Time and Complementarity

6,900 words

Header image taken from here.


“Perhaps all your life you think of happiness as something dangling in front of you, which you’ll catch up with sooner or later … Eventually it becomes clear that happiness was, all along, the one who was reaching. You thought it was some amazing roadside attraction you were going to drive to, and it turns out that it’s more like backing into the garage. Or discovering that you never left the garage. Or that you are the garage.” – Dean Sluyter, Natural Meditation

“NICOLE: You know how everyone’s always saying, ‘Seize the moment’? … I don’t know, I’m kinda thinkin’ it’s the other way around. You know, like, the moment seizes us.

MASON: Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s constant, the moments, it’s just… it’s like always right now, you know?

NICOLE: Yeah.” – Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)

“The only place the separate self cannot stand is Now.” – Rupert Spira

“Time is a myth.” – Kanye West

Non-duality in the present moment

Listen to any sound.

You probably think that the sound is “out there,” while the listening occurs “in here.” The perceiving subject is physically separate from the perceived object. Furthermore, you may believe that there is nothing that you can do to bridge this gap. Although you can derive an impression of the outer world from your senses, you cannot be the outer world. In the words of William James, the mind as knowing and the thing known stand apart from each other, face to face. “Neither one can get out of itself or into the other.”

But let’s examine this phenomenon of perception a little more deeply.

Pay attention to the sound. What exactly are you hearing?

Whatever sound is “out there” enters your ear canal and gets translated into an electrical signal that travels to certain regions of the brain. Hearing is merely a processing of those signals.

But the experience of sound isn’t just your hearing. Electricity can be a medium for transmitting messages in the brain, but electricity itself doesn’t sound like anything. Therefore, it would be a grave mistake to equate the felt perception of sound with the propagation of electricity in the brain. There are “phenomenal qualities” associated with the experience of sound that are above and beyond its corresponding nerve impulses. Neurons may encode a great deal of information about the physical characteristics of sound. However, even the most complete physical description of sound cannot convey the subjective feeling of hearing it. Detailing the precise values of the amplitude, frequency, and volume of a sound doesn’t even come close to explaining what hearing is like.  (I have elaborated on this idea in a previous blogpost.)

What is this “subjective feeling” of sound, this qualitative notion of what it is like to hear something? It is your conscious awareness. It’s what translates the biochemical impulses in your brain into the felt, lived experience of sound.

So, you don’t experience sound by hearing it; rather, you experience sound by becoming consciously aware of hearing it. Through this awareness, the perceiving subject (you) and the perceived object (sound) become inextricably linked to each other. There is, in fact, no separation between the two. How can you say that the sound is “out there” when everything that you truly know about it takes place within your awareness, which resides inside of you? The sound is “in here,” where you are aware of it.

It may be hard to convince you of this non-duality given that your mind is so accustomed to constructing boundaries between you and your experience. For example, consider another one of your sensory modalities: your sight. When you see the table in front of you, for example, you also notice that there is a clear spatial gap between you and the table. You are clearly not in exactly the same place as the table; so how, you may ask, can you be one and the same thing? You must remember that all that is known to you about the table is your awareness of it, and you cannot divide yourself from your awareness. Instead of watching the table, watch the awareness that is aware of the table. Do you notice a difference?

Here’s another exercise that you can try:

Use your left eye to look at another person’s left eye, and ask him or her to do the same to you. First, just watch the other person. Then, watch the other person becoming aware of watching you. Any difference?

The phrase “awareness of sound” creates the impression that awareness has an object: the particular sensation that it is experiencing. This is incorrect. “Sound” is a label that the mind comes up with in order to identify the experience once it has already passed. The immediate sensation is just a pure, unqualified awareness. (1) Only afterwards does the mind try to figure out what exactly that awareness is aware of. In fact, the apparent distinction between subject and object arises from the mind’s effort to reflect upon and conceptualize the various aspects of experience. Any experience, when considered in and of itself, just happens. Only when you think about it do you realize that it happened to you, making it the object of your interpretative analysis. As the physicist Léon Rosenfeld wrote, “Drawing a separation between the psychical process which was chosen as the object of observation and the observing subject … is precisely what we mean when we speak of fixing our attention on a definite aspect of the process.”

