20 November 2011

The Now: Reality or Illusion?

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:17 pm

More from Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel:

A complete scientific description of the physical universe would not contain the information as to what time is “now.” …In real life, this is the job of the conscious brain: It constantly tells the organism harboring it what place is here and what time is now… Strictly speaking, no such thing as Now exists in the outside world.” (pp. 34,36)

How so? One of the benefits of a scientific description of the space-time continuum is that it enables an observer to locate specific points on that continuum. Metzinger is prepared to acknowledge the reality of a world outside of our internal representation of it, a world that includes objects occupying specific coordinates in space. Objects in the world also occupy time coordinates: they come into existence, endure, disintegrate. Processes and events in the world unfold over discrete intervals of time: they begin, they happen, they end. I understand that, for the scientist, identifying the specific coordinates on the space-time continuum is usually a third-person activity: things positioned on the continuum are there; they are then. For me, an individual subject occupying those coordinates, I am here, I am now. These are just two different vantage points for observing the same set of space-time coordinates — coordinates that exist in the real world. Like being at the eye of a tornado, the coordinates are no less real just because I happen to be in the middle of them.

Metzinger contends that the subjective experience of the Now is an “illusion.” It takes time for our sensory apparatus to transmit signals to the brain and for the brain to assemble these inputs into a coherent representation. Consequently what we experience as “now” is actually a re-creation of what was happening a fraction of a second ago. That’s true, but to call “the now” an illusion seems like a serious overstatement. It’s possible to describe with precision the causal processes linking my representation of the now with the real-world now; it’s possible to compute the time lag between the real external now and my internal now.

Metzinger reminds us that the color we perceive as apricot-pink doesn’t exist as such in the electromagnetic waves pinging against our retinas. Apricot-pink is the way humans represent that band in the light spectrum. What is the time continuum really like, or an interval, or an instant? Do we experience time as it is, directly? Or, as with vision, do we represent time in a way that’s dependent on objective time but that’s also transformed by our perceptual and cognitive systems? The latter is probably the case. But if our subjective experience of the color apricot-pink is more than mere illusion, so too is our experience of time.



  1. Yeah, this is exactly what I was afraid of. By this definition, everything we perceive is an “illusion”, which makes the idea less than useful.

    I think you’re getting at something, John, when you ask, “What is the time continuum really like?” Think about what’s going on cognitively here.

    We use the word “like” to refer to qualia — to states of perception. It’s the perfect word, because our cognition works in terms of metaphors. So – linguistically, at least – to know the essence of a perception is to compare it to something else. I would argue (at a length inappropriate for a comments section) that metaphors are a necessity in cognition, because they solve a “bootstrapping” or “holism” problem in thinking. It is impossible to have a self-contained concept of something. To understand things, we are forced to think of them in terms of other things. This is so true that it’s nearly impossible to even get a mental glimpse of what a non-relational concept would be. The brain uses a couple of different methods to deal with this: one is “analysis” (breaking something into parts in order to think of the thing in terms of the relations between the parts), which gives us a clue about our proclivity for dichotomies; and another is metaphor (comparing two things in order to understand one in terms of the other). These ways of thinking arise from the structure and operation of the brain, just like generalization, categorization, and expectation do.

    So when we say “like”, that’s the baggage we’re carrying. Something can’t be “like” something to nobody. And it can’t be “like” something to somebody who doesn’t conceptualize metaphorically.

    When we say “really like”, I think what we’re getting at is the idea that the real world, as it exists without us looking at it, is transformed in the process of perception and cognition. What we experience is a perception or cognition. We don’t experience the real world directly, without the inter-mediation of the sensual apparatus and the brain. That’s probably trivially true to most people who think about such things. But we need to remember that it’s also a nonsensical idea — like saying “I turned off the tree”.

    There’s a conceptual trick at work here, and in my opinion it’s one of our coolest but most dangerous tricks. Say I’m the discoverer of mathematics. I see the commerce of bananas in the world around me, and I start to recognize quantitative relations. You have bananas, you give some but not all to LuLu, and you still have some left. I make the symbolic leap of seeing the bananas as fungible (a cool trick in itself). I make the cognitive leap of conceptualizing the quantitative aspects – amount, more, less, count – and now I can talk about things like four bananas or two bananas. But then I make a final, mind-bending leap: I take away the bananas altogether. Now I just have four and two and all the other numbers, and their relations.

