Reflections on Consciousness and Time

Time does not move. We move through time.
- Cambio, a Mayoruna Indian

Spark This article is a free exploration of the meaning and interrelationship of self, consciousness and time. It is a series of forays leading to tentative conclusions. These are followed by new departures, some with contradictory results. The essay raises many questions but gives few answers. In view of the fundamental nature of the subject, this should not be surprising.

The problem is how to look at consciousness. What platform can we stand on in order to view this most basic platform of all, on which all models and concepts necessarily rest. I have arbitrarily chosen the 4-dimensional continuum model of the universe as the base model with which to discuss consciousness. Though in common with all other models, the 4-D continuum is a structure built by means of consciousness, for the purposes of comparison, I am taking the continuum model as if it were an objectively existing given. I ask the reader to temporarily forget that the continuum model is itself a construct built by consciousness.

The 4-dimensional continuum model

As HG Wells pointed out, one can look at the world as being a cube, each slice of which represents a moment in three dimensions, with the slice above being a moment hence. This can be visualised as a stack of papers or photographs, where each sheet is a moment. According to this view there is no cause and effect. There is no movement of time, no change, since everything already is. The division into past and future is meaningless, as there is only above and below with reference to an arbitrarily chosen point. That is, there is no specific point corresponding to our notion of 'the present'. There is no movement in space either, since every position of each object is to be found in one of the slices.

The 4D continuum model is not a theory, nor is it a statement of fact. It is just a way of looking at the universe. Analogously, it is equally valid to regard a novel as a collection of pages or as a single continuous narrative. The 4D model is simply one way of looking at space and time. Michael Shallis cautions that the 4D picture emphasises the space-like aspects of time and ignores its purely 'temporal' aspects. Though it is a static picture in which 'all that will happen has already happened', it is not necessarily a deterministic model, ie it is compatible with free will. There is no notion of one layer determining the next because they both already are. Free will is possible because of the subjectively experienced movement of consciousness through time.

So the 4D cube is one description of the world, a description from outside of space and time. Consciousness is a description from within time. The cube is just a model, a way of seeing the world. It is neither true nor false. The question is: does it bring new knowledge and insight?

Consciousness as limitation

Consciousness is the awareness of a small area of a single slice of the infinite cube. It includes what I hear, see, think and so on in the current moment. According to the 4D model, consciousness is nothing but the narrowing down of the four-dimensional universe to a three-dimensional slice, ie to the now moment. In our analogy this is pictured as a two-dimensional slice of a three-dimensional cube, or a page of a book. I use these flat analogies since we can't imagine being limited to a 3D area of a four-dimensional manifold. Another analogy for consciousness is that of a movie projector, where our momentary awareness corresponds to a frame. We are not conscious of discrete frames in a movie, and neither do we perceive individual slices but a continuous flow, due to our movement from slice to slice. A third analogy is to a CPU cycle in a computer, during which an atom of calculation is performed. Our consciousness is always limited to a single moment in time.

What we call 'now' does not exist except in consciousness. Indeed, what other meaning can it possibly have? 'Now' simply means 'the moment of time corresponding to what is present in my experience'. Being conscious is equivalent to being trapped in a moment of time, ie having awareness of only one slice of the world, a slice that appears to constantly move. Yet there is no actual movement except in our minds. The flow of time is not an illusion but it is entirely a consequence of consciousness. By consciousness I mean ordinary consciousness, not mystic realisation.

Consciousness is like a fish. If it stops swimming through time (ie stops experiencing new events) then it dies. Similarly, the operating system of a computer cannot be in a fixed state because it must continually check for new input, even when idling. Constant change is essential to consciousness; if time stopped flowing then consciousness would cease. Consciousness is a phonograph needle, experience the music, and the groove is life. Without the movement of the needle through the groove there can be no music, nothing can happen.

Consciousness gives an illusion analogous to that of a flat universe, as if we experienced the world in two dimensions only, when in fact there are three. In truth we perceive three dimensions when there are four. Since we see just one thin layer at a time, we have the illusion that the cube is composed of slices which are separate (since the current moment is always separate from the future and the past). The very nature of consciousness is due to the imaginary boundary around the moment. Though we do not perceive this boundary, it is the determining condition of perception. As experienced by consciousness, reality is composed of moments, each of which is an imaginary time boundary around the three spatial dimensions. In actuality, the universe is whole and undivided: there are no separate slices. The slices are as non-physical as meridians of longitude.

The moment

How long is a moment anyway? I suppose it is the length of the time-threshold over which we can catch a perception or think a thought. The moment is the quantum of experience. Clearly, a moment does not have a definite length. Its duration varies according to what we are experiencing. In any case its length has only subjective meaning. The length of a moment is best determined negatively. As I walk downstairs I know I am not on the step above or the one below the one I am currently on, even if it takes me only a split second to get from one step to another.

