Phenomenal Presentism

Note: I talk about phenomenal presentism in my 2021, Philosophy of Time: A Contemporary Introduction, as well as in various talks over the years.

By phenomenal presentism[1], I mean this:

The position that, whatever we might say about the reality of time or things and events in time,

(a) our experience is really only strictly present.

(b) by ‘strictly present’ is meant a single moment of time.

This is the first time I’ve used this ‘out in the open’ as it were, although I came up with it years ago when talking to Robin (Le Poidevin, my PhD supervisor). Here are some comments on it.

  • No matter (i) what our experience is about — no matter what it represents or intends, or however you might like to put it, e.g., how it seems or appears, and (ii) how the rest of the world exists in time, or what rules govern anything other than experience, experience itself is strictly present.
  • Anything that we might say about experience as not being strictly present is relegated to something not real about it or not intrinsic to it. For various philosophers and theorists, this might include:

(i) Mere represented or intended content of experience; it is not something real with respect to experience because it is not real in the broadest most general sense. Compare, for example:

(a) hallucinating, I experience a flame-breathing bear.

(b) Presentism is true and I experience a duration.

What I experience in ‘a’ and ‘b’ are contents of the experiences but not properties of the experience itself. Although the experiences are real, and their properties are real, the contents (flame-breathing bears and durations) are not real.

(ii) Relationships which are not found in the experience itself; e.g., they do not constitute the experience. They might be real but they hold between an experience and other things, such as causes or effects of it.

For example, (given a certain model of perceptual experience) a flash of light causes my visual experience of a flash of light. The flash of light is real, perhaps (whenever it happens) but it is not part of the experience. Instead, the experience is an effect of the flash of light. Similarly, a temporal relationship between the experience and the flash of light is not something that is part or constitutive or intrinsic to the experience.

  • Regarding memory: it may seem to you that you have some kind of experience of the past in memory experiences. For example, it seems to you that you somehow experience (in memory) when you were young and slipped on some seaweed. But – so goes phenomenal presentism – you can’t experience the past because: the past is not present, and anything you experience — however it seems — must be present.

You might hold this view if you are a phenomenal presentist and prefer naive realism (SEP) for experience. In that case, experience is only in the present; experience is partially constituted by what is experienced. So, what is experienced is present (because: if x is present, then its parts and constituents are present — I take this to be obvious).

  • I also think:
    1. Holding phenomenal presentism to be true, explicitly or (as I think in most cases) implicitly, is central to many theorists’ problems with perception, consciousness and experience in time, e.g., with respect to the specious present, time-consciousness, perception under time-lag, the relationship between phenomenology and the physical world.
    2. As a variant of presentism, however intuitive or ‘obvious’ (to some) that it might be, it is a false or implausible position given contemporary physics. I’ve argued that in my papers — in all of them pretty much, e.g., in my 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 (and in my 2018 and, in a way, my 2021) – although not in terms of ‘phenomenal presentism’.

Given ‘1’ and ‘2’, it is perhaps obvious that a common problem I encounter regarding discussions with other theorists about perception, consciousness and experience is this: I am suspicious that I make different assumptions to them about what is true of perception, consciousness and experience.

I think I make different assumptions because, when discussing issues about consciousness and perception, I always have this question in the back of my mind: what happens to this issue at hand when it is not assumed that experience is strictly present? (This isn’t a question I see considered explicitly).

This isn’t a question I see considered explicitly despite the following:

How one answers it looks to have as much significance as one’s position on how experience occurs in space. It is as significant as holding one of the following views about experience:

i. Experience has no spatial location: as non-physicalists or eliminativists might think.

ii. Experience is at a single spatial location: as Descartes (according to Rowlands 2010) might think.

iii. Experience is spread out in space — as I think, and I think physicalists should too.

I won’t go into the details about why these views might be significant.

In summary: some assume phenomenal presentism; I do not. As a result, I think that when I discuss problems about perception, consciousness etc. I do not solve them the same way. In some cases, I have problems others don’t (e.g., simultaneity, although I don’t think it’s much of a problem). In other cases, their problems don’t even come up (e.g., the specious present).

And I’m beginning to suspect that this discrepancy flows into all of my thinking about consciousness in time. I think this makes me better at solving problems around consciousness and time than those who don’t think like this. But it is a pain when I go to conferences or have to look at their work.


1. I use ‘phenomenal’ here as being in one sense equivalent to ‘experiential’: it is used to refer to the real properties, structure and constitution of experience. It is not equivalent to appearances, where such a term includes ‘mere appearances’, because ‘mere appearances’ are not real. It is more like my use of ‘phenomenal’ in my 2010 (and in this site earlier on) when I talk about ‘phenomenal parts‘). Or what I call here ‘obviousness‘. Except that it need not refer to something apparent.

That is not to say appearances aren’t related to experiences; you cannot have experiences and the phenomenal without appearances, but the appearances are not sufficient for experience/phenomenal/obviousness (check the ‘obviousness’ post for more). You could also call the view here ‘experiential presentism’. Adapting it to perception someone might call it ‘perceptual presentism’ (and so on).


2 thoughts on “Phenomenal Presentism

  1. Brian Crabb

    This is very interesting stuff.

    Regardless of the pros and cons of temporal direct realism, I would still argue that our experience, or episodes of consciousness, really are constrained to within a narrow margin of real time. Obviously, before we were born, or after we die, we don’t experience (unless in another realm). Almost as obviously, I would say, I have experiences within minutes, or seconds, or milliseconds, even, of when I believe I am having them. When I go to the shops, I have my experience of going to the shops while it is going on. The margin of indeterminacy between when I seem to have an experience and when I actually have it, as defined objectively, is pretty narrow.

