Special Issue on Time and Consciousness
Sean Enda Power
This special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies contains papers from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. All of the contributions concern time consciousness (or, as it is sometimes called, temporal experience). The contributions are from researchers in several disciplines who specialize in some way in the topic of time consciousness. The guidelines given for the papers were that the contributors should discuss the subject as it is relevant to their own area. No further restrictions were imposed. Yet, even though authors were free to discuss time consciousness however they like, there are common themes to many of the contributions.
One may wonder why there is a need for a special issue specifically on time consciousness. The answer is that the subject has not, to my knowledge, had a special issue, and is somewhat neglected as an area of discussion. Yet, time is important to questions around consciousness. Time structures events and things; it is important in deciding the actual and possible properties of things, including how they do and can interact with anything else.
In this way, time is similar to space. However, for questions around consciousness, thinking about time is more important than comparable thinking about space. There are two reasons for this.
First, unlike space, time plays an obvious role in the occurrence of conscious experience and its interaction with everything else. Arguably, consciousness does not have spatial properties. If consciousness is not physical (e.g. identity theory is false; it is not reducible to a pattern of neural firings), then consciousness may not need spatial properties. Consciousness may not even appear to have spatial properties (e.g. Heil, 2004). Or, having ‘spatial’ properties, these properties may be nothing like the spatial properties of physical things. Consciousness’s ‘location’ (whatever that might mean) may in no way stand in some spatial relation to physical objects (e.g. McGinn, 1995; for discussion, Allen, 2006).
In contrast to spatial properties, it is apparent that consciousness has temporal properties; furthermore, these are temporal properties which connect conscious experiences to physical things — indeed, in some cases, conscious experiences and physical things share temporal properties. Or, at least, particular conscious experiences have these characteristics.
Conscious experiences happen; happening, they happen in time. Furthermore, conscious experiences do not persist eternally. They are temporary. They begin and they end. And, finally, they come after and before other events in the world, including physical events. For example, I feel pain after I slip on a sidewalk. I am hungry before I eat food. My pain lasts as long as it takes for my body to repair. My hunger lasts as long as I have to wait for the microwave to heat my food.
The italicized words — ‘after’, ‘before’, and ‘as long as’ — indicate that, between conscious experiences and physical events, there are temporal relationships such as temporal order and shared duration. That is, time impacts conscious experience’s relationship to other things. For any conscious experience, some things happen before it and other things happen after it.
This is the case even if consciousness is fundamental to everything that exists, e.g. if panpsychism is true. Consciousness as such may be eternal. It is still the case that particular conscious experiences are separate from one another. Ways in which conscious experiences are so separated include that they happen at different times, and they also interact with different things. For example, although we both live in a panpsychic world, you are a future Martian and I am a past Neanderthal. When any one of my experiences occurs is not the same as when any one of your experiences occurs; furthermore, what interact with different things (e.g. mine with roaring mastodons; yours with howling Martian gales).
The second reason why time is more important than space to questions in the study of consciousness is that, although there are similar philosophical debates about the reality of an independent space and an independent time (the debates about the substantivalism of space and time, e.g. Dainton, 2000), there are specific debates about time which have no analogues in debates about space. Yet, these debates are relevant to thinking about time consciousness.
Within the philosophy of time, in response to separate work in the early twentieth century by McTaggart and Einstein, there are questions about how best to conceive of time and the reality of things in time. Recently, the debates have included how close different conceptions of the nature of time correspond to temporal experience. For example, there is a debate about the reality of temporal passage, and its necessity for time. In the philosophy of time, temporal passage is specifically the passage of events through what is sometimes called the A-series, the series running from the future, through the present, into the past. The debate about passage arises out of McTaggart’s argument that time is unreal (often known as ‘McTaggart’s Paradox’ — e.g. Ingthorsson, 2016). McTaggart argues that temporal passage is necessary for time; however, such passage is impossible, and so time is unreal (McTaggart, 1908).
