Dainton (2017). Temporal Consciousness. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Dainton, B. (2017). Temporal Consciousness. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/consciousness-temporal/

[“1. Three Models of Temporal Consciousness” …]

[“1.1 Time and Consciousness” …]

“When we see a friend waving goodbye, do we _infer_ that their arm is moving, on the basis of having observed a motionless arm occupying a sequence of adjacent spatial location? We do make such inferences of this kind: if I see that my neighbour’s dustbin is in the middle of the road rather than its usual position on the pavement, I (rightly) infer that it has been moved. But the case in question is not at all like this: what we see is simply an arm _in motion_. (Is it for nothing that cinema is often called ‘the moving image’?) The same applies in other sensory modalities. When listening to a melody, we hear each note giving way to its successor; when we hear a sustained violin tone, we _hear_ the tone continuing on, from moment to moment. If temporally extended occurrences such as these can feature in our immediate experience, it is natural to conclude that our awareness must be capable of embracing a temporal interval.” (¶4)

“… if our awareness is confined to the present, our awareness must itself lack temporal depth. Hence we are led swiftly to the conclusion that our direct awareness cannot possibly encompass phenomena possessing temporal extension. We are thus confronted with a conundrum: it seems our awareness must extend over time, but it seems it can’t.” (¶5)

“Cinematic Model: our immediate awareness lacks any (or any significant) temporal extension, and the same applies to the contents of which we are directly aware — they are akin to static, motion-free ‘snapshots’ or ‘stills’.” (¶7)

“Retentional Model: our experiencing of change and succession occurs within episodes of consciousness which themselves lack temporal extension, but whose contents present (or represent) temporally extended intervals and phenomena.” (¶8)

“Extensional Model: our episodes of experiencing are themselves temporally extended, and are thus able to incorporate change and persistence …” (¶9)\

“In his influential writings on these matters William James argued that to make sense of our temporal experience we need to distinguish the _strict_ (or mathematical) present from the from the [sic] _experiential_ (or _specious_) present: whereas the first is indeed durationless, the second possesses a brief duration, sufficient to accommodate the change and persistence we find in our immediate experience.” (¶11)

[“1.2 Terminology, Problems and Principles” …]

[“2. A Brief History” …]

[“2.1 Augustine” …]

“What now is clear and plain is, that neither things to come or past are. Nor is it properly said, ‘there be three times, past present and to come:’ yet perchance it might be properly said, ‘there be three times: a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future.’ For these three do exist in some sort, in the soul, but otherwhere do I not see them; present of things past, memory; present of things present, sight; present of things future, expectation. (Gale 1968: 44)” (¶22)

“Since for Augustine it was also clear that the present must be entirely without duration, and that our perception is restricted to what is present — ‘that only can be seen, which is’ (Gale 1968: 43) — we are led swiftly to the conclusion that we can perceive or experience only what is contained in a momentary present.” (¶23)

[“2.2 Locke, Berkeley and Hume” …]

“The case for taking Locke to subscribe to realism looks strong.[1] Remarks along very similar lines can also be found in Berkeley: in section 98 of _The Principles of Human Knowledge_ (1710) he tells us that ‘Time therefore [is] _nothing_, abstracted from the succession of ideas in our minds’.” (¶31)

[“2.3 Thomas Reid: common sense champion of PT-antirealism” …]

“Thomas Reid … For a succession to exist at all, its parts — either particular impressions or the intervals between them — must themselves already have duration: for if these parts were all entirely lacking in duration, we would be dealing with a purely momentary phenomenon, and hence something which could not contain any kind of succession. Hence succession presupposes duration, and not vice-versa.” (¶38)

[Reid …]

“‘… the motion of a body, which is a successive change of place, could not be observed by the senses alone without the aid of memory. (_Intellectual Powers_, Essay III, chapter V)'” (¶41)

[“2.4 Kant and Brentano: the emergence of Retentional models” …]

“Anyone who inclines to realism, but also follows Augustine in confining consciousness to the momentary present, faces the difficulty of explaining how we can have an awareness of succession if our consciousness consists of nothing more than a succession of momentary snapshot-like experiences. Kant solves this problem by offering a richer account of these momentary states of consciousness. In the visual case, momentary episodes of visual experiencing are accompanied by representations of recently experienced visual contents.” (¶46)

