Liberating Future from Past;
Weimar Essay Contest

Weimar 1999 was an Essay Contest emanating from Weimar in Germany. The Essay required treatment of this Prize Question:

Liberating the Future from the Past? Liberating the Past from the Future?

That Germany, fifty-four years after World War II, might be interested in severing future and past is understandable. Whether it refers to mending past ways or to absolution from past sins is the critical element.

I treated the question as slogan; as an assertion that it might not be a bad idea to sever past and future. To pose the question, then, is to state a revelation - that past and future may be severed! My submission was the following. It won no prize.


To liberate the future from the past is in the nature of a revelation. The word, revelation, is meant in its broadest sense: the materialization of a thought in the mind. Thought is revealed, hence there is a revelation. Then the idea of severing future from past is a revelation. The hint of a grand vision. An idea materialized. 'Knowing the presence of God' is a religious revelation. 'Suddenly knowing the answer' is revelation as inspiration.

We may examine the nature of revelation. From whence does it come? The answers can be partitioned into two: divine or of natural cause. We follow where each leads. And find that 'divine cause' accords with commonly held moral and philosophical values. It is the dominant view of humanity. It is expressed by the notion of free will. The 'natural cause' view is very distasteful philosophically. It offends many as antithetical to morality.

The proposition, that future be severed from past, can be explored from either view. We examine it in the light of natural cause. By 'natural cause' is meant the guiding principle underlying all endeavors of science: that nothing transpires by divine intervention. In this view any revelation is a raw thought that presents itself for analysis.

That future be severed from past is beacon both of hope and of despair. It can be a call for a better world. It can bring us a worse one. The proposition inspires great achievement. But hidden within it are hostility and righteous indignation. Of any statement, one expects that if it can mean opposing things then it has no intrinsic meaning. On this basis the proposition fails.

But the examination into meaning suggests a replacement proposition that does have meaning. It derives from the more distasteful of the two philosophical outlooks. It is a gentler proposition and arises without recourse to the divine. Just as atrocity can issue from religious conviction so can benevolence issue from scientific conviction. The proposition is: Liberate good will, forgive the past.


Liberating the Future from the Past?
    Liberating the Past from the Future?

To liberate the future from the past is an appealing notion. Especially for those unhappy with the past. This notion can operate even on the personal level. The losing of a few pounds of weight can be a liberation. Overweight unhappy past changes into svelte happy future. 'Liberation of future from past' is the vision - the revelation.

We live by revelation. Unexamined imperatives that spring into consciousness are revelations. We act on them. We could not survive without them.

Revelation is the mechanism by which one simply 'knows' what to do. We embrace a loved one. We take a political position. A moral position. We place our bet for winner. We behave with consideration and empathy. Or with rage and hate. With maliciousness. These are not matters of the mind but of the heart. Matters of revelation.

Intuition is revelation. What to expect is revealed.

Spiritual and religious teachings are founded on revelation. Usually on the revelations of others, those with a vision of righteousness that is accepted by the believers. Sometimes believers, themselves, experience the vision.

Revelations come to us as packaged ideas. Like the call to sever past from future: Liberate the future from the past, the past from the future. A revelation is a thought synopsis. Often expressible as an epigram. Many proverbs are the expression of revelations. 'Look before you leap'. So are the slogans that motivate social action. Revelation is the powerhouse of history.

Inspiration is revelation. An idea materializes in the mind as if revealed. "Ah, now I see it," comes the exultant cry. Revelation can be orgiastic.

A revelation is a notion that enters conscious awareness.

Delusion, too, is revelation. Not all that enters conscious awareness is truth. Sometimes revelation can be the mere appearance of truth. We find later, that what we thought earlier to be true, wasn't true. We all know the experience. Recognition of delusion is announced by exclamation. "I was so sure of it, but I see now that I was wrong". "I expected it to happen quite differently". In youth recognition of delusion takes the form: " It seemed like a good idea at the time".

Intercourse with reality can show a revelation to be a delusion.

Revelation is not a reliable guide to truth. The strength of a conviction does not measure its validity.

Because revelation is unreliable science evolved. By science I mean the methods by which we examine matters for their truth. These methods arise from a single presumption: that of natural cause.

To investigate something scientifically is to seek natural causes. As opposed to supernatural ones. Divine intervention is not an acceptable scientific explanation for any observable phenomenon. This idea - of natural cause - is what underlies all the methods used by science to explore the world.

