The True Nature of Time and Consciousness
By R. Allen Gilliam
Physicists have discovered that reality is quite different from what our everyday experience would suggest. The true nature of time has some fascinating consequences for consciousness, free will, and the fear of death.
According to Special Relativity, space and time are part of the same entity: spacetime. Depending on your movement, spacetime gets divided into space and time differently. From Wikipedia: "Observers have a set of simultaneous events around them that they regard as composing the present instant. The relativity of simultaneity results in observers who are moving relative to each other having different sets of events in their present instant." Conceptualizing time as a dimension (rather than an absolute) has specific, non-intuitive consequences such as time dilation (the speed at which you move through time depends on the speed at which you move through space). Time dilation has been confirmed by real-world experiments. The measured decay rates of high speed muon particles, and the Doppler shift of the radiation emitted by a moving source, directly confirm Special Relativity. The satellite-based Global Positioning System would be off by an average of seven meters if not corrected for the time dilation effects of both Special and General Relativity. So we can be confident that Relativity is accurate, time is a dimension similar to the spacial dimensions.
So, if time is a dimension, it's most reasonable to think of the past and future as "out there." Time (past, present, and future) is fixed, eternal, and unchanging. Time is like a roll of movie film sitting on a shelf. Each moment in time is one of the frames of the film and is no different from any other frame.
So what determines our position in time? Why are we experiencing this moment right now rather than some other? The truth is that there is no special point in time which is "now." Instead, at each point in time, including this one, you think it is "now." Right now, you think it's now. But you also thought it was now last Tuesday. You are simultaneously and eternally experiencing each and every instant of your life, including the one in which you are reading these words. You always have been, and you always will be. This view is called Eternalism, Block Time Theory, or Block Universe Theory.
So why exactly does "now" seem special? The sense that we are moving though time is a powerful illusion created by our memories of the past. The reason this point in time seems special is simply because our memories end at this point. It's entirely the result of perspective. This moment in time seems special only because you have a memory of previous moments up until now. The you in the past thinks his or her "now" is special because he or she has memories up to only that point in time. And the you in the future also thinks it's "now." Every point in time exists in the same way. We always think it's "now." This point in time being singular and special is an illusion. The fact that at any particular point in time, we have memories leading up to only that point in time, does not make that point special, because that's true of every point in time.
Thinking that "now" is a special point in time is analogous to thinking that "here" is a special point in space because it's where you are. We know that other places exist because we can see them and move at will from place to place. If we could see through time, or move through time at will, we'd have the same sense that every moment of time exists in the same way we exist now.
If you're tempted to dismiss this view of reality as crazy, I would ask you what reason you have to think that the true nature of reality would not be so different from our everyday experience as to seem crazy.
If the time dimension is unchanging, how can consciousness be explained?
We feel that we are directly perceiving our movement through time, but what is it that we are actually perceiving? At each point in time, we can only be aware of our perceptions at that instant, our thoughts, and our memories of previous perceptions and previous thoughts. Our awareness can't truly transcend time, but our memory gives us the illusion of doing so. It's as if we can see backward through time just like our eyes can see through space. Consciousness is the simulation of the transcendence of time. This is accomplished by simply having a vivid memory of what we've been thinking for the last few seconds. What we're thinking about at this instant, combined with our memory of what we were thinking about recently, produces the subjective experience of being conscious and moving through time. Memory allows our conscious awareness to seem to exist in a chunk of time rather than an instant. This simulates the direct perception of our passage through time and therefore our consciousness seems to be necessarily an ongoing process. But this is an illusion produced by memory. It's a very powerful illusion, so powerful that it seems ridiculous to question its reality, but it's an illusion nevertheless. It's not exactly untrue, but it isn't real. We aren't directly perceiving the passage of time. That isn't allowed under the laws of physics.
Consciousness not being able to actually transcend time raises an interesting question: If you paused a human brain like a computer program, would the person be continuously conscious of that moment in time and not know that time was standing still? It seems like he'd have to be. Otherwise we could never be conscious. We can't directly perceive the past. We can only be aware of the perceptions and thoughts of this instant plus our memories. We can't tell that we're moving through time except by examining our memories of the last few instants from within a single instant, so why would it matter whether time was "running?" There's no way for us to actually reach through time forward or backward, so we must be conscious in a single instant. The idea of consciousness not needing to be an ongoing process is certainly weird, but unavoidable. Astoundingly, the consciousness would still be there if you made a giant oil painting of the state of our neural circuitry at an instant in time. If the oil painting of our neurons isn't conscious, then how can we be conscious at any instant in time? It's a contradiction. The oil painting would have to be just as conscious as we are at any point in our lives! It would be a copy of an instant of conscious awareness, but it would be just as conscious as the original mind was at that instant.