“… a mere succession of experiences does not, in and of itself, add up to an experience of succession. … when listening (say) to an extended tone or melody, he argued, at each moment you are aware of a momentary sound-phase, in the form of a momentary auditory sensation, but you are also (and simultaneously) aware of a series of representations (or retentions) of the immediately preceding phases. The latter Brentano referred to as _proteraesthesis_.” (¶47)

” … ‘temporal modes of consciousness’.” (¶49)

[“2.5 Meinong and Stern: the emergence of the Extensional alternative” …]

[“2.6 Hodgson, James and the Specious Present” …]

“For James the only present with experiential reality is the specious present: ‘the original paragon and prototype of all conceived times is the specious present, the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible.’ (1890: 631)” (¶60)

[“2.7 Bergson, Husserl, Russell and Broad” …]

[Husserl …]

“… we find in each now, in addition to the actual physical content, an _adumbration_ …. If we focus reflectively on what is presently given in the actually present now with respect to the sound of the postilion’s horn, or the rumbling of the coach, and if we reflect on it just as it is given, then we note the _trail of memory_ that _extends_ the now-point of the sound or of the rumbling. This reflection makes it evident that the _immanent thing_ could not be given in its unity at all if the perceptual consciousness did not also encompass, along with the point of actually present sensation, the continuity of fading phases that pertain to the sensations belonging to earlier nows. … (1991: 290)” (¶72)

[Husserl …]

“The waking consciousness, the waking life, is a living-towards, a living that goes from the now towards the new now. (1991: 112)” (¶74)

[“3. Further Issues and Distinctions: Simultaneity, Immediacy and Continuity” …]

“Dennett holds that ‘One of the most striking features of consciousness is its _dis_continuity’ (1991: 356).” (¶102)

“The Discontinuity Thesis: although consciousness is commonly described as continuous, this is wrong: in fact our consciousness is highly disjointed, far more so than most people suppose.

“The Modest Continuity Thesis: our typical streams of consciousness are indeed continuous, and this involves (i) freedom from gaps, in either or both of the senses mentioned above, and/or (ii) a significant degree of moment-to-moment qualitative similarity.

“The Strong Continuity Thesis: in addition to the relationships encapsulated in the Modest Thesis, the successive brief phases of our typical streams of consciousness are experientially connected.” (¶104-106)

[“4. Cinematic Models” … ]

[“4.1 Cinematic Realism” …]

“A camera with a fast shutter-speed (e.g., 1/10,000 of a second) will ‘freeze’ all but the fastest of motions: the facial expression of victorious sprinter at the precise moment they crossed the line can thus be revealed. If our consciousness takes the form of a series of momentary (or extremely brief) ‘exposures’, won’t the contents of our consciousness be similarly static or frozen?” (¶109)

“… in the visual case, it is well known that rapid successions of static images can result in experiences of motion. The images shown on a TV or cinema screen are static snapshots, but evidently, they are perceived as dynamic: objects on a cinema screen are seen to move as smoothly and continuously as their real-life counterparts. Might not the same apply to other modes of experience, and hence to our streams of consciousness as a whole?” (¶110)

[“4.2 Cinematic Antirealism” …]

[“4.3 Reid on the Proper Provinces of Sense and Memory” …]

“Thomas Reid believed that our streams of consciousness are composed of sequences of momentary states; since he also believed these such states incapable of furnishing us with an genuine experience of succession (see §2.3) Reid can safely be classed as a Cinematic antirealist.” (¶119)

“Although it may well be that the most compelling evidence for the realist’s claim that motion (and other forms of change) feature in immediate experience is straightforwardly phenomenological — that’s just the way our experience seems to be — there are empirical findings in psychology and neuroscience which point in the same general direction.” (¶124)

[“4.4 Further Diagnoses: Crick and Koch, Le Poidevin” …]

