Consciousness and Time, Part I

4,000 words

Header image taken from here.


The relationship between consciousness and time

We have invented all sorts of idioms for time. We’re constantly “running out” of it, finding ways to “save” or to “manage” or to “kill” it, fearing that we are “wasting” it, and noticing that it is “flying.”

All of these metaphors are mistaken.

They depict time as though it were a resource that exists outside of us. But time is not separate from us; rather, we are always participating in the passage of time. Everything that we experience takes place over a string of successive moments. Even things that (seemingly) don’t change are experienced as objects that persist over time. The table in front of me may appear totally still, but I am only aware of it insofar as I perceive its existence at multiple consecutive moments. We could conceive of human love as a timeless concept, but time must be passing while we are thinking about it. Furthermore, we cannot “zoom out” of our position in the river of time and observe the totality of the past, present, and future as a timeless unity. We are perpetually witnessing one moment at a time – this moment – even if our minds aren’t explicitly paying attention to it.

We run in time, from one moment to the next; we don’t run out of it. Of course, there are days when we miss our deadlines and appointments, and we often find ourselves without sufficient time to respond to all the exigencies of day-to-day life. But the notion that we don’t have enough time is an illusion that arises from the struggle to fulfill the demands that society places upon us. In reality, all we have is time, or, to be more precise, time has us.

The essence of our being, insofar as we have one, is inextricably linked to the passage of time. Our conscious experience is intrinsically temporal, forever caught in transit from this present moment to the next one. The Buddha taught that “consciousness is always continuing, like a stream of water,” and thousands of years later in the West, William James officially coined the term “stream of consciousness” to refer to the flowing nature of successive experiences. Furthermore, as I have said before, the perception of individual objects depends on the contrasts between consecutive moments of experience. As James wrote, we cannot distinguish the sound of thunder unless we also heard the silence that immediately preceded it. “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; and 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.”

However, it may seem misguided to identify consciousness with the experience of the flow of time, given that consciousness is traditionally defined as the subjective feeling of what it’s like to experience something. At first glance, the feeling of one moment following another cannot explain the vast richness of human sensation; it does not seem to account for or give rise to, say, the acuity of pain or the intensity of ecstasy. The succession of “Nows” is more like the scaffolding upon which all consciousness must be built; it is a prerequisite to the “what-it’s-like-ness” of any “qualia,” the philosophical term for the felt sense of conscious experience. Upon even the simplest inquiry into our own consciousness, it immediately becomes evident that something can only be experienced if it is perceived in the Now, and it can only feel like it lasts if it is discerned over a span of consecutive moments. Without the flow of time, there would be no duration to any experience; the whole of consciousness would be reduced to an infinitesimally brief instant, so short that a single experience couldn’t even appear in a flash and then subside immediately afterwards. Nothing would ever feel like it was happening if consciousness were timeless.


A useful theory?

The infamous “Hard Problem of Consciousness,” first explicitly formulated by the philosopher David Chalmers, asks about the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the physical world and our internal, conscious experience. How does the processing of physical information, presumably in our brains, result in the felt sensation of that information? A thermostat is sensitive to changes in temperature, but it has no conception of what it’s like to feel heat, whereas sentient organisms do.

In my mind, the Hard Problem of Consciousness is one of the greatest enigmas in the universe, if not the greatest. We can explain how increasingly complex arrangements of matter result in higher sensitivity to the environment, but we have no idea how they give rise to qualitative awareness. There is something about qualia that we cannot presently capture with the formal language of mathematics. A famous thought experiment in philosophy of mind, one that I have discussed before, contemplated whether someone who has been confined to a black-and-white room and has studied all the mathematical properties of color will learn something new about it once she steps out into the real world. Will she understand something about the color red that she could not have known even by developing a full mastery of the scientific laws that describe it? My answer is yes, and though I won’t fully delve into my justification given the scope of this blogpost, it should intuitively make sense that black-and-white text, equations, and perhaps even visual demonstrations cannot fully disclose the experiential quality of redness.

It may seem, for reasons I’ve discussed above, that my thoughts on the relationship between consciousness and the flow of time don’t yield any insights that would facilitate progress on solving the hard problem. I have argued that consciousness presupposes the experience of the passage of time, but I haven’t offered an account of how temporal experience generates subjective experience.