The only alternative is for consciousness to somehow transcend time. But there's no reason to think this is happening. First, physics doesn't allow it, and for reasons very well-supported by empirical experiment. And second, we are never aware of any part of the past which we didn't perceive at the time. The only time-transcending we do is remembering things that we've perceived in the past. So we can be conscious in a frozen instant. In fact, that's the only way we ever are conscious! We can't directly perceive the past or the future, so we are stuck in this instant of time.
And it gets weirder. We're never aware of the real "now" because our brains take a bit of time to process our perceptions and construct our awareness. Our conscious awareness is always a little behind the actual "now" that we occupy. We're perpetually living slightly in the past. If we're never aware of the actual "now," but are only aware of a moment from the past, it becomes even more difficult to argue that our conscious experience is evidence that "now," is somehow special.
What are the implications for free will?
What does it mean to have free will? It means that at each point in time we are free to do what seems best to us to achieve our goals. Well, this is exactly what we would see if we examined the entire, fixed time dimension. At each point in time, we are doing exactly what we freely choose to do. So what's the problem? We feel like the future can't be fixed because we imagine that we could change the future if we knew what it was "supposed" to be. If you told me that I would get killed in a car accident on my way to work tomorrow, I could choose to stay home. But it's literally impossible to know the future. Our sense that the future can't be fixed is based on our imagination of the physical impossibility of knowing what the future is "supposed" to be. Once you let go of that impossible hypothetical, once you accept that there can be no certain knowledge of the future, it becomes impossible to imagine changing the future. The concept of change requires knowing what something was before it was changed. How can you change something when you can't know what it was before?
There isn't actually any contradiction between free will and a fixed time dimension. Whatever you freely choose to do at each point in time is what action that point in time has always contained. We have free will, but it has already been exercised. Our free choices are part of why the unchanging time dimension is what it is. At each point in time, we are experiencing making those choices. Even though the time dimension is fixed, at each point in time, we do what we think is best to achieve our goals. What more free will could we have?
Some philosophers have argued that we can't have free will unless our choices are the ultimate cause of our actions. Therefore, since all our choices are in response to past circumstances, we have no free will. This is called the consequence argument. This is just a redefinition of the term free will in order to make it impossible. It's like saying that if you see someone pull their fist back like they're about to punch you, and you dodge out of the way, you weren't acting of your own free will because you were responding to something beyond your control.
Some philosophers have tried to save free will by proposing that certain types of quantum events that are intrinsically random could effect our decisions and therefore our choices are not determined by physical law. I see three problems with this. (1) These tiny random fluctuations are best characterized as noise or static. They aren't actually part of our thinking, and so can't grant us any reasonable definition of free will. It's only an excuse to avoid strict determinism. (2) Noise in neural circuitry could have only a slight effect on our thinking. If I'm driving, and a car pulls out in front of me, random quantum noise in my neurons will never make me choose to stomp on the accelerator. (3) Quantum events being intrinsically random means that there's no way for us to predict them using any amount of information about the past. But every random event could still be pre-determined in the time dimension. These events could be determined by something other than physical laws that determine the future from the past. In fact, it seems to me that these random events are evidence for The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis, but that's a subject for another essay.
What are the implications for hope, motivation, and effecting change?
Some philosophers have argued that if the future is fixed, then there's no point in trying to improve things. And many people would say that if the future is fixed, then there's no reason to make any effort to achieve any goal. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. There's nothing we can do about it. This is flawed thinking. Our minds, motives, and actions are part of the universe. Things are the way they are now because of our choice of actions in the past. The future is fixed, but our actions are part of why the future is what it is. Our actions do have an effect, and more often than not it's the effect we desire, so we should keep trying.
What are the implications for the fear of death?
Our lives do have an end, they are finite, but that's no more significant than the fact that our bodies are finite in space. We can mourn the fact that our lives won't go on and on forever, but we don't have to mourn the loss of anything we hold dear. Our experiences are finite, but eternally experienced. There is no loss. Every precious moment you've ever experienced is still as real as it ever was, still as real as "now". It has always existed and always will. We are simultaneously and eternally experiencing each and every instant of our lives.
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