“As Aristotle noted, if you stare at a waterfall for a short period, and then turn your gaze to the bank beside it, you will see part of the bank (seemingly) start to move in an upwards direction. This phenomenon is commonly called ‘the waterfall illusion’ (or _motion aftereffect_), and the illusory motion is of an intriguing sort. You will not see a part of the bank detach itself from its surroundings and drift up towards the sky. Rather, you will see the contents within a fixed and immobile region of the bank –- roughly the size of the waterfall you were staring at previously –- losing their normal solidity and becoming fluid-like. … Le Poidevin (following Richard Gregory) suggests that perhaps we can discern here the workings of two distinct neural mechanisms. One ‘registers what we might call ‘pure motion’, i.e., gives rise to the impression of motion without any associated sense of change of position. It is this system that is responsible for the sense of perceiving motion as happening _now_.’ (2007: 89) A second system, relying on short-term memory, tracks and compares the alterations in location over time. This second system is not concerned with telling us about presently occurring motions, rather it gives rise to the sense that objects have changed their positions relative to one another. … Perhaps our ordinary experience of motion does, after all, consist of nothing but momentary static snapshots –- in accord with Cinematic antirealism — but these momentary experiences _seem_ dynamic thanks to the activation of the ‘pure motion’ mechanism in our visual system. These snapshots do not actually feature movement, but as the waterfall illusion illustrates, movement –- at least in the form of change of position over time — is not required for the vivid _impression_ of motion.” (¶132)

[“4.5 A More Radical Anti-Realism: Dennett and Chuard” …]

“Never having received information from this region, the brain simply works on the assumption that nothing special is going on there: ‘The brain doesn’t have to ‘fill in’ for the blind spot, since the region in which the blind spot falls is already labelled (e.g., ‘plaid’ … ‘more of the same’) (1991: 335). In effect, since we have a _belief_ about what the blind region contains — typically, ‘more of the same’ — why should the brain go to the trouble of generating experience as well? Dennett goes on to suggest that this treatment of spatial holes can plausibly be extended to temporal holes (gaps in the continuity of experience) also. … ‘One of the most striking features of consciousness is its discontinuity — as revealed in the blind spot, and the saccadic gaps, to take the simplest examples. The discontinuity of consciousness is striking because of the _apparent_ continuity of consciousness.’ (1991: 356)” (¶138)

[“5. Extensional Models” …]

[“5.1 The Extensional Specious Present” …]

[“5.2 The Discrete Block Model” …]

[“5.3 Broad’s Partial Extensionalism” …]

“Since Broad postulated that the acts of awareness form a dense continuum (hence between A1 and A2 there are uncountable number of other acts, and likewise between A2 and A3) the theory can accommodate all the experienced transitions it needs to accommodate.” (¶162)

“… the span of our immediate awareness is measured in seconds at most …” (¶166)

[“5.4 The Overlap Model” …]

[“5.5 Problems and Prospects” …]

[How does consciousness experience temporal change without any sensory input? What is the biological component of temporal sensing?

SIGHT/VISION – Why is it that I cannot see the contents of my eyeball? Why can’t I see the cells of which my eye is composed? How many individual rods/cones do I actually need to experience what I see? Why do I not sense their individual contents? –oki]

“Since the briefest of experiences that we can conceive or imagine contains some element of change, or passage — or so Pelczar maintains — we should accept that experience is _essentially_ dynamic, or better: _subjectively dynamic_. … A Retentionalist specious present is momentary episode of experiencing whose contents are (by hypothesis) subjectively dynamic.” (¶185)

“An alternative possibility is that the decomposition continues indefinitely — to infinity — without ever terminating in durationless point-like parts.” (¶186)

[“6. Retentional Models” …]

“Whereas Extensional theorists hold that our immediate experience of change and succession occurs within specious presents which are themselves extended through time, Retentional theorists hold that individual specious presents lack temporal duration, but have contents which succeed in presenting (or representing) temporally extended phenomena. As standardly conceived, a Retentionalist specious present consists of a complex of experiential contents, comprising an instantaneous (or near-instantaneous) phase of immediate experience, together with a collection of representations — retentions — of the recent past, all packaged into an episode of experiencing that is momentary; a stream of consciousness is composed of a continuum of these momentary episodes.[18]” (¶188)

[“6.1 Retentional Models: Motivations” …]

