Home Before reading this article it is best to read: An Introduction to Reality, Qualities and then Observation.

editations on time

The meditations below will lead us to the idea that our Experience can be as much as half a second to a second or so behind the time in the world around us and that this half second is not simply a delay: that we really are half a second or so behind the times. This "backwards referral in time of the subjective present moment" is a well-known problem in neurophysiology.  The phenomenon was first observed by Benjamin Libet et al in a series of papers from 1965 onward that involved direct recordings from the brains of subjects. The following text asks us to listen and observe carefully, to explore the half second time shift for ourselves.  We might feel confident in what we observe because neuroscience has also observed this perplexing time shift.

That the subjective present is behind the objective present would be an inevitable consequence of the existence of time extension because the half second of time extended Experience can only be accommodated in the objective past.

ime in Experience

Listen to a clock tick. Tick it goes at the position of the clock in Experience. Listen to an orchestra, each instrument has sounds that extend into time at their position in Experience. Every part of our Experience extends into time.

We conventionally tend to think that the time in our Experience is like a succession of movie frames:

Our actual Experience is not much like this. Turn on a radio or listen to an orchestra. We hear the firm beat at the start of a bar of music then the whole bar and then that bar is gone and another bar replaces it. When we listen to music with a good quality stereo system or hear a live orchestra each musician has their own sound emanating at their own position. Each part of our Experience can contain extensions in time such as the bars of tunes occurring at each instrument.

The illustration of musicians on this page uses a line of notes to represent the changes over time but we have to listen to actual sounds to know what they are really like.  It is useful to listen to stereo music while reading this section to get a feel for what is actually being described.

Take a moment to listen to a sound. It is out there in Experience. It is at a particular location and passes at that location. Sounds occur in space but they are arranged in time at their position in space.   Experience, our model of the world around us, contains both space and time. Whether this space and time is identical to the space and time of the world at large will be assumed at this stage.

We have already noticed that events distributed in the space of our Experience are also at an observation point so perhaps each point in the space of Experience can have a series of sounds distributed along a time like dimension and also at a point, with time extension being created by the angular separation of events at the point.  It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to imagine that time extension occurs in space however, the time extension "out there" does not extend in  space but extends in time.

This all sounds very complicated but is actually obvious. Listening to a bird we find that the tweeting is at the position of the bird's beak. Listening to an orchestra the sound of the violin is at the position of the violin. Many things can be at a single position in our Experience. Many things are at the listening point in our Experience but spread out through time, out there, at their place in the space and time of our Experience.  Sounds are extended in time at their position in Experience but project to the listening point which is "now".

As we discovered when exploring "Qualities", every point in our Experience can have many things that are spread out in space and time around it but also at the point. This property of events being spread out but also at a spatial and temporal point is a fundamental property of our Experience.

The observation that each small area in our Experience can contain many things extended in time is extremely important because it confirms that there are at least four independent directions for arranging events.

Events have a direction from past to future

Our sense of the unfolding of time has a direction, we always feel as if we are listening into the future. Take the word "hello", we always hear it as if from the perspective of the "h" occurring first and the "ello" sounds extended into the future.

Were we to have events in our Experience arranged so that they receded into the past the word "hello" would begin at the "o" and, from the perspective of the moment when the "o" happens, the word would be "olleh", extending back in time.

Our Experience contains objects that extend into the apparent future for half a second to a second. If our Experience is actually extended in time then we do indeed have events stretching into the future in Experience.  However, the future in our Experience extends no further than the present of the world around us.   This is because what we consider to be the present instant is in the past of the world around us,  as will be explored later.

To recap, sounds usually emanate from definite positions in our Experience such as a creaking door or clicking clock, and extend briefly into the apparent future at those positions.

If things in our observation can be laid out in time in a similar way to how they are laid out in space then time exists like space exists.

Before going any further we need a word for a time extended content in our Experience. We need a term that applies to a sound that extends in time, to a bar of a tune or the time extended motion of an arm etc. We shall call these time extended forms "splashes". When I have a sound in my Experience it is like a splash of events stretching into the future. The splashes are sequences across what we call time at the position in Experience of the violin, guitar, mouth, arm etc. that makes the sound or other sensation.

How exactly are sounds ordered in our Experience? To maintain their immediate ordering the notes played on a violin would need to stretch into the future - have you ever heard a violin played backwards? Hearing sounds laid out into the future leaves the listening point well in the past of the latest sound (perhaps half a second or more).

