Richard Feynman on the Distinction between Future and Past

“We have a different kind of awareness about what might happen than we have of what probably has happened”

In physicist Richard P. Feynman’s fifth lecture at Cornell University in 1959 he entertained for a moment the question of what distinguishes the future from the past. The lectures starts out with the following primer:

“It is obvious to everyone that the phenomena of the world are evidently irreversible. I mean, things happen that do not happen the other way. You drop a cup and it breaks, and you sit there a long time waiting for the pieces to come together and jumb back into your hand. If you watch the waves of the sea breaking, you can stand there and wait for the great moment when the foam collects together, rises up out of the sea, and falls back farther out from the shore - it would be very pretty!”

Of course, as Feynman proceeds to point out: this would never happen in the real world. In fact, if one played a video in reverse of this happening in the early days of cinema, the spontaneous reaction of the crowd would likely be laughter — an indication of its surreal nature.

“Even without an experiment, our very experiences inside are completely different for past and future”

Why is so that the progression of still water transformed into breaking waves is so perfectly natural, but the transformation of waves that have broken reversed into their previous state of perfect stillness is absurd? Why do we think of the future and past as different? Continue reading