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Time, Consciousness, Philosophers' Zombies, Materialism and Dualism

Updated on March 20, 2017
Could time exits in a universe that holds only a clock
Could time exits in a universe that holds only a clock

Imagine a universe that is empty except for a ticking clock. Does time exist there?

The answer could be YES, the clock will keep ticking till it runs down.

Does time then stop? What happens between ticks?

Or it could be NO because there is no such thing as sound; because there is no air, no light, and no conscious observer to hear the tick or see the face of the clock.

Or it could be NO because time is an illusion, as originally stated in 1907, an idea later taken up by various physicists in the form of a timeless universe.

Physical And Mental Time

Physical Time is time in Physics, a variable in the mathematical formulae we use to describe our world. An analogue of Physical Time can be observed in any world that contains matter which obeys regular behaviours that can be described as laws and modeled by mathematics.

Clock Time, the time measured by a physical clock, is a special case of Physical Time. Does a clock tick if there is nobody to hear it? A sound requires a conscious being with ears to hear it and a sight requires a conscious being with eyes to see it. In the clock world the clock would keep going but, with no one to hear or see it, Mental Time would not exist by definition and Clock time, which needs a conscious observer, would not exist either.

Mental Time is the time we experience as conscious beings. Dreams may take only a few seconds to an external observer but last a long time to the dreamer, while a long time in the outside world may go by in a flash, as anyone who walked for ten minutes but cannot recall those minutes knows. Mental Time would not exist without Consciousness and Timeless Consciousness, consciousness without Mental time is hard to imagine, though mystics often say that when they experience a mystical insight they experience the universe without experience of time.

A Philosopher's zombie is something that acts as if it is conscious but is not. A zombie world is a logically consistent world in which conscious does not exist.

Time And Consciousness Are Entangled
Time And Consciousness Are Entangled

Time, Consciousness, Materialism And Dualism

Chalmers[1] used a conceivability argument to conclude that Materialism fails if and only if zombies are conceivable then discusses Panpsychism, which he takes as the notion that microphysical objects possess consciousness and Panprotopsychism, the idea, also proposed by physicist Max Bohm, that microphysical objects possess protoconscious properties. All these positions have problems.

Materialism must explain how consciousness arises from unconscious matter, or prove consciousness is an illusion (and how an illusion can be experienced in the absence of consciousness). Dualism must explain how a non material consciousness can influence matter. Panpsychism and Panprotopsychism suffer from the combination problem, the problem of how consciousness, for example ours, can arise from the (proto)conscious properties of the microphysical objects which we are comprised.

If Materialism fails because a possible world contains a philosopher’s zombie Mental and Physical Time could have a different metaphysical and ontological status with some consciousness not grounded in Physics implying Mental Time exists independently of Physical Time.

If Dualism fails physical and mental time are entangles, Consciousness is grounded in Physics, though not necessarily in neurobiology or confined to the brain and mental time is ultimately grounded in Physics, though not constrained by it (we can imagine things not allowed by Physics)

For Dualism to fail zombies and zombie universes must be inconceivable. In this case Physical time could not therefore continue if all consciousness vanished since that would imply a zombie universe which contradicts the assumption a zombie universe is inconceivable. Physical Time then depends on Consciousness for its existence, and thus on Mental Time. Since Materialism requires all events to have a physical cause Mental Time would ultimately depend on Physical Time.

For Materialism to fail zombies and zombie worlds must be conceivable. In this case a world that contains only consciousness is also conceivable. In such a world Physical Time would clearly not exist though Mental Time could exist. This means that resolving the question of whether time exists in the clock world requires resolution of the Materialism-Dualism question.

Time Flows From Future To Past
Time Flows From Future To Past

Temporal Naturalism

One of our normal intuitions about time is that it is a line of durationless instants where we can assign a number to each point. The present moment, NOW is a special time the past being fixed and inaccessible with the future uncreated and malleable. Everything about this intuition is debatable.

