Consciousness & Time: Part II: A Little Consciousness

A second guest post by our commenter PBW, continued from Part I:

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

TS Eliot, from Burnt Norton Stanza II

In 1937, The Philosophical Review published an article by Hermann Hausheer (HH) titled St. Augustine’s Conception of Time. It’s a lovely discussion of Augustine’s wrestling with the mystery of time, by a writer with great affection for the saint. He invites us to ponder, yet again, Time’s inescapable coils. Hausheer’s sources are primarily from the book in which autobiography, as we still understand it, seems to have been invented – Augustine’s Confessions – with some additional material from The City of God.

Augustine’s examination starts by laying out the conventional three-fold division of time into past, present and future, and finds stumbling blocks of paradox. For the past has ceased to exist, the future does not yet exist, and only the present is actual. The present, however, is itself a paradox. For, the present is an instant which can no further be divided into smaller particles … This time-particle or present … being the only real time … is diminishing to an inextensive point. [HH, 593]  The current moment, the present, the only realisation of time, vanishes to a mathematical concept, like the derivative of a function at a point which has no dimension, no extension in space.

Consider this. Out bushwalking, you are following a small creek upstream, and you have come to a waterfall pouring over a rock-face. At the base of the fall is a pool polished out over ages by the water. The falling water is not a curtain, but more like a heavy rainfall. The overflow of the pool forms the creek you have been following. You stand in the pool, in the way of the falling water, looking up into the cascade. As the water falls, bouncing off the uneven rock-face, it splits and scatters into random patterns of splashes and runnels, thrown earthward in motion-slowed, parabolic, gravitational ecstasy. Some scattering of droplets catches your eye and, transfixed, you follow its fall towards you, feel its splashes, and instantly have your attention seized by some successors. Water runs down your body, saturating you, and into the pool, which you feel encompassing your legs.

This cascade serves as a metaphor for time. The past is the water flowing down the creek below you, the future is the creek above as it approaches the fall. You remember the creek that you followed, and you are aware that this pool of the present moment is outflowing into it, ceasing to participate in being the pool; becoming instead that which had encircled your legs, that which had fallen. You anticipate the approach of the water above; although you cannot see it, your expectation of it is vivid, and you are not disappointed. Somewhere between fall and outflow is the present moment. But where?

In those moments when your attention was focused on the falling drops, perhaps? Did time stand still? Hardly. The rest of the cascade may have disappeared from your awareness, but their flight towards you did not. And in an instant they disintegrated against you, only for some other aspect of the ceaseless sequence of changes, that you freeze in the word “waterfall,” to captivate you. How can a “moment” ever be isolated in this cavalcade?

According to my impeccable internet sources, time, in the view of quantum mechanics, is continuous. Some observers have postulated that time is discrete, but that view has generated no enthusiasm to date. Changes on a scale of femtoseconds (10-15) have apparently been experimentally observed and on the purely theoretical scale is Planck Time – the time it takes for light to travel one Planck length; about 5 x 10-44 seconds. Time mystifies even our mystifying physics. Nothing discovered since then transcends St Augustine’s observations of sixteen hundred years ago.

… Augustine presupposes … that in reality [the present] is still felt as duration. In general he admits that the present has no extension in abstraction. It cannot remain for long as an indivisible instant; for, however small the extension in duration, the present instantly turns itself into a past which is no longer a future and a future which is not yet.

… In its normal operations the human mind through memory in some measure transcends time, as, for example, when we apprehend as a whole a metre of a melody, though the individual notes and sounds are successive not simultaneous. [HH, 504]

Under the torrent, within the torrent, our perception of our present is vivid and undeniable. Yet the moment of the present is the inisolable pointer twixt future and past: but all of our perception of “moment” is irrevocably situated in what is past. We have no access, except in expectation, to the future. Similarly, we have no access to the phantom “moment,” except in the pool of the immediate past. In the mind, we actively construct from this pool of immediate memories the certain sense of our momentary circumstances; our present. We manufacture tiny temporary coloured shards of the kaleidoscope of eternity, which begin to disintegrate even as we cobble together, from their remains and from the cascade, their successors.

