Time is a paradoxical mystery. For example, the present moment is both infinitely short and infinitely long, at the same time! To resolve this mystery, Bernardo Kastrup argues that time and space are not objective scaffoldings of the external world, but rather an internal cognitive interface that we use to interact with a purely mental, atemporal reality. That is, we create time and space within ourselves to better organise the information we collect about the world.
Star Trek got us used to thinking of humanity’s final frontier as a faraway region of space. Yet, the true final frontier of human knowledge may be much closer to home: it may be time, not space. And we don’t need to go anywhere to find it, for we already inhabit it. Time is so close to us that we cavalierly take it for granted and don’t even notice the yawning mystery it represents.
Although we’ve known since Einstein that time and space are facets of one underlying reality, as far as facets go time is a unique one. It has distinctive peculiarities that render it perhaps the most discombobulating empirical datum we’ve ever had to confront. For time is the very embodiment of devastating contradictions.
For example: time is obviously there; yet also, obviously not there. We all experience something we loosely refer to as the ‘flow of time,’ so it clearly exists as such—i.e., as an experience of some sort—even if it is an illusion. But if I ask you to show me the past or the future, can you point somewhere and tell me, ‘there it is’? Can you hand me the past or the future so I can examine it? Can you tell me how to make a direct measurement of past or future states? Clearly not, so time isn’t there. Photographs and other things we associate with the past aren’t themselves the past, for any photograph you hand me is an element of the present.
And here things get even more discombobulating, for the present moment is, unquestionably, infinitely short; yet—and equally unquestionably—infinitely long. The latter is true because the past and the future can only concretely exist in the present moment: the past is but a memory experienced in the present, while the future is but an expectation also experienced in the present. Where else can the past and the future be found but in states of the present? The present moment contains all of time; indeed, it is time. And since time is open-ended, the present moment—which is time—is infinitely long.
Nonetheless, if we try to pin down the present moment by saying ‘now!’, by the time we begin to open our mouth it has already vanished into the past. Like a blob of mercury that slips through our fingers every time we try to grab it, we can’t ever catch the present moment, even though we are—paradoxically—always in it. The present moment is both inescapable and elusive, intangibly short; a vanishingly narrow slit forever squeezed in between the monstrousness of a receding past and an approaching future, both of which the present moment… well, contains! So we end up having to admit that, at the limit, everything—i.e., the whole of time—exists in the vanishing nothing of the present moment.
At least since Kant in the 18th century—and perhaps since Parmenides in the 5th century BC—a recurring idea in Western philosophy is that time and space are internal cognitive scales, not objective scaffoldings of the external world.
I am not saying this just to bedazzle you; despite my many faults, I’m not that type of ‘science communicator.’ But even if you think that I am exaggerating the seriousness of the problem, you ought to acknowledge that we do have a genuine mystery in our hands; one we haven’t figured out even how to adequately approach yet, let alone solve. Still worse, this mystery lies hidden at the very foundation of knowledge.
Take, for instance, the notion of causality: it underlies the entire edifice of science, for we invariably seek to understand nature in terms of causes and effects. Yet, causality unwittingly presupposes a particular understanding of time: effects are supposed to happen after causes, predictably following the latter along a linear, unidimensional arrow of time. As such, secretly built into our understanding of causality—and, therefore, into our understanding of nature herself—lies a face-value assumption about a mystery we don’t know even how to adequately think about.
This is both good and bad news. The latter is obvious enough and requires no commentary. But the good news bit is less trivial to see: it is precisely by recognising the yet-unsolved mystery at the heart of causality that we can see through the unsolvable dilemmas we are led to by habitual modes of thinking. Conceding that our understanding of time is merely tentative allows us to tap new degrees of freedom to approach otherwise challenging questions.
Take, for instance, the question of personal identity under analytic idealism. The latter offers arguably the only plausible, coherent, and empirically adequate avenue for tackling the hard problem of consciousness and the measurement problem. It also circumvents the physical incoherence and the insoluble ‘combination problem’ of constitutive panpsychism by starting from a universal, unitary field of subjectivity underlying all nature. It then accounts for individual minds by means of the phenomenon of dissociation, according to which one mind can seemingly split into multiple, cognitively disjoint centres of awareness.
Dissociation is a clinically and experimentally established fact: whether we understand it or not, it does happen in minds; it does happen in nature. But while this brute empirical fact is sufficient to legitimise and substantiate the argument for analytic idealism, matters would be more satisfying if we could explicitly understand how one mind seemingly becomes many. After all, analytic idealism states that you and I are merely dissociated complexes of one and the same mind. In other words, ultimately you are me, at the same time that you are still yourself. How can we make good, explicit sense of this?
The answer is time, for the problem here is that of simultaneity. The same actor can play multiple roles in a play, as long as the respective characters don’t appear on stage at the same time. The difficulty arises only when one actor has to play multiple roles concurrently. And this is precisely the difficulty we have in understanding dissociation: clinical research done at Harvard, for instance, shows that ¼ of patients of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) can experience the same dream from multiple different but simultaneous perspectives. How can this be?
If we are open to new models of time, the problem of dissociative simultaneity becomes approachable. For instance, cosmologist Prof. Bernard Carr, of Queen Mary University London, has been working on a multi-dimensional model of time according to which several different timelines, curled-up upon themselves, may exist in nature. Under such a model, when two dissociated complexes of a single mind interact with one another, what happens is that one and the same subject interacts with itself across different timelines.
