European Society for the Study of Cognitive Systems Wadham College, Oxford 26-29 August 2000
TIME AND CONSCIOUSNESS
Time and consciousness: Is consciousness in time or time in consciousness? Of course, our question is what is consciousness but first what is time? Time is an ancient puzzle. Parmenides said nothing changes; Heraclitus said there is only change - you cannot step in the same river twice. St. Augustine was puzzled: everyone knows what time is until you start to think about it and then you do not know. Bergson attempted to explain la durée; Karl Popper wrestled with the subject in his recent Parmenides. It is startling suddenly to recognise that everything is momentary: matter, the cosmos, the world, ourselves, our brains. William James' specious present is exactly that - only an appearance. In reality our brains have only the present moment; our brains are instantaneous patterns changing from moment to moment, formed from the collection of structures, ultimately molecules, chemical elements, protons, electrons, quarks, which constitute the neural material. Our past is part of our present brain, the future we expect is part of our present brain. Kant famously proposed that time and space are necessary forms under which sensation and perception are accommodated in our minds, in our brains; we could have no knowledge of the dingen an sich. Recently Anthony Quinton has suggested that Kant left totally unexplained how, if we see only through time and space as arbitrary forms of intuition, we in fact cope with reality. Kant, unfortunately for him, was writing before Darwin; evolutionary epistemology (as formulated by Lorenz, Popper, Campbell, Wuketits and others) proposes that the natural selection of brain processes has provided us with practical concepts of time and space to allow us to manage reality. The momentariness of everything and thus of ourselves means that we are inconstant changing patterns, changing aggregations of material; we are not the same from instant to instant. The cells in our bodies are continually dying; the constituents of the cells are being replaced; the aggregations of electrons and protons which form us (perhaps the patterns which electrons and protons themselves are) are travelling at incredible speeds, as the world turns, as the solar system rotates, as the galaxy and supergalaxies turn. What are the implications of this view of time for our understanding of consciousness ? Physicists and cosmologists have their accounts of time, space and spacetime; a theoretical physicist, Julian Barbour, has recently argued that even for physicists time does not exist. But time and space as forms of the understanding, with due acknowledgement to Kant, come before any use physical scientists may make of them. Time and space come before mathematics and physics. It may be that the idea of the momentariness of matter, of the cosmos, can have important consequences even for the most refined and elaborate cosmological and physical theories (quantum gravity, spacefoam, superstring theory, M-brane theory).
TIME AND CONSCIOUSNESS
Is consciousness in time or time in consciousness?
The sudden shock of realising that there is only this moment
Like walking into a lamppost
The raw present (the lamp post) Without preparation, without context, without expectations
Banging one's head on the lamp-post
If the universe is momentary only, then what?
What is time?
Time is an ancient puzzle
You cannot step in the same river twice.
The world is a whole, it is what it is and cannot turn into something else. Change is illusory.
There is no substance or duration to things. Each moment is an entirely new existence, which is succeeded by an entirely new existence.
There is no moment, no inkling, no particle of time that the river stops flowing. Early Buddhist text
The time that we observe in nature has no separate existence. It is only a mode of being of concrete objects. We ourselves create mathematical time. It is a mental construct, an abstraction indispensable to the building up of science.
There is no independent, linear time as some kind of container. Dalai Lama
ST AUGUSTINE (Confessions XI: 11)
Neither time past nor future, but the present only, really is.
quid est enim tempus? quis hoc facile breviterque explicaverit? quis hoc ad verbum de illo proferendum vel cogitatione comprehenderit? quid autem familiarius et notius in loquendo conmemoramus quam tempus? et intellegimus utique, cum id loquimur, intellegimus etiam, cum alio loquente id audimus.
For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time?
si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio:
If no one asks me, I know what time is; if I want to explain it to him, I don't know what time is.
The momentariness of everything, of the universe and so also of us, is not a new discovery, or a forgotten discovery
La matière n'est que dans l'instant . . . Le temps est - l'éternel présent ( Cahiers II 1267
Matter exists only in the moment . . . Time is - the eternal present
Time and space are necessary forms under which sensation and perception are accommodated in our minds, in our brains; we can have no knowledge of the dingen an sich.
"Time is not an empirical conception. It is a necessary representation, lying at the foundation of all our intuitions. If we abstract our internal intuition and take objects as they are in themselves, then time is nothing. We deny to time all claim to absolute reality".
"I see upon the countenance of the reader signs of dissatisfaction mingle with contempt. The present work is not intended for popular use". (Kant)
"Before Kant, one might say, we were in time; now time is in us". (Schopenhauer)
Kant left totally unexplained how, if we see only through time and space as arbitrary forms of intuition, we in fact cope with reality. (Quinton)
Evolutionary epistemology explains that natural selection of brain processes has provided us with practical concepts of time and space to allow us to manage reality .