“For the Retentional model to be viable at all, we must be able to make sense of the idea that duration and succession, in the forms we immediately experience them, can be contained in episodes of experiencing that are themselves without duration. … The three letters ‘R E D’ can represent red without themselves being red; and the same applies, _mutatis mutandis_, for ‘L O U D’ and ‘S Q U A R E’. Generally speaking, the properties of a representation (that which is doing the representing) and the content of that representation (what is represented) can differ dramatically. … the need to distinguish between the temporal properties featuring in the contents of experience, from the temporal properties of the experiences carrying these contents.” (¶191)

“… in his _First Critique_ Kant maintained that we could only have experience of the sort we have if at every moment we also retain something of our prior experience: ‘if I were always to lose the preceding representations (the first parts of the line, the preceding parts of the time, or the successively represented unity) from my thoughts, and not reproduce them when I proceed to the following ones, then no whole representation and none of the previously mentioned thoughts, not even the purest and most fundamental representations of space and time, could ever arise.’ (A102)” (¶192)

“Brentano and Husserl both subscribed to _The Principle of Simultaneous Awareness_ (PSA) ‘No succession of awarenesses — no matter how close together in time they come — can, by itself, account for an awareness of succession; it must be the case that an awareness of succession derives from simultaneous features of the structure of that awareness’ (Miller (1984: 109).” (¶193)

“… tacit assumptions, of a broadly metaphysical character, concerning the structure or nature of time itself are very relevant in this context. There may well be no single conception of time which perfectly fits all our common sense assumptions about it, but _Presentism_ — the doctrine, favoured by Augustine, that neither the past nor the future exist, and hence that only the present is real — fits them better than most. If the momentary present is all that is real, there is no obvious option but to locate our experience of change and persistence in the momentary present.” (¶194)

“… if adjoining momentary stream phases _are_ logically independent of one another, it may well be that the Retentional approach is the only game in town.” (¶195)

[“6.2 The Retentional Specious Present: challenges and variations” …]

[See Planck Time https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_time –oki]

“Brentano subscribed to a two-component conception of consciousness: in perceiving an object, we are aware not only of the object presented in perception, but also of _our perceiving_ of that object. … In virtue of this two-fold structure, consciousness at a given moment of time is always accompanied by a form of selfconsciousness.” (¶210)

“Brentano believed that while we can never know with certainty that _primary_ objects of consciousness exist, we _can_ know with certainly that _secondary_ objects exist, and are as they appear. Accordingly, if the secondary object of a proteraesthesis were a just-past act of sensing, we could know with certainty that we ourselves, as the subject of that act, existed a few moments ago. But Brentano held that we have no such knowledge: it is logically possible that we have only just now come into existence. By making the primary object the past tone, rather than the sensing of this tone, the unwanted consequence is averted.” (¶211)

“… ordinary memories are under the control of the will …” (¶216)

[“6.3 The Retentional Stream of Consciousness” …]

[“6.4 Assessments” …]

[“7. Metaphysics of Temporal Consciousness” …]

[“7.1 Time of Consciousness vs Consciousness of Time” …]

“… the distinction is commonly drawn between the _content_ and the _vehicle_ of a representation: the former is that which is being represented, the latter is the entity which carries or bears the representation. It is by no means impossible for a representational vehicle to possess one or more of the properties that are represented by the content it carries,… ” (¶248)

“Retentional theorists can insist that we need to distinguish between succession as a purely phenomenal feature — i.e., a property of conscious mental states or representations — and succession as a property of physical events in the wider world.” (¶251)

“… the ‘transparency’ of experience. By this they mean that in ordinary perceptual experience, we have no awareness whatsoever of our experiences themselves, we are simply aware of the (worldly) objects and properties that are presented in or by our experiences.” (¶252)

“Tye … a _one experience view_ of streams of consciousness: ‘The simplest hypothesis compatible with what is revealed by introspection is that, for each period of consciousness, there is only a single experience — an experience that represents everything experienced within the period of consciousness as a whole.’ (2003: 97)” (¶254)

[Mellor …]

“‘Perceptions do not usually share the features they are perceptions of … There need be nothing thermal about feeling heat, nothing coloured in colour vision, and nothing (relevantly) spatial about perceiving spatial relations … But perceiving temporal order does demand a corresponding temporal ordering of perceptions.’ (1985: 144)” (¶258)