For science a revelation is a hypothesis; its truth to be ascertained by prescribed methods. These methods are the same as those used in courts of law. The same methods are used in collecting information for commercial or legislative purposes. An impartial truth finding mission gathers evidence and weighs it. They weigh it on the basis of natural cause. We demand of our physicians, our lawyers, our plumbers . . that they ply their trades on this basis. You don't engage a plumber who relies on divine intervention to fix the toilet. A good plumber relies on natural cause.

Revelation is what occurs in the mind of an individual. It is a personal affair. The test for truth in science is a community affair. Experiments must be reproducible by others. Results must be verifiable by doubters. Assertions must have predictive power; testable by others. By its nature, science requires a community of investigators. Truth emerges from communal investigation.

Achievements great and small arise from revelation as do feats of daring, of heroism and of grandeur. They are done by people of vision. People with a revelation about what might be accomplished. People with faith in their ability.

Faith is the apotheosis of revelation. And it is faith that comforts the suffering. We accept advice on faith in the giver. So revelation allows us to be advised. It also allows us to be consoled. The greatest blessing of revelation is that it succors the needy. Strong conviction is a balm for the psyche.

Revelation is seductive. It is such a powerful force in our lives that many suppose it to be a fundamental feature of the universe. They believe it is not governed by physical law; not subsumable under the laws of physics. They grant revelation status on a par with physical law. And thus beyond scientific investigation.

In this familiar view, love or religious passion or intuition or talent - all fruits of revelation - are not matters of mere chemistry. Because revelation, itself, is not just chemistry. It is a force beyond chemistry. "You can know truths by revelation," say believers. Scientific investigation is not the only method of knowing. Science probes merely the physical aspect of the universe. Revelation bypasses science. It connects us with truth directly. If not all, then at least some revelations are divinely inspired.

Nine tenths of humankind hold this view.

A single notion underlies it: that revelation can come from outside physics.

For science, revelations - all of them - have ultimate physical cause. None come from outside physics. For science, revelation is to the physical world what taste is to baking. Not a separate and independent ingredient. You can't add drops of tastiness to the cake. Rather its taste arises from the physical ingredients used, from their proportions and how they are processed in the bake. Taste emerges from the mix. So too revelation emerges from the mix. From the mix of genetic disposition and the impact of external circumstances. It is these that govern revelations; that determine what springs into consciousness. Science presumes revelations to be purely physical phenomena.

This is the philosophy expressed by what scientists do. They seek physical cause. They can explore questions that probe revelation. Questions such as: "From whence issues a thought?" or "How does desire materialize?" But in researching them the only acceptable answers are physiochemical ones. Those having to do with the way the chemistry and the structure of the brain process signals. Only such answers are satisfying to the investigators.

They presume a physical basis for revelation. For them revelation is a product of the physical world. It is an effect, not a cause, of physical process; an expression of nature, not the basis of its structure. So in this view revelation is, indeed, all chemistry - and physics and biology.

This is the reductionist point of view. An epigram delivers its impact with all of its repugnancy exposed. 'Soul is a chemical product'.

The world does not believe this. People find it offensive.

Science is the proclamation that revelation is not to be trusted. We may 'live' by revelation but we do not 'know' by revelation. But what then does science offer to live by?

It gives no prescription for behavior. It says nothing about how to govern oneself in the pits of daily human commerce. That nature is blind to morality, to pain, to suffering, to good, to evil doesn't explain how to conduct oneself. It does not say what thou shalt and shalt not do. How, then, should one behave?

In the end behavior is based on revelation! We act on our beliefs.

We cannot have it otherwise. Ratiocination is a slow process. There is too much substance in life to be rational about all of it. When action is needed we must rely on impulse - on revelation.

That we must rely on revelation is no lament. The preciousness of unfounded belief is known to all. Who has not abandoned reason in favor of blind passion at some time. Passion is revelation. It is the sweet nectar of life.

Revelation rules behavior. Science gives no prescriptions for behavior. But applying science to revelation can be stunningly instructive. The instruction can change behavior. So although it doesn't prescribe behavior, science can alter it profoundly. To illustrate the thought we apply rational analysis - science - to the revelation: Liberate the future from the past.

This is the generic call to embrace change. The slogan captures the revelation that the future is best severed from the past. 'Let it float free of the chains of the past', is the implied vision.

