Tag Archives: presentism

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 or 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. I hallucinate a flame-breathing bear; I experience a duration. These are contents of the experiences but not properties of the experience itself, and also 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. So, 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 that experience and the flash of light is not something which is part or constitutive or intrinsic to the experience.

  • Another example: it seems to you that you have some kind of experience of the past in memory experiences. E.g., it seems to you that you somehow experience in memory a day you when you were young that you slipped on some seaweed. But 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, for example, 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).

  1. I think 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 etc.
  2. I also think, as a variant of presentism, that, 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, 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. Which is a pain when I go to conferences.


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: with the (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).

Seeing things at more than one time

Take a look at the video below (the noise might be quite loud; it is from the spinning):

**And here is the video of it provided by Daniel Palacios (the artist) himself (I prefer my own for THIS post because it shows only on what I’m discussing here): http://vimeo.com/12075151 **.

This is one of the exhibits at the Science Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin in March 2013. This is a single elastic rope being spun rapidly by two motors attached to each of its ends. There’s more to it than that — the motors are set off and altered by movement around it — but what is most important is this:

(a) If you are seeing this device, then you are seeing a single rope spinning rapidly through a region of space.

(b) What you seem to be seeing is something occupying the surface of a three-dimensional volume within that region. This surface includes more than one point in space, e.g., in the following picture, it includes the area encompassed by the circles ‘A’ and ‘B’.


This volume that you seem to see is constantly changing. If you’re seeing the rope, then it is because of the motion of this rope. However, at any one time, the rope is not itself stretching out over that surface it seems to fill. The rope is just a relatively thin (yet elastic) rope which spins quickly about a horizontal axis. And because of that spinning then, at one time, it is at ‘A’ and, at another time, it is at ‘B’.

What you see in this video is — obviously — not just what you are seeing when you look at this for real. But when you go and look at the spinning rope — not through YouTube, but just standing in front of it and seeing it — you see in all important respects the same thing as in this video: the apparent filling of the circumference of a volume by something in motion, something which turns out to be the rope. Go and see — visit the science gallery [1].

The Time of What you See

If you see this rope moving like this, and you do see it as being in two places  (e.g., ‘A’ and ‘B’) — then

1. You seem to see the rope occupying different locations in space.

What is moving — in reality, a single rope — seems to be occupying two places at the same time, i.e., it seems to occupy two points in space simultaneously.

However, the rope cannot be occupying these two places, or any like them, simultaneously[2]. Instead, this filling of the volume is only from the movement of the rope. The rope is moving from one of these points to the other of these points, but it is never at each at one time. The rope is occupying this surface over or through a multiple of times. And you see it doing that — you see it filling this surface over a multiple of times.

This means that this appearance of simultaneous occupancy of these spaces is not of real simultaneity. That in itself doesn’t bother me — and I don’t think it should bother anyone else: ‘apparent simultaneity’ in my view is not an ‘appearance’ at all but the non-appearance of actual duration (read more on this in my 2010a ‘Complex Experience, Relativity and Abandoning Simultaneity’, or even my PhD thesis, where I go into more finicky detail).

It also means something else.