Time and Temporal Experience

§6 Some Further Issues and Conundrums

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§6 Some Further Issues and Conundrums

My main concern here has been to bring to the fore some potentially important ways in which a better understanding of temporal experience might impact upon the more general metaphysical of time. While there are advantages to adopting this lofty vantage point—there are things which can only be seen from on high—it has obliged me to move very quickly through a good deal of contentious territory. To bring matters to a close I will comment very briefly on some unresolved issues concerning temporal experience, and point to some topics which are likely to prove fertile topics for future explorations.

As we have seen, among those who accept that change and succession do feature in our experience in a distinctively direct and immediate way, there is a divergence of opinion between the Retentional and Extensional camps.13 Although I have made no attempt to decide between these approaches here, elsewhere I have argued—e.g. Dainton (2006, 2008)—that the Extensional approach has advantages over its rival, on several counts. It has the merit of greater simplicity: there is none of the (arguably) surplus complexity which Retentional theorists ascribe to each momentary phase of a stream of consciousness (the vertical dimension in Figure 2). Indeed, by holding that this degree of complexity is to be found in each momentary phase of our consciousness Retentionalist risk slipping into phenomenological implausibility: are we really aware of all this activity in our experience from moment to moment? Even if this problem can be circumvented by adopting an adequately innocuous conception of retentional contents, there remains a problem with securing the continuity of our experience. Typically, we are aware of each brief phase of our stream of consciousness flowing seamlessly into the next. The temporally extended and partially overlapping specious presents of the Extensional account can easily accommodate this sort of continuity, but Retentionalists face a far sterner challenge. The doctrine that our direct awareness is confined to the present moment lies at the heart of the Retentional model—indeed, the whole approach can be seen as an attempt to construct a phenomenologically plausible account of temporal experience that is compatible with this doctrine. But if our direct awareness is confined to the momentary present, it is difficult to see how our experience can be continuous in the way it seems to be. Suppose, for example, I hear do-re-mi, and the temporal width of my specious present can accommodate no more than two of these tones. The Retentional theorist has no trouble accounting for my experience of do flowing into re and my experience of re flowing into mi: these are simply the contents of two distinct Retentional specious presents, R1 = {do-re} and R2 = {re-mi}. But to do full justice to the phenomenology of the situation there is a further aspect of my experience which needs to be acknowledged and accounted for. When I hear do-re and then re-mi, the “re” which I experience as following on from the “do” is the very same token experience as the “re” that I hear flowing into “mi”. Or so it is very natural to suppose; transitions of this sort—where A gives way to B, and B (not some duplicate or surrogate) gives way to C—are a ubiquitous feature of our experience over short intervals. The partially overlapping specious presents of the Extensionalist can accommodate the required token identity: on this view the “re” in the specious present E1 = [do-re] is numerically identical with the “re” in the partially overlapping specious present E2 = [re-mi]. But it is impossible for the Retentionalist to do likewise. Instead of partially overlapping specious presents, the Retentionalist posits entirely distinct specious presents, R1 = {do-re} and R2 = {re-mi}, where the re’s in R1 and R2 are numerically distinct token experiences. Time will tell whether the Retentional framework proves robust enough to meet this continuity-based challenge—or whether the damaging phenomenological considerations can in some way be undermined or defused—see Gallagher (2003), Zahavi (2007) and Kiverstein (2010) for Retentionalist responses.

This issue aside, it is very likely that further empirical research from psychology, psychophysics and neuroscience will shed useful light on the whole area of temporal experience, and generate useful new discussion. Indeed, some (so-called) temporal illusions have already provoked a good deal of interesting discussion. The puzzling phenomenon of backwards masking is one such. In its most basic form, backwards masking involves an earlier and a later stimuli, separated by less than a second, where the later stimulus affects how the earlier one is experienced. Such cases led Dennett (1991) to conclude that there may not be any fact of the matter as to the content or character of our experience over short intervals. More recently, Grush (2007) has argued that the Retentional approach can handle this (and related) cases with great ease, whereas the Extensional approach has great difficulty; but this has been questioned: see Dainton (2008) and Phillips (forthcoming) for counter-arguments. This issue has by no means been finally resolved, and further research into the temporal delays between perceptual stimuli and perceptual experience should help clarify the situation. There are other ways in which empirical discoveries have impacted upon recent discussions, and no doubt further findings will significantly influence the course of future debates, albeit in ways which we cannot as yet predict.