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time

When it has already passed, the mind creates our present. It applies the handbrake to the juggernaut of time, just enough. Nothing can stop it, but the mind slows it enough to give us our timely reality. If the mind could not transcend time in this way, we would have, and we could be, nothing, even as time itself is the elusive transition from what has yet to be to what has been; from not-yet to no-more.

We have seen the difficulties that the very fact of phenomenal consciousness presents to the bankrupt religion of our time, secular materialism (which I will call SECMAT, tipping my hat to HAZMAT.) To those, add this: to be conscious at all, we must, partially, conquer time.

How is Augustine’s miracle of perceived duration achieved? How, that is, within the confines of a materialist conception of mind? That part of the brain that provides us with consciousness might be like an enormous shift register. A shift register is an electronic circuit into one side of which bits of data are fed as input, each bit then passing through the successive positions in the register until it emerges at the output side. The capacity of the register is the number of bits that can be held in transit from input to output.

Let us suppose that the brain is processing all of our “momentary” perceptions, thoughts, emotions, into a brain state that represents this instant, independently of the things of the immediate past and our anticipations of the future. and it is fed into the part of our brain that provides the most immediate sense of now. No sooner is this done, than the moment has passed and the sense of a new this instant is produced and fed into the same part of the brain. The old state must be shuffled down, “ageing” by being shifted farther from the this instant part of the neural circuit. Eventually, these “aged” partial brain states dissipate and fall off the circuit, but in the meantime they contribute to the conscious awareness of duration, of now. Simultaneously, an anticipation of the future is generated, primarily from the contents of the this instant and “aged” brain states (because the actual future is invisible) and fed into the anticipatory neural circuits. They work in reverse. New remote anticipations are continuously being generated, while the more remote become less so, until the least remote anticipation passes through the this instant, becoming the immediate past, but in the meantime contributing, too, to the awareness of duration, of now, in the present. Something of the train of anticipations at each moment becomes actual, or the unexpected invalidates all anticipations, such that a new set of increasingly forward-looking anticipations must be generated. Out of this whole apparatus of current focus, immediate past, and anticipated immediate future is generated the brain state that gives rise to the conscious phenomenological sense of now.

One must keep in mind that, in the SECMAT model, all of our conscious phenomenal experience, including our experience of the duration of now, is, in actuality, a state of the brain. Most importantly, we cannot gain a sense of duration from the duration of states in the brain, for that would be a reflexive awareness independent of the brain states themselves, and, in the Godot landscape of the SECMAT imagination, there ain’t no such a thing. What if we postulate another brain circuit whose function is to track duration? It’s pointless – we have already described the putative time-focussed shift register, and that would be the clock that keeps track, in some way, of the passage of time. Postulating another monitoring function gets us nowhere.

So must we also keep in mind that all of the activities in the brain are as rigidly trapped in the riddles of time as is any other aspect of the time-wracked world. The dimensionless pointer of time sweeps as inexorably across the ganglia and the synapses as it does across our lived experience. The neurones, though, have only a state inexorably transitioning to another state. Like the components of a computer, these tissues have no memory or expectation; no past and no future. They just are, and are in transition.

We might assume, for the sake of argument, that the time-focussed shift register – the time register – functions a little like a computer with clock-triggered state changes, rather than those changing continuously. Let’s say that the period of the clock is one millisecond, or some similar frequency that is just below the threshold of our perception of time intervals.  At every such interval, the next state of the shift register is generated, complete with its phenomenological accompaniment of a sense of the duration of the moment.  In this model, it would be possible for some malfunction of the time register to alter the brain state from tick to tick to a running series of incompatible pasts and incompatible expectations.  The conversation of a person experiencing this condition would be incomprehensible to others, as that of his interlocutors would be incomprehensible to him; yet he would not perceive any incoherence in himself.  We do not in fact see such incoherence, but the underlying assumptions of a SECMAT model cannot preclude it.

Here, though, the logical conundrum of deriving subjective experience from objective material becomes even more acute. How can an instantaneous brain state generate a sense of momentary duration; a sense we know to be true because all practical, intellectual and artistic endeavour depends upon it?  Worse still, there is no such object as a time-atom; there is no objective present moment.  Even the assumption of a millisecond clock for our time-register is a vast leap of faith.  We turn away and whistle while a thousand microseconds, a million picoseconds, each with its infinite subdivisions, pass behind us.  As Augustine wrote, it is the immaterial mind that remembers, that anticipates, and that creates the perception of the present moment.

