It’s about time!

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future!”
— attributed variously to Yogi Berra and to Niels Bohr

By the time you get to the end of this essay, you may be wondering whether Berra got the phrase from Bohr, or Bohr picked it up from a premonition of a Yogi-ism to come.

My thesis is that while all of today’s science is rooted in the paradigm that influence flows only from past cause to future effect, tomorrow’s science will include ways in which the future can influence the past.

In human cultures, predestination and divination have always been part of the way that people think about the world. The idea that causality is a one-way street can be traced to the relatively recent influence of Albert Einstein. But there is room in quantum physics for retrocausality, as we shall see, and there is plenty of evidence for precognition in biological and psychological experiments. Perhaps you, yourself have had dreams that foretold your future.

Causality in classical physics

“If we knew the position and velocity of all the molecules in the world at a given moment, and if we could also solve the equations of motion, we would be able to predict all future history with perfect accuracy.”   — Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)

Poincaré did not live to see the quantum revolution, in which an element of randomness is added to the physics; because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty, the future is only determined by the past only at the macroscopic level, but not in atomic detail. Indeterminacy is a requisite feature of quantum physics, but we now have some intriguing experiments, hinting that quantum randomness is not really random. Is there room for destiny to slip into the interstices of quantum indeterminacy? Is it possible that there are some ways — outside of today’s scientific mainstream — in which the future reaches into the past to create itself?

From one stage of our being to the next
We pass unconscious o’er a slender bridge,
The momentary work of unseen hands,
Which crumbles down behind us; looking back,
We see the other shore, the gulf between,
And, marvelling how we won to where we stand,
Content ourselves to call the builder Chance.

— James Russell Lowell

Einstein’s Proscription

Einstein gave us our modern idea about the physical relationship of past to future in the form of the Principle of Locality. His Special Relativity (1905) introduced an ambiguity in the time ordering of events. I might observe event A occurring before B, and you (if you are moving very fast from my perspective) might observe, with equal validity, that in your framework B occurred before A. Einstein was worried about paradoxes that might arise if, for example, A could cause B but B could prevent A.

Einstein’s resolution was in the famous dictum that no signal can propagate faster than light. The ambiguity about whether A precedes B or vice versa only arises if A and B are close in time and distant in space. Einstein’s proscription insures that in this case, A cannot influence B, and B cannot influence A — so the ambiguity about which event came before the other never gets us into logical difficulty. The time ordering is moot, and it is harmless that you and I disagree about which came first.

We may credit Einstein for this theme in our scientific culture: we always think in terms of the past producing the future, and never the other way around. For example, in the scientific literature of evolutionary biology, we regard teleology with suspicion. Teleology means direction toward a goal, and it is an axiom of today’s evolutionary theory that evolution is never goal-directed, even though the biological systems that derive from evolution are highly purposeful.

Destiny has always been integral to our mythos

Humans are goal-oriented creatures, and humans have always imagined that Nature is the same.

There is an idea for this essay that calls to me, and my typing on the keyboard in the present can be understood as motivated by the finished essay you are reading in the future. We can look at a bridge over San Francisco Bay and attribute the riveters’ work and the engineers’ work and even the miners of iron, nickel and chromium as “caused” by the goal of a finished bridge.

Homer tells us that Cassandra knew exactly what would happen to Troy if Paris were to bring Helen home from Greece. Paris found out the hard way.

When Croesus visited the Oracle at Delphi, she correctly foresaw the consequence of his military exploits.

Before the reading of tea leaves or heat-cracked tortoise shells, the I Ching was throughout East Asia used as a springboard for the reader’s unconscious to reveal the likely course of future events.

Like gravity, the Dao is weak, but firm
We’re bound for paradise at end of day
But we may choose our path along The Way —
We walk or crawl or dance or march or squirm.
The Dao conveys a message, deep and true
Without prescribing what we are to do.

As dramatized by Sophocles, Oedipus was fated at birth to kill his father and marry his mother. Learning of the prophecy, King Laius tied the feet of his infant son and left him on a mountainside to die. But this very deed was incorporated into the prophecy, as the boy was discovered by a shepherd and raised without knowledge of his birth parents. Hence, he was deprived of the upbringing that would certainly have prevented his crime.

Myth is continuous with history right up through the present day.