Qualia at the Observation Point

Imagine a word such as "got". We hear the whole word starting at the g and ending at the t. Although the word passes with time we never hear the word as "got" then "ot" then "t". We hear the whole word across time then it is gone. The listening point never gets to the t and the word never becomes "tog" such as it might if we heard it backwards in time. It is also as if we seem to jump from one word or bar of music to the next.

The sudden replacement of one sound quale by another is most obvious when we hear speech. Each word splashes into Experience and is replaced by the next.

Our Experience is loaded in "packets" or "buckets".  Visual flashes have very short packets and a short extension in time. We cannot have a faster rate of seeing flashes than we can create packets and this is the origin of "flicker fusion - where rapidly repeating flashes of light appear to become continuous.  Each packet forms a splash.

Auditory perception has a similar phenomenon to visual perception in which separate clicks fuse into tones if they are presented sufficiently rapidly.  This auditory fusion suggests that, like visual data, sounds occur in short packets.  In the case of sound the packets are joined to form a much longer splash.  Vision does not seem to link the packets into longer units.  As an example a red light completely replaces an extinguished green light at a given place and the moment of transition is very short as one visual packet is superseded by the next.

This difference in time between the auditory and visual observation points would mean that time extended visual events at the end of an auditory splash would not enter Experience until the word is almost over.  A misalignment of audio and video signals by more than an eighth of a second is noticeable.  The simplest explanation for how the observation point is "now" for both vision and sound is that the "now" is always moving into the future in time for both vision and sound. The appropriate visual packet will then be contemporary with the listening point as it moves in time.  However, this would leave words being arranged backwards in time relative to the listening point; how a forward arrangement in time might be preserved is considered below.

Advancing time

A word has earlier and later parts within it but we do not move in time along the word. There is no cursor that represents the present flowing through each splashed word or splashed note.

The splashes keep coming and clocks advance in each splash so the observation point advances in time. If it were not for clocks advancing we might feel as if we were in an eternal present moment with splashes providing a half second of time into the future for our appreciation.

The progression from one splash to the next is like a jump at the observation point that is triggered at the end of each splash.

How can a succession of notes be at a point in time and space? It was suggested above that arrangements extended in space could be brought together at a point by adding a fourth dimension. It seems profligate to add a fifth dimension to deal with arrangements extended in time, however, something is bringing the notes together so that they are now, at the present moment of the observation point, as well as time extended. Introducing another direction for arranging events could, according to the reasoning given earlier, accomplish this feat of a sound quale being at two places at once. 

However, this is just a putative hypothesis. There could be other ways in which events ordered in time could be explained.  The reason for mentioning dimensionality is to emphasise that physical explanations for Experience are conceivable.

To recap. We hear sounds out there, in our Experience (in our brains). The sounds extend in time. When our observation point is at the start of the splash the whole splash is present and it continues to be present until the observation point passes the time of the end of the splash.


The whole word "hello" is still present at the listening point when we hear the "o" sound.  Even as the splash of the word "hello" becomes historical by a half second or so we can still have it in Experience as a whole sound that extends from the past to the future. If the notes were solely arranged along the time axis the word would become inverted as "olleh".  It is as if the phonemes of a word or the notes in a bar become arranged in a way that takes them off the normal time axis. If there were another direction available for arranging events this would be possible.

Thus there are two reasons for introducing yet another direction for arranging events. The first is to provide the freedom necessary to create a listening point (a way of connecting the events at a point ) and the second is to allow the events to always extend into the future no matter where the listening point is positioned in time.

The diagram above gives the impression that the observation/listening point is separate from the quale. However the quale is both at the observation point and at the position of the quale out there in Experience (as was described earlier in the section on Qualities. Nothing flows into the observation point).

The splashes clearly extend in time at a single place in Experience so any new direction for arranging events cannot be space-like. The new direction would be time-like in the sense that it is not spatial and contains events arranged in time.

The prominent sound events in Experience extend for about half a second of time. Every patch in our Experience has its own time and time extension. The observation point brings together all of the patches in Experience. The observation point IS those patches connected at a point.

Sequences of gentle sounds that are at different positions are very difficult or even impossible to compare. A gentle note on a flute at one place may occur in Experience slightly later or earlier than an objectively simultaneous note on a guitar elsewhere in the room. Drum beats and loud sounds provide a reference point from which other musical sounds gain their location in time.