Ironically, though we are stuck in the moment, we seek to inappropriately escape it by living in memory or imagination, ie in the past or future. It's as though the moment is too small, too thin a slice for us, but we don't know how to escape from it. Then there is the paradox that when we truly live in the moment we enlarge our awareness by being fully alive to what is actually around us, rather than being distracted by memories and thoughts. The Faustian yearning to stop the moment, to escape from the treadmill of endless change lies deep in human nature.

The experience of flow

What we perceive with our senses is not time but change, which is the appearance of differences in our environment. So consciousness is bound up with the perception of differences across time (ie changes). Time is the medium in which change takes place. Change is movement to another state. Here the thinking becomes circular, since 'another state' is defined in terms of difference. Thus the three concepts of time, change and difference, though all distinct, are only definable in terms of each other. Time seems more abstract than change; it may be thought of as a second-order abstraction.

If there were no conscious beings (no humans, no animals), would time still flow? If it still flowed then my thesis would be void. I claim that time would not flow because there would be nothing for it to flow past. To say that time would no longer flow if there were no consciousness in the universe is NOT to say that everything would freeze into immobility. It is merely to state that there would be no point of reference from which time's flow could be observed, ie no observer to perceive change. Since motion must be relative to something, if time were a river without banks to flow by, it would be a stationary body of water. Only the transit of observers through the 4D cube gives rise to motion and change. Without consciousness there are only different phenomena in different parts of the cube, but no entity that could make a comparison between them, and hence no change. Change requires movement in space or time, which requires an observing awareness.

A machine does not experience the flow of time. Why? Simply because a machine does not experience anything. A device can detect a change but it can't experience it, any more than a stone experiences being dropped. A computer has no notion of time since it has no notions whatever. For instance a chess machine, though it may beat Kasparov, doesn't even know that it is playing chess.

Consciousness as a processor

If we look at it as a process with input and output, then the mind is a device that converts present experience into memory, from which it fashions the notion of the past. Thus another way to look at consciousness is that it is that process which creates the past. Consciousness is like a factory that constantly receives fresh fruit, which it processes into the canned variety.

Without consciousness the term 'past' would have no referent, since there would be no agency to interpret present traces as evidence of 'the past'. Note that the past is an abstraction in the first place, meaning that it is mind-generated, not something we can directly experience. Without consciousness there is only the 4D continuum, not the movement of time from one slice to the next. Without movement in time there is no 'before' and no 'after'. There would only be 'above' and 'below' with regard to an arbitrarily chosen upward direction through the slices. It follows that consciousness is the only possible answer to the question, "What determines time's direction?" It makes no sense for physicists to suggest that a sub-atomic particle moves backwards in time because it is meaningless to say consciousness would perceive it disappearing before seeing it being created.

So the past is created by consciousness. Yet movement in time, ie sliding through the 3D spatial layers (or slices) of the continuum, creates (or permits) consciousness. Putting the two pieces together we get: movement in time allows consciousness to exist, which in turn has, as one of its functions, the continuous creation of the past. Or put another way: while the flow of time makes consciousness possible, consciousness makes possible the experience of moving through time. This statement fails to capture the simultaneity of the connection between consciousness and flowing time. Each needs the other. Perhaps a better formulation is that consciousness and movement through time are two aspects of a single process.

The notion that flowing time and consciousness are two aspects of the one process prompts the further speculation that change and perception are also two aspects of a single process. Half of this symbiosis is readily apparent. There can be no perception without change, as what we actually sense are changes in sensory stimuli. Eg if green were the only colour existing then we would not see green, or any other colour. Also, we only see a figure because of the contrasting background around it. The new idea here is that change is not possible without perception. It is reminiscent of the quantum-mechanical idea that the observer and the observed cannot be separated.

In linking change and perception so closely I fear I'm building a castle in the air. Though the formulation is impressive I have the unsettling feeling that it may be empty of content.

The Past

What is the past in itself? A photo or book is not the past, nor on its own, a representation thereof, since only a mind can interpret one thing as representing another. Only a human mind can experience the past by reading a book or seeing a film. Seen objectively, the film or book is merely an object existing in the present which has no reference to the past, no more so than does a stone. In fact, we don't experience the past when we read a book. Instead, we experience a bit of the present (the book), which we interpret as telling us about the past. In other words, our mind forges a link between present experience and a putative entity called 'the past'. Even a specific memory only refers to the past due to the interpretation we make of it (we don't confuse it with present events). When a memory surfaces in my mind as a current thought, I view it as referring to a past state. This interpretation may be automatic and unconscious, but it is an interpretation nonetheless.

The book represents the past to us. But what does it represent, what is the past in itself? Does it make any sense to ask, "What is yesterday today?" I believe that the past is an abstraction fashioned from memory, which itself exists only in the present. Does any abstraction exist? An abstraction is a construct of thought and so one is tempted to say that it cannot be said to exist in the way that a chair does. But then a chair, considered as a separate entity with definite boundaries, is also a construct of thought, an interpretation and synthesis we make out of selected parts of our experience. So it is pointless to say that the past does not exist. The past is an important, indeed indispensable abstraction. It is as important to human life as physical objects are. In itself the past is an essential mental construct, comparable to 'freedom' or 'truth'.

