Humans, why can't you think more than 5 minutes beyond the present?

Illustration for article titled Humans, why can't you think more than 5 minutes beyond the present?

Though every child is taught about ancient history in school, rarely are we ever taught to plan for the future beyond our own lifetimes. What is holding us back from thinking about tomorrow? Philosopher JL Schellenberg has some ideas.


Image from Plants vs. Zombies

Schellenberg is the author of the book Evolutionary Religion, and last month he wrote a thoughtful essay for Aeon magazine about the problem that humans have thinking about deep time — especially deep future time. Deep time is a phrase often used to describe cosmological time, or the billions of years that the universe was around before humans evolved. It could also refer to the billions of years the Earth was around before our ancestors came down from the trees, or the hundreds of million years animals walked the planet before we did.

The fact is, as mind-stretching as deep time is as a concept, many of us take a few moments to try to grasp it. We enjoy thinking about the birth of the universe, for example. But we just can't seem to begin thinking about similar stretches of time in the future.

Writes Schellenberg in Aeon:

Looking forward from where we are into the abyss of future time, imagining what yet may be, is not something we're used to doing. But it's something I believe we ought deliberately to do much more often, in order to correct what amounts to an unbalanced outlook and to discover our place in time. To see things as they are includes seeing them as they will be, and that means picturing ourselves and our own position in time not as coming at the end, jutting out into empty space with nothing beyond, but as tucked in with manifestations of life both behind us and ahead of us. ...

Why has recognising the deep future been so difficult for humanity? Why, after discovering the place of the Earth in the solar system, the place of the solar system in the universe, the age of the Earth, the age of the universe, and evolution by natural selection over aeons of Earth's history, do we still need to be prodded to perform the simple act of turning around, to position ourselves to see both forward and back in time?

Read the rest of Schellenberg's essay at Aeon to see what mental mechanisms are holding us back from the deep future, and what we can do to get around them.



Like everything else, it's an evolutionary adaptation to help us reproduce. If we truly understood what a tiny flicker of time our lives occupy, and the yawing chasm of eternal oblivion that awaits us when we die, no one would bother having children and the race would die out.