It came to me as a question while reading Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness: why is this so correct and exact and yet not convincing? Why do I need more than a philosophically sound argument, even one that I might judge to be correct in all its truth claims (even if it isn’t).
The issue may be one of practice, and philosophy is, in fact, a practice. Phenomenology, beginning with the phenomenological reduction, is a precise practice. It is satisfying and has led me to the more ancient practice of meditation, and seems almost indistinguishable from some meditative practices.
So this is not an argument supporting “the death of philosophy”. I’m just arguing for philosophic practice to be one of embodiment and community, and the engaged philosopher. There is indeed a philosophic community. It is caricatured as a community of navel-gazers; that is how it is often characterized and ridiculed. Maybe indeed the caricature needs to be appreciated for what it does, as any caricature does: it exaggerates the actual traits that characterize the individual or the community.
The lack of extension, beyond oneself as an individual philosophizing and as a community that philosophizes, is what strikes me as problematic. Yet here, with respect to time consciousness, we have a moment of intersection between physical sciences, theoretical physics, and neuroscience with philosophy.
Rene Descartes’ argument known as the cogito (“I think, therefore I am”, 1637) was updated as “the brain in a vat” argument. The gist of Descarte’s argument is that the subject’s knowledge of their existence is certain (phrased famously as “I think therefore I am”) because the “I” couldn’t think unless the “I” exists.
The argument was that personal reflection can lead to certainty, yet the updated argument calls the quality of existence into question. If the subject was merely a brain sustained in a vat and receiving stimulation/information electronically directly as brain stimulation, yes, it exists and knows of its existence. However, subject wouldn’t know that this information was direct knowledge of experience or mere data it’s being fed. The brain suspended in the vat could receive data of, say, a hot stove being touched by the subject’s hand. That data would be interpreted as a direct experience, even if there was no such stove and no such hand. Still, logically there must be a brain.
These experiences are time-based, both the imagined brain and Descartes’ original subject. It would take a very short time, a fraction of a second, for the data to be received. That would be in time; it would take time, so data of the present moment would not be available until it was just-past. That is Edmond Husserl’s brilliant insight. There would be no data of the present moment processed in the present moment.
We do, though, logically and necessarily exist in that present moment, if we are indeed able to anticipate an experience and process an experience: future and past, though just-past.
There’s a hole in our knowledge of our experience, that hole being our direct experience of the moment in which we actually experience it. I refer to it as a hole, which has measurable dimensions, when in fact there are no dimensions to the present moment because they are not empirically known, i.e. observable.
The gapped quality of data is precisely what is captured by digital media. There is information, in the form of code, that relates to pixilated images and, gapped, similar to the way an alphabet relates to the sound of a word. It’s also gapped, similar to our actual existence, though different than our perceived experience. The gap is the logically known but impossible to measure present moment, presence. Lacking a narrative structure, the present is, then, infinite.
My approach here is phenomenological – try to say that quickly – but here is the difficulty: the phenomenological description of the present moment is that of absence; it is past. There is an ‘experience’ in the classical sense of that word that entails consciousness but by the time it is experienced it is just-past because the experience itself is time-based and it takes some time to register that experience in the brain.
It is rather an experience of absence to the present then, without structure, as we’ve described it above. That is what we might be certain about, but certain about what? Without the internal structure of narrative time there is an edge, being anticipation of a future moment and the just-past moment presented to consciousness as “now”. However, as a presence in time it is not actually now by the time it is registered to consciousness. It’s experienced as now but, in fact, is just past. That’s Husserl’s story and I can’t see how it’s not a clear description of our experience.
Here we are: Our being is in the present that is without structure, outside of a narrative, of experienced time consciousness.
Our experience of digital media is similar. It certainly seems seamless enough but code is just that: coded with gaps between each piece of the code, that produces pixels with empty space between each pixel. It can be wondrously manipulated, and manipulates us to experience this as a seamless experience, when in fact it is gapped. Mind the gap.
Without structure, between each pixel, each piece of code, the gap replicates each moment where we may be conscious but, without the structure of the narrative elements of past and future, always also there in the present infinite space.
The abundance of movies about time travel, gapped reality, make-believe universes where games are played out — what is in the present moment comes into being and disappears — suggests we know at some level that digital media is playing with us, playing with our sense of consciousness, as we play.
And our growing sense that we are spiritual (open, infinite) if not religious (embedded in a tradition, and institutions) mirrors this coded reality.