Humanity's greatest achievements may be claimed under this banner.

The creation of a piano in 1708 liberated music. Nonrepresentational painting liberated art in 1910. The advent of photography, of the airplane, of the computer . . . All liberations. They benefit us now; we who dwell in the past's future.

The benefits extend beyond the material. Those of us who have them can be thankful for the liberties that liberations brought us. Liberations are documented historically in charters recognizing that individuals have inalienable rights. To have these rights is liberation as surely as freedom is liberation from slavery.

The vassals of the first King John of England exacted the Magna Carta from him in the year 1215. It granted them rights untouchable by the king; rights that superseded his personal whim. The significance of the rule of law is that the alternative is the whim of authority. The whim of authority is bondage. So the charter marked a liberation.

The king signed it cynically. He and his heirs did not easily let loose their reins. But in the end the chartered words triumphed. The liberation in concept produced liberation in practice. How powerful is the articulation of principle!

The Magna Carta led to the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, the American Bill of Rights of 1791, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of1948 by the United Nations. All statements of liberation. Freedom of opinion, from slavery, equality before the law, . . . Some are in practice. The others will come into practice as surely as kings ceded their power in 1689 England. A tradition of honored concepts is a remarkably strong force in human affairs.

Now let us subject the severing of future from past to rational analysis. An analysis that presupposes natural cause. We apply ratiocination to this revelation. There are two levels to consider: the literal and the metaphorical.

The first is a matter of the literal meaning of the words. To liberate means to sever a bond. Can one rationally expect to sever the future from the past?

Of course not! We dream of new beginnings, a clean slate. But what we put down on a clean slate is our past. The truth is this: That it is not in our power to sever past from future. To advocate it is useless. One might as well advocate that the moon be made of cheese.

Experience teaches us to rely on causality. Learning is based on it. That future follows from past is the consoling pillar of reason. We presuppose that a future event cannot arise spontaneously out of no past. So to effect a severance of future from past cannot be taken literally. On that basis the idea is without meaning.

But what about metaphorically.

As metaphor the severing refers to an evident change in the course of events. There are liberating changes and constraining ones. The former are the ones advocated. The essential aspect of a liberation is the trashing of former (past) ways to go forth unencumbered into the future. That is the metaphoric meaning of liberating the future from the past.

Humanity's great achievements are examples of the metaphoric meaning. Some were mentioned earlier.

But humanity's great atrocities are also examples! Atrocities are what liberate the enraged. What constitutes a liberation may be a terrible event.

For many, to liberate the future from the past is to vanquish their enemies. Liberation can mean 'ethnic cleansing'; liberating 'us' from 'them', the purging of people designated as a lien. In recent times the world has seen it practiced. In Bosnia (1992) and in Rwanda (1994) as it was in Germany (1933-1945).

Severing future from past can mean triumph in battle. Victory liberates the victor from the constraints of opposition. He achieves authority by the complete subjugation of opposition. Free rein to do as he wishes is his liberation. Oppression by despots throughout the ages were liberations for the oppressors.

To gentler souls liberation of future from past means achieving harmony by reaching accord with the opposition. The future is liberated from past discord.

As all the reasons for compassion are revelations, so are all those for hate, anger and cruelty.

Crucifixion and crusades, both, were viewed by their perpetrators as liberating future from past. The liberation in one: to erase Christianity. In the other to erase anti-Christianity.

Any cause at all fits the pattern! Metaphorically all causes are to liberate future from past. Some of these are cherished ones; but some are abhorrent ones. The call does not distinguish among causes. So 'liberating the future from the past', even as metaphor, carries no message.

This revelation must be rejected both as truth and as metaphor. It is a thought without substance.

Fundamentally it is the cry of someone in anguish. "Do something", he screams, "I am suffering. Liberate me from my pain; my future from my past." We sympathize with the man's pain. We want to undertake something. But what reason suggests is that the 'something' be examined for its remedial quality. People in pain avoid reason. Their way to sever future from past can be destructive.

A parallel analysis applies to the inverse call: Liberate the past from the future. It has no meaning literally. And metaphorically it has too many meanings.

It could be a call to examine the past more objectively; without imposing on it the prejudices and judgments of later times. Thus we view the slavery practiced in ancient Greece without moral indignation. We do not judge the ancients by contemporary standards. To perceive the past unburdened by our current agenda is to liberate it.