Another model is that Time is like an hourglass with grains of time passing from the future through the needle’s eye of now into the jumbled heap of the past. Again everything about this model is debatable.

Smolin [3] espouses Temporal Naturalism, whichadopts this common intuition, but he says nothing about whether time is continuous. Temporal Naturalism is compatible with several formulations of dynamics and isConsciousness friendly, or at least can accommodate Qualia, which can be thought of as the fundamental and indivisible components of Consciousness, such as “seeing red” or “hearing b#”but does not take consciousness as fundamental and thereby makes zombies and a zombie universe conceivable which, following Chalmers, means Materialism failsand implies dualism is correct.

The assumption that the past no longer exists and the future does not yet exist appears to contradict experimental results from Wheeler’s delayed choice two slit experiment which shows that our present can affect our past, or more generally that the future can affect the past and seems incompatible with Temporal Naturalism.

Time could be an illusion created by the illusion known as consciousness
Time could be an illusion created by the illusion known as consciousness

A Timeless Universe?

Barbour [2] claims Physical Time is redundant in Classical Physics, that Time is created by what the universe does and that we abstract time from motion, but does not explain what motion in a timeless universe actually means. At a very high and perhaps oversimplified level this argument is that in Classical Physics the world is described mathematically as a set of points in a high dimensional space and a particle traces out a path in this space with time merely being a measure of the distance between two points. He shows how time can be eliminated in such a system and notes that. the path a particle takes between two points, in the time based description, minimises a physical quantity called the Action and that this specifies the position of the particle. After noting that this principle can also be formulated for General Relativity and Quantum Systems Barbour concedes that it may be impossible to banish time entirely form Physics since “the universe may be infinite and black holes pose problems”.

It is hard to see how consciousness and a sense of time could arise in such a universe unless we accept dualism and envisage individual consciousnesses as focussing on successive points of the block universe crawling across and focusing on various points of the block universe, which entails Mental Time being different from Physical Time (which by hypothesis, does not exist in a static universe).

Suppose time is an illusion and the universe is timeless. Consciousness, if it includes a sense of time, will then be an illusion and we are zombies deceived into thinking we are not zombies, which makes a zombie universe conceivable and allows for the possibility that consciousness can be external to the timeless universe. In that case it is hard to see how consciousness could interact with the timeless universe. Recent proposals that quantum behaviour can be explained by interaction with multiple parallel classical universes suggest how such an interaction could happen and if all these universes are also materialist then they should also include quantum theory and consciousness

Time Does What It Wants Whatever We Think
Time Does What It Wants Whatever We Think

Summing Up

General considerations only say that if Materialism is true then the world must include consciousness. In that case Mental and Physical time are entangled. Temporal Naturalism matches our normal intuitions of time but as it does not take consciousness as fundamental leaves the dualist-materialist question open but tilts the scales in favour of dualism. A timeless universe makes a dualist position hard to avoid and it seems proponents of a timeless world and illusory time are conflating Physical and Mental Time

If Materialism is true then the question of how mental time can arise from physics can be called the hard problem of Time by analogy with Chalmers’ hard problem of Consciousness and arises whether or not time is real. Neither temporal naturalism or a timeless universe resolves this question.

Simply saying that Time and/or consciousness are illusions does not resolve the problem for they would be very persistent illusions and even if illusions, the illusions themselves are real and something or someone must be experiencing them.

Further Reading

  1. Panpsychism and Panprotopsychism, David J Chalmers, TheAmherst Lecture in Philosophy, lecture 8, 2013

  2. THE NATURE OF TIME: Julian Barbour

  3. Temporal naturalism: Lee Smolin

About The Author

This is a condensed version of a chapter in my forthcoming book about Time.

Trained as a mathematician and Physicist I spent 15 years as an IT contractor in various countries but that will be the subject of another book


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    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Hubs 12 days ago from United Kingdom

      Fantastic article, I love it. This is something I have a serious interest in, I don't know if I've explained to you before or if you've seen me write about it before but even earlier today I posted in the FREE group on Facebook (Foundation for Research into Extraterrestrial Encounters) how, ever since I was a young child, I have had the ability to retrieve physical items from the future and have them in my possession in the here and now... literally!

