Commentaries for ‘Physical Time Within Human Time’

In: Timing & Time Perception
Ronald P. Gruber Stanford University Medical Center, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA

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Richard A. Block Department of Psychology, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT 59717, USA

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Carlos Montemayor Department of Philosophy, San Francisco State University, San Fransisco, CA 94132, USA

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In memoriam: James Hartle, 1939–2023

1. Introduction

Since the ancient Greek philosophers time has been a source of mystery and fascination for civilization. The first discussions began with the pre-Socratic philosophers about time’s reality and its relation to change. Heraclitus analyzed change as a basic and irreducible component of nature. From his view, there is nothing permanent except change. Taking a contrary position Parmenides was famous for denying change. In that spirit the debate on time should continue despite our zeal to end it. If nothing else, the combined views of time force all of us to better understand the universe in which we live. Today there are a number of controversial issues in addition to the ones from the Ancients that have yet to be resolved. The two target papers of this special issue set the stage for that debate and the commentaries provide a wide variety of explanations.

1.1. Buonomano and Rovelli (2021) Summary

In their target paper, Bridging the Neuroscience and Physics of Time, Rovelli begins by stating why he is led to reject the idea that the commonsense view of time could remain valid outside a limited domain. Therefore, to say that there is no flow of time, no change, no dynamicity and that the four-dimensional universe is static is a misunderstanding of physics. His solution to the debate is to invoke a multilayered concept of time. What is valid about time in one layer need not apply to the time within another level. “The intuitive understanding of time cannot be extrapolated beyond the regime where it works.” As a neuroscientist Buonomano favours the notion of what might be called local presentism. But more importantly there is no empirical evidence for the Block Universe in his view. For Rovelli, the Block Universe is a misleading metaphor because it suggests a static reality. “Reality is change.” Their differences centre on the question why do we have a sense of a time flowing from a fixed past to an open future. For Rovelli this sense of oriented ‘flowing’ is due to memories and anticipations and is permitted by the physics of the specific regime in which we live, “characterized by a marked entropy gradient”. Thus, at the end of their thesis we can see how the need to reify at least some aspect of human time is reified. It is done so by an attribution to the veridicality of entropy.

1.2. Gruber, Block and Montemayor (2022) Summary

In our target paper, Physical Time within Human Time, we take a pragmatic approach that begins with the assumption that although physics may not have the best answers yet, it is fundamental to the other sciences and potentially provides the best explanations by making the best predictions. Since the brain is ultimately a physical entity it is expected to reflect the essential temporal parameters of its external environment. That some temporal parameters do not do so should not be disconcerting since the brain is replete with evoking illusion for better adaptation. First it was necessary to establish that ‘passage’ (the future/present/past) experiential phenomenon need not be a reconciliation issue because Hartle’s Information-Gathering and Utilizing System (IGUS) resolved that issue for a large percentage of scholars. But it did not address the flow of time (FOT) and therefore the notion of ‘gadgets’ for a variety of temporal parameters was added as first conceived of by Ismael (2015) and Callender (2017). Our analysis of the parameters such as motion, change, and temporality revealed that every ‘illusory’ (not explained well by physics) temporal parameter had a veridical counterpart if sought for. For example, the brain possesses an illusory ‘dynamic change’ (illusory because physics has no accounting for dynamism) and a corresponding veridical ‘completed change’ (an adynamic experience of change). In a sense, the brain has a Dualistic Mind. Then there would be no need to reify experiences outside of physics and at the same time the brain would be a reasonable reflection of the outside world. In other words, there is just one fundamental physical time which the brain reflects and is itself sufficient for adaptation but then enhances to provide a more satisfying experience of physical time, and better adaptive behaviour.