    Contrast this with the situation regarding where I am having my experience, and what is going on around me at the time. All of that is much less determinate, as for example if I am a brain in a vat. But even as a brain in a vat I experience more or less when I believe I do, and objectively while I am a brain in a vat. I might believe I am back in the middle-ages, but I believe that while I am thinking I believe it, and when I am in the vat.

    This seems quite a powerful observation to me. It implies that McTaggart’s B-series is incomplete. We also need something to tell us what the time is, an A-series, so that in addition to knowing that Smith lived in the 20th century, and that he had his experiences then, we also know whether he is having any. A crucial difference between Smith’s experiences and my own is that only I am having any. Otherwise, it would make no difference to me whether I were alive or dead. Being alive amounts to something more than being alive in 2014, or 1964.

    1. timeandillusion2012 Post author

      Hi Brian,

      Thank you very much for your interest and the thoughtful comment (and my apologies for this very late reply — but I’ve not been on this site in a while).

      “our experience, or episodes of consciousness, really are constrained to within a narrow margin of real time.” Interpreting this in one particular way, I am in complete agreement. This particular way is that experience is constrained to a narrow margin of real time, implying that real time goes beyond that margin. I think any eternalist about time and experience, A-theorist or B-theorist, should and can also agree with this. The only exception I can think of are, in fact, presentists: for, to presentists, real time, if anything, is that margin; except that, if we follow a common presentist interpretation of Augustine, for a presentist, that margin is not time either. This is no more constraint to a narrow part of real time than, for an actualist, our experience is constrained to a narrow set of real possible worlds. There are no real times which are not the present, just as there are no real possible worlds which are not the actual world.

      Further, in this interpretation, ‘narrow margin’ means some region of time which is quite small. I also agree with this: in any cases I care to discuss here, our experience is, or certainly seems to be, within and of only a tiny part of time. Also, this part is the present. However, I also am not sure what is required to disagree with it. First, ‘narrow’ as it stands seems a relative magnitude: as a country path is narrow to a motorway and wide to a twig, so a year is narrow to a millenium but wide to a picosecond. Second, for a B-theorist, the ‘present’ (and past, or future) gets defined by a B-time or some event. The period in which experience occurs will be within a narrow period relative to some duration — to eternity at least — and will be present to itself.
      The only exception I can think of to disagreeing with this interpretation of what you say here is the kind of mystical experience which James described happening to him — an experience of all of time (discussed by Bricklin in this issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies). But I take it that is an exceptional experience.

      That is one interpretation but my guess is that you don’t mean this. You don’t mean just that one’s experience occupies a proper part of eternity or that experience is present whenever it happens. I take it that you want to assert something stronger: that,

      (a) For experience, there is a special time which is A present (for B-theory) or THE present (for A-theory) which is a special time not derived merely in relation by the experience simply happening in the B-series. This is the case independent of one’s commitments otherwise to, e.g., A-theory/B-theory/eternalism/presentism (because it motivates one toward A-theory and away from B-theory).

      (b) Further, I’m guessing, it constrains when the experience happens. It is not THE present of experience because it is simply the time when the experience happens, leaving ‘the time’ to be defined by one’s theory of time (e.g., B-theory/A-theory/eternalism/presentism). An experience must happen in this present. Whatever we say about what happens in the past or future, no experience happens in the past or future.
      [Or, at least, no experience happens WHOLLY in the past or the future; it might slightly extend into those tenses, to some miniscule amount, as suggested by certain analyses of the specious present. There are not how I think of the specious present, by the way; I have argued for a B-theory analysis of the specious present). The complications in an A-theory account is one reason why I am against phenomenal presentism.]

      I take it this is why you say later, talking about Smith in the 20th century, that:
      “A crucial difference between Smith’s experiences [in the 20th century] and my own[in 2014] is that only I am having any.”
      Here is how I unpack your thinking here about why this needs A-theory and perhaps presentism for experience.
      — Smith is not having any experiences because Smith is only in the 20th century, which is past. If Smith had experiences, they would be wholly past experiences. There are no wholly past (or future) experiences.
      — Given A-theory, it looks defensible for the past/the future/the present to be conditions on when experiences can happen. It looks especially defensible if experiences must be real to happen (which I agree with entirely) and presentism is true. Then of course wholly past/future experiences can’t happen; only real experiences can happen, and real experiences are not wholly past or future.
      — Given B-theory and eternalism, however, I’m not so sure how defensible this is. Like ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ are defined relative to times otherwise defined (by the B-series). How can such derivative terms constrain when an experience happens or does not.

      “Otherwise, it would make no difference to me whether I were alive or dead. Being alive amounts to something more than being alive in 2014, or 1964.”
      Why can’t the difference between when you are alive and when you are dead be this: you are not able to have experiences at the times when you are dead and can when you are alive. When you are alive/dead is defined by the B-series. If not alive in the 21st century, Smith can’t have experiences in the 21st century; you and I can. That seems to be just being alive in 2014 vs. being dead in 2014 (but alive in 1964). What is missing that it can’t just amount to that — at least, for one who is otherwise a B-theorist/eternalist or neutral to the metaphysical debate?

      Thanks again for your comments. I’d be very interested in any thoughts you might have on my response.


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