[After Helmholtz …]

“Events, like our perceptions of them, take place in time … (James 1890: 629)” (¶260)

“In the case of the ‘flash-lag illusion’, for example, stimuli which are in fact simultaneous appear as successive …” (¶262)

“Dennett makes much of these phenomena, arguing that on the micro-temporal scale there need be _no_ correspondence between the order in which we represent events as occurring and the order in which these events impinge on our perceptual systems: ‘what matters is that the brain can proceed to control events ‘under the assumption that A happened before B’ whether or not the information that A has happened enters the relevant system of the brain and gets recognized as such before or after the information that B has happened.’ (1991: 149)[23] … For Dennett, the assumption that anything akin to the Jamesian stream of consciousness exists is mistaken.” (¶263)

[“7.2 Temporal Consciousness and the Metaphysics of Time” …]

“… there are many who have denied that time really _does_ pass. Of these a few share McTaggart’s view that time cannot pass because time does not exist. A more popular view, these days at least, is the view that while time certainly exists, it is more akin to space than it superficially seems. … Time _per se_ may not pass or flow, but there is undeniably something akin to passage and flow in our immediate experience, and this _phenomenal_ passage does not require _physical_ passage, it can exist a four-dimensional Block universe.” (¶270)

[“7.3 Memory, Experience and Determinacy” …]

“In cases of so-called ‘backward masking’, if two stimuli are presented in rapid succession, most subjects will be able to identify the second (and later) stimulus far more reliably than the first. In the particular experiment Dennett describes, the target stimulus is a solid disk, shown for 30 msec, and the mask — shown immediately afterwards — is a larger surrounding circle.” (¶279)

“The assumption that there _must_ be a determinate ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question of whether or not the subject saw the disk is grounded, he argues, in an appealing but mistaken neo-Cartesian conception of experience. … the correct ascription of experiences to subjects to what they say and do, and hence what they remember: ‘We might classify the Multiple Drafts model then as _first-person operationalism_, for it brusquely denies the possibility in principle of consciousness of a stimulus in the absence of that subject’s belief in that consciousness’ (1991: 132).” (¶280)

Selected References

  • Berkeley (1710) The Principles of Human Knowledge.
  • Brentano, F. (1988), Philosophical Investigations on Space, Time and the Continuum. (tr. Barry Smith), Beckenham: Croom Helm.
  • Broad, C.D. (1938), An Investigation of McTaggart’s Philosophy, Vol.II, Part I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dennett, D. (1991), Consciousness Explained, Allen Lane: Harmondsworth.
  • Gale, R. ed. (1968), The Philosophy of Time, Sussex: Harvester.
  • Husserl, E. (1991), On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893–1917), edited and translated by J.B.Brough. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
  • James, William (1890), The Principles of Psychology, New York: Dover.
  • Kant, I. (1787/1980), Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Kemp Smith, London: Macmillan.
  • Le Poidevin, R. (2007), The Images of Time, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Mellor, H. (1985), Real Time, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Miller, I. (1984), Husserl, Perception and Temporal Awareness, MIT: Cambridge, Mass.
  • Reid, Thomas (1855), Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, J. Walker (ed.), Derby: Boston.
  • Roach, R. (1999), ‘Mellor and Dennett on the Perception of Temporal Order’, Philosophical Quarterly, 49(195): 231–8.
  • Scharp, K. (2008), ‘Locke’s Theory of Reflection’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 16(1): 25–63.
  • Strawson, G. (2009), Selves, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
  • Tye, M. (2003), Consciousness and Persons, MIT: Cambridge.

Selected Notes

  • [1] Though for an alternative reading see Scharp (2008).
  • [18] Strawson has recently elaborated a Retentional model which eschews strictly momentary episodes of experiencing: ‘What is the duration of the living moment of experience? I take it to be very short indeed. … One thing I take for granted is that experience takes time: it can’t exist or occur at an instant, where an instant is defined as something with no temporal duration at all. So I take ‘moment’ as it features in the expression ‘living moment of experience’ to refer essentially to a temporal interval, however short.’ (Strawson 2009: 256).
  • [23] See Roache (1999) for an argument to the effect that the apparently very different standpoints of Dennett and Mellor are in fact reconcilable.
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