The night sky is a time machine. Look out and you look back in time. But this "time travel by eyesight" is not just the province of astronomy. It's as close as the machine on which you are reading these words. Your present exists at the mercy of many overlapping pasts. So where, then, is "now"?
As almost everyone knows, when you stare into the depths of space you are also looking back in time. Catch a glimpse of a relatively nearby star and you see it as it existed when, perhaps, Lincoln was president (if it's 150 light-years away). Stars near the edge of our own galaxy are only seen as they appeared when the last ice age was in full bloom (30,000 light-years away). And those giant pinwheel assemblies of stars called galaxies are glimpsed, as they existed millions, hundreds of millions or even billions of years in the past.
We never see the sky as it is, but only as it was.
Stranger still, the sky we see at any moment defines not a single past but multiple overlapping pasts of different depths. The star's image from 100 years ago and the galaxy image from 100 million years ago reach us at the same time. All of those "thens" define the same "now" for us.
The multiple, foliated pasts comprising our present would be weird enough if it was just a matter of astronomy. But the simple truth is that every aspect of our personal "now" is a layered impression of a world already lost to the past...
We live, each of us, trapped in our own now.
The simple conclusions described above derive, in their way, from relativity theory and they seem to spell the death knell for a philosophical stance called Presentism. According to Presentism only the present moment has ontological validity. In other words: only the present truly exists; only the present is real.
Presentism holds an intuitive sway for many people. It just feels right. For myself, when I try and explore the texture of my own experience, I can't help but feel a sense of the present's dominance. Buddhism, with its emphasis on contemplative introspection, has developed a sophisticated presentist stance concerning the nature of reality. "Anyone who has ever mediated for anytime" the abbot of a Zen monastery once told me "finds that the past and future are illusions."
Yes, but ...
The reality that even light travels at a finite speed forces us to confront the strange fact that, at best, the present exists at the fractured center of many overlapping pasts.
So where, then, are we in time? Where is our "now" and how does it live in the midst of a universe comprised of so many "thens"?