To mend this gap, I’ll make a bold assertion: the experience of the flow of time is the most fundamental quale, or unit of subjective experience. I’ll justify this claim later on in the blogpost, but I’d first like to point out a very surprising conclusion that it seems to uphold. Since everything is capable of participating in the passage of time, down to the smallest particles in the universe, it follows that everything is capable of subjective experience. (Note the careful wording here: I’m not saying that everything does participate in the passage of time, but only that it is capable of doing so, for reasons that I’ll discuss later.) Such an idea may seem highly objectionable, if not downright comical, since we don’t normally attribute consciousness to, say, electrons. But in its most sensible formulations, panpsychism – the philosophical theory that consciousness is universal – doesn’t at all suggest that electrons experience emotions like joy, sadness, and fear, let alone at the scale and intensity that humans feel them. The feelings experienced by electrons are far more rudimentary, perhaps so much so that we cannot meaningfully relate to them.

Still, a more conventional worldview like materialism, which, in its traditional form, claims that everything, including consciousness, is reducible to material processes and building blocks, may seem much more palatable because it doesn’t rest on the seemingly outrageous premises of panpsychism. In fact, however, materialism entails panpsychism (1). While materiality is often defined in such a way that it is made to be totally independent from subjective experience, its intrinsic nature can only be revealed through consciousness. Like most people, Descartes identified materiality as the property of being extended – that is, of having length, width, and depth. (2) An object’s spatial extension is objective in the sense that it can be described mathematically – we can measure each of its three dimensions – but it certainly isn’t equivalent to its mathematical representation. The number 34 may correspond to the units of an object’s length, but it would be a grave mistake to state that the two are literally the same. What is spatial extension in of itself, then? The answer can only be disclosed through the way that it appears to the subjective experience of a conscious entity. That is, spatial extension, and therefore the essence of matter, is what an interval in space looks like to a being who is conscious of what things look like.

It might seem like this argument doesn’t really offer much support for panpsychism, since it is providing a justification not for the claim that physical matter is itself conscious but instead for the notion that an entity can only know the true nature of physical matter through its own consciousness. The latter is perfectly compatible with the traditional view that only certain biological organisms have subjective experience, hence only they have privileged access to the intrinsic essence of the material world. The idea also appears to be consistent with the belief that physical matter exists independently of consciousness, even if its intrinsic nature can only be revealed to entities with subjective experience. But in what sense would matter exist if it weren’t being observed by a conscious being? A materialist would probably answer, once again, that it exists as a spatially extended entity. However, this response runs into the same problem that I discussed in the previous paragraph; we only know what spatial extension is by virtue of our consciousness. In general, any claim that physical matter exists as something presupposes a conscious being that, through its subjective experience, is aware of what that thing is. That is, there cannot be matter without consciousness. Given that matter existed long before the evolution of living, sentient organisms, matter must be conscious.

I realize that I’ve wandered quite far from discussing time, but since it’s so hard for most people to accept that the seemingly material constituents of the universe are conscious, my argument in the previous paragraph likely won’t sway many minds unless I expound on it. A world without consciousness would be completely black, but only metaphorically; it would actually not even be black because there wouldn’t be any color to be experienced. The world wouldn’t appear as anything at all. Objects wouldn’t appear in space as chunks of matter with definite masses and velocities. No properties would appear – no size, shape, texture, motion, temperature, sound, etc. But all of these properties are real only insofar as they appear to our consciousness in a certain way; rectangular shapes look like something, soft textures feel like something, etc. If they don’t appear, then what are they? Nothing! For example, if a rectangle didn’t look like anything – if it were truly just an empty point on the dark canvas of an entirely insentient universe – then the rectangle wouldn’t really exist.

Obviously, however, the universe wouldn’t cease to exist if all the sentient life within it were to lose consciousness. A non-materialist worldview that accords with this basic fact must therefore posit that every real, concrete phenomenon in the universe is conscious.

If you are a staunch materialist, perhaps I still haven’t convinced you of panpsychism. However, I think I have spilt enough ink on the topic to justifiably conclude that panpsychism serves as a better solution to the Hard Problem of Consciousness because a) it is presupposed by the generally favored alternative (i.e. materialism) and b) it is incoherent to even ask what the universe would “look like” if there were no consciousness within it. If we assume consciousness to be fundamental, as the latter claim implies, then we no longer have to explain how information processing in the brain yields subjective experience, although we still have to explain how consciousness becomes significantly more advanced in more sophisticated arrangements of matter. Part 2 of this blog series seeks to offer that missing account.


