Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Temporal nonlocality of consciousness

We are incapable of having a pain that lasts only a nanosecond (or a picosecond or, to be really on the safe side, a Planck time). Anything that is that short simply wouldn't consciously register, and an unconscious pain is a contradiction in terms. But now suppose that I have a constant pain for a minute. And then imagine a human being who lives only for a nanosecond, and whose states during that nanosecond are exactly the same as my states during some nanosecond during my minute of pain. Such a person wouldn't ever be conscious of pain (or anything else), because events that are that short don't consciously register.

Say that a property is temporally punctual provided that whether an object has that property at a given time depends at most on how the object is at that time. For instance, arguably, being curved is temporally punctual while being in motion is not. Say that a property is temporally nanoscale provided that whether an object has that property at a time t depends at most on how the object is on some interval of time extending a nanosecond before and after t. Any temporally punctual property is temporally nanoscale as well. An example of a non-nanoscale property is having been seated for an hour. The reflections of the first paragraph make it very plausible that our conscious experiences are neither temporally punctual nor temporally nanoscale. Whether I am now in pain at t depends on more than just the nanosecond before and after t. There is a temporal non-locality to our consciousness.

This I think makes very plausible a curious disjunction. At least one of these two claims is true:

  1. My conscious states are non-fundamental.
  2. The time sequence along which my conscious states occur is not the time sequence of physical reality.
For, plausibly, all fundamental states that happen along the time sequence of physical reality are nanoscale (and maybe even temporally punctual). Option (1) is friendly to naturalism. Option (2) is incompatible with naturalism.

Some non-naturalists think that conscious states are fundamental. If I am right, then they must accept (2). And accepting (2) is difficult given the A-theory of time on which there is a single pervasive time sequence in reality. So there is an argument here that if conscious states are fundamental, then probably the A-theory is false. There may be some other consequences. In any case, I find it very interesting that our conscious states are not nanoscale.


Heath White said...

How is accepting (2) not difficult on any theory of time?

(What idea of "the time sequence of physical reality" do we have, except for the time sequence along which we experience it?)

Gorod said...

This is similar to the questions raised by our experience (conscience) of sound. Although we all recognize the notion of "a present sound", sound necessarily implies duration, so a present sound is always, necessarily, a past sound also. It seems to be in our senses, but it really is a construction of our senses and our memory.

I'm not sure I grasp everything you wrote, so I don't know whether this observation adds anything new or just corroborates what you said...

JoPo said...

Thanks for the post!

What exactly do you mean by "fundamental" in this context?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Our idea of the time sequence of physical reality is observed through our experiential time sequence, but it doesn't match it exactly.

1. Our experiential time sequence is not infinitely subdivisible, as the thought experiment here shows, but many physical theories have an infinitely subdivisible physical timeline.

2. Also, it is usual in physics to model the timeline as the uncountable continuum of real numbers. That's going significantly beyond the experiential timeline even if, contrary to my claims in 1, we get infinite subdivisibility in our experiential timeline. For instance, a timeline modeled on the rational numbers would be infinitely subdivisible, but would only be a countable continuum.

3. The time sequence in Relativity Theory lacks absolute simultaneity, whereas our experiential time sequence definitely has infinite subdivisibility.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Typo in 3: our experiential time sequence definitely has *absolute simultaneity*.