"I am a disciple of my old colleague from Konigsberg, that is, of Kant, and I am trying to translate his categories in biological terms under the form of innateness.
"The cognitive apparatus is itself an objective reality which has acquired its present form through contact with and adaptation to equally real things in the outer world .. The 'spectacles' of our modes of thought and perception, such as causality, substance, quality, time and place (the Kantian categories) are functions of a neuro-sensory organisation that has evolved in the service of survival. What we experience is a real image of reality, albeit an extremely simple one, only just sufficing for our practical purposes".
Our bodies, our senses, our minds, our consciousness, our language, our words, have evolved to make it possible for us to interact with and survive in the world. So we should not lightly reject or suspect the senses, the minds, the words we find ourselves with in attempting to understand the universe and our existence in it.
The World of Parmenides Essays on the Pre-Socratic Enlightenment 1998
Human experience does not perceive real life as simply a uniform progression along some imaginary line extended in space, but rather a continuous flow. The real world is one of continuous becoming or process. This discreteness is not real. So-called discrete elements are only apparent when we have a need to pluck them from our continuing experience. We may appear to ourselves as things but we find that we are processes. Impressive empirical evidence for Parmenides' views in the field of quantum mechanics
The 'great task' of physics is to provide, as completely as possible, a coherent description (ie a model) of all those observations on and in the Universe which exhibit a deterministic or causal or repeatable characteristic. Physics is not concerned with whether I exist or whether a 'real' world exists beyond my sense-perceptions. What physics is concerned with is that part of all observations and knowledge which can be expressed in mathematical terms.
But time and space as forms of the understanding, with due acknowledgement to Kant, come before any use physical scientists may make of them.
Theories of everything
Current theory-building to unify gravity and quantum mechanics is producing fundamental change in conceptions of time and space
At the ultimate 'so far' levels of physics, the identity of particle and wave, or at least the difficulty of distinguishing particle behaviour from wave behaviour no longer appears mysterious. It is just that without realising it we are approaching the final reality of physical existence - the unending play of different patterns within an ultimately stationary material reality, which exists at a scale of magnitude many many times smaller than anything we have so far been able to approach.
Even for physicists time does not exist. Time is an illusion. The phenomena from which we deduce its existence are real, but we interpret them wrongly.
The crisis in QM has deepened since the discovery by John Bell in 1964 that the collapse mechanism requires us to believe that a measurement in one part of space can result in an instantaneous change of the system in a distant part of space.
String theory developments:
Fundamental particles are not dimensionless points but one-dimensional lines.
The wiggling superstrings, which were at least vaguely possible to visualize, have been joined (and possibly supplanted) by even more abstract entities: membranes, or "branes".
A 2-brane is a two-dimensional surface, like a bedsheet, stretching across a three- dimensional space. A point is a 0-brane, and a line is a 1-brane. One can have 3- branes, 4-branes, 5-branes, all the way up to 9-branes: nine-dimensional surfaces inside a 10-dimensional world.
Quantum gravity suggests that our world canvas not only has texture, but a foam or sponge-like structure, so that intervals or durations cannot be infinitely subdivided.
The space we inhabit takes on the features of a quivering jelly (Paul Davies)
Empty space is not empty. It is the seat of the most violent physics. The electromagnetic field fluctuates. Virtual pairs of positive and negative electrons, in effect, are constantly being created and annihilated, and likewise pairs of mu mesons, pairs of baryons, and pairs of other particles.
New Scientist 19 June 1999 Quantum foam: Is the fabric of the Universe a seething mass of black holes and wormholes? "How come the quantum? How come existence?" John Wheeler begins and ends his autobiography with this question.
"Before the second superstring revolution, life was simple. We believed that everything in the universe, quarks, photons, gravitons, electrons, and the rest, were all made out of strings. We no longer know what the fundamental constituents of the theory are. Strings and D-branes appear equally fundamental. Perhaps they're all made from something even more fundamental. We've made an enormous amount of progress in the past few years, but now realize the greater depth of our ignorance". (Steven Giddings)
Wholeness and the Implicate Order 1980
The notion that reality is to be understood as a process is an ancient one, going back at least to Heraclitus, who said that everything flows. The best image of process is perhaps that of the flowing stream, whose substance is never the same. On this stream, one may see an ever-changing pattern of vortices, ripples, waves, splashes, etc., which evidently have no independent existence as such.