In the case of sound there is almost always a dominant splash of sound in our Experience and the other splashes of sound elsewhere in the space of our Experience tend to start their time extension at the start of the time extension of this dominant sound. It is the genius of music to have formalised this feature of Experience into the structure of notes in a bar. If there is no dominant sound our attention moves from place to place, alighting on the sounds at different places and failing to synchronise them perfectly.

The time extension of sound has a similar extent to the time extension of bodily motion (each splash is about 0.5-1 sec long). When we dance our time extended bodily position synchronises with the time extension of the music which makes swaying or foot tapping in time to music entirely natural.  Compared with sounds the time extension of our visual image is extremely short (perhaps a tenth of a second or less) so vision does not blend well with sound and bodily motion.

The observation point seems as if it is at the centre of a hollow sphere of events, the events being on the inside surface with no events between the observation point and that surface. This allows the click of a clock to extend the same amount of time whether it is apparently distant or near to us. Were a distant clock really distant in Experience, rather than scaled to emulate distance,  the clock would appear to go faster if it were further away because the time between clicks would subtend a smaller angle at the listening point.  The distance of a sound from our bodies is marked by cues such as its intensity in Experience and the duration of the sound by its angular extent in time at the observation point.

Try looking at a patch of colour. The patch is a quale, a connection to the various relations of the colour, from the effect light has on the retina to how that relates to surrounding colours etc. The extension in time means that each quale can also relate to whole words and actions. This is the knowing of the colour: knowing is in the quale itself. Knowing is inside Experience, it does not involve anything cycling into the viewing point. We "know" as we have our Experience.

The Relationship between time in Experience and clock time

The present moment in our Experience is always slightly behind the present moment on clocks outside Experience because it takes time for the electrical signals from our eyes and ears to be combined into visual and auditory images.  What we view is slightly in the past because it is delayed in getting from its source to us.  However, it was noticed above that we can be a half second or more behind events at our senses.  This seems like a long time for a simple delay.  There is another possibility, what we are experiencing, especially in the case of sound and movement, could actually be events from our immediate future.  Our observation point could be half a second or more in the past relative to events that are occurring outside our Experience.  Our Experience could be truly in the past.

Although our Experience is definitely delayed is there any evidence that it is truly in the past compared with external clocks and not just delayed?

We can observe how our Experience is in the past by looking at the psi illusion. If two lights are near each other and flashed in succession it appears as if there is one light that is moving back and forth. If the lights are two different colours the single, illusory light, appears to have a wash of changing colour at near the midpoint of the flashing lights.

Colour change happens while the bar is in apparent motion  (Vertically cover parts of the moving image above to see that nothing is actually moving. The movement that we are seeing is purely in Experience).

This shows that the final colour was available to the brain before the transition in colour was seen at the midpoint. The colour change is "interpolated" - positioned between two known points in both space and time. The phi illusion occurs even when the interval between flashes is half a second so it is evidence that Experience is delayed by at least a quarter of a second relative to events in the world. This is evidence for a delay that is longer than might be expected from simple transmission delays in the brain.  The delay is also of a different type from a simple transmission delay because it hosts events laid out it time and we know that all of the data has been received, even that which is a quarter second or more in our future (though not in the future of the world around us).

In the first article of this series we considered the filling in of missing sounds in the sound clip of phonemic restoration below.

Sound clip 

The clip deserves closer consideration. Firstly notice that the s sound in legiSlatures is accurately interpolated into the word. This accurate interpolation suggests the following sequence of events occurred: most of the word without the s was received, the s was inserted and then the word was submitted to Experience.

Secondly notice how the cough cannot be accurately positioned in time against the word legislatures.

The interpolation of the "s" sound needs most of the word to be received, this means that the sound waves that are the source of the word "legislatures" have ended when we start to hear the word so the word in our Experience is at least half a second late compared with the sound waves that correlate with it.

Having replaced the cough in the clip with an "s" the brain must deal with where to put the cough. I hear the cough at roughly the position in time of the "gisla" part of legislatures but cannot pin down its temporal position more precisely. The cough sounds like it is at a slightly different position in space from the word, perhaps due to a second person, even though we know it replaces the "s" in the sound wave data. There is an uncertainty in placing the cough relative to the word "legislatures" of about half a second; as we would expect if sounds happen in splashes that are half a second to one second long.