    That’s what we’re doing when we think about what things are “really like”. We pull apart the real world, the mediation of the brain, and the resulting perceptions in order to think about their relations. And then, because we can do the trick, we take away the mediation. Like numbers, we can do a lot of fun manipulations on the abstracted parts. But, also like numbers, we have to hook them back up again to do anything useful with them.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 20 November 2011 @ 3:21 pm

  2. No, I think Metzinger is right. ‘Now’ cannot be experienced, because it has nothing to do with time. It’s more like, you know, always existed, like eternity, and it never becomes ‘past’.

    “For me, an individual subject occupying those coordinates, I am here, I am now. ”

    “Here” doesn’t seem exactly like “now”, but maybe it is. Changing your position on the sofa slightly seems like part of the ‘same 2 heres’, but the ‘nows’ are never fixed, except the colloquial usage, of ‘today’ or even a week or year could use ‘now’ in that sense, like ‘I live i Boulder now’ (therefore, a number of years.) But the literal now is another thing. For one thing, it applies equally to things living and dead.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 20 November 2011 @ 3:37 pm

  3. Metzinger hasn’t yet spelled things out in quite these terms, but it seems that he’s talking about the interrelationships between four levels or layers of reality: (1) the external environment, (2) the brain’s internal simulation of the external environment, (3) the subject’s perception of specific objects and events populating the internal simulation, (4) the subject’s self-reflexive cognition about his/her perceptions. To describe the color of some object as “apricot-pink” is to engage in level 4 self-observation. So too would be any sort of description of our experience of time be a level 4 cognition.

    When M says that the Now is an illusion, he’s talking about level 2: the brain’s internal simulation of real time. He says that the illusory aspect of temporal simulation is “transparent” to the subject, in the sense that we’re not aware of our own neural activities generating the simulation. In the same way our internal representation of visual perception is transparent, occurring outside of our conscious awareness: we think we’re seeing the world with our eyes, whereas we’re interacting with an internal representation of the world created from information transmitted by our eyes to our brains.

    Anyhow, we can say at level 4 that the color of a sunset is apricot-pink, or “like a pinkish apricot,” but these are descriptions of a level-3 perception of a sunset occupying a level-2 internal simulation of a level-1 transient state of the physical environment. So too we can say that time is flowing or “like a river,” that we’re living in the Now, and so on. But these are conscious verbal descriptions of unconscious brain processes. Conscious linguistic descriptions can at best be metaphors for subjective unconscious non-linguistic experiences. But Metzinger isn’t talking about that sort of metaphorical “illusion” — at least not yet.

    What I find odd is that M thinks that there is no Now in the real world. If a bullet were to hit my arm I might not be aware of it until a few milliseconds after the event. But there was a moment in time, which could been recorded by an impact telemetry device strapped to my arm, when the bullet actually hit in the real world. The telemetry device would have recorded the precise coordinates of that particular “now” when impact occurred.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 November 2011 @ 4:25 pm

  4. While the details are still scanty, the basic structures and mechanisms by which the brain creates an internal representation or simulation of the physical environment are fairly well understood in empirical terms. Metzinger proposes a means by which the brain constructs a simulation of the Now, but it seems to be more of a speculative argument than a summary of empirical evidence. Briefly, he contends that the Now is an artifact of the continual iterative refreshing of neural firings widely distributed across the neural network. These repetitive firings over very short time intervals are assembled into a time continuum characterized as a “blurred present,” fading at the edges of the Now into immediate past and present. It’s an intriguing idea about temporal perception, but nowhere near as firmly established as visual perception, auditory perception, taste perception, etc.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 November 2011 @ 4:54 pm

  5. K: …to call “the now” an illusion seems like a serious overstatement. It’s possible to describe with precision the causal processes linking my representation of the now with the real-world now; it’s possible to compute the time lag between the real external now and my internal now.

    I’m certainly out of my element in these discussions. The question that came to my mind, however, is the nature of the objectivity of time. Isn’t time relative? You speak of objective and subjective time, but I have always understood that there isn’t really such a thing as any truly and purely objective measurement of time.


    Comment by erdman31 — 20 November 2011 @ 4:59 pm

  6. I think we can say that at best, he stated it poorly, and at worst he’s wrong.

    ‘A complete scientific description of the physical universe would not contain the information as to what time is “now.”’

    Would he say that a complete description of the universe 4 femptoseconds after the big bang would be a different description than a description of the universe 4 billion years after that? If so, then the “now”, although not “contained” in the description, certainly references it. It is not “a complete description of the universe”, but rather “a complete description of the universe at a given moment”.

    If he thinks the descriptions are the same, then he’s simply wrong.