Ultimately, the entire universe (with all its particles, including those constituting human beings, their laboratories, observing instruments, etc.) has to be understood as a single undivided whole.
What we perceive through our senses as empty space is actually the plenum, which is the ground for the existence of everything, including ourselves. The things that appear to our senses are derivative forms and their true meaning can be seen only when we consider the plenum, in which they are generated and sustained, and into which they must ultimately vanish.
Time as a projection of multidimensional reality into a sequence of moments.
The atom . . . can perhaps best be regarded as a poorly defined cloud, dependent for its particular form on the whole environment, including the observing instrument.
The paradoxes of Zeno now seem to be open to more straightforward explanation: the arrow is not a persisting object travelling through a persisting substance, air; it is a pattern in relative translation through a patterning of the substrate which is interpreted as the molecules and atoms which appear to form air.
And similarly the earth in not travelling through an insubstantial ether; it is a deformation, a pattern, of the universal material substrate, of the same nature as the light which also is a patterning in the universal material substrate.
The individual atom is a pattern which persists as a wave persists. Michelson and Morley assumed that the river and its banks were different in character. The river was flowing but so also were the banks.
Neither space nor time as substrates through which something moves are real.
EVERYTHING IS MOMENTARY
Change in the universe like shaking a kaleidoscope
Recognition of the momentariness of everything seems to lead to a cosmic kaleidoscopic system, changing patterns in an unchanging substrate, instantaneous change, a result which resembles processes hypothesized in quantum physics.
The idea of the momentariness of matter, of the cosmos, can have important consequences even for the most refined and elaborate cosmological and physical theories (quantum gravity, spacefoam, superstring theory, M-brane theory).
"Whilst we think, our brain changes, and, like the aurora borealis, its whole internal equilibrium shifts with every pulse of change ... from one relative state of equilibrium to another, like the gyrations of a kaleidoscope"
The present moment of time. ... Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, ... gone in the instant of becoming.
The only fact of our immediate experience is ... the specious present.
There is, between our body and other bodies, an arrangement that of the pieces of glass that compose a kaleidoscopic picture. Our activity goes from an arrangement to a re-arrangement.
Perception that there is only the instant for ourselves and for the whole of the material universe: Matter, the cosmos, the world, ourselves, our brains.
Our brains have only the present moment The past is our present brain/mind The future is our present brain/mind. Our brains are instantaneous patterns changing from moment to moment, formed from the collection of structures, ultimately molecules, chemical elements, protons, electrons, quarks, which constitute the neural material.
The aggregations of electrons and protons which form us (the patterns which electrons and protons themselves are) are apparently travelling at incredible speeds, as the world turns, as the solar system rotates, as the galaxy and supergalaxies turn.
Patterns (but not bodies) apparently in transit across the material universe. A pattern is a peculiarity in the material universe
Really this is not such an extraordinary supposition. We are formed of massive aggregations of cells, which cluster in a way which suggests that they form a persisting unity, but 'in reality' the cells forming us are disappearing and being replaced all the time. We are a specious unity - but that is good enough.
The components forming the cells are also changing all the time - the larger structures and ultimately the atoms which form them are moving out and being replaced - so that a cell also forms a specious unity.
A wave is a specious unity, a pattern manifested in a substrate, water. No water molecule remains within the same wave or even from moment to moment in the same position within the same wave. No atom forming the water molecule persists within the same wave
If we or an 'object' as a pattern sounds as though we, or 'objects', are not real, then for us and 'objects', we and they are as 'real' as the other persons or objects with which we interact, in just the same way as a wave interacts with another wave or with some 'fixed' 'material' 'object' such as a balk of timber.
A wave is real to another wave. A ripple recognises a ripple. A wave is real to the pebbles on which it beats or the timbers it strikes against.
We, and every 'object' in the universe, are being instantiated from moment to moment in the stationary substrate which is the universe
MICROCOSM AND MACROCOSM
We are more remarkable than we realise -- but not particularly special.
POSTSCRIPT [January 2009]
But where does this leave the problem of the relation of time and consciousness?
Consciousness includes, beside thoughts and images, our perceptions
of the physical world as well as awareness of our body and bodily sensations.
This all-inclusive consciousness goes to form the ‘specious present’,
a priori organised in terms of space and time, with its richness as
the product of the progressive evolution of the brain’s memory systems
and of its capacity for representing the world through language.
Objective time remains a process of replacement of one universal equilibrium
for another from moment to moment; objective duration (the problem Bergson wrestled with)
does not exist but subjective duration is an aspect of the Kantian a priori, the innate
structure of our mind.
(With acknowledgements to Max Velmans’ Understanding Consciousness 2000 Routledge)
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