But others see liberation of the past from the future differently. They wish the past to be unburdened by the agenda of those who recorded it. Having the past cleansed of 'incorrect' interpretations is their liberation of it. They wish history rewritten.

When a statement can mean opposing things, it means nothing at all.

Liberation is appealing. But as revelation it is not to be trusted. To advocate the severance of future from past is either disingenuous or folly. It is to follow a banner that has no meaning.

We might ask ourselves what should the banner read under which we march. If not to sever past from future, what then? How might the reason of science guide us to better define the vision? Here is how it guides me.

From the past grows the future. My banner would honor the past. It is precious. Its atrocities teach us our nature. As its achievements show us our stature. The past is in us. It is engraved into our body cells. Into the fabric of our society. It is where innumerable ideas have already been explored. Where actions, which are revelation to us, have already been tried by others. The past is a cornucopia of usefulness. Far from severing it, reason teaches us to embrace it, to study it.

To reap benefit from the past, it must be studied dispassionately. Not with slavish reverence. Nor with righteous indignation. To harvest its fruits we must forgive the past. That's how my banner would treat the past: forgive it.

Next, I would incorporate a key element from the communal nature of the scientific enterprise: tolerance.

Science denies that one can 'know' by revelation. Revelations are not to be trusted. But any moral precept is a matter of revelation. It is, thus, a matter to be examined. The idea breeds tolerance. Moral imperatives other than our own may have merit. Reason constrains us from denigrating alien moralities. Theirs and ours, both, are underpinned only by revelation.

Basic to science is the understanding that one may not understand. Tolerance for the ideas and contributions of others is central to its mission. Precisely because it is a communal affair tolerance is required.

Those who honor science must include tolerance on their banner. But not a stoical tolerance that merely suffers opposition petulantly. Rather a magnanimous tolerance - what might better be called good will. Receptivity to other views. Only good will toward another extracts his contribution to understanding.

So the banner might read:

Liberate good will. Forgive the past.

This banner marks the great achievements of humankind but none of its atrocities. It celebrates the ending of conflicts not their inception. This is the banner to which the ideals of science lead me.

To the righteously indignant it appears false. They would argue that good will is not, of itself, a virtue. That forgiving the past is an act of treason, of disloyalty to the clan. Enemies do not deserve good will.

The righteously indignant would not march under this banner.

It's a gentle and peaceable toast. Consider from whence it comes. No theological principle at all. The quest for natural cause suggests it. It derives from the scientific enterprise. It issues from the same dictum, 'don't trust revelation', as does that repulsive notion that 'soul is a chemical product'.

Such sweet fruit from such distasteful seed.

People fear science. They are awed by the technology it has produced. Air travel, telephones, television, computers, effective medications for innumerable ailments, radiation cancer therapy, x-ray medical diagnoses, atom bombs, biological and chemical weapons . . . Technology produces agents of information, health and entertainment. And it produces agents of death, destruction and misery. Technology is blind to good and evil.

Our entire abundance of material wealth is founded on technology's presumption of natural cause. The quest for natural cause is as powerful as it is beautiful. It is what has enabled our species to flourish. That quest demands that we distrust revelation.

But revelation is what drives us. Answers spring forth from the mind as revealed. "Yes, I see now what must be done," exults the revelee.

'What must be done' can be many things. On the scale of the individual it might be to invest in technology stock, to quit your job, become a monk, bake bread, run for public office, convert unbelievers, attack foreigners, join a movement, follow a leader .. The leader is one who broadcasts his revelations. Who convinces others that he knows what should be done. His followers accept his knowing.

Those are the revelations. But without rational evaluation they can be awful visitations.

During the years 1975-1979, Pol Pot had two million of his fellow countrymen murdered under the banner of rescuing Cambodia. His revelation was to know that a peasant agrarian society would be better for Cambodia than the developing capitalist one they had. His followers implemented his vision by killing non-farmers: intellectuals, artists, professionals. . .

What atrocities have not been done in the name of revealed truth!

Soothsayers and fortune tellers work by revelation. So do mathematicians and scientists. Any idea is a revelation. The issue resides in how the idea is treated.

We may live by revelation. But we prosper by not trusting it.

- end -

May 2000
Marvin Chester

m chester, Occidental, CA October 11, 1998
Submitted to: International Essay Prize Contest
Lettre International and Weimar 1999

9'05 -