      I've done this with music albums and have had CD's in my possession by artists who were still very young children at the time and who, at that time, had no idea that they would grow up to become musicians or write those songs - they hadn't written them yet, they hadn't become musicians yet! Now, how can that be explained?? I was asked by Mary Rodwell if I had awareness of how I actually achieve this and the answer to that it yes, I do - it's incredibly easy.

      I do believe in the theory of panpsychism, or more specificially, Lanza's theory of biocentricity which suggests that consciousness is not generated by the brain but exists everywhere and is simply processed in the microtubules of the brain cells, therefore time itself would be an illusion. Then there's also the phenomena of chronesthesia and chronokinesis both of which I have also used.

      It's really a very difficult conundrum to try to get your head around but it certainly suggests to me that the future must somehow be set in stone, at least to a certain extent, and that time is just an illusion - past, present and future are all intertwined and are all one.

    • AlexK2009 profile image

      AlexK2009 11 days ago from Edinburgh, Scotland


      It may be easy to get things from the future, but could you teach others to do it?

      I like hte idea of Panpsychism, though I tend to blink at the idea that say the number Pi is conscious though some speculative science and philosophy suggests to me that this is possible.

      The idea that the brain is just a receiver of consciousness is not new, I think many decades ago Eccles proposed this. I have seen nothing that conclusively refutes this.

      Relativistic Physics says it is impossible to treat time and space separately, so to that extent you can consider time as an illusion, but if it is an illusion how does our sense of time arise?

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Hubs 11 days ago from United Kingdom

      As far as I can tell it's a temporal construct, a way of interpreting/perceiving sequences of events which have technically already happened but which we are now processing. I do believe that I could teach others to do the same, as I myself first read about this in a book about metaphysics when I was very young and decided to give it a try - and it worked like a charm! So if I can learn how to do it from a book and simply giving it a go I'm sure everyone else can do the same.

      Also, as far as I can tell, consciousness/energy/spirit would all be the same thing - we already know that everything in existence, even inanimate matter, is nothing more than energy vibrating at various frequencies. Technically, nothing is inanimate because everything is also constantly in motion (energy in motion/emotion) and is constantly pulsating - the fact that the Earth constantly spins and is always in rotation means that nothing is ever still, even though it appears to us as though it is.

    • AlexK2009 profile image

      AlexK2009 11 days ago from Edinburgh, Scotland


      How about letting me know the name of the book?

      I am cautious about saying matter is energy vibrating at different frequencies since it is not clear what is vibrating or how that manifests as matter. I really need a proper analysis of this concept. Yes, energy and matter can be converted one to the other but there still seems a difference between the two

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Hubs 11 days ago from United Kingdom

      As far as I am aware, modern science now already acknowledges that everything is just energy, frequency and vibration? I do like the stay up to date with all the latest scientific discoveries on a daily basis and this seems to be becoming the general consensus. I think Tesla and others were really light years ahead of their time in this respect. Energy can never be created nor destroyed, only transferred. Quantum mechanics seems to be developing the theory that the entire universe is a manifestation of consciousness experiencing itself subjectively by manifesting as objective reality. There are some good works on this theory if you're interested such as the Mental Universe by Dean Radin, The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot and more. It's really the only theory that appears to make sense of what I've experienced and am capable of and many people seem to be developing these "abilities" and coming to these conclusions during their "awakening" process... but of course, it can just as easily be argued that this is subjective.

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Hubs 11 days ago from United Kingdom

      I wish I could remember what book it was but unfortunately I don't. If I remember correctly, it may have been a book about Jungian psychology, rather than focusing on science. I know I had a lot of books about Jungian/archetypal psychology and works on Wilhelm Reich in that collection.

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