Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed in his end of year press conference on December 23 that while most American pollsters were predicting a Hillary Clinton win, only the Russians “knew” that Donald Trump was going to be elected president.
How did the Russians know? How was Putin so sure if he had no way of tampering with the voting process itself? Did any personal psychics whisper in his ear? Has Grigori Rasputin risen from the dead? Don’t psychics just guess the future based on patterns that tend to repeat in nature or in human affairs?
Actually seeing the future, and not just guessing, would involve time reversal. When we see an object or an event, light rays do not shoot out of our eyes like Superman’s X-ray vision. Light originates at the objects and registers on our retinas. This initiates a cascade of chemical and electrical events that our brains interpret as sight.
If a signal originated in the future and bypassed our retinas while registering on our brains, could we in some psychic way just know the future? The future would in some way have to reach back and rearrange molecules in a person’s brain in order for him or her to actually know the future.
It is often said that physics is time reversible when dealing with elementary particles. Time’s arrow is revealed through entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics because of the interaction of particles with one another. Particles seem to somehow “register” the presence of other particles and lock in their time direction.
Yet according to a thought experiment in quantum physics by Israeli physicist Yakir Aharonov, the future may be able to affect the past. According to the researchers, the rules of the quantum world may conspire because of nonlocality and entanglement to preserve causality by hiding the influence of future choices until those choices have been made. Supposedly, an experimenter’s choice of a measurement can affect the states that the particles were in at an earlier time.
Experiments by physicist Kater Murch with the qubit supported Aharonov’s conclusions. We’ll see if future experiments do the same.
The BaBar experiment at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California confirmed that some particle processes have a preferred direction in time. So there is some evidence for time asymmetry even for subatomic particles.
I have always been suspicious of paranormal studies that seek to explain prophetic abilities outside known laws of physics. For example, some studies have claimed distinct changes in brain activity, heart rate, and pupil dilation one to 10 seconds before an event as evidence that the event was somehow anticipated before any sensory input. This so-called “presentiment” result seemed to indicate that our bodies can subconsciously sense the future even without sensory cues. It’s amazing, if true, but many scientists remain skeptical and await further studies.
I conducted an interesting personal experiment two or three decades ago. I took a coin, closed my eyes, and waited until a clear heads or tails image appeared in my mind’s eye. Then I flipped the coin. I decided ahead of time that I would repeat this process exactly 5 times. To my horror, I got it right 5 out of 5 times. It scared me so much that I threw down the coin and walked away. I had a 50/50 chance on each toss of getting it right, but the odds seem highly unlikely that I could have gotten it right 5 times in a row. I told no one except my wife.
In subsequent years, I’ve sometimes asked myself, “Was I afraid of the implications of my experiment’s results or was I afraid that I would have gotten it wrong on the sixth toss?” I’m not sure of the answer. It will suffice to say that I’ve never repeated the experiment.
As Carl Sagan often said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I admit that we have not discovered all of nature’s laws. Quantum mechanics displays phenomena that we still do not yet understand. As John Archibald Wheeler once so poetically expressed, we live on an island surrounded by an infinite sea of ignorance, and as our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.
In our everyday world, the past always precedes the future. Yet what is possible when dealing with infinity? Can cause and effect really work backwards in time? Can the future actually reach back and determine the past? Could future events retroactively rearrange physical molecules in our brains so we then could know what the future would be? The answers seem obvious in our everyday world.
Imagine a world where time really did flow in the opposite direction. We would be born from graves and then become progressively stronger and more youthful-looking until we ended our lives inside a woman by separating into female and male gametes. In either time direction, our lives would still end. In a time-reversed world, beings would not think that anything was unusual. Time would appear to flow smoothly into the future although the sequence of events would just be opposite to our world.
If the future can determine the past, then may a beautiful future reach back and at least create a wonderful present because we’ve already seen the past and it wasn’t so good.
We may have to settle for the way the laws of nature made us and our world. Starting life in my warm, cozy mother instead of the cold ground seems nicer.
I have enjoyed a fruitful life. Gaining vast wealth by being able to see the future might make me behave like Donald J. Trump or Vladimir Putin. So I’m okay with one direction for time in our world – at least for now.
You may write to Yoeli Kaufman at email@example.com