This is what the mind does: it is constantly fixing its attention on a particular moment in time, narrating and analyzing it. It produces an inner monologue that very often wanders away from the present moment in order to attend to a past memory or a future event. William James referred to the thoughts that we concentrate on as the “substantive” parts of the stream of consciousness. Like a bird, he said, your mind is always flying from one substantive part to another; we very frequently jump from one thought to the next. The “transitive” parts, on the other hand, consist of the moments when your mind transitions from one thought to another. In James’ framework, it’s not really possible to be conscious of the transitive states of mind, since you can only focus your attention on the substantive segments in your stream of consciousness.

In reality, however, although there are substantive states of mind, the stream of consciousness is entirely transitive. Everything that you experience through your consciousness happens in the now. As the enlightened teacher Eckhart Tolle once said, “There is never a time when your life is not ‘this moment.'” But where is the present moment? As soon as you even think about this very moment, it’s already faded away into the past, even though your entire life happens in this very moment. Every moment disappears as soon as it happens; every experience dissolves seamlessly into the next one. In other words, the stream of consciousness is actually a constant vanishing act. Try to hold onto any one feeling or sensation and notice that it’s already gone, lost into the past. It is simply impossible for anything to stand still in the ever-changing flow of existence. Only the mind tries to make things stay in place, fixating on the moments and struggling to let go.

When you let each thought flow into the next without becoming attached to any one of them, you are united with every experience. You don’t stand outside of it as someone who is judging and contemplating it. When you think about something that has already passed, you become separated from the stream of experience, thereby producing the subject-object split that I discussed earlier; you are moving forward in time while the moment that you are thinking about is in the past.

You cannot let experience flow while simultaneously thinking about experience – you cannot be in both the transitive and substantive states of mind at any one moment – and yet these are the only two ways to be engaged with experience. (2) That is, you can only ever be aware of experience from the inside or from the outside, but never both at the same time. When a particular phenomenon consists of two aspects that mutually exclude each other, we say that they are complementary. The philosopher Harald Atmanspacher offers a more complete definition of this concept:

“The feature of complementarity … pertains to two aspects of a situation that are incompatible. They are both necessary to describe the situation exhaustively. Neither one of them alone is sufficient, yet observing one of them in a given empirical context excludes observing the other one in the same context.”

I’ve alluded to the idea of complementarity twice before, when I talked about dual-aspect monism and dualistic monism. The latter philosophy claims that the whole necessarily manifests itself in the conflict between two opposing parts. It’s best exemplified by the yin-yang symbol; the yin and the yang are antithetical to each other, but together they form a complete circle. The Daoists came up with the concepts of yin and yang to describe human nature and the universe in broad brushstrokes. I think that they were really onto something; the notion of complementarity seems to be a very deep feature of not only Daoism, but also the fundamental mechanisms guiding human perception and the physical description of our reality.



Perception is essentially founded upon this “unity of contradiction.” The entire stream of consciousness, as I mentioned above, is really just a blur. Everything appears to be changing all the time, and not just in places where there appears to be a lot of motion and traffic. No single moment is the same, which means that each moment presents an entirely new and original experience. We take it for granted that we don’t perceive a chaotic mess of activity in the world. Rather, the mind, with its remarkable processing power, is able to distinguish experiences from one another and arrange them into a neat order. Differentiating various events from one another is essentially the act of finding contrasts between consecutive moments in the stream of consciousness. Consider, for example, the sound of thunder. We typically identify this sound with the phenomenal qualities that we believe to be intrinsic to it; the roaring in the sky, the low and bellowing timbre, and so on. But the perception of the sound depends just as much on experiences that, at first glance, appear to have nothing to do with thunder. Would the sound of thunder form a distinct impression on you if you weren’t able to tell it apart from other sounds? If the rumbling of thunder sounded exactly like the event that immediately preceded it – say, the crashing of a wave – then it wouldn’t make sense to talk about thunder as though it were separate from the previous sound. The concept of “thunder” would become meaningless.

The sound of thunder is so distinctive because it contrasts very strongly with the silence that led up to it. Without this contrast, it would just get mixed in with all the other sounds that are present in the environment. As William James insightfully pointed out, “The thunder itself we believe to abolish and exclude the silence; but the feeling of the thunder is also a feeling of the silence as just gone.” So, the perception of thunder is really the act of hearing thunder replace the sound that came before it. In order to perceive what thunder is, you also have to perceive what it is not. The perception of the whole phenomenon is formed by noticing the difference between the perceived event and whatever happened before it. Neither the former nor the latter, taken alone, would be able to produce the resulting perception. Furthermore, one comes before the other, so it is impossible to observe both at the same time. Perception, therefore, is complementary.