In the 16th Century, Nostradamus wrote in a coded language that was interpreted centuries later predicting as the French Revolution and the Atomic Bomb. In the 19th Century, Helena Blavatsky was not only an esoteric scholar but also a seer in her own right. Rasputin predicted the Russian Revolution. Edgar Cayce was the most famous clairvoyant of the 20th Century, but he was long gone by the time Ted Owens predicted the 1986 Challenger disaster and tried desperately to prevent the launch. Christopher Robinson is still alive, still consulted by Scotland Yard, still dreaming about violent events before they occur.

Destiny and augury have been themes of every human culture for as far back as we have a written history; maybe it is a temporary anomaly that destiny has no place in our science.

Logical consistency: The Grandfather Paradox

Is there a logical problem with messages sent from the future to the past? Einstein thought so. He was motivated to articulate the Principle of Locality and weave it into the rules of relativistic mechanics because he imagined himself in the role of an experimentalist, using his free will to construct a paradox.

If he could travel to the past, he could strangle his grandfather in the crib, and then how would he come to be? and who was it who strangled his grandfather? Equally well, if he could signal the past, he might send a message that caused someone else to kill his grandfather.

Philosophers today think this is not necessarily a paradox. They reason: there is only one history of the world, and it is self-consistent. Einstein did not murder his grandfather, hence he was able to live. Our present world may be contingent on — may be influenced by — future events. It is what it is because it will be what it will be. As long as the whole history is self-consistent, there is no paradox.

Can this be reconciled with free will? We all have the experience (or is it illusion?) that we may freely decide what to do in the unfolding moment. If we have access to the past, then everything we do and everything we will choose to do is already reflected in the past that is recorded. We have the freedom to act, and our free choices from the future — to the extent that they signal the past — are already encoded in the past as it has been recorded.

What is the scientific evidence for an effect of the future on the past?

Bell’s Theorem

Einstein was never reconciled to the randomness in quantum mechanics and regarded it as an indication that there was something extra in the present, something which we cannot observe that completes the determination of the future by the past. “God does not play dice.” Beginning in 1935, he published a thought experiment arguing that the information necessary to determine the future was already here in the present, even if our experiments have no access to that information.

Bohr rebutted Einstein’s argument at the time, but it was not until 1964, nine years after Einstein’s death, that a nail was placed in the coffin of the idea of “hidden variables” that determine the future. This was the mathematical demonstration by John Bell that theories based on “hidden variables” must always produce results that are different from the predictions of quantum mechanics. Subsequent verification that quantum mechanics correctly predicts the statistical results in these experiments completes the proof that hidden variable theories are not viable. These experiments were the subject of the 2022 Nobel Prize for Physics.

But Bell’s Theorem has a loophole. Hidden variables can be consistent with the findings of quantum physics if the hidden variables are not constrained by localityRemember that “locality” is Einstein’s formulation of the axiom that the future cannot influence the past. Bell implicitly demonstrated that quantum mechanics as presently understood includes an influence of the future on the present. We never notice this influence because it is washed out in the statistics. The retrocausal effect always occurs under cover of quantum randomness, so it can never be detected statistically. No signal can be sent from future to past, even in the form of a statistical pattern. Nevertheless, Bell’s proof assures us that that influence actually exists.

From this, we can see that standard quantum mechanics opens a window to the possibility of retrocausality, and we can see why, in all his decades of attention to quantum randomness, Einstein never discovered Bell’s insight. Through his entire career, Einstein grounded his thinking in a one-way causal connection between past and future.

Anthropic Coincidences

Physicists take numbers like the speed of light (c) and the charge on an electron (e) and the strength of gravity (G) as arbitrary numbers that just happen to be what they are. We measure them and then use them in our equations. But in 1979, an article appeared in Nature, co-authored by Britain’s most eminent astronomer, that noted a curiosity: If any of these numbers had been just a little different, then the universe would have been very different indeed. The universe would have been a dull place, for one reason or another. There would be no chemical elements except hydrogen, or there would be no stars, or the Big Bang would expand and contract again so quickly that there was no time for evolution. One way or another, life would have been impossible.

Philosophers and physicists have been scratching their heads over the “anthropic coincidences” ever since. The term “anthropic” comes from a theme that threads through these narratives: The constants of physics are what they are because if the numbers had been any different, we humans would not be here to measure them.