Quantum decoherence as the mechanism that is fundamentally responsible for the flow of time (and therefore, consciousness)

As I stated earlier, the experience of the passage of time might be the unit of consciousness. To substantiate this claim, I’ll need to show that an entity gains consciousness once it starts to pass through time. However, such an argument would imply that unconscious entities are atemporal, seemingly contradicting both my assertion that consciousness is fundamental and our common intuition that all entities must participate in the flow of time. While I have indeed held that consciousness is more foundational to the universe than matter, I’ve been careful to note that all real, concrete phenomena are capable of consciousness, not that they are conscious. Similarly, I’ve also stated that every real entity is capable of passing through time, not that it necessarily does. In this section, I’ll explain what it means for a phenomenon to be atemporal, as well as the process by which it could become temporal. As I’ll demonstrate first, the latter will essentially amount to the mechanism that gives birth to consciousness in the universe.

How would we know that an entity springs into consciousness by becoming temporal? To answer this question, we need a way of clearly determining whether an entity is conscious, in particular a method that doesn’t already presuppose that temporality is essential for subjective experience. However, it would be difficult to find a method that isn’t laden with implicit, and highly debatable, presumptions about the nature of consciousness. I think that the most parsimonious and incontrovertible one would hold this view: conscious entities are actualized in the present. That is, unlike unconscious entities, they aren’t true potentialities. I define actualities as phenomena that have definite properties with concrete values; potentialities, on the other hand, are literally indeterminate, in the sense that multiple, perhaps mutually exclusive descriptions could be assigned to them. We do observe ambiguities very often in other conscious beings; even if one doesn’t accept my radical, universal conception of consciousness, it is indisputable that we are sometimes uncertain about, say, the spatial location of another human being. But behind the veil of our ignorance, that person is always at one – and only one – point in space. Broadly speaking, a conscious entity can have only one set of mutually consistent characteristics; it can’t have both two arms and eight arms, it can’t move at both x and y velocity, and so on.

It seems like it would be physically impossible for any entity, not just conscious ones, to simultaneously possess mutually exclusive properties. This intuitive assumption actually doesn’t hold true at the most fundamental level of reality. In quantum mechanics, subatomic particles are represented by probabilistic wave functions, in which the probability of finding a particle at a particular location is related to the amplitude of the wave. Much like classical waves, quantum wave functions can interfere with one another (see the figure below), such that a single particle can exist in a superposition of states. That is, one particle can be in multiple places simultaneously.


Fig 1. Wave functions, each corresponding to a particle localized at a single point in space, can be “added” with one another, resulting in a superposition of multiple spatial locations. Image taken from here.

When a quantum system gets measured, it undergoes, according to traditional interpretations of quantum mechanics, a mysterious process known as the “collapse of the wave function,” in which any superpositions randomly “dissolve” into localized points in space and time (see Fig 2). Hence, macroscopic beings like us can never actually observe a quantum particle in more than one place at the same time. While I do claim that consciousness is the process by which potentialities become actualities, it is important to note that, unlike some physicists and philosophers, I am not identifying consciousness with the collapse of the wave function. It is unclear whether the collapse of the wave function actually takes place, mostly because physicists are unsure of the mechanisms that govern it.

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Fig 2. The hypothesized collapse of the wave function. Image taken from here.

However, physicists have a much better understanding of a phenomenon known as quantum decoherence, which may more effectively explain the transition from potentiality (i.e. quantum superposition) to actuality (i.e. the classical world that we humans observe). Whenever a quantum particle interacts with its environment, whether it’s colliding into other particles or getting measured by a classical instrument, it enters into a superposition with its neighboring systems. As the particle moves farther in space, it becomes superposed (or entangled) with more and more systems. Within a very short span of time, it becomes significantly harder to detect the original superposition that the particle started in, due to the rapidly increasing number of entanglements that the particle comes to participate in. The amplitudes in the wave function that correspond to distinct spatial locations spread farther apart from each other (see Fig 3). Hence, we can effectively treat the wave function, which initially described a single system in a superposition, as though it has differentiated into separate, individual particles, each at a unique position in space.


Fig 3. My graphical depiction of a quantum wave function as it undergoes decoherence. Note that I’m not sure whether the depiction is entirely accurate.

Thus, unconscious potentialities turn into conscious actualities by undergoing quantum decoherence. Decoherence serves as an especially powerful framework for distinguishing between conscious and unconscious entities because, unlike all of the other concepts in this blogpost, it isn’t derived from abstract, metaphysical principles. Although it has strong philosophical implications, it is, at its core, a physical process that can be represented with a precise mathematical formalism. Demonstrating that the flow of time arises naturally out of decoherence, as I am about to do, is therefore a much more compelling way of grounding the theory that temporality is inextricably linked to consciousness. (Note: framing the relationship between time and fundamental consciousness in terms of a physical phenomenon like decoherence seems to contradict my philosophical claim that fundamental consciousness is immaterial. This is a misunderstanding of my view; I believe that everything, including consciousness, can be described mathematically. However, consciousness isn’t literally mathematics, and it can’t be reduced to an insentient chunk of matter in space.)

