Time as a Construct of Consciousness

Arthur SchopenhauerI’ve kind of given up on calling myself an atheist. This is mostly just because atheists seem to hate it so much. Normally, I’d do it just for the fun of angering them. But I really do qualify. I don’t believe in “God” as some being or thing or process that has any interest in me at all. In fact, I don’t believe in any ideas about cosmic consciousness that might have any interest in anything at all. And I certainly don’t believe that there is anything like life after death. Still, I am a mystic.

Recently, I’ve been thinking that time doesn’t exist. It seems to me that time is nothing more than a construct of consciousness—a way that we perceive reality, which itself is eternal. What we see as past, present, and future are just a thing. It’s like existence is a video and we are only able to see one image at a time. We mistake the image we are currently looking at for “now.” But it isn’t “now.” Every image on the tape is “now.” It exists now and forever. The problem is not the video tape, which is just a bunch of information. The problem is the very limited ways that we have figured out how to experience that information.

The analogy goes further. Video isn’t continuous. In general, it consists of 30 (29.997) frames—individual images—per second. Because of the ways that our brains work, it seems continuous. This is called the “phi phenomenon.” But what we’re interested in is how we don’t notice the nothing between the images. This is called “persistence of vision.” If you look at something and it disappears, your brain will think it is still there for a fraction of a second. So even though the video tape is just a series of static images, it is a representation of something that is more or less continuous. For example: tape me as I walk across the room. Then watch the tape. It looks the same. But it is not. It’s just a trick! In film it is even clearer, because you can see the mechanism: light projects an image, light turns off, next image is moved in place, light is turned on and projects the new image. You just didn’t notice the dark moment when the light turned off.

Thus, I don’t think what we see as reality is continuous. I think we see little snapshots of reality. But unlike persistence of vision, which allows us to disregard the absence of an image for about a 25th of a second, our persistence of reality would be very very small. I figure something like the Planck time:

Planck Time    =    5.4×10-44 s

This would explain to me the great “Why?!” of quantum mechanics: why can we only look so far into reality before it stops being concrete? Why is it we must use statistical tools the way other scientists do when they can’t deal with actual individuals. And I say it is because our perception of reality has those dark spots where the light turns off. But because of our “persistence of reality” we think it is continuous.

You might wonder: does this matter other than to theoretical physicists and other crazy people? On a day to day basis, it doesn’t. For example, I’m about to go and make some baked potatoes, because they are delicious. I’m going to finish writing this article because I enjoy it. I will go on living my life just the same. But it bugs me. Because I am part of reality. And I wonder what happens to me between one bit of reality and the next. And it makes me think that my consciousness is just a trick. And that brings me back to the same place I always end up back at: Schopenhauer.

This is why I no longer fear dying. My existence strikes me as a great big cosmic joke. I like life and baked potatoes and all that. But it’s all so curious. I think Hamlet was wrong when he said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I think there are actually fewer things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. If our dreams exist at all.


The ultimate question is whether I believe any of this. A little. What I actually think is a lot more complex and I’m still working on it, as you can probably tell. It’s hard to find the language to talk about this stuff.

3 thoughts on “Time as a Construct of Consciousness

  1. It’s a good thing I’m not seeking direction in life from articles like this, (meaning, direction in the form of the definitive answers that religious people like to toss up. Instead, this does get one thinking about some of the stranger, more relevant, mysteries of life. Do we even exist? The example of the video is an old stand-by, but effective in illustrating how events are more precisely seen as static slices-of-events in space. I would explore this further here, but I just don’t have the time.

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