Broadly, there have been two kinds of responses to McTaggart’s argument: Some theorists (tense theorists, often called A-theorists) agree with McTaggart, holding that temporal passage is necessary for time; however, they deny that such passage is impossible. As it is possible, time can be real (e.g. Lowe, 2002). Other theorists (tenseless theorists) agree with McTaggart that such passage is impossible; however, real time does not require such passage (e.g. Le Poidevin 2003).
The tense theorist’s response is complicated by Einstein’s theory of relativity. There is no space here to go into details as to why this is so beyond a brief sketch. According to the theory of relativity, the distinctions between the past, present, and future are defined relative to arbitrary and conventional frames of reference. Temporal passage depends on the distinctions between the past, present, and future. As such, temporal passage depends on something arbitrarily and conventionally defined. Assuming that anything real does not depend on arbitrary and conventional distinction, then, given the theory of relativity, temporal passage is not real (see Mellor, 1998, for more details on how relativity raises these problems for tense; Power, 2010, for discussion on how relativity specifically relates to the structure of consciousness; Lowe, 2002, for how tense theorists could respond to it). As such, given McTaggart’s arguments and/or relativistic physics, passage is a problematic feature of time.
Yet, those who defend passage argue that we need it to understand time and, indeed, to understand how the world seems to us. One way tense theorists defend it is that they claim we experience such passage — indeed, it is obvious to us and fundamental to what we experience.
This brings us to the papers in this issue.
Two of the contributions in this special issue question the argument from experience for time’s passage.
Kristie Miller argues that temporal passage is not part of our temporal experience or, if passage is part of such experience, it would not give us a reason to think that there really is temporal passage. Robin Le Poidevin focuses in on one temporal feature which may require passage, that of the arrow or direction of time, and one kind of temporal experience, episodic memory. He argues that there is no need for passage because consciousness of the arrow of time can be explained by causal relations between memories and perceptions.
Arguably, these debates are metaphysical; they concern whatever fundamental nature time has. If so, one might argue that consciousness is not relevant to these debates or that these debates are not relevant to consciousness. If the contributions here are correct, then this argument is mistaken. Yet, even if it were a sound argument, discussions about time are still important to consciousness. It is important in phenomenology, an area in which consciousness is central.
The founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, was significantly concerned with time. In at the time unpublished but influential lectures, Husserl attempted a thorough and accurate description of time consciousness (e.g. Husserl, 1991). Throughout his life (in work still in the process of being examined and translated in the Husserl Archives in Leuven, Belgium), Husserl developed and revised several models of time consciousness. In various ways, his work has influenced later phenomenologists and other theorists about consciousness (e.g. Heidegger, 2008; Merleau-Ponty, 2013; and, recently, Dainton, 2000; Gallagher, 2012). Current forms of Husserl’s thinking about time consciousness are frequently referred to as retention theory or retentionalism (e.g. Power, 2010). Common competitors to the position are extensionalism and the snapshot view.
In this issue, Christoph Hoerl discusses the snapshot view. The snapshot view is, as Hoerl puts it, the view that ‘perceptual consciousness is a series of individual momentary experiences’. According to Hoerl, this is often thought to be intuitive; however, he argues, the snapshot view conflicts with the phenomenology of time. This leaves us with the question of why it is thought to be intuitive. Hoerl argues that the belief in its intuitiveness is due to a failure to distinguish between two conceptions of the snapshot view, the memory theory and the mirroring theory.
Several papers presented here argue that the relationship between time and consciousness can be relevant to other questions about consciousness.
Anne Giersch and Aaron Mishara argue that features of schizophrenia are partially due to interruptions in the continuity of subjective time. They also suggest that such subjective time involves features found in Husserlian models of time consciousness. Aviva Berkovich-Ohana and Marc Wittmann argue that time is important to properly describing and understanding altered states of consciousness (amongst which the authors include ‘dreaming, meditation, hypnosis, trance, dissociative states, hallucinations, and states induced by psychoactive substances’). Time is important because it is one element in their general neurophenomenological model of consciousness known as the consciousness state space (CSS).
