Time and Temporal Experience



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Dainton, B. 2010b Time and Space (2nd edition) Acumen: Durham/McGill Queens: Montreal
Dainton, B. 2011 “Time, Passage and Immediate Experience” in C. Callender (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Time, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 381-418
Dainton, B. (forthcoming) “The Phenomenal Continuum” to appear in D. Lloyd and V. Arstila (eds.) Subjective Time: the Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Temporality MIT Press.

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1 See Skow (2009) for a recent defense of the Moving Spotlight model, Bourne (2006) for an elaboration of a version of Presentism, and Tooley (1997) for a detailed exposition of the Growing Block theory; see Dainton (2010b chapters 2 and 6) for an overview of all these different conceptions of time.

2 Galen Strawson (forthcoming §4) sums up the period of heroic (reductionist) physicalism which dominated much of 20th century philosophy of mind in terms of a triad of claims (i) “The Astonishing View that there’s actually no such thing as the experiential character of experience (no such thing as conscious experience, experiential what-it’s-likeness …)”, (ii) “The Astonishing Fact that the Astonishing View was for a considerable period of time the dominant view among a significant number who considered themselves, and were by some others considered, to be at the forefront of their subject.” (iii) “The Truly Astonishing Fact that this was part of a movement one of whose openly stated aims—under various names, such as ‘behaviourism’, ‘functionalism’, and now, it seems, ‘strong representationalism’—was to reduce the experiential to the non-experiential, i.e. to show that the experiential was, in some way, really wholly non-experiential.”


3 For more of the story see Dainton (2010b) “Motion Perception” at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-temporal/empirical-findings.html

4 The optimal motion effect is also commonly known as the “phi” phenomenon, though (see Steinman et al: 2000) this is arguably a misnomer: it was the pure motion effect that Wertheimer called “phi” back in 1912. Boring nicely described pure motion—also known as “shadow” or “omega” in the psychological literature—as one that “connects the objects and has direction between them but seems not in itself to be an object” (1942: 595).

5 If panpsychism is true, then dynamic phenomenal properties needn’t be confined to brains (or brain-like systems), they could be possessed by the elementary constituents of ordinary material objects. But although a far from negligible case for panpsychism can be made—see Strawson (2006)—the doctrine is also problematic, on several fronts, and as things currently stand I do not see it as the most plausible position on the matter-consciousness relationship.

6 Prosser (forthcoming, §2) writes “Dainton … recognizes that the specious present does not, in itself, explain the experience of passage, and instead posits ‘immanent flow’ as an intrinsic phenomenal property of all experiences. In the absence of a more detailed explanation of this feature, however, this strikes me as closer to naming the problem that to solving it.” I certainly think much of our experience exhibits immanent flow, however I am open to the possibility that certain forms of experience—e.g. very sharp pinpricks of pain, perhaps some “flashes” of conscious thought—do not. As for naming the problem rather than solving it, I do not think that we need a “more detailed explanation” of phenomenal flow in order to appreciate the important contribution it makes to our feeling (or belief, or conviction, or sense) that time passes: recognizing (or acknowledging) that it is a pervasive feature of one’s ordinary experience suffices. Indeed, if, as seems likely, immanent flow is a basic and so irreducible feature of our experience, then it is unclear to me what a more detailed explanation of it would look like, unless it takes the form of a fuller account than we possess at present of the neural processes which generate our experiences—I see no reason to think that an explanation of this kind is impossible. I hope to comment on Prosser’s interesting positive proposal—that dynamic-seeming change involves the representation of something enduring through the change—on another occasion.

7 That even the most dramatic (and crushing) amnesia does not significantly impact on the general character of one’s consciousness is one of the lessons to be drawn from Oliver Sacks’ famous Korsakoff case-histories “The Lost Mariner” and “A Matter of Identity”. If the world of infants is the blooming, buzzing confusion—as famously suggested by William James—then the fundaments of E-passage do not require linguistic or high-level conceptual capacities either. There are also neurological conditions which (arguably) reduce adults to a condition that is similar in certain respects to that of an infant. Describing the effects of a brain tumour which is gradually destroying the areas of his brain linked to speech and language, the art critic Tom Lubbock (2010) writes (during a period of comparative respite): “My experience of the world is not made less by lack of language but is essentially unchanged. This is curious.” For further discussion of the relationship between E-passage and memory see Dainton (2010: §7.7).

8 This is Dennett’s radical and controversial line on “filling in”, developed in various places, e.g. (1991: 344-68) and which Paul endorses (forthcoming, fn.30). Dennett himself writes: “The fundamental flaw in the idea of ‘filling in’ is that it suggests the brain is providing something when in fact the brain is ignoring something. And this leads even very sophisticated thinkers to make some crashing mistakes, perfectly epitomized by Edelman: “one of the most striking features of consciousness is its continuity” … This is utterly wrong. One of the most striking features of consciousness is its discontinuity—as revealed in the blind spot, and saccadic gaps, to take the simplest example.” (op.cit. 356) Focusing on the simple and familiar example of the blind spot is a good way of bringing out just how radical Dennett’s proposal is. Close one eye, and with the other take a look at the ceiling. If you enjoy normal vision, you will not notice the football-sized dark hole in your visual field that is a consequence of the of absence of light-sensitive cells in the (quite large) area of your retina that is taken up by your optical nerve. The standard explanation of this: there is no gap or hole because your brain fills in the gap—i.e., it provides you with (roughly) the kind of experience you would have had if you didn’t have a hole in your retina, on the basis of extrapolations from the data being transmitted by the light-sensitive cells which surround your blind spot. On Dennett view, this is all wrong. No filling-in takes place; there is in fact a large hole in your visual field, but you don’t believe that there is, because your visual system is not flagging up the fact, and so your higher-level processing systems remain oblivious to it’s existence. This is certainly a more economical explanation of the data; it is also very difficult to take seriously.


9 I explore these issues in more detail in Dainton (2011).

10 The Extensional approach dates back at least as far as Stern (1897), and has been defended latterly by Foster (1979, 1982) and Dainton (2006, 2008); the Retentional approach was developed (in various versions) by Husserl (1991), and subsequently became orthodox in phenomenological circles—see recent expositions and defense see Gallagher (2003), Grush (2007), Zahavi (2007), Kiverstein (2010).

11 It is also worth noting in this connection that for beings who are “running faster” than us—e.g., beings for whom a single Planck-time (i.e. 10-43 seconds) is equivalent to a single human second—even intervals that are quite short by our standards can amount to a long period of time: billions of Planck-scale civilizations could rise and fall in a single half-second epoch.

12 Another option, one which some Presentists—e.g. Bigelow (1996)—have advocated, is to appeal to pastwards directed properties—“Lucretian properties” as they are sometimes called. Although these reside entirely in the present moment, they are capable of acting as truthmakers for statements such as “five hundred years ago a battle took place on this spot, and much blood was spilt” even though no such battle (or blood) exists, and the relevant Lucretian property does not impact in any way on the intrinsic character of anything which does exist in the present. Whatever their other merits, lacking as they are in their own intrinsic phenomenal properties, Lucretian properties cannot combine to compose actual experiences.

13 Dividing the territory up in this way is itself something of an oversimplification, and there are some important divergences within both camps, which I will not dwell on here: see Dainton (2010a) for further detail.


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