Every experience is, of course, happening in the present moment, but perception is contingent on a recognition of the events that occurred in the immediate past. As James noted, “It would be difficult to find in the actual concrete consciousness or man a feeling so limited to the present as not to have an inkling of anything that went before.” This is a very deep notion. We will return to it later.

My discussion of perception might seem rather theoretical, but there are concrete examples from neuroscience to support my ideas. It actually becomes harder to pick out individual objects in the environment when you lose the ability to contrast them with other perceptual stimuli. For example, frogs only move their eyes when they notice motion in their surrounding visual field. However, when there’s no perceptible activity, their eyes remain still. Consequently, a frog will stick its tongue out to eat a moving fly, but if it were trapped inside a box with dead flies, it would actually starve to death.

What about humans? Our food (usually) doesn’t shift around on our dinner plates, but we’re nevertheless capable of noticing that it’s there. You might think that, unlike frogs, we humans don’t have to move our eyes in order to see objects in the world. Actually, this isn’t entirely true. Our eyes are constantly making small movements known as microsaccades. You can verify this for yourself by staring at a little dot in the distance. Notice that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t really keep your gaze completely still for more than a few seconds. Furthermore, the dot becomes blurrier the longer that you attempt to stare at it. Fascinatingly, a pair of scientists from Brown University observed that visual perception actually fades quite quickly when objects in the environment move exactly in tandem with the microsaccades of the eye. (3)

These empirical examples are consistent with theory. The notion of an individual object implies that there is something that distinguishes it from its environment, so perceiving it is essentially a process of contrasting it with the other stimuli around it. The perceived stimulus and its surroundings are inherently separate from each other, but both are necessary to form the percept of a singular, undifferentiated phenomenon, much like observing any experience requires a separate subject and object even though the act of observation is itself a unity.


Quantum mechanics

Even though an understanding of the individual necessitates an understanding of the other, we typically don’t think that a phenomenon itself consists of the opposition between two mutually incompatible aspects. A circle is just a circle. Even though we can only comprehend the concept of a circle in relation to other shapes, the circle itself doesn’t literally have a square contained within it.

Through the unique identities that we’ve ascribed to each of them, we’ve arranged the various shapes into distinct categories that mutually exclude each other. An object that is correctly classified as one shape cannot also be classified as another. There might be situations in which it’s unclear whether or not a particular shape is, say, a square or a circle. Even then, the object at hand could be either a circle or a square but never both a circle and a square at the same time.

The principle of complementarity, then, doesn’t seem to apply to shapes and, more generally, to other categories that we use for organizing our everyday, “macro-level” experience of the world. We rarely observe phenomena that manifest two contradictory characteristics at the same time. Even if we did, we wouldn’t really be able to make sense out of them. Bertrand Russell’s spin on one of the three classic laws of thought claims that everything must either be or not be; there is no middle ground in which something and its opposite could coexist with each other in one complete, inseparable whole.

So, scientists were deeply perplexed when they did uncover complementary phenomena on the “micro-level” – that is, the level of reality described by quantum mechanics – at the turn of the 20th century. The physicists of the era discovered that light, paradoxically, seemed to exhibit a “wave-particle duality”; that is, it seemed to manifest wave-like and particle-like properties, even though these are incompatible with each other.

Before then, it was established that light behaved like a wave. In the early 1800s, Thomas Young allowed light to pass through two layers of slits and hit an observation screen. If light were a stream of particles, then there would only be one band of light on the screen. However, Young observed a pattern of light juxtaposed with darkness, demonstrating that the light was composed of waves that interfered with each other.


Fig 1. The alternating bands of light and darkness comprise the interference pattern in Young’s double-slit experiment. Image taken from here.

In 1902, the German physicist Philipp Lenard found that electrons would be ejected from a clean metal surface whenever it was illuminated. If the wave theory of light were correct, then increasing the intensity of the light should correspondingly raise the kinetic energy of the released electrons, much like a high amplitude wave in the ocean would expel an object on the shore at a higher velocity than a low amplitude wave (3). However, it turned out instead that the energy of the electrons is actually correlated with the frequency of the light. Seeking to resolve this inconsistency, Albert Einstein proposed a new model of light as a particle containing a fixed packet of energy, known as a quantum, that is proportional to the frequency of the light.