So the intersection of time consciousness and ethics defies our fantasies of time travel. As many celebrate Christmas, the incarnation, an epiphany, I come to this:
If we take time consciousness as embodying the present in a constructed narrative – it’s a story – while we actually live in an unstructured moment that has infinite dimensions – that is to say if we take our experience of time as all that we can know, accepting it as unknowable in the present – the irony at least might be humbling in a positive sense.
For instance, we must give up wild speculations about time travel. This is it, now. It can be otherwise. We must recognizing that in the expansive present – actually not merely expansive but without dimensions, which is to say infinite – nothing can be other than it is. If we traveled forward in time or back in time, we can’t help but impact it with our presence. That would change everything, not just in the future and the past, but presently. The whole is new. So that is it, now.
There are some good movies that seem to clear on this point. My favorite is Jacob’s Ladder (Lyne, 1990).
Again, if I were to travel forward in time, whatever happens, well, that happens for all infinity. This point is more obvious if we consider traveling back in time. If I were to travel back in time, to yesterday, and eat oatmeal instead of eggs, then today I would have eaten oatmeal yesterday. I might today remember eating eggs, but no matter. I would simply be mistaken, had I traveled back and eaten oatmeal. If I hadn’t traveled, well so be it: if I ate eggs, the eggs it was.
Is that true? Are we logically stuck with everything just as it is?
There is no jumping into some future because, logically speaking, going into the future makes it not that particular future at all, but a transformed present in which we are living now. Similarly, past lives or traveling into the past is simply logically impossible. That past would be a different past, and that different past would be the only past there is.
Our freedom isn’t limited by our being stuck with the past, as it was constructed in our narrative even if that has infinite possibilities at every turn. How we exercise our freedom, though, is definitive. Similarly, the future will be what it is, as we construct it, even as it too is open to infinite possibilities in infinite time.
But what’s done is done. Our freedom entails consequences or it wouldn’t be freedom at all. And it does and it is. There is an ethical dimension as well to the infinite possibilities: What we do matters. It matters for all eternity.
In Islamic thought there is this sense expressed as the ethical implications of infinite value: if you kill one person, since each life is infinitely valuable, it is as if you’ve killed all life. And if you save one, it is as if you’ve saved all.
Consider this: If I have that right, and if it’s true, my complaint against God (and pardon me if this is blasphemous that I write it out but I think it so I might as well put it out there and you can have the pleasure of correcting me and granting forgiveness) is that it took so long. Change came glacially slow for many millions of years, before there was conscious experience in some galaxies and perhaps parallel universes. Volcanoes erupt, black holes implode and, so long as that was all that was going on, no one was getting hurt. Only when organisms evolved that could feel pain could God, through creation, experience pain. Even then, if the creation was something other than God, would God be ignorant of this pain? What is knowledge if it’s not knowledge of something.
Perhaps God’s pre-incarnate knowledge is akin to compassion. “I feel your pain.” But not really. It’s your pain, not mine. This puts the incarnation in a certain light, God experiencing joy, pain and even death, not as I do through the fictional characters I create, but as I do directly in my own life.
Well, dear God, what took you so long? (That’s my rude question, my rude prayer.)
I’ve got to let go of Kenny. South Park has been going on twenty-two years and I’ve been obsessing on Kenny nearly that whole time. Kenny keeps dying and dying and living again. That never bores me actually, but maybe I’ve had enough. There are books to read… I need to take a walk…
On a walk I encounter this-ness, haecceity – you gotta love this God. This tree, this stone in my shoe, the smell of the wet bark. The infinite is lonely and mostly empty space, and before all that lonely and empty space there is just a little matter here and there throughout the universe. Or so we’re told and I believe it. But there is here and now (that I keep reminding you, reminding myself, is past but it feels here, it feels now. It’s not the logically necessary specious present; it’s what is felt, the phenomena. I pay attention: this tree, this pebble in my shoe…)
My complaint against God is that our all-knowing God seems to be such a slow learner. All those millennia where biological beings developed sensory perception and experience, we soon gained the knowledge that pain hurts. Was God just standing outside creation, observing, tweaking this and that cosmos when life began? With life came pleasure and pain. Was that God’s first tickle, first breath, but maybe God was somehow outside of this creation until fully identified with the creation. In Christianity we call it “the incarnation”, when God became one of us, although in all humility we must allow for at least the possibility that there is an ameba Christ, a plankton Jesus.