But there are also unresolved issues of a more general kind which are not (or not so obviously) dependent on scientific results. Although it is by no means new, the Extensional approach has not figured prominently in the relevant literature until recently, and consequently there remains plenty of room for development and refinement. One issue is whether or how the Extensional approach conception can be adapted to different general conceptions of the nature of experience. In my own previous discussions I have adopted a traditional (Lockean-style) qualia-based view of perceptual experiences, and argued against the awareness-content conception of experience. Although I think this combination of views has its merits (obviously), I do not think the Extensional approach must take this form, and it may well be possible to develop it in quite different directions. Those who favour a direct realist view of ordinary perceptual experience could, for example, hold that the acts of awareness (or episodes of apprehension) which reveal our surroundings are temporally extended, rather than momentary—a position along these lines is explored in Soteriou (2010).

Another issue which is very much alive concerns (what one might call) the micro-structure of temporal experience. Should the Extensionalist hold that the smallest experiential parts of our streams of consciousness are momentary? Doing so is problematic. Even if the notion of a strictly momentary experience turns out to be an intelligible one, it is implausible to suppose that what seem to be essentially dynamic forms of experience, such as auditory sensations (or P-movements), could be composed of strictly momentary parts, at least within the Extensional framework where change and succession are experienced over time—indeed, it is precisely this consideration which leads Pelczar (2010) to recommend the Retentional alternative. But Pelczar tacitly assumes that Extensionalist’s will view streams as divisible into momentary experiential parts, whereas in fact they will (or should) insist that this is not the case. Taking this step avoids one difficulty, but it gives rise to others. Are Extensional streams endlessly divisible into ever-briefer non-momentary parts, or are they composed of discrete atomic constituents? If the latter, what is their objective duration? What is the precise character of our experience over very brief—e.g. nano-second, pico-second—intervals? Can it really be illegitimate to say that a person is experiencing something at a specific moment? If it isn’t, how should the Extensionalist construe such talk? These are dauntingly difficult questions but they should not be ignored—see Phillips (forthcoming) and Dainton (forthcoming) for some indications as to how they might be addressed and answered within an Extensionalist framework, and Treanor (in progress) for an alternative representationalist treatment.

Looking further afield and beyond the themes I have been concerned with here, interesting work has recently been done on the ways temporality is represented in works of art and photographs—see Le Poidevin (2007) and Walton (2008). Also, and very intriguingly, Lee (2007) has recently opened up the issue of how to reconcile relativity, with its relativization of simultaneity and rate of passage to inertial reference frames, with natural and widespread assumptions about our streams of consciousness: “Very briefly the puzzle is this. It is well-known that in a Relativistic world, many apparently non-relational properties of objects, like their shape, are instantiated only relative to a frame of reference. But … it would be intolerable if the phenomenology of experiences was similarly frame-relative. However, there are also arguments that can be given that lead to the strange conclusion that phenomenology is frame-relative. The puzzle is to explain how consciousness relates to the physical world in a way that avoids this conclusion.” (op.cit. 343) Further work will be needed to clarify the extent to which the experience-generating processes in human brains, along with the experiences they produce, really are subject to relativistic effects. But Lee is certainly right: if they are, then we are confronted with some very baffling puzzles and problems—and we can look forward to a fruitful relationship between physics and the phenomenology of temporal experience.

Bigelow, J. 1996 “Presentism and Properties”, Philosophical Perspectives 10: 35-52
Boring, E.G. 1942, Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology (2nd edition), New York: Appleby.
Bourne, C. 2006 A Future for Presentism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Crisp, T.M. 2007 “Presentism and the Grounding Objection”, Nous 41(1): 90-109.
Dainton, B. (2000, 2nd edition 2006) Stream of Consciousness London: Routledge.
Dainton, B. 2008 “Sensing Change” Philosophical Issues (18)1: 362-84
Dainton, B. 2010a “Temporal Consciousness” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), E.N. Zalta (ed.) URL =

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