The so-called “photoelectric effect” was the first observed phenomenon that could only be explained by treating light as a particle. And yet other phenomena involving light, such as interference, could not occur if light behaved exclusively as a particle. It is important to note that light is not a mixture of waves and particles either; it is not as though these two classes of objects came together to form some new amalgamation. In fact, it is actually impossible to observe both the wave and the particle aspects of light simultaneously. Yet it is also clear that the classical notions of “wave” and “particle” are, when taken alone, inadequate to fully account for the nature of light. At best, we can say that there are certain experimental conditions in which light is most accurately characterized as a particle and others in which it is best categorized as a wave. Herein lies the paradox: both the wave and the particle aspects are necessary to provide a complete description of light, even though it can only ever exhibit either one or the other at any given time. The wave and particle natures are ostensibly separate from each other, but on a deeper level they are actually inseparable, since dividing one from the other would eliminate the entire essence of light. It is actually the opposition between the two that creates the wholeness of light. There’s the paradox again, further abstracted. Hence, as the quantum physicist Niels Bohr suggested, “wave-particle duality” should really be reformulated as “wave-particle complementarity,” since only the latter phrase captures the indivisibility of the two outward manifestations of light.

Whether light appears to act as a wave or a particle depends on its interaction with the measuring apparatus that is used to observe it. This groundbreaking discovery in quantum mechanics overturned the longstanding idea in physics that an observed ray of light is totally separate from the subject observing it. As I mentioned before, Young’s double-slit experiment showed that light exhibits an interference pattern when it travels through two slits, demonstrating its wave properties. In the quantum mechanical follow-up to this experiment, a very weak beam of light is emitted from the source, such that only one photon passes through the two slits at any given moment. Even though we’d think that the screen behind the slits would display a single band of light, characteristic of a series of particles that had accumulated there over time, an interference pattern appears instead, suggesting that the light had actually behaved as a wave. Fascinatingly, when the weak light beam passes through just one of the slits (while the other one is kept closed), a single band of light shows up on the screen rather than an interference pattern. Unless we posit that the ray of light knows in advance whether or not both of the slits have been kept open, it seems that the design of the experimental apparatus determines the aspect of light that is ultimately observed. The observed identity of the light is actually indistinguishable from the conditions under which it is measured. We can only use concepts like “wave” and “particle” to characterize light in the context of a particular experiment. In fact, the object that the experiment is testing is not exactly light but rather, as the physicist Gerald Holton has pointed out, the entity “light + apparatus.” In quantum mechanics, the experiment cannot really be separated into an observed object and an observing subject (or, more precisely, the tools that are used for measuring). Rather, it is an inextricable whole from which the classical concepts of subject and object are only later derived. The act of observation in quantum mechanics is non-dual even though it bears the outward appearance of duality, much like our subjective awareness of the world. Echoing an idea that I discussed earlier in this essay, the spiritual teacher Rupert Spira has said, “Perception is not divided in to one part (a separate inside self) that perceives and another part (the separate outside object, other or world) that is perceived. There is just perceiving in which both the apparent subject and object are contained as one.”


Fig 2. A single band of light appears when one of the slits is closed, whereas an interference pattern appears when both are kept open, regardless of whether light is emitted one photon at a time from the source. Image taken from here.

It is important to clarify that a quantum mechanical system does exist independently of our observations, but not in a way that we can explain classically. Left unobserved, the position of the system in space and time is intrinsically probabilistic; we cannot predict its behavior with total certainty, no matter how accurate our measurements are. The state of the system is specified mathematically by a probability wave, also known as the wave function. Furthermore, it is possible for two wave functions to be superposed over each other, such that a single particle could theoretically be in two places at once. The quantum mechanical version of the double-slit experiment, discussed above, is one such example of a superposition; a single photon is capable of producing an interference pattern because it can enter through both slits in the apparatus at the same time. However, we never experience a particle in multiple places simultaneously since observation of a quantum system collapses the wave function into one single value. At any given moment, our measurement tools only ever detect the particle to be at one particular point in space and time. The probability that it is at any other position in space-time becomes zero. Through the act of observation, the system immediately transitions from a multi-dimensional quantum potentiality into a four-dimensional reality that behaves classically, with a definite set of space-time coordinates, definite velocity, definite momentum, and so on. (4)

The quantum and classical characterizations of the system appear to conflict with each other. One is probabilistic and the other is not; one depends on the apparatus that is used to measure it, while the other is totally independent of the experimental arrangement. Yet despite their incompatibility, it is not as though only one of these modes of description is an accurate representation of reality. The existence of one does not negate the actuality of the other; the quantum wave function is just as real as the single, discrete particle. As Holton writes, “both of these mutually exclusive descriptions of manifestations of the system must be regarded as equally relevant or ‘true,’ although both cannot be exhibited at the same time.” There seem to be two different physical frameworks involved, but there is only one reality.

