“Even a god cannot change the past”
Agathon, quoted in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics Book VI, sect. 2, 1139b
Literally translated from the Greek, this reads, “… the one thing that even God cannot do is to make undone that which has been done”. The idea engenders debate among theists: if God is absolute and can change anything he likes, how can it make sense to limit his omnipotence?
Events occur according to probabilistic natural laws and these are dictated by time’s arrow which flies in one direction only. Logicians point out that therefore the past cannot be changed without creating the absurd possibility of a future in which happenings both could and could not occur. Scientists have made various attempts to posit non-linear time, or multiplying universes in which past events divide at every possible alternative to create an infinite number of futures. However, what has happened — word , deed, or act — is written indelibly into the fabric of whichever universe it happened in, and this quotation is a warning to make us aware of this.
The text of a human act can be as light and fragile as the beat of a butterfly’s wing and is always open to re-reading. Yogis say that they can escape time and stand aside as the laws of karma spin on, and superman famously turned back the clock when his love, Lois Lane, was killed. There is still a group of people who can, according to Samuel Butler, in his novel, Erewhon Revisited, alter what even God cannot. And then there are historians and politicians. They may not be able to change past events, but they frequently re-write them.
In the mysterious story of red thread zen, there is the possibility of leaving what is called a traceless trace, a line of action that affects both nothing of what is going on, and yet, in a profound sense, changes everything. This is the notion of attitude, the spirit in which an act is done. When we realise that we are enmeshed in action as surely as one strand of a web is enmeshed in the whole, we can begin to see our actions having a different kind of significance. We are the music, and this shifts our relationship with existence. We are not just part of existence, we have no independent substance from it. Therefore the time for changing how we understand ourselves is now. The very fabric of human existence depends on our doing this.