But what kind of reasoning is this? From the sound of it, it seems explicitly teleological: The constants were given their values in order to make life possible. The culture of present day science bristles at this kind of logic. In the mainstream of physics and astronomy, the conventional explanation for the Anthropic Coincidences has been reframed: There are a large number of universes — an unimaginably large number of universes. Each universe has its own unique laws of physics and within those laws is embedded a unique set of physical constants. The vast majority of such universes are not capable of supporting life. In this “multiverse” of universes, the occurrence of laws and constants that are favorable for life is extremely rare; and yet, it is no accident that we find ourselves in one of these rare universes. All those other universes are uninhabited, so no one is there to think scientifically or to measure the constants. Because we are who we are, it is inevitable that we are sampling one of these rare universes that can support life.

To be fair to the scientists who think this way, I note that none of them likes this situation. Everyone is uncomfortable with a science that needs to posit unobservables, and the need for so many redundant universes is an embarrassment to any theory.

And yet, the mainstream has preferred this picture to the alternative. For my money, I’d prefer to buy teleology. I say: if the price of eliminating teleology from our science is a googol* of hypothetical universes, for which there is no other evidence and no possibility of observation, ever — then maybe it’s time to give teleology another chance.

Three books on this subject were written by Frank TiplerMartin Rees, and Paul Davies.

Life’s origin

(This section condensed from what I wrote last month.)

Darwinian evolution might explain all of life’s complexity, including all the adaptations that give the appearance of purpose and function. But how did the process get its start? Before evolution was operational, how did the first living system arise on a lifeless earth? At a minimum, the story of genetic variation and natural selection must begin with a system that is capable of copying itself. Where did that first self-replicating system come from?

It has been known since the mid Twentieth Century that all life on earth is based on the same biochemistry. Nucleic acids store information about how to build proteins that are the workhorses of metabolism. Fatty lipids provide membranes that enclose cells and compartments within cells.

The most famous experiment on the origin of life was performed in 1952 by Harold Urey and Stanley Miller. They filled a flask with carbon dioxide, water, methane, and ammonia — simple, inorganic molecules that are thought to have been common on early earth, before there was life. They simulated the action of lightning with electric discharges in the mixture, and they analyzed the soup of compounds that were created. Eureka! There were amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, in the mixture. This was an auspicious beginning for scientists who sought to understand the origin of life on earth.

But since 1952, there has been little progress, and growing recognition of the difficulties in life’s origin. Amino acids are easy to make, but they are difficult to hook together into functional proteins. Water inhibits the process. Nucleic acids, the building blocks of DNA, are not observed in experiments like that of Miller and Urey. And each unit of DNA contains not just the nucleic acid but also a 5-carbon sugar, also difficult to synthesize, and a connecting phosphate group, which does not want to fall naturally into place.

In all of today’s life on earth, proteins can only form based on instructions from DNA; and DNA cannot reproduce itself without a protein molecule, a type of enzyme called a “replicase”. We have a chicken-and-egg problem.

To address this problem, we would have to have a single molecule that is capable both of storing information and also of chemical catalysis (= facilitating chemical reactions). RNA is such a molecule. As a repository of information, RNA works the same way as DNA, with four nucleic acid bases. And there are many known RNAs, called ribozymes, that act as biochemical catalysts, though their functions are far less diverse and their operation less specific than protein enzymes.

This leads to the popular hypothesis that the first living things were made only of RNA, without either DNA or proteins. There is a substantial literature about the RNA World. RNA strands can pair in unique ways, providing a path to replication. But there are also big problems with this model.

●      Building blocks of RNA each contain a 5-carbon sugar, a phosphate group, and a nucleotide (G, C, A, or U). Synthesizing a single building block from inorganic components is a daunting problem. It is hard to imagine even single molecules of the full building block occurring naturally.

●      RNA molecules are far more fragile than DNA, so there is a risk they might fall apart in an early earth environment before they can chain together and replicate.

●      RNA has not been observed to replicate without a protein (“replicase”), even in the presence of abundant nucleic acid monomers.

●      The smallest RNA molecule that has been observed in even a very rudimentary form of replication is 200 nucleotides in length. There are more possible combinations for 200-base sequences than there are atoms in the Universe.

This experiment represents the most advanced self-replicating RNA system in the literature of the RNA world. An RNA molecule of length 200 nucleotides is able to reassemble pieces of itself to re-form the full sequence. You may regard it as a glass half full or a glass half empty. Half full: it is true self-assembly much smaller and simpler than a cell. Half empty: each of the substrings of  RNA is far too complex to ever arise by chance anywhere in the universe over the course of 13 billion years. The system these scientists have engineered is not able to assemble individual nucleotides, and even if it could, individual nucleotides are difficult to form and don’t last very long.

