If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by deadlines and study material, there’s a philosopher to the rescue. The Greek Parmenides believed that gaps, when explored, are redolent with activity and each instant contains an infinity of information overwhelming the concept of flow so much so that to think of motion belies the reality of the universe as a place full of reality. Concluding that neither motioning particles nor the passing of time were real, he (thanks to an encounter with airborne Goddesses) decided that the universe is, to coin the old hippie phrase, “all good, man” because everything is in its place and time permanently and to stay.
We here at AU can take solace in that, although studying hard may not assuage our invigilated exam anxiety, we can still rest assured that we’ll always and forever be ourselves. Our minds and the universe do seem to be full of stuff, no matter how many times we draw a blank on an exam question. Seemingly, it remains only to us to prioritize our AU coursework to make sure that our brains are full of the right stuff. Knowledge and thinking are always happening, and there’s nary a dull moment when our brain isn’t pondering over something—even if it’s whether one can muster the motivation to clean a litter box rather than abide its withering odour.
Over 200 years ago, Thomas Boyle’s vacuum experiments at London’s Royal Academy showed that a vacuum, far from being a lack of something, is indeed a powerful force in itself: powerful enough to suck the life out of a canary bird placed in the vacuum chamber for effect. In this sense lack, including moments between times so to speak, are as powerful as recorded and noticed moments. This, even though such spaces are illusory. Study breaks, for instance, rarely involve merely gazing at a wall or a blank sheet of paper. Usually, a blue screen full of clickbait adverts suffices to fill our so-called free time. Yet, breaks can be as key to learning as moments of rigorous memorization. After all, if life and the cosmos are full of stuff and basically immobile (as Parmenides claimed) then whatever we do is valuable in its own right, rather than a waste of space. Instead of time lost, these moments of rest can actively recharge our full brains. As the industrial banker Thomas Lubbock stated “rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” (Lubbock, online).
And With a Symbolic Nod To The Brain-Mongers Among Us
If, in the abstract, all of life is a series of events that fill up our cognitive space, there’s probably a neuroscience smarty-pants explanation on offer. Like, why and how do our brains cognate this perpetual flow of facts, figures, and images? Suggested here is how memories, when recalled, emerge more like snapshots. When a person is in transit, the event of consequences remembered (such as arriving at a destination) seems to arise, postcard-style, as individual, discrete, entities. Memories tend to appear as singular units, in other words, although we assume they are part of a larger life flow. Recalling that motion to Parmenides was illusory such that no one is really going anywhere and neither is time, the hard science question remains as to how our sense of motion and time gets that way. Neuroscience notes that the brain indeed fails to give us a flowing display of reality, instead “precluding the blur of events in order to yield a composite image of our prior fifteen seconds” (Manassi & Whitney, online). This might explain why Parmenides saw the universe as a realm of illusory motion—our brains present it as such. “What the brain is essentially doing is procrastinating. It’s too much work to constantly deal with every single snapshot it receives, so the brain sticks to the past because the past is a good predictor of the present. Basically, we recycle information from the past because it’s more efficient, faster and less work” (Manassi & Whitney, online). In other words, the past is the present to our brains.
Being socially conscious about how we apply time in our lives leads to a common ideology in our modern realm: presentism. While our brains can’t help us simplify matters of passing time and events, our conscious minds certainly can choose to place reality within a historical (personal and/or political) perspective. Presentism, noteworthy especially in current events mashups where newest always gets top billing, is defined as “an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences” (Merriam-Webster, online). Parmenides might have appreciated this now-new; after all, when all is so and nothing not so it’s not like one can get outside the fray to adopt an objective perspective. On the other hand, being all in on the present presents its own challenges, like how to not privilege current events or fads over the equally-there-now nature of all that’s past and all that’s to come.
Presentism does allow us to find daily meaning in the ongoing story of our lives, a river of perception that admittedly can seem to carry us away largely without our consenting participation. Perhaps to gain a better view on this illusory flow of reality, where subconscious bias leads our brains and the powers that be to privilege some events over others, and leaving other realities to fall between the cracks of media silence if not actual cosmic gaps, we might recall that our chosen attitude toward past and future says much about our motivations in the eternal academic present of studying in the here and now. Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin, who fell victim to the worst of all presents in the form of the NAZI holocaust (thus providing dire perspective to those who see school shooters as somehow victims of their own crime) claimed that “an irretrievable image of the past threatens to disappear if any present does not recognize it as meaningful to itself.” Our AU schoolwork surely behooves us to remember the past and pine for a better future even while recalling that we and our society can only truly inhabit a series of eternal nows.
If we maintain an eye on the prize of our credential we will overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds of being cognitively tied into the present tense and culturally bound up with an eternal shortness of attention span. So let’s study now, for the future!
Benjamin, W. In Armitage, D. (2020). ‘In Defence of Presentism’. Harvard University. Retrieved from https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/armitage/files/in_defence_of_presentism.pdf
Berkowitz, C. (2014). ‘Pumped Up: More Than 350 Years Ago The Very First Air Pump Changed How Science Was Done’. Distillations. Retrieved from https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/pumped-up
Lubbock, J. ‘Rest is not a waste of time’. Retrieved from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/john_lubbock_107976
Manassi, M., Whitney, D. (2022). ‘Everything We See is a Mash-Up Of The Brain’s Last 15 Seconds of Information’. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/everything-we-see-is-a-mash-up-of-the-brains-last-15-seconds-of-visual-information-175577
‘Parmenidean Fragments 1-9’. (Trans. John Burnett). Lexundria. Retrieved from https://www.lexundria.com/parm_frag/1-19/b
‘Presentism’. (2023). Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/presentism