However, it does seem like classical physics is much more equipped to describe macroscopic phenomena – i.e. those that we experience at the scale of everyday life – than quantum mechanics. In fact, every physical system is technically quantum mechanical in nature. Macroscopic systems don’t seem to exhibit properties like superposition, but that’s only because the results predicted by the laws of quantum mechanics converge with those of classical physics at large scales. In the 1920s, the quantum physicist Louis de Broglie established that all matter has wave properties; even a “particle” as big as a baseball has a wavelength, although it is astronomically small. So, all of physical reality displays the complementarity between classical and quantum propertiesto paraphrase Holton, the wholeness of nature is expressed in the exhaustive superposition of different descriptions that contain contradictory ideas.


Time and time again

Earlier in this essay, I suggested that perception involves a comparison of the present moment with past experiences, and I promised that I would return to this notion later. I want to explore the idea in the context of the nature of time in order to demonstrate a very deep complementarity.

In our normal, everyday experience of life, we tend to treat time and space as fundamentally different entities. Time flows whereas space is static. But then in the early 1900s, Albert Einstein discovered that space and time are actually interwoven with each other into a single fabric known as space-time. For some philosophers and physicists, Einstein’s groundbreaking concept implies that we live in a block universe, a four-dimensional structure in which all of time and space resides. Each point within the block has four coordinates: x, y, z, and t (time). In the block, the distance between two points in the same spatial location reflects the length of time that has passed between them. In other words, events that are far apart in time are represented as spatially distant points in the block, and events that occur within immediate succession of each other are adjacent points. If somebody managed to step outside of the block universe and examine it from a “bird’s-eye perspective,” he would be able to observe the whole history of time, stretching from the birth to the death of the universe. According to the block universe concept, all of time has already unfolded, and the passage of time is merely an illusion that arises from the fact that we are always, inexorably moving forward in the time dimension of the block. We tend to think that the future is less real than the past and the present, but all future events are actual, fixed points on the block that we simply haven’t yet experienced.

By the end of time, every moment in the block will have been experienced. But each moment, when it is experienced, happens in the Now. This is a necessary truth; recall the quotation from Eckhart Tolle that I mentioned earlier: “There is never any moment in your life that is not this very moment.” Therefore, the block universe is really just a collection of many different Nows. Furthermore, it’s actually not true that everyone in the universe is experiencing the same Now at any given moment. Two observers who are moving relative to each other experience different Nows, because their Nows “slice” through the block of spacetime at different angles (see Fig 3). If the observers are both on Earth, then the differences are miniscule. However, if they are separated by hundreds of millions of light-years, then they will have completely separate conceptions of what exists in the Now; the Now for one of the observers could include an event that happened hundreds of years ago for the other one. Thus, there is no such thing as an objective “past” or “future”; there are only different points in space-time – different Nows – that we happen to arrange into a certain temporal order as a product of human experience.


Fig 3. Observers in relative motion slice space-time differently. Image taken from Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Cosmos.

This view of time as a collection of different Nows is similar to an idea espoused by the physicist Julian Barbour. In his book The End of Time, he compares the physical universe to a static, unchanging landscape of Nows, which he calls “Platonia.” To explain Platonia, Barbour asks us to consider a simple universe that consists of three particles moving in relation to each other. At every moment in time, the particles form a certain triangle based on their relative positions in space. Each instant of time – each Now – would be defined by the triangular arrangement of the particles in that moment. Under this view, time is isomorphic to – that is, it corresponds to – the set of all triangles that could exist in the universe. Thus, the entirety of time is contained within the three-dimensional configuration space of all the possible triangles (see Fig 4). The three axes of the space correspond to the three edges of a triangle, so every point in the space stands for a unique triangle.


Fig 4. Barbour’s “Triangle Land,” a three-dimensional configuration space in which the three axes correspond to the three different edges of a triangle (i.e. “AB,” “BC,” and “AC”).