Coherent quantum systems – that is, those that exist in unperturbed superpositions – are atemporal. A physicist might dismiss this claim as patently untrue; coherent systems, like any other, evolve in accordance with the Schrödinger Equation, which is time-dependent for all non-stationary states. However, I am not using the word “atemporal” in the conventional sense. Rather, I am arguing that coherent quantum systems can simultaneously participate in multiple, mutually exclusive histories. The prime example of this phenomenon is the famed two-slit experiment in quantum mechanics, which I have discussed before. Quoting myself:

“In the early 1800s, Thomas Young allowed light to pass through two layers of slits and hit an observation screen [see Fig 4]. 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 … 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 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” that went through both slits simultaneously. However, if we place detectors behind each of the two slits, then only one – never both – of the detectors will register a particle at a given moment. In other words, a light particle in this experiment goes through just one, not two, of the slits.


Fig 4. The double-slit experiment, in which interference between two waves produces a band of light with a particular pattern. Image taken from here.

Thus, there are two histories of the double-slit experiment: one in which the light travels through one slit, and another in which the light travels through the other. However, these histories are incompatible with each other. Nevertheless, when the light exists in a coherent superposition, both histories unfold simultaneously, and it is in this sense that the quantum system is atemporal. However, when the light decoheres by interacting with a detector, only one of those histories manifests in reality, and the system thereby becomes temporal. This conclusion is consistent with the math: according to the formalism known as the decoherent histories approach of quantum mechanics, the probability that two distinct histories happen is equal to 0 when a “decoherence condition” is imposed.

Furthermore, for a conscious entity, time can only flow when a single history is “selected” from a larger set of (potentially) conflicting ones and actualized. The light cannot experience the linear passage of one moment into the next if any of those moments contains mutually exclusive but nevertheless simultaneous events. It would only be possible to subjectively observe such a phenomenon by “zooming out” of time and perceiving it as though it were a map with many branching paths. It is true that time will still flow for us humans who are observing the double-slit experiment. But if we were ever to enter a situation where we could, like the light, enter two doors at the same time, then we would no longer be witnessing the passage of time.

In summary, quantum decoherence drives the flow of time, so, following from the premises I’ve laid out, it creates “universal consciousness.” In Part 2, I’ll aim to explain how this gives rise to the consciousness of biological organisms, hopefully by showing that decoherence (perhaps of the classical, rather than the quantum, variety) in animal brains is responsible for “phenomenal time.” (3)

Though my lack of credentials in physics may cast doubt on the validity of my hypothesis about the relationship between decoherence and time, it does have support from experts in the field. While the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which dictates that entropy always goes up in the universe, is traditionally offered as the reason for the arrow of time, it is not an explanation that appeals to the physics of fundamental reality, i.e. quantum mechanics. Over three decades ago, Seth Lloyd became the first physicist to argue that the direction of change in the universe’s entropy stems from increases in the quantum entanglement between particles and their environment. While he was largely ridiculed at the time, his idea is now widely accepted.

I’ll conclude by noting that the strongest refutation of my thesis in this blogpost, as far as I’m aware, is the possibility of consciously experiencing timelessness in intense mystical and psychedelic states. Those who have encountered this fascinating phenomenon have said that time comes to a complete stop, usually in a way that is totally indescribable. Even though it is unfathomable to me that one can be conscious without observing a linear sequence of moments, the phenomenon is sufficiently well-reported – in fact, it is reliably induced by a high dose of 5-MeO-DMT, the most intense psychedelic drug – that any complete theory of phenomenal time must account for it. The perception of timelessness may not be entirely incompatible with my current views on consciousness, and I am currently searching for a way to reconcile them.


(1) Note that, while the philosopher Galen Strawson has also said that “physicalism entails panpsychism” (here, I’m taking materialism and physicalism to be synonymous), his reasoning for this claim is entirely different from mine.

(2) As it turns out, Descartes’ conception of matter was invalidated by the discoveries of quantum mechanics a few centuries later, which demonstrated that the material world is not, at the smallest level, comprised of “building blocks” with definite spatial dimensions whose values are independent of the ways in which we measure them.

(3) The word “phenomenal” here means “perceptible by the senses or through immediate experience.”

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