Christian teachings would have it that the particular human experience is most identified with God, the messy birth, breast milk on God’s infant lips. And maybe only in the crucifixion, when the God-Son experiences personally and intensely and definitively death, that everything was changed because God experienced pain and death as a phenomenological truth – no turning back on this, God. Yeah, death sucks but at least then the pain stops, at least if you’re the one who is dead.
(I think of Mary at the foot of the cross, that she might not have ever got over that moment, how absent she seems in all the resurrection scenes because she didn’t care so much about the magic trick, another resurrection. Okay. Welcome back, son. But they’ll do it all again, and nothing you’ve done changes that for anyone, even for you. You’ve still got the holes in your hands, and the slit in your side, for God’s sake…)
Yet as discussed before, we exist in the present while we can only know what is just past, even if we experience it as present. That’s the difference between us and God, a big difference. We enter into this knowing, or something akin to knowing, when we shut up and are still, quit putting things out there which are artifacts of the present even as we are still working on them, even a single word we speak. The Word is different than our words, beautifully expressed by the Jewish practice of refusing to express it, spelling it with a dash marking an empty space, G-D.
Yesterday I was trying to explain this to some students. They work with digital media. They create it. So I thought they’d get it if I could just get it out. It didn’t go well.
Here, let me try again here. Let me start by defining time consciousness. It’s different than time. It’s our consciousness of time, how we experience it, that is not as absolute time (whatever that is) but as a human being in time experiences time.
Digital media makes the structure of time consciousness clear.
The structure of time consciousness, as the German philosopher Edmund Husserl pointed out over a century ago, (and taught Heidegger but that’s another story) goes something like this.:
Think about a bell ringing. You might anticipate the bell ringing, then someone rings the bell but you hear its reverberation and process it in your mind at least a nanosecond after it actually rings, and then you enjoy the reverberations.
So the structure of time consciousness is:
the anticipated future which doesn’t exist yet, just as the past and the specious present don’t exist anymore.
the “specious present”, specious because in the moment it takes to register the present sound in consciousness it’s already past, and
the remembered just-past….
We exist, we know (rehash Rene Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am”) because, if I wasn’t in existence I couldn’t be thinking. But there’s no ‘now’ to this conscious existence. Like the sound, there is anticipation,. Then there’s the sensation or thought that occurs, but as we sense it and think it and it is registered in consciousness it’s just-past. Then there’s recollection. It has a narrative structure: a beginning, middle, and end, but this is constructed around a present that we can’t actually bring to consciousness.
There may even be the thought of the ‘now’ but, like sound, we anticipate it, we think about it in time and that is a process, thus taking time and in time, time passes. There’s no now in this that is actually present. It’s already past, a reflection on what we refer to as now, that has already past. It exists as an idea we had, we might still hold, but the experience itself of the thought is past as soon as we think it.
What is actually present doesn’t share this narrative structure. It just is. That’s where we live, or so we assume. That’s where we have the experience, but we can’t think about that without it already being past.
The time that we are conscious of, that’s all just what is remembered or anticipated. There’s no ‘now’ now because in the thinking about it it’s already past.
Yet we live here; we just can’t experience it consciously or think about it in the now of narrative structures because we exist as bodies. Bodies (us) do have a narrative structure. We are born, we do exist now, and we live on until we die. We can make wild imaginative variations on that structure. But it’s gapped. We are conscious of the structure but the ‘now’ that is the epicenter of the structure is like a black hole only more so (really less so – there’s not even dark matter there.) The gap is the present, but as soon as it’s brought to mind it’s not ‘now’ now.
Digital media takes us back to this ancient truth. There’s ‘now’ now that is the imagined narrative that the media presents, but it is riddled with gaps in the code. Between the x and the o in our digital reality nothing exists, except we exist.
Without a beginning and middle and end in itself, this gap in the code has infinite breadth and width and depth, insofar as it doesn’t share the narrative structure.
We might picture it as a gap but the gap has external dimensions. The very idea of a gap is my lame way of bringing what is infinite into the narrative of this expression, this text, that also has a beginning, middle and end. (I’m almost done here.)
So my students create code. They make out of this infinite-lived space an image, a game, a storyline. They give it worldly dimensions. A narrative. But they just make this stuff up, out of nothing. Really. Infinite nothing.