost again.

If the dinosaurs had ever achieved the means to pass on knowledge of past events, that knowledge has long since been lost to the perception of mankind. Perhaps the descendants of those dinosaurs sing songs we cannot comprehend that speak about great deeds and empires the like of which we cannot comprehend. Let us assume for a moment that the turtles preserve more ancient knowledge than we have accumulated thus far. We are slaughtering turtles by the million every year. One day, there may be no more turtles among us.

And on that day, when the last turtle closes its eyes and breathes no more, the last living memory of the recollection of the dinosauric past will have left Earth forever. We may subsequently be able to make some guesses about the great turtle empire that ranged across what are now Africa and South America millions of years ago, but we’ll have no way of studying the remnants of living turtle culture, which is a descendant of that ancient empire, which was a descendant of the great dinosauric epoch that gave rise to civilizations we cannot even imagine.

Do you feel I’m being too imaginitive? Do you feel there was never any such turtle civilization? Prove it. You cannot prove it never happened because we have no way of determining whether turtles actually preserve shreds of a once historical past. We barely understand turtles.

Let’s look at something more controversial, if only because of its popularity. Who built the pyramids? Some people believe they were engineered by a lost civilization, perhaps the remnants of a space-faring civilization. Most people accept what archaeologists tell us: that the various pyramids of Egypt and central America were built by human civilizations living within the past few thousand years, and that the basic pyramid structures were developed independently of each other. It’s not that great a leap of the imagination to accept these explanations.

But how do we really know that the historical cultures which are generally believed to have built the pyramids were not in fact influenced by older cultures? In reality, our science does claim that those pyramid-building cultures were influenced by predecesor cultures. The pyramid builders had to learn their basic architectural, construction, and organizational skills from someone. They didn’t just make them up (how do we know?). They inherited traditional knowledge from their forebears.

But we don’t know how much they knew. In fact, we still struggle to explain how people without knowledge of steam power, metallurgy, or even the wheel were able to transport and arrange massive stone blocks. The Egyptians at least had knowledge of the wheel, and used it, but we have yet (so far as I know) to discover any evidence of use of the wheel in central America.

Our inhitions in reconstructing the past limit our ability to understand it. While I cannot make a convincing case for space aliens colonizing Earth (and have no wish to), it is clear that we are only guessing that every flat stone rectangular surface we find in an ancient mud hut may have had some religious significance.

Religious icons permeate our modern culture. Many households, even in the United States and western Europe, include special alcoves where figures of Christ, Buddha, or other ancient leaders are gathered beside books, pictures, and other memorabilia associated with our personal devotions. As our ancestors did, so do we, and things really haven’t changed much over 6,000 years.

But was every flat surface used as an altar? Was every little ceramic figurine used for worship, to represent fertility, or to enhance a hunter’s mojo? Could it be that ancient women just liked little knick-knacks and doodads?

Coming forward, we have many relics from past wars in the form of letters, books written within the lifetimes of the survivors, pictures, drawings, and more that commemorate the past and preserve its memory. Our knowledge of the recent past is thus more reliable than our knowledge of the distant past. There is less guesswork involved. But we still have debates and doubts. Did Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, really die on a little island from which he could not escape, or did he live out the rest of his days in secrecy? Historians are generally convinced that they know his fate, but many people wonder.

And now we come forward to living memory, and the Second World War. Millions of people remain alive who experienced or witnessed or helped unveil the Holocaust. But the testimony of those witnesses is discounted by millions more people around the world who don’t want to believe the Holocaust happened. At some point, those doubters or their successors may allege that the Second World War didn’t happen, either.

How do you cloud the reality of a massive war? You do it with time. In time, all the records we have today — the millions of books, videos, DvDs, and other incidental testimonial devices — will eventually fade, crumble, or be lost and destroyed. In time, everything we take for granted will be gone, not even a relic in some living creature’s house.

If the evolutionary vision is laid out correctly, the day will come when the last speechless human descendant closes his or her eyes, breathes his or her last breath, and takes away the last vestige of whatever cultural memory was passed down by a forgetful, unwitting chain of parents.

We bury our past out of convenience, for political motivations that won’t even matter in 100 years. And who is to say that the dinosaurs did not do the same?