The minimum requirement to jumpstart evolution is some set of chemicals that mutually help one another to make copies of themselves. Biochemists who do this research call this set a “hypercycle”, and much effort has gone into engineering a hypercycle. Despite 70 years of attention by some of the best minds in biochemistry, no one has been able to engineer a hypercycle, freely incorporating all the biochemicals that the present biosphere provides; to demonstrate how such a combination might arise in a pre-biotic world would be a further scientific leap.

We are dangerously close to a proof, a demonstration that the simplest reproducing chemical system could not have arisen by chance ever, anywhere. The problem of life’s origin is not just unsolved, it may be unsolvable within the limits of chemistry as we presently understand it.

This topic has been a subject of acrid debate between Christian fundamentalists who see the handiwork of Jehovah and “skeptics” who insist that present-day science must have a solution. Dear reader, I respect you enough to expect that you are able to set aside your Biblical or anti-Biblical views and look at the science and the evidence without prejudice.

Am I saying that Life reached into the deep past to bias the laws of quantum chemistry in a way that brought chemicals together on the primordial Earth and kickstarted the first evolving systems, and thus did Life create itself? Am I saying that Life chose the physical laws and fundamental constants of physics and brought forth a Universe as home for its future self? These propositions seem so strange that they grate on our scientific sensibilities, but I believe that this way of thinking or, more probably, something much stranger will be embraced by science before we have an understanding commensurate with these great unsolved problems – the anthropic coincidences and the origin of life.

The PEAR Lab experiments

Robert Jahn was an aerospace engineer and Dean of the Princeton University School of Engineering in 1976 when one of his undergraduate students turned in a term paper that seemed to demonstrate with high statistical probability that telepathy was real. Like the great majority of scientists and engineers, Jahn had a belief system within which telepathy was impossible. But he was an empirical scientist, with a mindset that observations have the last word, no matter the theories that they might falsify. So he was motivated to replicate his student’s experiment with his own rigorous techniques and strict controls.

From there, the story became curiouser and curiouser. Jahn was flummoxed by the positive results from his first experiments in parapsychology, and hired Brenda Dunne, a PhD psychologist who was already a believer in psi, to run a laboratory program within the School of Engineering, setting a new standard for clean engineering design and rigorous control in experimental parapsychology. From 1979 to 2007, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab collected data on many facets of the relationship between mind and matter.

In the PEAR Lab’s signature experiments, volunteers from the community would be asked to sit in front of a system that generated random numbers from quantum noise and try to bias the output either up or down. For any given session, the effect of human intention was small enough to be lost in the noise, but over the years, the effect accumulated to a high degree of statistical significance.

Over 120,000 trials, the difference between “think high” and “think low” was more than 6 standard deviations, equivalent to odds against chance on the order of a billion to one. In a variation on this experiment, a pinball apparatus was used with a cascade of balls bouncing through a grid of pins, landing in one of 19 bins at the bottom. The “operator” was asked to use his mental intention to shift the distribution of balls to the left or to the right. Results were even more highly significant than the experiment based on random electronic noise.

This experiment is not explicitly about the future influencing the past (other PEAR Lab experiments did that), but it does establish with the rigor of a bona fide rocket scientist and with overwhelming statistical certainty that what quantum mechanics regards as “random” events are not really random. The evidence implies either a new physical effect emanating from the brain, or a link between quantum physics and a non-physical realm of the mind.

Living systems can do some things that machines cannot

Do biological systems exploit physical mechanisms that physicists have yet to discover? Or is life a fundamental organizing principle of the universe, with subtle effects that lurk within our observed physics? Should we regard biology as equally fundamental as physics, or perhaps more fundamental?

I have friends who had vivid dreams of violence and destruction the night before the 9/11 attacks. Abraham Lincoln dreamed of his own death during several nights preceding his murder. As recounted in a biography by Albert Paine, Mark Twain describes a prescient dream in which he saw the body of his brother, Henry Clemens, in a metal casket with a red rose on his chest two weeks before his brother died in a boiler-room explosion and he actually saw his brother’s body as he dreamed it, complete with rose.

