(University of Cambridge Philosophy Entrance Exam Essay. My Practice. 40 Minutes. Hope it is informative and interesting.)
I will argue that the future is not open in any sense in which the past is not. But, instead, the past is open in the way that the future is not, and only by changing the past, can the future be radically changed.
Here, I take the past as the past interpreted by human beings, the past that features inside our collective, and individual memories. This is the past that we draw upon in order to act in the future—as the person who is bitten by a spider acts according to his memory to scream whenever a spider, no matter how small and harmless, appears in his field of view. I take this symbolic, interpreted past as the object of inquiry, in contrast to the certain material events that happened in a certain time, with certain movements of atoms, which we normally conceive as the past, because I find the latter notion rather incomprehensible, for that “material” past, strictly speaking, does not exist in the present, and we have no way to verify that it has existed in the past. In this sense, I agree with Augustine’s theory of time, that the past is just all that we remember. This past is a past that can be changed, a past that is radically open.
In contrast with the openness of the past, the future is much more closed. This is for the reason that I listed above. We draw on the wealth of meaningful experiences that we have accumulated (the past) in order to make future decisions. No decisions are made ex nihilo, but always done with an interest, aiming towards some goal (and for this reason did Kant separate moral actions from aesthetics judgements—moral actions are decided with interest, aesthetics judgements are done disinterestedly, leading to no further action, and thus does not affect the future). This goal is conditioned by our past, by all that we have done, which shapes our characters and habits. This closes off much of the future, at least the future that human beings have any agency over. However, the future nevertheless still remains open in the sense that we are often thrown into contingent circumstances, with chance illnesses, promotions, encounters. I will return to this point in the fourth paragraph as a catalyst for opening up the past.
The past, however, can be changed, and in changing the past, we are able to change in future by changing the factors that shape our interests and actions. This is due to the fact that an infinite number of interpretations can be given to a limited set of experiences (which incidentally, is also the reason why Karl Popper insisted on falsification rather than verification, and also the source of Wittgenstein’s rule-following skepticism). For example, a person who is temperamentally pessimistic may respond to an insult much more drastically than a person who is optimistic—and we have all certainly experienced the negative spirals, the malevolence that we can attribute to other people, when we are deep in a fit of anger. Because of this, the meaning of the set of experiences that we have had is not fixed, but can be changed in an act of reinterpretation. In this act of reinterpretation, the past, as the past that is meaningful to me and guides my actions, can be changed. This is what we are advising others to do when we ask them to “look at the bright side of things”. By interpreting their experiences in a positive light, they will change their past, and open up a (possibly better) new future.
This phenomenon is happens often in our lives, and can be catalyzed in two ways. Firstly, one may think through one’s past experiences in the aim of reorganizing it, by finding new links and inferences that can be made, and deleting inferences that may be too extreme. This is why it is often helpful to write down traumatic experiences—through writing down the experience one is reorganizing and reinterpreting it, thereby changing one’s past and opening up a new future. Secondly, a chance event may push one into reorganization. This, for example, is what happens when one suddenly realizes that one has fallen in love with another person. After the realization, everything in the past becomes logical—it seems obvious that I am in love with the other person, and it is even obvious that I have been in love for a long time but have never noticed it. Events, here, are reinterpreted, and the past is changed. This is the same in someone who is in an extremely realistic dream, only to realize after one has suffered the traumatic experience of waking up that the dream is a chimera. Through these two mechanisms, the past can be changed, orientating us towards a new future.
The past is more open than the future. And only by opening up the past would it be possible to free us from ourselves from the stream of history, towards a new future.