Augustine could think and write with such clarity because he applied his mind and memory reflexively to his own experience of mind and memory, which he studied on its own terms. The supposed reductionists of our reductionist age do not so much reduce as minimise. They purport to strip their own minds of the very functions by which they perform this self-abnegation, foisting these functions onto what looks suspiciously like a tiny homunculus within the brain and his army of even tinier subordinate homunculi. Often the language used of bits of the brain is that of intention, perception, comprehension and the like, revealing the smuggling of subjective characteristics into some area or other of the brain. By the time these notions make their way to lay audiences, the subjectification is complete. The outcome is not clarity but obfuscation.

To be conscious is not to be in time

Consciousness is in the pull of the handbrake; the momentary slowing of the wheel that makes a little hiatus of perceived duration in the onrush of time, in which the moveable feast of now is celebrated; in which we have a moment to incorporate our anticipations and adjust our behaviour and our expectations accordingly, like a cat intent on the bird pecking through the grass. Consciousness is stolen from time. Consciousness is this very capacity to overcome, momentarily, the analytical certainty that the moment has no dimension, has no duration. Can this be the gift of stuff, of bits of the material world? How? That, again, is the question towards which SECMAT turns a deaf ear.

How is God’s knowledge of our past, present and future traditionally reconciled with our own freedom of will? Time is one of God’s creatures, so He is not restricted by it as we are. All events in time are present simultaneously to Him. We, on the other hand, have been given life in time. Isolated from our fellows in our consciousness, and isolated from the future, we, we alone, write the ongoing story of our moral life. God knows the whole of that story, observed from a vantage point outside time, but his timeless knowing does not diminish our freedom, for which time itself was created.

Yet we are not entirely restricted by time, as we have seen. Consciousness, without which we could have no awareness, requires a measure of the transcendence of time. It is, as Augustine says, the mind that achieves this. In achieving it, the mind gives us a glimpse of eternity; of timelessness. Through the normal experience of consciousness, we know that one aspect of eternity – the gathering together of our very recent past, our temporally localised past, into an immediate now, is possible.

There are circumstances in which the qualification of “very recent” is not required. The saying, “My life flashed before my eyes,” is well-known. Perhaps not so widely known is that the phenomenon known as “life review” occurs in more than 10% of near-death experiences (NDEs), when those are associate with cardiac arrest. Such life review is also reported during life-threatening events which do not involve loss of consciousness, so it is probable that a great many people have had such an experience. These occur in highly compressed time frames, such that the comprehensiveness of the experience is incompatible with our normal understanding of duration.

In both of these circumstances, we are privy to the experience of atemporal appreciation of events occurring within the flux of time.  The one circumstance is exceptional in the extreme; the other is a necessary consequence of our consciousness, a thing so ordinary, so normal, that we do not perceive how extraordinary it is. In both, we are granted a glimpse of life in eternity, a shadow of God’s atemporality.

Could it be that the first stage of our introduction to eternity is the extension of this gift: that the atemporality of our normal consciousness expands to encompass the whole of our life; that our life review becomes part of our consciousness of now?  This much we can imagine by virtue of the gifts already given to us. But as to the nature of time and experience in our resurrected bodies, who can imagine?

5 thoughts on “Consciousness & Time: Part II: A Little Consciousness

  1. Pingback: Consciousness & Time: Part I: Vulcans, Zombies, & Desert Islands – The Orthosphere

  2. Pingback: Consciousness & Time: Part II: A Little Consciousness | @the_arv

  3. Is it really true that QM – which asserts that reality is fundamentally quantal – has demonstrated that time is continuous? I’m not sure that it has. Nor am I sure that it has not. If we had learnt anything from the infinitesimal calculus, surely we must have learnt that quanta and continua are not mutually exclusive, but on the contrary mutually implicate.

    • Kristor, I have no idea. My reference to “impeccable internet sources” was ironical. Hopefully someone better educated can clarify this.

  4. Pingback: Consciousness & Time: Part II: A Little Consciousness | Reaction Times


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