    If he’s simply trying to say that “strictly speaking” there is no correlate in the physical world to the “now” that our brains use, he’s probably only partly wrong. The “now” of the brain is essentially a brain process that exists to do brain things. But the reason why the “now” of the brain arose is because the external world is as it is. There is a causal chain between the (supposedly) external world and the perception/conception of “now” in the brain. If the way time worked in the universe were different, the way “now” works in our brains would be different. So it’s probably not “correlated” in the strong sense of our brains working the same way as universes do. But it’s correlated in the weak sense of the brain having a process that arises directly from the way the universe works.

    Maybe the problem is in thinking that there’s a “simulation”. There usually isn’t — or at least not the kind that the word conjures up.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 20 November 2011 @ 5:14 pm

  7. I should add that I’m probably being way too hard on the guy. He’s not shooting for a precise, philosophical work here, so I’m probably being hypercritical about words like “illusion” and “simulation”. To say that there’s “no such thing as” a self, in a rigorous philosophical sense, is to make a metaphysical claim (a false one, since the brain is physical, which makes concepts physical, which makes conceptual entities “real”). In a more colloquial sense, saying there’s “no such thing as” the self just means that our cognitive metaphors for it are misleading or inapt.

    What I’m hoping he’s seeking to do is: 1) say that our intuitive cognitive model of the self is incorrect; and 2) come up with a better one.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 20 November 2011 @ 5:28 pm

  8. Asher, I was attuned to your concerns about epiphenomenon and illusion after your comment on the last post, which is why I wrote this one. If Metzinger regards the whole internal representation of time is illusory, then surely he would also regard any verbal descriptions of one’s subjective perception of time as illusory also. I share your two-point hope about what he’s going to do about cognitive model of the self. While this book is written for a lay audience, he’s clearly presenting ideas that he considers to have philosophical weight. I feel as though I am on firmer ground interacting with his ideas than I do when reading and discussing, say, Harman and Bryant. Why? Again, it’s because Metzinger at least makes the effort to stick with the data. E.g., he doesn’t deny internal representations of external reality because the idea doesn’t fit with his philosophical views of what humans are like. There is sound empirical evidence supporting the internal representation idea; what M wants to do is to build a philosophical anthropology and epistemology that’s compatible with that evidence. However, he’s still I think going to prove too much of a speculator. It’s like he’s committed a priori to exposing illusions of folk psychology, and in doing so he makes generalizations and assumptions that aren’t warranted by the evidence. This business of there being no Now in nature is one example, along with the idea that the internal representation of space is real whereas that of time is not. Still, it’s early in the game, but M is in danger of heading down the path of perdition that you’d anticipated.

    Erdman, with respect to the relativity of time: sure, there are Einsteinian equations quantifying how time is distorted by speed and mass. But those relativities happen at submicroscopic and intergalactic scales. For humans functioning in their day-to-day environments, Newtonian physics and clock time are fully adequate. If, on the other hand, you’re talking about time being subjectively relative — e.g., a minute can feel like an hour or vice versa depending on what you’re feeling and doing at the time — well, that’s where standardized measurement of time comes in handy: to compare subjective experience with external reality.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 November 2011 @ 9:11 pm

  9. At the level at which Metzinger is working now as normally understood cannot be said to be an illusion. Unfolding of events requires time in the space/time continuum which is the basis of our conceptual schema. In Process and Reality Whitehead says that “contemporary events happen in causal independence of each other”. My present understanding of this is that in the limiting case of the metaphysical now there is a solid monistic mass which simply is. To discover causality in present events over a timespan there has to be distance and artificial separation. Bergson speaks of mathematicized sequential time as a conceptual creation most useful for differential calculus but distinct from what he calls ‘duration’. These metaphysical concepts are very different from those which Metzinger would, I presume, accept.

    The other thing which could be challenged in Metzinger is the identification of the brain and consciousness. We are occasionally conscious at a time and place where our brain is not. Precognition and clairvoyance are rare, well attested but shy forms of consciousness.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 21 November 2011 @ 8:02 am

  10. The internal simulation of the visual field is continually refreshed by input from the retina. The eyes saccade something like 3 times per second, which is “like” images generated by a movie camera that’s repeatedly being pivoted very slightly. These slightly altered glimpses of the same scene presumably enhances the visual perception of objects contrasted with backgrounds — rather like binocular vision enhancing the 3D aspect of the internal visual simulation. The compilation of slightly different saccade views depends on their being sequential, with the neural network registering the slight changes in views over short time intervals. The brain then assembles these sequential shots into a sense of continuity over time. But it’s the sequence of saccadic Nows that makes this continuity possible. Certainly our awareness of movement depends on comparing views of objects from one Now to the next. There’s also empirical evidence that people perceive moving objects as having already advanced slightly beyond where they are in the Now. This would seem to be a compensation for the slight lag time of the visual perception system in tracking the Now. Metzinger acknowledges all of this empirical evidence, yet somehow stubbornly he insists that the Now is an illusion not just in perception but in outside reality.