Whether it is an illusion or not, whether it exists or not, it is an undeniable fact that the past matters enormously to human beings. It matters deeply to us that certain things have happened or not happened, eg that there really was a Holocaust (especially if you are one of its survivors), that the present government was legally elected, that I didn't run over a little girl when my car went into a spin. Should these things not matter because the past is just an abstraction? Should we care only about the present and future? Though this is psychologically impossible, the logical argument remains. My answer is that something matters only if it matters to human beings (or other living things). What other definition could one use? I think there is no meaning to the question "What things matter objectively?" The word 'matters' presupposes a 'who' to whom it matters.

Whatever its philosophical status, the vital role that the past plays in human consciousness is illustrated by people suffering from severe Korsakov's. Such people are unable to remember anything new for more than a few seconds, though their long-term memory is unimpaired. Oliver Sacks describes the life of one such person as an abyss of amnesia, one which he filled with an improvised world of unconsciously and rapidly invented fictions. Sacks comments further:

To be ourselves we must have ourselves - possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must 'recollect' ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.

The referent of the word 'yesterday' is a construct of my mind based on my personal memory. Yet it is more than just my private construct, for my idea of 'yesterday' shares essential features with that of other people, who have different memories of 'yesterday'. What is the shared part of 'yesterday'?

It is based on the idea that we participate in a common reality that is divided in the time dimension by units called days. Seeing that human beings are social creatures who live together and whose language is a device to facilitate the sharing of experience, it is not surprising that 'yesterday' refers to shared experience. If my idea of 'yesterday' were a purely private one then the word 'yesterday' would be a much less important part of language, comparable to 'dream' or 'hallucination'. So my idea of yesterday implicitly includes the totality of the experience of that day among all other people. It is assumed that, apart from illusions and hallucinations, all these experiences are consistent and could, in principle, be merged into a synthesis, into a complete account of what actually happened. Thus 'the past' is a public construct, a shared abstraction.

In the 4D model, the past is undefined since to give it a meaning we would have to arbitrarily decide that a particular point was 'now' and that all below it was the past. No part of the cube is any more special or real than any other part. The past and future are abstract to us because we cannot experience them, imprisoned as we are in a slice of time. Only the present is concrete and real for us.


The question I was originally looking at when I turned to the 4D continuum model of reality was that of precognition. Perhaps the model contains the germ of an explanation: normally consciousness is imprisoned in a single slice, but sometimes it slips out a bit, gaining access to other slices. Precognition and telepathy are somehow consequences of the presence of everything all at once.

Reference frames

Could one begin the investigation by defining consciousness as that thing which moves through time, ie from slice to slice? Movement is then the defining property of consciousness.

Someone pointed out that we have the illusion that our self is like a fixed rock washed by the stream of time. This is an illusion because the person we are at twenty is not the same as the person at thirty. Just because we are unaware of the gradual change that is taking place does not make it any less real. Yet we feel that a part of us is unchanging - the observer or witness. As though whatever happens in the show called our life, it is played out before the same audience of one. Seen from the 4D perspective, both the rock and the stream are purely subjective phenomena, each supporting the other. The stream does not exist objectively because nothing moves (ie each slice contains only stationary water), the rock likewise arises as a result of the subjective impression of movement, ie if the flow of experience ceases than there is no longer an experiencer. Please note I am not denying subjective reality but only pointing out that it is not the same as objective reality.

Scientific knowledge apart, we think that the earth is stationary because we have no sensation of its movement. In the spatial dimension we perceive relative movement with respect to the earth. If I spin around on my heel I know that the universe has not orbited around me. Because of the independent motions of different people, we are forced, in the case of space, to adopt a public standard by agreeing that the earth does not move.

In the case of time it is the other way around, that is to say we feel movement yet there isn't any. In the temporal dimension we perceive movement with respect to consciousness. New sensations relentlessly appear even if we sit perfectly still. Things move towards us from the future and recede from us once they pass our little window of appearances. Consciousness itself appears stationary. So each consciousness is the reference frame with respect to which there is movement in the time dimension. It is like the now obsolete idea in physics of a property-less ether that was devised to give meaning to the idea of absolute motion.

Public time

Yet time is also, in large measure, a public phenomenon. For it appears that different people experience it in much the same way. Two people in the same room who are looking in the same direction seem to see and hear the same things at the same time. Everyone has a private experience of moving through the 3D slices which tallies with the experiences of other people. This is why each of us can assume that our own temporal framework is the same as everyone else's. I don't need to worry that my future may be your past or vice versa. Since we are all in step we do not need a public reference frame for time analogous to the earth for movement in space. Of course we do use clocks to standardise our perception of time, but these do not act as reference frames in the fundamental way that the earth does for movement. For one thing, they are a comparatively modern invention.

