consciousness and time

I was thinking about the nature of consciousness the other day, and specifically about how certain kinds of experience fit into the passage of time as we are consciously aware of them. I came to an interesting conclusion: at least for a very small interval of time (i.e. maybe 1/10 of a second or so) we must be experiencing both the past and the future at the same time.

It started with the two following thought experiments:

  1. Imagine staring at a sheet of red paper. Obvious, this experience, as with any experience, requires at least a small length of time to pass by. We don’t experience anything within an instant (i.e. a slice, a point) of time. But you could imagine taking an instant (slice, point) of time during that interval when you were experiencing the perception of red and say that at that instant, the experience of seeing red existed in your consciousness. That seems to make sense.

  2. Now imagine seeing an object move, like a car. That too requires a small passage of time. So much is obvious. What is not obvious, and what occurs to me, is that you can’t say that the experience of seeing motion exists at a particular instant of time taken from that small interval. The experience of motion must exist throughout some interval of time (however small). Motion cannot exist at an instant. It doesn’t ‘fit’ in an instant. The experience can only ‘fit’ in a small interval of time.

This means that if our consciousness is capable of experiencing motion (which it is), it could not be having this experience at any instant of time - for it to exist at all, the experience of motion needs to be had throughout a small interval of time. This means that insofar as consciousness experiences motion, it is experiencing happenings throughout a whole series of instants in time, and that means it is experiencing both past and future - at least, within a very small interval of time - at once. Our consciousness, in other words, does not exist at particular instants of time, but is spread over a small interval.

almost as useless as the redefinition of god by turtle and all the semantic arguments made by JohnJones, but it’s a bit more sensible, I’ll give you that.

your post can be summed up: motion itself requires the passage of time (namely because motion is a type of change, namely change in position, and change requires the passage of time - or perhaps change and time are the same thing)

The first time you see the car it is not moving. A split second later you see it in a slightly different location. Your brain says it’s moving. There is no experience of the future, only a remembrance of the past.

Nope, you’ve misunderstood.

I would sum up my post: consciousness exists over a small interval of time. We don’t experience anything in an instant, but throughout a small interval of time (all at once).

It’s not that motion requires time in order to exist (I would agree with you that that is trivial and obvious), but that the subjective experience requires a small interval of time - that is, it could not exist at all at an instant - and therefore in order to ‘fit’ into our consciousness, our consciousness must take up the minimal amount of time it requires, and it must take up that interval all at once.

phyllo, I think you misunderstand too.

You’re right in your analysis of how the brain computes motion, but the point is that in order for the brain to give rise to the subjective experience of motion, it needs more than just that instant in time when it finally computes the presence of motion. The experience of motion could only begin once the brain computes it, and couldn’t exist at all if the brain didn’t continue to compute it.

Both of you: think of it this way - imagine a car moving by over the course of 10 seconds. In the 9th second (or thereabouts) you could say “I few seconds ago, I experienced the car moving over there, but I don’t now. Now I experience the car moving over here”. That much is plain common sense. But when you say “Now I experience the car moving over here”, what that consists of is not so much the car moving over here at the instant of the 9th second, but the whole of the small interval surrounding the 9th second (for example: 8.9 seconds to 9.1 seconds - or something like that) - all at once. In other words, the experience of seeing the car move at 8.9 seconds did not happen “before”, and the experience of seeing the car move at 9.1 seconds will not happen “after”, but both of them, along with the experience of seeing the car move at every point in between, happen now - it’s just that “now”, in terms of the experience, does not refer to the instant now, but a smeared out fuzzy interval of time that centers around such an instant.

Does that make any sense? 8-[


First, consciousness is memory; no memory functioning, no consciousness. Man is his memory. The knowledge stored in memory tells and informs, thereby creating your world and your place in it.

Once knowledge is acquired about something it causes you to realize a kind of aimless state that existed prior to – compared to – an unknowing state. Imo, consciousness is a vast area mainly providing the capacity to be filled with more and more knowledge for use. It does not direct thought so much as it provides depth for more informed thought.

Thought cannot conceive of the possibility of anything happening outside of time. It took time to come out of a state of ignorance into a rational well informed state of awareness and thinking. Interpretation by means of an ever progressing experiencing structure expanded consciousness while establishing a reservoir of knowledge referred to as the past. The continual use of the past conditions you – allowing for sane, predictable and efficient living within the conditions of your environment. The past is always active. If the past ends, you end.

If you don’t want to know anything the past will not be called upon. If you do, it is because thought has decided so. Thought discovers answers through a process of withdrawing knowledge out of past experiences in consciousness, comparing the present with it, making assessments and predicting a future based on repetitiousness of common outcomes. That’s all there is to it. Second nature stuff.