    I’d say that Metzinger regards consciousness as an output of brain processes. One could characterize precognition or clairvoyance as the perception of features of the environment that most people fail to detect — percepts triggered by external stimuli, detected by “extra-sensory” apparatus in ourselves, the signals transmitted to the brain and processed by it into extra-sensory perception through processes not dissimilar to seeing, hearing, and thinking. This is the hypothetical subject of my prior post, though instead of god-detector neurons there might be future-detector neurons and so on.

    What you’re suggesting though is that there are conscious processes impinging on us from outside our brains that come into our awareness. Certainly this happens in language comprehension, where we hear/read linguistic input as having been produced by thinking brains that are not our own. Perhaps there are beings invisible to us who travel into the future and who report back their findings to us via some communicative means that does not rely on audition or visual perception?


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 November 2011 @ 9:13 am

  11. “I feel as though I am on firmer ground interacting with his ideas than I do when reading and discussing, say, Harman and Bryant.”


    I’ll probably end up reading Metzinger anyway, but what I think we need – badly – is a basic but precisely-defined metaphysics that we can start to build ideas about mind and consciousness around. Anyone who tries to go philosophical on this stuff should start with that. The metaphysics will probably end up being partially wrong in the same way our scientific theories end up being partially wrong, but people need to start with that, because otherwise words like “real” and “illusion” end up just confusing things. If you theorize philosophically about consciousness, a metaphysics is implied, however tacit or vague. There’s no getting around it.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 21 November 2011 @ 10:25 pm

  12. What you’re proposing, Asher, is one reason I find science more simpatico. Despite PoMo assertions to the contrary, science really does build on itself, really does make progress. The critical work of spotting errors and correcting them is part of the immanent process of moving incrementally from ignorance toward truth. And I don’t mean capital-T Truth, something that’s been eternally present in the minds of the gods and that the humans gradually unveil. Metaphysics seems like a field that valorizes creativity and counter-intuitiveness and totalizing systems, with multiple metaphysical schemes each being associated with the metaphysician who thought it up rather than with the world to which it supposedly applies. There are big names in science too of course, but mostly the practice of science is pretty anonymous. The theories and findings count more than the scientists, and the ideas are weighed against reality. The metaphysics of consciousness advancing iteratively with the empiricism of consciousness: that learning process might get us somewhere that’s not just different, but actually better.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 November 2011 @ 6:59 am

  13. That sounds a lot like the rant I judiciously deleted from my previous comment (except mine was more rude). I think you nailed it.

    What’s really important in what you’re saying, I think, is the idea of valorizing particular aspects and approaches. We have to be aware of and fully accept the fact that there is something deeply normative about our models of the world. If we want a decent metaphysics, we have to put the normative stuff right up front. A model is not just a fun thing to think about — we want to *do* something with it, and our values spring from what we want to do. Science has done a much better job with this than Philosophy.

    Two other things that I like about scientific theories are directly related to that: 1) scientific theories are very explicit and precise about what counts as a valid justification; and 2) scientific theories and the method for interpreting them are self-contained. Philosophy could gain those advantages if it were willing to lay out the normative stuff up front.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 22 November 2011 @ 1:31 pm

  14. I’ve slowed my reading of Metzinger: it’s interesting and well-written, so it’s probably just me. I read a bit more on the Now. M says that if we could somehow be aware of the Now of the external world as it happens, rather than through the slight delay imposed by our brain simulation, we would be able to peek behind the curtain, see the Matrix and not its projection, and so on. But we can’t. Fair enough. Still, this is no reason to deny that there is a Now in the external world and a Now in perception, the two of them connected to each other by well-understood physical and biochemical processes.