There is evidence that some people, in particular, patients with Parkinson's disease, can lose temporal synchronization with the rest of us. It seems that when it is working normally, a specific mechanism in the brain keeps us all going at the same pace. Sacks describes a patient who appeared to be totally motionless for fifteen hours. Yet with the aid of time-lapse photography it was shown that he took six hours to wipe his nose. Remarkably, he was unaware of the slowness of his movement. Another of Sacks' patients had superhumanly fast reaction times. She could count to thirty in a split second. It seems that time moved much more slowly for her than for everyone else (ie events that appeared closely spaced to normal people seemed widely spaced to her). Likewise, it appears that time flows more slowly for some animals, such as small birds, which are in almost constant movement and have very rapid reaction times.

These exceptional cases underscore how much we take for granted that we humans are synchronized with regard to the flow of time. Perhaps the commonality in the experience of time can tell us something important about the nature of consciousness, or about the connection between our separate selves. Could one define a separate self as a distinct point from which to experience time, distinct from other experiences of time, yet similar in nature?

In what sense is our experience of time similar? We experience simultaneity (if two events are simultaneous for me then they are for you too), same speed and the same direction of flow. We all occupy the same point in time, called 'now'. Though we take all this for granted it amounts to an amazing synchronization. What keeps us synchronised? Is this synchronization an illusion, or a defining property of human consciousness? I think there is an insight here about how we are connected.

Each separate self is its own reference frame, operating in parallel with that of other people. It's as though the river called time runs water (= experience) along billions of separate pairs of river banks, all simultaneously, at the same rate and in the same direction. We are part of a vast delta of time. Each pair of river banks is defined by the water that runs between them, which is different for each self. The self is, by one definition, the locus of private experience. Hence there is no overlap between one body of water and another. Yet even private experience is shared in the sense that if two people watch the sun rising, then although each has a private and entirely separate experience of a sequence of sensory stimuli, these are only a slightly different set of sensations of light and warmth. The mystics say that there is but one pair of river banks, despite the multitude of rivers.

We believe that one person's experiences are similar to another's. As far as we know it does not happen (insignificant instances excepted) that one person sees a horse where another sees a table. It is the consistency of perception that we all share and are able to communicate that gives us confidence that there is an objective world out there, existing independently of the personal and unique view that each of us has of it. Seen in this wider context, synchronization with respect to time is just one aspect of the nearly universal situation that one person's experience confirms that of another.

Psychological time

The above picture of synchronization has a major flaw, for it ignores the speeding up and slowing down of time, a feature to which all of us are accustomed. According to the proverb, a watched kettle never boils. Conversely, who hasn't had the experience of discovering with a shock that it was an hour later than they thought it was? Time passes quickly if I am playing an interesting game and slowly if I am waiting for a train with nothing to read. People in sensory deprivation experiments reportedly lose track of time, greatly underestimating its passing. Boredom and passivity slow down time, absorption and involvement accelerate it. We might pessimistically conclude that the nature of flowing time is such as to always minimise our enjoyment.

Subjective time also alters speed on a scale of months and years, as well as on an hourly one. Most people over forty report that the years pass more and more quickly as they grow older. The year seems new when suddenly August arrives. Whatever the reasons for this phenomenon, it should not be dismissed as an illusion.

My thesis is that psychological time is the only flowing time. It follows that the perceived slowing or speeding up of time is real, as real as the flow itself. It is erroneous to seek to correct this flow because personal flowing time is what is given in experience, whereas the belief in the constancy of time's flow is merely an assumption. The degree of my involvement with my environment determines how I experience the rate of occurrence of external phenomena. Hence different people experience different rates of change. This is illustrated by a joke: the speed of time depends on which side of a toilet door you are on. I conclude that the synchronization of the speed of time's flow among different people is not a fact but an intellectual assumption which we mistakenly use to over-ride our experience.

When I resynchronise at 8 PM, what am I doing? My consciousness discovers it is in the 8 PM slice, whereas it thought it was in the 7 PM one. So I re-adjust my picture of where I am. The fact that I thought it was 7 PM until I looked at a clock suggests that time has speeded up for me (since the events occurring up to 8 PM have occurred in a span of psychological time that reaches only 7 PM). When I re-synchronize I realise time has moved more quickly than usual for me, NOT 'more quickly than I realised'. To repeat: the subjective perception of time is the actual flow of time for the person in question. However, my getting the time wrong does not prove that time has changed speed for me. My guess that it is 7 PM is an assessment of my recent experience of the passage of events, it is not the experience itself. Similarly, getting the time right does not prove that its flow hasn't changed speed, as I could be compensating, using my knowledge of how I underestimated the time in the past. An example of direct evidence of time slowing is the feeling that the minutes are crawling by as we wait for a bus in the rain.

The markers we call minutes and hours are objective alright, but the flow of time from one of these to the next is entirely subjective, ie it is an individual inner personal experience. It does not even make sense to ask, "How fast should time flow?" as in, "How long should a minute feel?"

Time is private

Does every consciousness inhabit the same slice of the space-time continuum? In other words, is my 'now' exactly contemporary with another person's? It seems that it is, for as far as I can tell, we all hear and see the same things at the same time. All consciousnesses are always in the same slice.