We hear the parts of the word "legislatures" extended in time.  The "isla" part of legislatures is a single splash lasting about half a second.

If the "s" is part of a splash that extends through time and occurs half a second from the end of that splash then it is not just delayed but genuinely a half second or so earlier than the end of the splash, the "a", in our Experience.


he three Times
Our Experience is at least half a second behind the time in the world around us. If a clock ticks twice a second then the moment we hear the clock tick the actual clock is already starting the next tick. What we might believe to be the present moment is delayed relative to the actual clock. However, we hear the whole tick of the clock extended in time, out there at the position of the clock in our Experience (in our brain), so more than a simple delay is occurring. Our listening point is truly behind the time of the rest of our body.

It seems there are three present moments. There is the material present moment as measured by clocks in the world, the present moment of the start of a clock tick in our Experience and the present moment of our observation point.

If objects extended in time exist in our Experience then this would also apply to the brain. What being in the past by, say, half a second means is that some of our Experience resides in the past part of our brain. There are not just delays on the route from sensation to Experience, our Experience is also at an earlier time than our surroundings. Such a time difference between the "now" of our observation and the "now" of the world outside our bodies is inevitable if time exists and experience is extended in time.

How can I be half a second behind the times?

Given that our Experience contains events that are at least half a second behind the actual present moment how can we affect events? Suppose we are playing football, if we aim a kick at the ball half a second late it means missing the ball. We manage to play sports etc. because when we acquire skills we transfer the control of the skill to automatic parts of the brain that have shorter delays. This makes our Experience an observer of our body's skilled actions rather than the performer.

Experience is the end point of the processes that create it.  Experience exists and it is in flux. Why is this done? Why is there an observation that is an end point that is at least half a second late relative to the world outside our bodies?

Why brain processes bring together data to make the observation that is our Experience seems to be a mystery. Even if the data in Experience were to lead to an output as an action or a further thought there seems to be no reason why the data should become Experience, after all, we can play football as a skilled activity without using the data currently in Experience to control our actions. It is likely that the creation of Experience itself is the principle objective of the body's actions and the brain's activity rather than controlling a ball on a football field.

half second now

The splashes of sound in our Experience arrive as fully formed patterns in time. This is possible because the "now" of our observation point can be half a second behind the  inputs to our senses.

A splash of sound is a description of how a whole word or bar of a tune is in our Experience. It has a beginning and an end at two different times at the place in Experience where it is located but the whole entity is present at the listening point.

What evidence do we have of the splash of sound, of the sudden appearance of a sound in our Experience? The evidence is all around. As an example, words appear as complete entities. Take a word such as "tad", we do not have a "t" with the expectation of some other letter sound, then an "a" all by itself, then a "d". We have the whole world "tad" splashed into Experience. "tad" extends in time but is splashed into that extension all at once at the listening point. We also have time extended motions, smells etc. that occur as splashes.

Sound and bodily motion have splashes in Experience that last for about half a second to a second. This suggests that the part of my brain that hosts that Experience is extended in time for half a second.  Our observation point hosts the connections from one time to another so that we observe into time.

How is a sound in Experience created? It could be laid out part by part over half a second and then connected to the present of the listening point or all at once as a four dimensional structure that extends from the listening point to the place and time of the sound in Experience. Either of these would seem the same in our observation.

The contents of Experience are laid out around the observation point. Just look around you. It is the angular separation of the contents at a point that creates the space of Experience and means the contents are simultaneously present at the observation point and also spread out in space and time out there in Experience.

Are events fixed in time?

If the material present is in the future why can't we change the future by changing our minds? It might seem like a paradox but the future events that are in our Experience have already happened because our observation point is at least half a second behind the events at our sense organs. However, events that are generated by the brain without external input may not be so heavily constrained, as will be discussed later.

oving in time

What do we mean when we say we are moving through time? As McTaggart discovered, you cannot both be moving through time and also be "in" time. To move through time whatever moves cannot be part of the fixed events that lie along the time axis.

The feeling of moving in time is due to a continuous comparison of one splash with the next and the total replacement of splashes in an asynchronous fashion so that they overlap each other.

Our intuition of viewing from a point may answer the problem of how we can have moving in time in our Experience. Our observation point can simultaneously host a succession of times because the succession of times make angles at the observation point. However, although this permits a brief period of time to be in our experience there is no reason for the observation point to move. The observation point might connect to events spread over a half second of time but could be eternally fixed.