Every moment of time exists somewhere within this configuration space. Indeed, it is important to stress that each Now is nothing more than the configuration of all the objects that exist in the universe at that moment. Of course, the configuration space of the actual universe is significantly more complex than it is in Barbour’s toy example. It would have many, many more dimensions than we could even imagine, due not only to the unfathomably large number of particles in the universe but also the sheer multitude of relations that those particles can bear to one another. In the triangle case, Barbour implicitly defines a configuration to be a structure of spatial relations between three particles (5); in the real world, however, the arrangements of objects are also determined by their centers of mass, their orientations, and other levels of organization influenced by chemical bonds, biological dynamics, and so on.

But the overarching theme of Barbour’s “Triangle Land” example still holds true. As Barbour notes, the configuration space is so important in physics that the wave function in quantum mechanics is formulated not in absolute space but rather a configuration space. In the quantum mechanical picture, a molecule consisting of many tens of thousands of atoms is not just a single structure but rather, to quote Barbour, “a huge collection of potentially present structures, each with its own probability.” The most probable molecular structure is actually just one point in a massive configuration space representing all the millions of possible combinations of the constituent atoms. Here, the significance of the distinction between absolute space and configuration space becomes apparent. In absolute space, individual objects bear the distinct impression of moving and changing all the time. In the quantum configuration space, the various arrangements of objects in the universe do not evolve into one another; rather, the likelihood that a particular arrangement will occur varies from one point to another. For example, version A of a certain molecular structure does not become version B; in fact, both versions exist in the configuration space, but one may have a higher probability associated with it than the other. (6) Within the configuration space, all the possible arrangements of the objects in the universe coexist with one another at once. There is no such thing as time.

Well, if time doesn’t actually flow, then how come we have such a strong feeling that it does? According to Barbour, the Nows that we experience contain objects that serve as “time capsules,” which encode an apparent history of events. Fossils are one example of a time capsule; they serve as records of organisms that had once existed. The brain is the most sophisticated time capsule because it keeps, through its memory, accounts of experiences that have happened in the past. Therefore, the past is really nothing more than a record that has been stored in the brain, and the future can be conceived of as an “inverted record,” an expectation of what is to occur rather than a chronicle of what has occurred. And when do we access or experience those records? In the present, always. Even the act of recalling the past happens in the Now, and if it were not for the brain, then we would have literally no conception of the past. Think about it: the past and the future are nothing more than figments of the mind’s imagination. There is only the eternal present, where every experience unfolds. I return to Eckhart Tolle’s wisdom time and time again: “There is never a moment in your life that is not this very moment.”

And yet, as I said earlier, as soon as you start to think about this very moment, it has already faded into the past. It is impossible to simultaneously think about experience and be completely immersed in it. As I argued in my first blogpost, the thinking mind is never truly in the present.

Human cognition distorts physical reality because it produces the illusion that time is passing in a timeless universe. Any experience, once it is thought about, is already gone from the present moment. Therefore, thought is really just the recollection (or anticipation of) an experience that isn’t happening right now. Cognition implies a past and a future, a temporal sequence of events that flow into one another. Furthermore, all thoughts implicitly create a separation between the thinking subject, which is always here in the Now, and the object that is thought about, which is in the past.

Our methods of understanding our environment are essentially predicated on this supposed subject-object duality. Even the use of the term “environment” already presupposes this separation; otherwise, a unique label or word would not be ascribed to it, and the internal psyche and the external world would not be treated as two distinct concepts. Language literally would not be able to capture the notion that “we are inseparable from the world around us,” since the phrase itself implicitly divides the unity into a subject, “we,” and an object, “the world around us.”

The illusory belief in the flow of time also implies that it is not possible for multiple moments – multiple Nows – to exist at the same time, even though all the Nows, as I mentioned earlier, coexist with one another simultaneously in the objective configuration space of the universe. If each moment is separate from all the others, then an object cannot simultaneously manifest two contradicting properties (I will call this the “classical principle of non-contradiction”). For example, it can only be in one place at a given time, and in fact, perception of an object often occurs when it appears at a certain location in one moment but not in the next. I am stating the obvious here to illustrate a point that I discussed earlier: perception is essentially the act of contrasting the experiences that happen in successive moments.