I wonder whether this is really so. How do I know that another person is inhabiting Monday 8 AM when I am, not Monday 9 AM? How would I know it if their consciousness were in a slice different to mine? Since I cannot locate their subjective self, there is no way to tell that I am in the same slice as another person. This is in principle unknowable because I cannot enter another's subjective experience. I know I am conscious and I see my own behaviour as being evidence of consciousness. I interpret other people's behaviour as evidence of their being conscious on analogy with myself. Yet I don't really know that they are conscious. Since I don't really know that another person is actually conscious, it follows that I don't know that they experience a present moment, let alone that their present moment is simultaneous with mine.

It might be objected that since another person responds to my question now, it means that they are presently conscious. This does not follow, as a computer can exhibit many signs of consciousness, such as detection of events, functional intelligence and the ability to respond to questions.

If we posit a hypothetical observer who could examine any slice of the continuum, this observer would not find consciousness in any of them, simply because consciousness cannot be observed. An external observer can only infer consciousness from behaviour. From the point of view of such an observer it does not even make sense to ask where (in time) the consciousness of a particular human being is to be found. The most that could be said is that consciousness was in all the slices where that human had been awake. Because it includes decades of experience, such a notion of consciousness is incompatible with the moment-bound awareness we experience.

So in conclusion, there is a complete separation between the subjective and objective views of consciousness. I have no way of knowing what slice another's consciousness is subjectively inhabiting. Every reference frame is absolutely private. Of course it appears as though the other person is conscious at the same time that I am (as they'll assure me if I ask them), but I only have external behaviour to go by. It could be that the other person's consciousness has passed on to a slice which, for me, lies in the future, and that I am observing the results of their consciousness having been in my present slice, rather like the way in which we observe distant astronomical objects as they were millions of years ago.

The story so far

We move in time, time itself does not move. There isn't such a thing as the present moment travelling forwards through time. Each moment is just a slice of the 4D continuum and the slice does not move. Only consciousness can perceive any kind of movement in time. Seen from the 4D perspective, consciousness is essentially the narrowing down of reality to a thin wafer of time, ie consciousness is by its very nature a limitation. The 'now' moment exists only in consciousness, which is bounded by it. Consciousness relies on perception of change and is the only reference frame within which change can happen. Consciousness is also a device for turning the present into the past, which is an abstraction that can be accessed only by the mind. Since the past includes the totality of what everyone has experienced, it is a public construct and a shared abstraction. We appear to experience simultaneity, same speed, same direction and the same 'now'. This synchronization in time is just one aspect of the nearly universal situation that one person's experience confirms another's. Consciousness cannot be detected objectively; being subjective and private, it can only be experienced or inferred.

Consciousness is that unique thing which moves through the 4D continuum along the dimension of time. Consequently, the direction of time's arrow is the path consciousness takes through the continuum. I am not saying that time is an illusion, rather that flowing time and consciousness are inextricably bound up with each other. Specifically, that movement through time is a defining condition of consciousness. Consciousness and movement through time are two aspects of a single process.

The self

What is a thing, such as a brick? It is a three-dimensional solid projected through the slices along the time axis. Its boundaries are the slices in which it is created and destroyed. So we get a 4D-analogue of a tower, one brick wide. Taking the earth's motion into account gives us a great spiral rising up through the time dimension.

What is the self? Awareness is a slit moving through the slices of the cube (or through the stacked pages of the book). If the self is taken to be the domain of private experience then the self is a tunnel of perceptions through the 4D continuum. If the domain of my private experience were much larger it might overlap that of another being and we would begin to lose our separateness. Normally, human beings feel connected to each other when they share the same feelings or thoughts. I am a separate self because the domain of my private experience is small, essentially because of how little I can share my experience with others.

Suppose my awareness were not limited to a small area of a slice of space-time. Say I could see every detail of Town Hall Station simultaneously, or close my eyes and perceive all that's going through the minds of two people at once. What would this expansion of consciousness do to me? Another thought experiment is to imagine being myself now and myself four hours earlier, to overlap these two experiences.

If my awareness were much greater than it is, where would my 'self' go? Would it get larger or disappear from view? To attempt an answer I first need to decide where my self is normally. My self is an observer standing outside but intimately connected to my experience. It appears to reside in my body. If my experience were some vast slab of the 4D continuum then where would my self be? It would be spread very thin, ie it would be de-localised compared to how it is now. It would no longer be a point between the eyes, as it is in sighted people. It would be more like an aerial viewpoint, or a simultaneous view from many different vantage points.

What would it mean to be aware of a day rather than a moment? Currently, we only have unreliable memory of the past (ie of everything before this moment) and an even less reliable faculty called imagination to picture the future. To directly experience a whole day would mean experiencing every instant of it simultaneously, which would be a massive sensory overload. It would include awareness of being in many places at the same time. But why stop at an hour or day; why not include the totality of space and time? Having such awareness one would not only be omniscient and omnipresent, but would also lose the identification with a mortal being living out a human life-span in a particular body. Perhaps the word for such a consciousness would be 'God'.