Are events unfolding or is our observation point moving in time? These alternatives, that events are unfolding or our observation point is moving, are describing the same thing. There is another possibility, given that events in our Experience are extended in time, we could be stuck in a bubble of events a second or so long.

The idea that we are not moving in time is feasible because we only have a half second or so of obvious events in Experience. What we regard as "now" is actually a little bubble of events that extend for a half second or so.  We were each a similar bubble five years ago.  If time exists then there is a "me" five years ago who also exists and has not moved in time.

That there are multiple "me"s, each with a bubble of around a second of time as their Experience who stretch back to my birth is possible but disturbing.

Sleep and unconsciousness

How do we know we are the same person when we awake as when we fell asleep?  If we get a bang on the head and become unconscious for a few seconds or minutes what happens to us when there is nothing? Sleep and unconsciousness add weight to the idea that we exist in bubbles.  Our memories connect the bubbles.  The only content of my Experience that might be a window on to the past is my memories but these could be recreated specially for review rather than providing any direct link back in time.

But could we possibly move in time?

Despite the possibility that we are eternally fixed in bubbles at a  particular moment our deep intuition is that we are truly moving into the future. If we are to have any effect on the future something would need to actually move in time.

This intuition of moving into the future comes from our direct observation. Many splashes can occur in our visual experience whilst one splash is happening in our auditory or bodily experience. This gives us the feeling that time is moving forward. The overlapping of many splashes from all over Experience provides an immediate sense of progress in time.  Each splash trawls out connections to other splashes and memory so gives a unified feel of progression at any moment.

For us to truly move in time however there would need to be a phenomenon that is not fixed in time and space that affects our observation point.  Without this our observation point would indeed be permanently fixed at the centre of its own bubble containing 0.5 seconds or so of events such as sounds and bodily motions.  A movement in time might be possible if there are little instantaneous jumps into the future at every point where splashes join the overall observation point. The jumps would need to happen at the point where each splash meets the observation point because the observation point is simply the sum of these qualia, the sum of the individual points connected to splashes.  These little jumps could provide a motion into the future if it were more likely that a jump would end in the immediate future rather than the immediate past.  Such an enhanced probability of a jump landing in the immediate future might happen if there are multiple future paths but only one past path and an equal likelihood of jumping to any path.

Being outside of space and time these jumps might be capable of connecting to new paths into the future that were not part of the previously fixed events laid out in time.  If such little jumps exist they would also be happening in, and change, the past.

To recap, one of our deepest intuitions about the world is that we are moving into the future.  Arrangements of events in time and space cannot move in time so something outside of time is required to account for our intuition.  A small imprecision in the location of the parts that form our observation point could lead to a movement in time as the sum of numerous small jumps. A sum of small jumps is the best fit for the apparent continuity of our smooth motion into the future.   Without this postulated motion in time every moment of observation would be fixed in its own eternal bubble.

What is this self that moves in time?  It is the historical Experience that stretches back to our birth being extended.  Perhaps we expand in time rather than move in it.

One possible way in which we might know we are moving in time is if there is a quality that is extended in time for much longer than the other qualities. A sense of "time lived" that extends for hours, days or even a lifetime and grows more time extended as time goes by.

he timing of time

Why doesn't our Experience happen very slowly or be completed in a flash? The space of our Experience provides a clue to this timing of time because it is arranged as a sphere of events around a point. Events in Experience occupy angles that are projected from the observation point and the angular displacement cannot exceed 360 degrees. We can observe the relative spatial extent of objects by the proportion of the sphere around us that they occupy. In the same way as space is arranged around a viewing point time is arranged around the listening/observation point.

This arrangement of events around an observation point also seems to apply to events of a long duration.  When we are forty years old time passes much faster than when we were ten. When we are eighty time goes twice as fast as when we were forty. This sense of time illustrates how we have a lifetime and pack ever more events into it. When we are ten another year is a tenth of a lifetime long but when we are forty it is a fortieth of a lifetime so a year seems four times faster when we are forty than when we are ten. A lifetime is the curve of time extension around our observation point that corresponds to the quality that seems to be time extended as long as our total Experience.

How this might be done is obscure, perhaps we maintain models of our lifetime and compare these with models of the duration of recent events or perhaps we do indeed have access to a crude display of our entire lifetime.


Next section: Other contents of Experience.

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