Using examples of some temporal illusions, Valtteri Arstila argues that our experience of time best explains a common theory of how human cognition keeps track of time, the pacemaker-accumulator theory. Jane Loo considers how the experience of time plays a role in the persistence of personal identity. Common theories about persisting personal identity are psychological continuity theories, views that we are connected to different stages in our existence through psychological states. Loo argues that these states are insufficient to connect different moments in an individual’s existence. For a sufficient model of personal identity, we must also combine it with something like Dainton’s phenomenal continuity theory, in which the self is unified over time by a single stream of consciousness.
Andrew Latham et al. argue that certain ideas about consciousness in time problematize any overarching ‘meter’ theory of consciousness as having different ‘levels’ (e.g. waking states, dazed states, dreaming states). They argue that, if consciousness is extended (or ‘smeared’ out) in time, then it becomes very difficult to evaluate any such ‘meter’ theory. That consciousness is so extended is part of many models of time consciousness, such as Husserl’s model. As such, if such models of time consciousness are correct, then it is difficult to evaluate ‘meter’ theories of consciousness.
Finally, the relationship between time consciousness and other kinds of consciousness does not always run one way. Non-temporal considerations about consciousness can affect thinking about time consciousness. For example, Grush (2006) claims that puzzles about the ‘specious present’ in perceptual experience are based on a confusion. In current theory, the ‘specious present’ is a common phrase for the apparent duration of perceptual contents. For those who accept it (not all theorists about time consciousness do), the specious present is necessary for many important kinds of experience; for example, it is necessary for the perceptual experience of change. Grush claims that puzzles about the specious present are due to a confusion between representational content and representational vehicle. Such an analysis seems obvious given representationalism about the contents of perceptual experience. It may not be so obvious if one is not a representationalist (for a similar discussion about the relationship between consciousness of time and the time of consciousness, see, for example, Dennett, 1992).
Amongst the contributions in this issue, Virginie van Wassenhove takes on some issues around time consciousness through a consideration of time in neurological processes. She argues that introspection provides little insight into the mechanisms behind psychological and conscious time. Although also insufficient in explaining the experience of time, the brain’s ‘internal time metric’ is necessary for any understanding of such time.
Finally, Matti Vuorre argues that the experience of time both influences and is influenced by a subject’s perception of causality in general, and their own agency in particular. Depending on how we understand a series of experienced events, and our own actions and agency, our sense of time is changed. He also briefly speculates how these findings may support predictive coding theories of cognition and perception.
Allen, S. (2006) A space oddity: Colin McGinn on consciousness and space, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 13 (4), pp. 61–82.
Dainton, B. (2000) Stream of Consciousness, London: Routledge.
Dennett, D. (1992) Consciousness Explained, London: Back Bay Books.
Gallagher, S. (2012) Phenomenology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Grush, R. (2006) How to, and how not to, bridge computational cognitive neuroscience and Husserlian phenomenology of time consciousness, Synthese, 153 (3), pp. 417–450.
Heil, J. (2004) Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind, London: Routledge.
Heidegger, M. (2008) Being and Time, MacQuarrie, J. & Robinson, E. (trans.), New York: HarperCollins.
Husserl, E. (1991) On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1917–1938), Brough, J. (trans.), New York: Springer.
Ingthorsson, R.D. (2016) McTaggart’s Paradox, London: Routledge.
Le Poidevin, R. (2003) Travels in Four Dimensions, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lowe, E.J. (2002) A Survey of Metaphysics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McGinn, C. (1995) Consciousness and space, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2 (3), pp. 220–230.
McTaggart, J.M.E. (1908) The unreality of time, Mind, 17, pp. 456–473.
Mellor, D.H. (1998) Real Time II, London: Routledge.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2013) Phenomenology of Perception, Landes, D. (trans.), London: Routledge.
Power, S.E. (2010) Complex experience, relativity, and abandoning simultaneity, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 17 (3–4), pp. 231–256.