The concepts of classical physics, as this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, reflect the time-bound practice that we have for understanding the world around us. At any moment in time, an object has a definite velocity, position, etc., and classical physics assumes that we can know the values for these properties independently of the experimental context in which they are observed. According to the common-sense principles of classical physics, we know where a particle is located, for example, even when we aren’t looking directly at it. This assumption was overturned when physicists discovered that energy was emitted in discrete bundles known as quanta, which gave rise to the field of quantum mechanics. It turned out that the quantization of energy could affect the outcomes of certain experiments; for example, it explains why light behaves like a particle when it shines on a clean metal surface. Yet light clearly acts like a wave under other conditions, so it appears that the observed nature of light depends entirely on its interaction with the instruments that are used to measure it. In reality, light is both a wave and a particle, but even that description turns out to be too simplistic; as Holton writes, “When you ask, “What is light?” the answer is: the observer, his various pieces and types of equipment, his experiments, his theories and models of interpretation, and whatever it may be that fills an otherwise empty room when the lightbulb is allowed to keep on burning. All this, together, is light.” However, light is a complementary phenomenon; we can only observe either its wave or its particle nature  at any given moment. Any experiment, quantum or not, must be conducted with a measuring apparatus that behaves in accordance with our classical concepts for understanding the world, including the principle of non-contradiction; otherwise, we would not be able to make sense of the results. A classical instrument cannot show two incompatible aspects of light at the same time; it will only ever offer one representation of an object at a given moment.

Hence, even though quantum systems exist in a superposition of states that mutually exclude each other, a particular experiment will only ever display one of those states. Because all matter has both a particle-like and a wave-like nature, a subatomic particle can actually interfere with itself and be in two places at once. Due to our belief in the flow of time, as I argue above, we literally cannot conceive of something that is simultaneously in multiple locations. This is reflected in our classical, largely intuitive practice of dividing the world into separate sub-phenomena and ascribing a unique position in space to each individual object. Thus, applying a classical apparatus to measure an object’s position in space will always return one, discrete value.

Quantum mechanics consistently demonstrates that, in experimental situations where the quantization of energy affects the outcome, the observing subject and the observed object are not as separate as our minds are classically trained to think. The act of measuring a particle affects the outcome of the experiment in a way that we simply cannot control. Therefore, altering the experimental arrangement will inevitably change the perceived nature of the particle. (7) The concept of complementarity essentially recognizes that the nature of a quantum object cannot be grasped fully through the outcome of one experiment; rather, it can only be comprehended through multiple observations that offer mutually exclusive representations of the object.

The only way to observe all the aspects of the object at once is by accessing the universal configuration space, where time does not exist. The configuration space is an undifferentiated whole; it is a single structure of relations binding all the constituent elements of the universe together. Yet even the wording in this sentence suggests some separation between the objects that are related to each other in the configuration space. Without the passage of time, it is impossible for any one thing to be separate from the others in the universe. For example, an experience could not be divided into an observing “subject” and an observed “object.” These labels could only be assigned after the experience has already passed, since an experience is already gone from the present as soon as it is interpreted or thought about. To quote from William James, as I have previously, the perceived object and the perceiving of it “are only two names that are given later to the one experience.” In other words, the concepts of “subject” and “object” imply that time is flowing.

The present moment is the ultimate realization of the non-duality of experience; within it, the supposed “subject” and “object” are joined together in one inseparable unity. This place of oneness can only be accessed through “pure consciousness”: total awareness of the Now, unmediated by thought. Yet because it is inevitable for us to think about, label, and consequently divide our experience, the “mind as knowing” and “the thing known” are believed to be distinct from each other – so distinct, in fact, that they can never be unified with each other. Thus, the observing subject and the observed object are two complementary modes of describing one, whole experience.

This one, whole experience: what is it? It’s whatever we’re conscious of right now, in this moment. And what is that? Oh! Too late. This moment has gone…

…and yet it is still this moment.


(1) The immediate experience of sensation, prior to the mind’s attempts to label it, is the same as William James’ idea of “pure experience”, which I’ve also talked about previously. I also discuss it explicitly later in the blogpost.

(2) Or, as some might say, to experience experience.

(3) I’m borrowing from an analogy made by Khan Academy.

(4) The four dimensions are x, y, z, and time.

(5) This idea that reality is defined by the structure of relations between the constituent elements of the universe echoes a metaphysical view called ontic structural realism, which I discussed in my January 2018 piece.

(6) Note that this idea is squarely in opposition to one that I advanced in my previous blogpost, in which I argued that being is becoming. I’m not sure yet how to reconcile the two different beliefs.

(7) Note the use of the word “perceived.” The object itself doesn’t change after a measurement.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s