For millennia, mankind has labored to understand the foundations of the world around him. In ages of technological and scientific deficiency (which, comparatively, accounts for the majority of humanity’s existence), the approaches taken to accounting for the unexplained have been flawed, primitive at best.
The ancients, whose daily lives were inextricably tied to agricultural cycles and the painstaking observation of natural phenomena, sought to understand their surroundings, the general patterns of the world and of events, and any terrifying deviations from the norms that generations of careful watching had taught them to expect, by attaching these to acts of volition by entities not unlike themselves - but possessed of preternatural power. By virtue of this perceived power, authority was born; and these conceptions came to be the objects of devotion in the hopes that appeasement would bring about the results most conducive to human survival and felicity: ample crops, physical health and success in arms.
By a natural emulation of the division of labour evident in any sufficiently large society (an early study of which is admirably provided in the pages of Plato’s Republic) the teachers and ancient keepers of tradition reasoned that there must exist also a multitude of specialist divine benefactors for the various disparate fields of human endeavour. Thus were born the pantheons of the specialised patron deities of antiquity.
Part of the human quest to bend all things to the sovereign power of mortal reason and understanding was the assignment by men to their gods of distinctly human characteristics. In keeping with their own natures and conditions, societies came to revere divine figures whose motivations and subtle workings were easily referable to human emotions, reasoning and desires. The gods were apparently cut of much the same cloth as more temporal rulers: favours could be bought with gifts that suited their particular tastes, anger would be vindictive, vengeance would be brutal. As individuals and as collectives, societies perceived that their unseen rulers would punish wrong and reward right, an idea which fostered a moral standard which interlinked with the divine monopoly over crops and the elements.
But this raised the question: how could one fathom the intricacies of the divine code of standards? In further personifying the consciousnesses underlying the natural world, men assigned even more human traits to their gods. Indeed, as regards the ancient polytheists, it may truly be said that they created gods in their image. Gods thus took spouses, had affairs, bore children, took part in sport, in petty rivalries, in feasting and drunkenness. In short, they acted and interacted as humans would. Often, the gods would be described as would interacting with humans. Invariably, the stories of divine association with mortals would highlight the follies of questioning the authority or power of the gods, and the terrible consequences of doing so. This reinforcement of godly preeminence also buttressed the position of the priestly classes in the various societies and bolstered the thrones of the ‘divinely sanctioned’ human rulers with a dissuasion against the taboos of lese majeste and heresy.
As mankind’s understanding of the true reasons for the things observed grew, the power of superstition waned. Thus has there ever been conflict between the forces of religion and those of scientific advancement.
In fact, as understanding of existing mysteries grew, so too did the number of new quandaries to be pondered. As before, humanity saw the expansion of its collective knowledge and the discoveries which it made by reference to itself, seeking to explain and rationalise things in terms of human understanding. What once were the dictates of divinities became the statutes of natural law, as interpreted through the theories of the scientific method.
From a philosophic standpoint, this is known as the ‘anthropic principle’, which, in essence, describes the idea that a given phenomenon exists only because humans observe it to exist. Prior to the discovery of that phenomenon, no human observed or knew of it, therefore, from an human-centred empirical perspective, it did not exist. For example, before Galileo (or, if truth be told, before Copernicus) gave humankind the means to see distant celestial bodies, such part of the universe that was unobservable to the naked eyes of skyward gazing humans simply did not exist. By this reasoning, scientists who made such discoveries, however much they may have ‘stood upon the shoulders of giants’, effectively created the wonders that they observed; up to that point, the phenomena had not existed; men and women of science became gods in the world of mankind. Logic whispers to us that such a circular premise cannot be correct; however, barring the existence of non-human forms of life capable of attesting to the existence of a certain phenomenon before humanity happened upon it, there is no objective test of that phenomenon’s existence prior to that point.
To expand further, if, after a hypothetical phenomenon was observed by mankind, a non-human life-form were to appear and attempt to verify the existence of that phenomenon at a point prior to its discovery by humans, even the alien witness would not suffice, because the non-human entity could not (from a purely anthropic, even solipsistic, viewpoint) establish the fact even its own existence before the point in time when humanity chanced upon it.
The paradox may extend further. Each person alive would instinctively believe that they could vouch confidently for their own existence. Indeed, it would appear trite to say that, at the very least, we each exist until we die. Descartes measured the fact of his existence by the fact that he was capable of thought, and could therefore even ponder the question of his existence.
The definitive proof of this, however, is far from certain. If we take as fact the notion that a capacity to reflect on one’s own existence denotes the reality of that existence itself, all any person can categorically state is that he or she exists in the present, the very moment of our forming that thought. We clearly have no certain conception of future events, so our future existence at any point cannot be objectively proven. As for the past, consider: each person may be considered to be the sum of all that they have ever been up until a given point. We perceive our past as memories and by reference to tangible objects or locations that give us a sense of what our memory tells us we have been in the past and the past had been to us. But, could any person prove that ‘yesterday’ happened in the plane of reality? We have memories - which are subject to decay, manipulation or even fabrication. We are left, then, with tangible objects, which of themselves are denotative of nothing, without accurate, corresponding memory. Tangible things, too, may be destroyed, altered, or fabricated. (The postmodern approach to historiography goes even further, arguing that the past cannot ever even be truly known on an objective level.)
Just as a non-human creature could not objectively vouch to humanity for its past existence, so too humanity can not itself objectively establish its own existence at any other point in time than the present.
It is therefore similarly impossible to completely refute the proposition that human life began - or, if it had already existed, was in some way remade - today, or last Tuesday, or three years ago, and that all memories and artifacts predating that point are merely fabrications.
Theoretically, even the existence of time traveling humans, capable of experiencing personally realities at different fixed points in a time-stream, could not objectively establish either their own, or humanity’s, past existence. Supposing that such a thing were possible, a time traveler would do little else but experience their own personal timeline in their own present reality, albeit in various theoretical time-planes. Any attempt to verify the past would simply be an experience of their own present state. The only test of the veracity of the time-traveler’s present (and the past of their indigenous time-plane) might be an observation of, and challenge-and-response test of a past version of themselves. However, such a thing would inevitably create a space-time paradox, hence it could never occur.
The closest proof of a verifiable past could theoretically come from a slider, that is, a traveler between parallel alternate realities. Of such a hypothetical person left his own dimension clutching an object endemic to his world and entered a world where such a thing did not exist, it could conceivably offer him or her definitive proof that their past self existed in another reality. However, note the use of the word ‘could’, for it is far more likely that such a person might be heralded as the discoverer of a hitherto unknown (read: ‘non-existent’) object. Moreover, if it were accepted that the trappings of the past, together with memories, could be the subject of alteration or fabrication, then presumably this vulnerability to interference could extend to the change or manufacture of other-worldly items; indeed, the process would be much the same as the appearance of a previously unobserved phenomenon to all but the slider himself or herself - and he or she would be reduced again to reliance on the unreliable vagaries of memory, with nothing proven, nothing gained.
Where does that leave humanity? Unless an entity capable of altering the very fabric of reality and the nature of the universe were to have some fantastic, existential trick up their sleeve, mankind remains fixed in a state of eternal present, with the unknowable future and unverifiable past on either side.