Quantum physics offers an analogy. Perhaps our small but sharp consciousness obeys some uncertainty principle about limitation in time versus intensity and clarity. I conjecture that timeless awareness would of necessity be extremely diffuse and unfocused. Great breadth of awareness seems to entail loss of focus, including loss of immediacy and detail. Compare our gross view with the minuteness of perception of an ant carrying its cube of sugar.


Ayer points out that to ask, 'Is this experience mine?' is not a serious question. If we define the self as follows, "My self is the witness of my experience," then we lapse into circularity, since the second 'my' is undefined. What about, "I am that which wills my body to act"? This definition is probably a better starting point. I can add that this entity that wills, ie my self, has its private experience. So the definition becomes: the self is an individual will, associated with a private domain of experience. Consciousness seems to be required to have experience (this assumption will be discussed later). Can the will be separated from its associated consciousness? Perhaps the two can be separated but it is very hard for me to imagine either one in isolation from the other. Without the will we could not think in the ordinary sense of the word (as we couldn't even choose what to think about), and without consciousness the will would not be able to formulate intentions or choices, since it would have no knowledge of the world to which they referred. So we can add an observer or consciousness to our tentative definition of the self.

Another approach to the mystery of the self is to look at the reports of those who claim to have had mystical experiences. Two factors stand out from their accounts: the experience of profound unity (or lack of separation) and the ineffability of this experience. Seeing the four-dimensional continuum in its entirety would impart a tremendous sense of unity, of all things being immediately present. We would perceive that all things are connected to all others because a thing appears disconnected from another thing if we cannot see both at once. Perception of the totality of the space-time world is not communicable to ordinary consciousness, since this is imprisoned in a small slice of space and time. Perhaps the ineffability of mystical experience is due to its being outside time, whereas in our normal awareness we cannot conceive of being outside time, any more than we can picture infinity, or being outside space.

Consciousness and separation

What is separation? My article, "Things" shows that a separate entity, ie a thing, is simply an area of reality that is delimited as an object of thought. So separation is the result of the process we call thinking. Perhaps I can go a step further: is the primary separation of the world into the two things called 'self' and 'not-self' the result not of thinking, but of what we regard as normal awareness? Perhaps the very act of experiencing a focused awareness is the act of creating a self that is apart from what that awareness is being trained on (note that I can't perceive my will or my consciousness). By observing or perceiving some thing, we are outside of that thing, hence we are a separate self. Using our definition of the self as a will and a consciousness with its private domain of experience, we see that such a self is separate from the vast world outside it. Note that the domain of my will is just my body and mind.


Can I observe my self? What would it mean for me to observe my self, or someone else's self? To observe another's consciousness directly (as opposed to inferring its existence) would mean having a field of awareness in which consciousness would manifest itself as an object. This does not seem to make much sense. The same observation applies to observing my own consciousness as an external object, as opposed to being inside it. Similarly, the will cannot be perceived directly as an object.

What does it mean for me to perceive myself? I think I am struggling here at the outer limit of what words can express. I am trying to catch something outside of normal experience, attempting to go right beneath that level, to describe it from a lower level as it were. There is no language for this lower level since human language developed to answer the needs of our ordinary level - the level at which, "I saw myself," means that I saw a reflection of my body in a mirror, not the abstraction called 'my self'. I am led to think that the question of self observing it-self is meaningless. It seems to me that the words 'see' or 'perceive' cannot be used with reference to 'self', because this is an invalid extension of human language. Not so much that seeing one's self can or cannot be done, but that the question itself is wrong, like asking what existed before the universe came into being. It's as though there is nowhere to stand to observe and describe what is happening, no framework outside that of consciousness from which consciousness itself might be seen.

But is there a self?

Is the intellect a sixth sense, as Zen teaches? The sense that picks up thoughts as if they were sensations. If thoughts are seen in this way then one of the last outposts of self-hood - the inner thinker - is lost. Can the will also be depersonalised? My desire or decision to do something could likewise be seen as the perception of a sensation. This is in opposition to the usual view, that we originate our thoughts and actions. In Zen psychology, the self is a local and purely passive consciousness. It is seen as a blank screen onto which sensations, thoughts and impulses to act are projected from a source in the personal unconscious. Our conscious selves are nothing more than radio receivers, each tuned to a different station.

Consciousness is an instrument for detecting experience. Or is it a fiction? William James has argued that experience is the sole reality and that consciousness is an unnecessary additional construct. Consciousness itself cannot be detected, so why do I posit that there is a thing, called my consciousness, which has my experience? On the face of it, this seems to be an unnecessary assumption. Whitehead has written, "My present experience is what I now am." I can't see the error in James' and Whitehead's thinking. Although, like most people, I remain convinced I exist as a self that continues from moment to moment, I find it hard to justify this view with logical argument.