    Normativity hasn’t come up yet in M’s book. As you say, Asher, we want to do something with our internal simulation of the external world. The things we want to do involve our interactions with the external world. So the implicit norm by which our brain generates its simulation is something like this: build, with the inputs and structures and processes available to it, a simulation that represents external reality as accurately as possible. It could be argued that the brain’s norm is more pragmatic than that: build a simulation that provides the greatest possible opportunity for survival. This is true too, and the accuracy of the brain’s model-building is probably constrained by concerns about speed — too long a lag and the sabre-tooth is eating you — and efficiency — more accurate modeling requires more energy, which means needing more food, which is hard to obtain. But these pragmatic concerns are mostly constraints on accuracy, not normative requirements to pursue instead of accuracy. One of the evolved advantages of the human species is its flexibility in adapting to a variety of environmental conditions. That advantage would require the ability to detect surprises thrown at it by the environment. And the ability to be surprised means detecting the differences between what one expects and what is. Again, accurate modeling of “what is” offers adaptive advantages.

    Clearly the accuracy norm isn’t a conscious proposition, a set of instructions I give my brain for building its model of the world. The norm for the brain is the real external world in which it operates, against which the brain can iteratively test its results and improve its performance. Science takes this implicit representational norm and states it explicitly: develop theories that most closely model the world they purport to describe. Both the unconscious brain norm and the conscious science norm are grounded in realism. Again, the ability to be surprised is key, which means that scientists can’t afford to hold too tightly onto their a-priori assumptions.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 November 2011 @ 8:01 am

  15. I’m almost finished with Metzinger’s book and, although I’ve not read his larger preceding work Being No One on which Harman has based a critique of Metzinger’s work, I think I have an adequate grasp to interact with Harman’s evaluation. In brief, I think that Harman either misunderstands or misrepresents Metzinger at critical junctures, erecting a straw man against which he would have good reason to raise objections. For example, Metzinger contends that humans do not directly perceive objects in the world. This has long been understood and cannot be deemed controversial. But what status does Metzinger assign to phenomenological objects? E.g., the red blanket I see on the couch is a phenomenological representation that my brain assembles from information it receives from my retinas, transmitted via neural pathways to my visual cortex. This mental representation of the blanket achieves its phenomenological stability as an object by virtue of an ongoing set of processes that include continual refreshing of the image provided by my retinas as well as continual synchronous firing of neurons in the visual cortex. It is through these ongoing neural processes that the internal representation of the blanket maintains its distinction from the couch on which it rests as well as its permanence over time. In brief then, the phenomenological representation of an object depends on continual neural processes. Again, the body of empirical evidence supporting this understanding of visual perception is large, consistent, and generally undisputed.

    Reading Harman one might get the impression that Metzinger is making a far stronger argument: that the material blanket and the material couch on which it rests achieve their status as objects only through continual brain processes. I.e., the blanket is an object only because my visual perceptual processes construct it into an object. And that’s a mistaken understanding of what Metzinger is saying. He doesn’t deny that the blanket out there in the world is a real material object; he’s describing only the process by which the brain assembles an internal representation corresponding to that real external object.

    Harman is right in contending that Metzinger regards these internal representations of external objects as illusions. Why, Harman asks, should a representation be regarded as unreal just because it is assembled from lower-level neural processes? And I can see his point. Is the blanket unreal because it’s assembled from subatomic particles and forces? Am I unreal because I’m built from biochemical self-organizing processes assembled according to instructions carried in my genes? Sure, the internal representation of the blanket is not the same thing as the real material blanket to which it corresponds. Saying that the internal representation is an illusion serves to emphasize that the material blanket over there on the couch is the real article, independent of my perception of it: this is realism. But the internal representation of the blanket is, like the blanket itself, the product of lower-level material entities and processes. A photograph of the blanket isn’t the blanket; it’s merely a representation. Still, the photo is made up of material substances and processes. Just because I can’t hold my mental representation of the blanket in my hand doesn’t mean it’s less material, less real, than a photo representation.

    I find other features of Harman’s critique rather strange. E.g., he says that Metzinger’s emphasis that humans don’t have direct visual contact with the environment, and that humans are unaware of their own internal workings, to be consistent with Harman’s ontology. I’m pretty sure that the biology of one particular type of organism ought not be generalized to all objects unless the empirical evidence justifies it. Metzinger is talking only about human conscious awareness of the world. He says nothing about other sorts of interactions between humans and the world; e.g., I doubt he’d argue that a person being run over by a truck hasn’t had a direct encounter. What’s most off-putting for me is his portrayal of Metzinger as an arrogant, sneering, intolerant jerk. He might be one, but that has nothing to do with the quality of his ideas or the evidence supporting them. Besides, it’s not at all the impression I get of Metzinger when I read his book.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 November 2011 @ 11:42 pm

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