That’s how I would sum up my post. If you want to unpack that, reread my post.

what about consciousnesses that exist for longer periods of time? people can only be conscious for small periods of time? your language is inaccurate, even if your idea might be fundamentally correct (and still fundamentally obvious)

Your experience has nothing to do with the future. You can anticipate that the car will keep moving at 9.1 seconds based on part events but at 9 seconds you have no experience or knowledge of the 9.1 second state.

Well, that’s what I was trying to get at with my comparison between consciousness of motion several seconds ago vs. consciousness of motion 0.1 seconds ago. It seems as though there are certain kinds of experiences (motion, sound) that require that consciousness be extended at least a fraction of a second through time in order to be had, and then anything beyond those temporal limits are only accessable to consciousness through memory (i.e. I can only say that I remember experiencing motion several seconds ago, but within the last 0.1 seconds I can say I’m still experiencing it).

Well, not in the sense that people become unconscious after that period of time, but that they become conscious of something else (although, of course, what they become conscious of could be something identical).

Probably - I’ve never been good with words.

Well, thank you. That’s more credit than other people would be willing to grant me.

I don’t think so.

You tell me: if I say “we can consciously experience events from the past and events from the future all at the same time (like Aquinas said of God)”, would you call this “fundamentally obvious”

Perhaps I haven’t articulated it properly. Maybe that’s my problem.

I think what’s fundamentally obvious are the premises I start with. But I’m drawing certain conclusions from it that I don’t think are so obvious (which is what makes for good philosophy :smiley:).

“we can consciously experience events from the past and events from the future all at the same time”
what? we can? is that what you’re trying to say? if so, you had a very indirect way of saying it, and you have yet to prove it.

Yes, for very short intervals of time.

I thought I had, or at least given good reasons to believe it.

Let me try again: there are some experiences which we can imagine occuring at an instant in time (like seeing red) and then there’s others which we can’t (like motion, or sound). Therefore, the latter experiences are, of necessity, extended to some degree in time. For such necessarily temporally extended experiences to exist in one’s consciousness, that consciousness must also be temporally extended (i.e. if consciousness only existed at unextended points in time, it could never experience anything that was of necessity temporally extended). Thus, for intervals of time of some minimal duration, consciousness must be experiencing all that occurs within that interval.

If you want more than that, I direct you back to my OP.

Let’s say that there is a bomb on the moving car that explodes at 9 seconds and completely destroys the car by 9.1 seconds. There is no way that you can have experience at 9 seconds of that explosion. You don’t know if the car will still be moving or will be completely destroyed at 9.1 seconds. You only expect it to be moving based on past memories of how the world works.

Being conscious of something happening ‘now’ requires sensory stimulus activity that is always in operation. The senses ARE always in an alacritous sate but their operation lacks a coordinator. You have to be THINKING about what is going on around you; what is out there has to be the same as that which is being perceived inside you. So there has to be a period of time where there is a coordination of the sensory activity.

It may well be that being conscious at this moment encompasses a miniscule passage of time, such as, in the language of film, frames of knowledge going by. Yet, notice also that KNOWLEDGE is being manipulated. It is undergoing short intervals of temporary coordination at the present moment.

So, yes, it could be that to be conscious is to be so in a continuity of events that are of short duration – a small amount of time where thought can come in, capture through a process of quick coordination what is happening within frames of knowledge.

Similar past experiences that happen over and over again reinforce the knowledge framed so that a kind of habitual trust and conditioning can be employed so as to allow the quick smooth unobstructed operation of pulsed conscious thinking being linked together over an extended period of time.

there’s nothing there about how we’re experiencing the future. i can accept the past part.

Well, sure, maybe that’s it. My point is that for very short intervals of time, we’re experiencing all occurrences within that interval at once. I thought it made sense to call the center of that interval ‘now’, but maybe ‘now’ is at the most recent end of that interval.

Phyllo, does that work for you?

That works for me. :smiley:

i don’t think it’s “at once.” i don’t think that’s accurate. perhaps there is some overlap, but not that much.

Sensations occur so fast that there is no way memory can capture that in its framework and say, “This is it.” As soon as you say that, the senses have moved on to something else and what just previously happened is wiped out from what the senses are detecting now.

There is no time here, or as Gib puts it, very very little – enough to register what is perceived now. If you take a movie of a moving hand, from here to there, there are so many frames. What you see on the screen is an artificial thing. You need a projector to produce that action or movement on the screen. But it is not actually the movement of the hand from here to there. You have to synchronize the discrete movements of the hand to produce a combined effect of the hand moving. That’s the way the human organism is operating.

Does time exist independent of consciousness? Isn’t time an abstraction created by consciousness? Isn’t motion likewise an abstraction? I don’t think we experience motion at all, let alone “throughout a small interval of time”. But who knows, thinking about these kinds of things is way beyond me. Nice post.