Let us look at the implications of Whitehead's statement. A consequence of the equivalence is that one of its terms can be dispensed with, ie theoretically, we could get by without the word ' I ' or without the phrase 'my experience'. This means that 'I want X,' would translate directly to, 'There is the desire for X.' 'I think Y,' becomes, 'There is the thought of Y,' while 'I see Z,' is equivalent to 'Z is seen.' The alert reader will see that something has been lost in translation. What is missing is the subject who is having the experience in question. We want to know who is seeing, thinking and whatever. It is legitimate to want to know whether Harry or Sally has just had an orgasm. The two persons are not identical, if only because we know they occupy different bodies.

Just who are you?

The problem relating to the identity of the subject arises because we are trying to merge two different levels of description - subjective and objective, or private and public. At the subjective or private experience level, the question, 'Who has this experience?' is superfluous, since there is no 'who' to be found, no homunculus lurking inside one, willing to own up to having the experience on one's behalf. To see this, ask yourself, 'Who am I?' I don't mean your name, sex, origins and so forth, but who are you in essence, what is your kernel, your deepest self? I wager you will not be able to produce a satisfactory answer. A reply such as, "I am a body and a mind," begs the question, "What is mind?"

When we ask, 'Who am I?' (or "What am I?"), we are straining at the end of the tether of human language and hence of human thought. Perhaps it is an illegitimate use of language to ask 'who?' (or 'what?') of ' I '. Whitehead's answer to, 'What am I?' would probably be, 'No-one and nothing, just the illusion of continuity with past experience.' Illusion because there is no entity from my past whose continued, unchanging existence links my present experience with that of a minute ago. According to Whitehead there is no enduring self that has my experiences. Krishnamurti explains, "... the thinker is the thought, and the thinker separates himself from the thought for his self-protection and continuance." Krishnamurti sees the self as an illusion composed entirely of memories. The earlier quotation from Sacks (under 'The past') supports this view.

AE van Vogt wrote a science fiction novel called, "The World Of Null-A", in which each time the hero is killed a copy of his body is animated and given all his memories. Vogt claims that this copy is identical in all respects, that in effect the hero has not died. I believe this is too simple a view of the self. My conscious memories do not include my unconscious, which is an important part of my mind. They refer to, but are not identical with, my abilities, predispositions, complexes, beliefs, likes and dislikes, passions, and what makes me tick. Another person having all of my memories might infer much of this through recollections of thoughts, incidents and conversations that illustrate my nature, but remembering and inferring is not the same as feeling or being. I may recall having enjoyed a cold shower but that doesn't guarantee that I will enjoy the next one. Nor is remembering a belief that I once held the same as holding it in my heart. There is also something essential that is hard to define, but which informs all of my behaviour - my own personal style of doing and being. Though memory and habit may account for 90% of this, my behaviour can change. It is not always predictable, not even to myself. A key quality, that by its very nature cannot be captured in memory is creativity, since being creative means doing something new. I conclude that memory does not constitute all of a person's psyche. Even if the newly animated body were identical to the original person, the consciousness of the person who died would have experienced an end and, it seems to me, would not later experience the re-animation.

A similar argument can be used against the view that I am identical with my current experience. Another person might (in theory) have exactly the same experience, ie the same thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviours, as I have in this instant, but they would not have my potentials, abilities, tastes, beliefs and so on, all of which influence my future behaviour and hence my future experience. So the other person's experience would soon diverge from mine, eg a different thought is likely to surface from their subconscious. Hence by Whitehead's definition, the other person and I will cease to be identical. In other words, there is a core of qualities, both conscious and unconscious, that is particular to me and which persists, providing a link between my past and my future. We might then add my tendencies, predispositions and potentials to the definition of my self. Thus there is reason to doubt that I am only my present experience.

Three levels of meaning

If we ask, 'Who is having this experience?' from an objective point of view, ie from outside, we are asking for a link to connect the subjective experience with Harry or Sally. Language is inter-subjective in the sense that it is an external, public device that allows the interchange of descriptions of interior, subjective experiences (note that all experience is internal) between different people. To do so it must perform the dual function of (a) describing a private state of one mind, and (b) telling us which person is to be identified as having this experience. While in the privacy of my own mind the latter function does not apply, it is important to other forms of communication of experience. Because of the need to identify who is having the experience at the objective level, it follows that 'my experience = I' is an equivalence at the subjective level only. It does not apply to inter-personal communication.

The qualification just mentioned raises a basic epistemological question. When I say 'My experience equals I,' am I making a statement about words, about concepts, or about referents (ie phenomena)? At the word level, ie the level of how language is used by human beings, we saw that the terms 'my experience' and ' I ' can be used interchangeably by a person thinking or talking to themselves. However, as explained above, the two terms are not equivalent when words are exchanged between two or more persons. Since the main function of language is communication between people, I conclude that the words 'my experience' and ' I ' are not equivalent, ie are not interchangeable.

If two ideas appear different to my mind then they are different, simply because my mind identifies distinct mental contents as constituting each. Since it is a safe assumption that we regard ' I ' and 'my experience' as being different, I conclude that at the conceptual level, Whitehead's equivalence does not hold.