Under analytic idealism, all that ultimately exists are mental processes—personal and transpersonal—which present themselves to us, on our internal dashboard, as what we colloquially call the ‘physical world.’
Prof. Carr illustrates this with a metaphor: if we regard an individual lifetime as a curled-up and closed timeline, at the end of it the subject ‘time-travels’ back to the beginning of the ‘play’ in the form of a different person, thereby playing a different role along a different timeline. At the end of this second go-around, the subject ‘travels back’ once again, playing yet another role, and so on, until the one universal subject plays all roles in the dance of life by interacting with itself across closed timelines.
Of course, this is just a somewhat precarious metaphor, as it tries—inconsistently—to illustrate multi-dimensional, curled-up time in terms of unidimensional, linear ‘time travel.’ But it does offer the basis for an intuitive understanding of dissociation. A more sophisticated model of time can thus help us understand nature under an idealist perspective. But the relationship goes the other way around as well: how can idealism help us understand time?
At least since Kant in the 18th century—and perhaps since Parmenides in the 5th century BC—a recurring idea in Western philosophy is that time and space are internal cognitive scales, not objective scaffoldings of the external world. In other words, we create time and space within ourselves, so to better organise the information we collect about the world. Schopenhauer formulated this notion in the clearest way yet, already in the early 19th century. And recent 21st-century developments in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and foundations of physics lend weight to it.
Analytic idealism concurs with Kant, Schopenhauer, and these recent developments in science: time and space aren’t really out there. The ‘physical’ world on the screen of perception is akin to an internal dashboard representation of the real external world. We create this internal representation upon observing the real world, just as an airplane’s dashboard represents the measurements made by the airplane’s sensors. Time and space are merely the scales of the dials on our internal dashboard.
It is precisely for this reason that time seems so paradoxical: as a subjective cognitive scale in the mind of an observer, it is liable to unravelling if scrutinized, just as some of our kneejerk ideas dissolve or transform upon critical examination. When the latter happens it raises no eyebrows, and hence neither should the strangeness of time. For time isn’t out there but ‘in here,’ being therefore susceptible to the twists and turns of human cognition.
But if neither spatial nor temporal extension is out there—if extension isn’t real as objective dimensions of the world—then what are we to make of our science? After all, science is based on extension: it models events causally unfolding in time and entailing entities occupying different volumes of space. Indeed, as Schopenhauer put it, extension is the ‘principle of individuation,’ i.e., that which allows us to distinguish things and events from one another and, therefore, register structure. Without objective extension, can there be any structure in nature?
Under mainstream physicalism, the only form of structure that can survive without extension is mathematical structure, which is pure conceptual abstraction. However, it’s at least very hard to see how conceptual abstractions can be said to exist without a substrate—such as the mind that abstracts and conceptualizes—to host them in the first place. Indeed, those who maintain that reality is pure abstraction are doing something akin to what Lewis Carrol did when he wrote of the Cheshire Cat’s grin staying behind after the cat disappears: it’s something that can be said, but which carries no semantic content; in other words, it means exactly nothing.
However, under analytic idealism nature can still have structure, despite the absence of real extension. To see how, imagine a database containing the records of every inhabitant of your town. These records can be cross-linked, or associated, according to a variety of logical criteria, such as citizens with a common parent, those living in adjacent streets, those who have matching affinities, complementary skill sets, the same dates of birth, etc. Even though the database has an extended physical embodiment—think of the hard disk drives in your town’s data centre—the associations across records are logical in nature and require no extended embodiment to be said to exist. For instance, you and your siblings would not stop being siblings if your town’s data centre went up in flames and all records were lost. As a matter of fact, there is an important sense in which you will still be siblings even after you die and cease to inhabit your town. The extended physical records merely reflect a structure of logical associations that exists regardless of the records; regardless of extension.
Under analytic idealism, all that ultimately exists are mental processes—personal and transpersonal—which present themselves to us, on our internal dashboard, as what we colloquially call the ‘physical world.’ This internal representation has spatiotemporal extension created by our cognitive system, but the mental processes that are represented in the first place don’t. What they do have is an unfathomable logico-associative structure. And as we’ve just discussed, such a structure requires no extension to be said to exist.
Behind the ‘physical’ world of perception, there lies the real world of transpersonal mentation; a world outside time, but whose logico-associative structure we project onto time for our own ease of understanding.
As such, the ‘physical,’ extended, spatiotemporal structure of the contents of perception is but an internal cognitive image that represents the inherent logico-associative structure of the real world out there, which is itself mental and non-extended. That’s how time can be seen through as a cognitive artifact without risk to science: science does study the real structure of the world out there, but through the intermediation of internal, extended representations.
To circumvent the hard problem of consciousness, the measurement problem of quantum mechanics, and the incoherence of mainstream physicalism and constitutive panpsychism, we don’t need to give up on a real external world; neither do we need to give up on rationality, naturalism, or reductionism; much to the contrary: we need to have the courage to allow reason and evidence to take us where they are pointing, without metaphysical prejudice or insistence on merely habitual modes of thinking. If we do so, we will find that, behind the ‘physical’ world of perception, there lies the real world of transpersonal mentation; a world outside time, but whose logico-associative structure we project onto time for our own ease of understanding.
We live bang in the middle of eternity and have never lived anywhere else. To realize this is the apotheosis of hard-nosed reason, not just romantic spiritual insight.