Has History Occurred Yet?

Evidence suggests the past isn’t set in stone

Image of hand holding clock

Recent discoveries require us to rethink our understanding of history.

I just read Stephen King’s new novel “11/22/63” about a man who travels back in time to change the world. King introduces readers to a character who has the power to change the course of history. Jake Epping is a high school English teacher who uses a secret time portal to travel back to 1958 “where history might not be history anymore.”

In reality, you don’t need to use the portal in Al’s Diner to influence the course of history. Amazingly, a series of real experiments suggest that whole swaths of the past haven’t occurred yet, and that history—including who killed JFK—might depend on actions you haven’t taken yet.

“The histories of the universe,” said renowned physicist Stephen Hawking “depend on what is being measured, contrary to the usual idea that the universe has an objective observer-independent history… There is no way to remove the observer—us—from our perceptions of the world…In classical physics, the past is assumed to exist as a definite series of events, but according to quantum physics, the past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.”

It’s the observer who collapses these possibilities—that is, the cascade of past spatio-temporal events we call history. Until the present is determined, how can there be a past? The past begins with the observer, us, not the other way around as we’ve been taught in our schoolbooks. “When we measure something,” said Niels Bohr, the great Nobel physicist “we are forcing an undetermined, undefined world to assume an experimental value. We are not ‘measuring’ the world, we are creating it.”

We’ve been taught our consciousness—and everything else in the world—flows like an arrow in one direction from the cradle to the grave. But an amazing set of experiments suggest the past, present, and future are entangled, and that decisions you make now may influence things that happened in the past.

Since this sounds absurd, I refer the reader to experiments I’ve summarized in previous blogs. For instance, in 2007 (Science, Jacques et al, 315, 966), scientists shot photons into an apparatus and showed they could retroactively change whether they behaved as particles or waves. The particles had to “decide” what to do when they passed a fork in the apparatus. Later on, the experimenter could flip a switch. It turns out what the observer decided at that point determined how the particle had behaved at the fork in the past. Experiments consistently confirm these observer-dependent effects.

Does this mean you could influence JFK’s assassination back in 1963?

In the mid-30’s, physicist Erwin Schrödinger devised a thought experiment to try to reveal the absurdity of applying quantum reality to the ordinary world. He imagined a closed box containing a cat and a radioactive source. If a detector registers a radioactive particle, a poison gas is released and the cat dies; if not, the cat lives. The detector is turned on so there’s a 50-50 chance the radioactive source will emit a particle. If quantum reality is applied to this experiment, neither of the possibilities open to the radioactive source, and therefore to the cat, has any reality unless it’s observed; that is, the atomic decay has neither happened nor not happened, and the cat is neither dead nor alive until we look inside the box to observe it. One might say the cat exists in an indeterminate state until it’s observed. Many scientists believe Schrödinger’s conclusion is an appropriate analysis of the cat’s (or our) predicament.

Recent experiments suggest Schrödinger’s “absurd” conclusion may be right. For instance, Zeilinger’s work with huge molecules called Buckyballs pushes quantum reality into the macroscopic world. In an exciting extension of this work, proposed by Roger Penrose—the renowned Oxford physicist—not just light, but a small mirror that reflects it, becomes part of an entangled quantum system, one that’s billions of times larger than a buckyball. If the proposed experiment confirms Penrose’s idea, it would furnish the most powerful evidence that biocentrism—that is, the biocentric view of the universe—is correct at the level of living organisms.

You may be wondering, “What’s this got to do with JFK’s assassination?”

Physics tells us that objects exist in a suspended state until observed, when they collapse to just one outcome. Like in the Science experiment, what happens in the past may depend on decisions you make now—and may even depend on actions that you haven’t taken yet.

According to eminent Princeton physicist John Wheeler (Einstein’s colleague who coined the terms “black hole” and “worm hole”), “The quantum principle shows that there is a sense in which what an observer will do in the future defines what happens in the past.” Wheeler insisted when observing light from a distant quasar bent around a galaxy, we have set up a quantum observation on an enormously large scale. It means, he said, the measurements made on incoming light now, determines the path it took billions of years ago. This mirrors the results of the actual quantum experiment described above, where an observation now determines what a particle’s twin did in the past.

In 2002, Discover magazine sent a reporter to Stephen King’s backyard (Maine) to speak to Wheeler firsthand. Wheeler said he was sure the universe was filled with “huge clouds of uncertainty” that haven’t yet interacted either with a conscious observer or even with some lump of inanimate matter. In all these places, he said, the cosmos is “a vast arena containing realms where the past is not yet the past.”

Part of the past is locked in when you observe things and the probability waves collapse. But there’s still uncertainty, for instance, as to what’s underneath your feet. If you dig a hole, there’s a probability you’ll find a boulder. Say you hit a boulder, the glacial movements of the past that account for the rock being in exactly that spot will change as described in the Science experiment.

But what about dinosaur fossils? Fossils are really no different than anything else in nature. For instance, the carbon atoms in your body are “fossils” created in the heart of exploding supernova stars. Bottom line: reality begins and ends with the observer. “We are participators,” Wheeler said “in bringing about something of the universe in the distant past.”

Like the light from Wheeler’s quasar, historical events such as who killed JFK, might also depend on events that haven’t occurred yet. There’s enough uncertainty that it could be one person in one set of circumstances, or another person in another. Although JFK was assassinated, you only possess fragments of information about the event. But as you investigate, you collapse more and more reality. According to biocentrism, space and time are relative to the individual observer—we each carry them around like turtles with shells.

History is a biological phenomenon. It’s the logic of what you, the animal observer experiences. You have multiple possible futures, each with a different history like in the Science experiment. Consider the JFK example: say two gunmen shot at JFK, and there was an equal chance one or the other killed him. This would be a situation much like Schrödinger’s cat experiment, in which the cat is both alive and dead—both possibilities exist until you open the box and investigate.

Perhaps choices you make today can in fact influence past events—not just who shot JFK, but even events that occurred—say, when Christ was born or the Great Pyramids were being built.

As Al in Stephen King’s novel pointed out: “You can change history, Jake. Do you understand that?”

View article on Psychology Today