Finally, we come to the level of referents. How do we tell whether two concepts refer to the same thing or not? To illustrate how a partial view can cause us to see two things when there is just one, David Bohm describes the analogy of watching the output from two TV cameras, one showing a fish head-on, the other showing the same fish in profile. In this instance we are likely to incorrectly assume that we are looking at two distinct objects. Take another example: how do we know that the two concepts 'the source of terrestrial energy' and 'the sun' refer to the same object? To perceive the identity of referent of two different descriptions we need to rise to a higher level of synthesis, one that includes the two descriptions as sub-levels. The mystics tell us that at a higher level of awareness the world and ' I ' are not separate but the same phenomenon. Not having reached this level myself, I cannot comment.

To sum up, though Whitehead's view is logically sound, it is hard to stomach, since it goes against the fundamental idea we have of ourselves. We may ask, along with David Hume, "Who am I who failed to find a self?"

Now for 'my experience -> I'

Just for fun, let's try the translation in the other direction, ie from the impersonal 'experience' to the personal ' I '. 'Beethoven's eighth is playing,' translates to, 'I include the hearing of this music,' 'There is thirst,' becomes, 'My self includes the need for drink.' 'There is the thought of sex,' is equivalent to 'A sexual thought is part of my awareness.' Though these translations sound stilted, they seem less strange than those in the opposite direction, which led to the loss of personal identity. They appear innocuous until we realise that such references to ' I ', 'self' and 'my' exhaust the sum total of what I can say about my self. In other words, I cannot legitimately say 'I do A,' or 'I want B,' since the subject, ' I ' does not do or want anything, simply because it is identical to what it is doing, thinking, willing and feeling (ie all that it is experiencing) at this moment. So this translation is as radical as the first. It does away with the notion that the ' I ' is an actor who does things and to whom things happen, instead the ' I ' is the action. In effect, the idea of the ' I ' has been defined out of existence, being replaced by experience. A knock-out blow to the sweaty little ego!

In lieu of a conclusion

The 4D continuum model and the field of consciousness are two different ways of seeing the world. Both are true in the sense of being consistent and valid descriptions. Comparing the two, reminds me of the concept of complementarity in physics, ie the wave and the particle interpretations of sub-atomic phenomena. Though these two are mutually exclusive, both are necessary to give us the full picture in quantum physics. Of course, the 4D model and consciousness are not models of the same kind or on the same level. Without the luxury of consciousness, no models of any kind would be possible for us. Consciousness is the starting point, the base from which we undertake all our intellectual explorations. It is for this reason that consciousness is the ultimate mystery, forever hidden from the mind's search-beam, which is none other than the light of consciousness.


This essay attempts to reconcile two different descriptions of the world, what we experience via consciousness and the 4D continuum model. The continuum model gives us a static picture of the entire universe in space and time, one in which nothing happens and time does not flow, no more so than space does, because all past and future states are already present. To consciousness, time is an ever-moving succession of moments, each containing all the experience that is currently ours. Moments in the future or the past are abstract in the sense that they are not present before our awareness, except indirectly as thoughts. The 'now' moment is unique and central to consciousness: what is now is all that is. By contrast, in the continuum model, there is no notion of 'now' and hence no 'past' and no 'future'.

When these two descriptions are matched we see that consciousness is the limitation of perception to an area of a thin slice of the cube, ie to a moment. This moment is what we call 'now', and it appears to us to move. In the continuum model there is no corresponding movement. It is concluded that time flows only relative to consciousness. This subjective experience of flowing time is the sole sense in which time moves. Hence time's arrow depends only on the order in which events are presented to our consciousness. Perception of the flow of time seems to be the defining property of consciousness. Thus the flow of time gives rise to consciousness, which in turn allows us to experience time's flow. It is suggested that consciousness and moving time are two aspects of the one process. Since change and moving time are synonymous it follows that perception and change are two aspects of a single process.

Consciousness is described as a processor, turning the present into the past. The past is not something we can experience. It is a mental construct, an abstraction indispensable to humans. It is both a private interpretation of memory and other records, as well as a shared entity. Perhaps the self can be defined as a distinct point from which to experience the flow of time. Consciousness is by definition subjective. How then can it give rise to the notion of objective (ie public) time? Our experience of time has a shared aspect in that we appear to be synchronised with regard to speed, direction and the position of the 'now' moment. This suggests a connection between separate selves. Yet this synchronization is something that we infer without proof, since we have no direct access to another's consciousness. I conclude that each self has an essentially private reference frame that cannot be compared with that of another.

It is suggested that separation derives from consciousness, that the very act of experiencing a focused awareness is the act of creating a self apart from what that awareness is being trained on. Finally, the notion of the self as a will with a private domain of experience is explored, including the view that no such thing exists ie "I am my current experience." This seems logically sound but is sharply at variance with how we use language and with how we like to think about ourselves.

Tad Boniecki

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