Such stories are compelling motivation for investigation of precognition, but it is hard to evaluate their significance as grounds for a scientific paradigm shift. Science demands reproduction under controlled conditions.

In 2011, Daryl Bem broke through the taboo against publication of parapsychological results in mainstream psychology journals. Since then, a substantial body of data has accumulated supporting the thesis that people have unconscious presentiments of future events. Experiments in which ordinary people are asked to describe in words something that will occur in the future are largely unconvincing, though a few extraordinary people seem to have a gift for doing this. The experiments that have consistently provided positive results are based on subconscious responses, including physiologic measures (like heartbeat and perspiration) and protocols asking for instant responses, before the subject has had time to consider the prompt with the deliberative mind.

In one type of experiment, random photos are presented to the experimental subject, while his galvanic skin response (GSR = sweating) and EKG (heart rate) are monitored. Pictures that are violent or arousing are mixed in among pictures with neutral affective content. Of course, the EKG and GSR easily detect most people’s emotional response after they view an upsetting photo. The surprising result is that there is, on average, a small anticipatory signal; beginning several seconds before the upsetting photo appears, EKG and GSR begin to change, and this does not happen with the emotionally neutral photos.

In another of Bem’s experiments, people are asked to recall as many words as they can from a list that is read to them. Of course, rehearsing with some subset of words before the test dramatically increases the rate of recall for those particular words. But, surprisingly, rehearsing in this way after the recall test seems also to improve performance retroactively on just those words that were practiced after the test.

These examples were drawn from a review by Mossbridge and Radin (2018). They concluded:

“The full epistemological and ontological consequences of time-reversed influences are not yet clear, but one implication is that the experimental sciences may soon be faced with a troubling dilemma: Time-reversed effects, if they exist, cannot be prevented by any currently known experimental controls. As we have seen in this review, several classes of experiments have demonstrated time-reversed anomalies under tightly controlled protocols. Accordingly, our most cherished epistemologies may be unavoidably influenced by future outcomes.”

Mossbridge and Radin are telling us that all of our methodologies of science and the precautions we take in controlling experiments are rooted implicitly in the assumption that the future cannot influence the past. Science will never be the same.

Of course, they are correct.


Present-day physical theory is about the way the past determines the future, with an element of randomness thrown in. Quantum “randomness” is a window for explanation in which we might expect a future science to flourish. We know from the PEAR experiments of Jahn and Dunne that there are relationships linking “randomness” to thoughts, intentions, and events in the larger world; the randomness cannot be really random. Bell’s Theorem tells us that the randomness may encode effects from a larger world, including events that have yet to happen — an  influence of the future on the past.

We trace the wisdom to the apple’s fall,
Not to the soul of Newton, ripe with all
The hoarded thoughtfulness of earnest years,
And waiting but one ray of sunlight more
To blossom fully….But whence came that ray?
We call our sorrows Destiny, but ought
Rather to name our high successes so.
Only the instincts of great souls are Fate,
And have predestined sway

— James Russell Lowell

When Isaac Newton confessed to standing on the shoulders of giants, was he thinking about the past masters who laid the foundations for his mathematical mechanics? Or was there a premonition of future giants, of Maxwell and Einstein and Schrödinger, calling him from the future, providing him with the insights they would one day need as a launching pad for their own work?

The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living. — Henri Poincaré

2 thoughts on “It’s about time!”

  1. One thing left out of the equations about life’s beginnings etc is eternity in time, which is not only never ending, as religiosity tells us, but also never beginning. Please meditate on that, as an experiment.

    • Gerald –
      You’re right that I don’t know how to think about eternity. As a physicist, I think of “infinity” differently from the way mathematicians think about it. Infinity as a mathematical concept is the literal infinity, off the scale, no matter what your scale. But to a physicist, infinity is a relative concept. It just means “off the present scale” and that present scale is determined by context.
      Think of what it means to “focus your eyes at infinity”. It doesn’t mean that you’re looking at something so far away that light from that object will never reach you. It just means focus on a point that’s so far away that, in comparison, the focal length of your eyeball is negligible.
      In the present context, what would it mean for the universe to be infinitely old? It means that even if the probability of matter coming together to create a living cell is too small for it to ever happen in 13 billion years, it might happen if the universe is really 10^100 years old. I can’t see why this is NOT a viable hypothesis. It feels to me much like the idea of 10^100 different universes, since our remote past so long ago is so difficult to study that it might as well be a separate universe.


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