Surprisingly, the first issue raised by these two target papers is whether or not there is a ‘two-times problem’. There is certainly a problem if scholars cannot agree as to what is reality and secondarily what physical theories can contribute to the understanding of that reality. For example, what is our current understanding of the arrow of time and entropy with respect to human time? In turn those explanations beg for an explanation for the phenomenon of ‘illusion’. Is it any phenomenon that is contracted by physics? Is physics the sole determiner? Is it possible to label something as illusory without resorting to physics? That discussion leads us to the specifics of the ‘flow of time’ and the ‘passage of time’ (the experiential past/present/future phenomenon). Lastly, the Dualistic Mind view relies on Hartle’s (2005) IGUS for its validity which, itself, is problematic for some. All the above issues were addressed by the commentators.

2. Issues Generated by the Two-Times Problem

2.1. View of the Two-Times Problem and the ‘Gap’

The first question to be asked is: do we really have a two-times problem (TTP). Kastner (2024), in her Physical Time as Human Time, emphatically denies that there is a TTP. She understandably notices that the apparent TTP arises from an unquestioned habit of thought that “ ‘all that exists’ or that ‘the universe’ is contained within or against a spacetime background or ‘in a spacetime container’ ”. In other words, the assumption is: all physically real entities exist ‘in spacetime’. Her conclusion is that “… physical theory, appropriately interpreted and formulated, fully supports the human experience of the FOT”. Herzog (2024), in The Two Times Problem: Where Is the Problem?, is even more emphatic with strong arguments to support his view. Adopting the view from Buanomano’s target paper, he asks: “… does space–time cosmology matter for planet earth perception?” Andersen (2024) in Causation Bridges the Two Times, agrees and argues that the TTP appears to be more intractable than necessary because the two times are marked out from the positions furthest apart: neuroscience and physics. She offers causation as a kind of bridge between the two.

Another argument is provided by Hoerl (2024) in his The Mechanics of Representing Time piece. He believes it is “a mistake to deduce from the fact that aspects of experience are in some sense ‘dynamic’ that they must be at odds with the picture of time presented by modern physics”. For example, Hoerl proclaims that it is not clear why the visual perception of motion should be seen as being illusory simply because perception is ‘discrete’.

2.2. On the Reality and Validity of Physical Theories

Debate on this topic clearly hinges upon the validity and reality of physical theories that have been put forth for this controversy. On the issue of reality Rickles (2024) in his commentary Comments on the Paper by Gruber, Block, and Montemayor makes a powerful case that we cannot make an assumption that our best theories of physics and cosmology are to be trusted. His idea is that both human and physical time emerge from some deeper structure, There would appear to be no need to pit human to physical time. “[T]hey are simply different ways of representing one and the same structure …. The idea is that both human and physical time emerge from some deeper structure.” Hoffman (2024), too, provides an exceptional commentary, Spacetime Is Doomed: Time Is an Artifact, in which he insists that physics has moved on. In the last decade it has found new structures beyond spacetime and quantum theory. Amplituhedra, for instance, are geometric structures beyond spacetime and Hilbert spaces. Moreover, spacetime is a projection of a deeper reality. In that projection, an arrow of time can arise as an artefact. Markov chains are introduced and have a notion of sequence, but need neither relativistic time nor entropic time.

Aerts (2024), in The Nature of Time in Relativistic Operational Reality, makes a very powerful case as to what reality is and what exists. “‘What exists’ should not be operationally defined, being independent of any measurement; but an ‘operational reality’ must be part of reality in a more general metaphysical sense, as experiments always have the last word.” For Aerts reality should not be thought of as the content of our actual present experience, but “encompasses all our ‘possible’ experiences”. Using a different tactic, the non-veridicality of time is expressed strongly by Romero (2023) in another Special Issue on these two target papers. For him temporal properties like change and becoming are not properties of physical events, but of the consciousness of the events. “We call ‘becoming’ to the series of states of consciousness associated with a certain string of physical changes.” Furthermore, “There is no flow of time, but just an ordered system of events.”

Hancock (2024), in How Many Times — It’s Zero Time Theory, takes a critical look at the validity of current physical theories that still need time in their fundamental theory. He makes the case that there continues to be a promulgation of the delusion of an externality of physical time. For him human beings invented what we now formally believe is time itself, Specifically, in Bridging Diverse Delusions of Time, Hancock (2024) claims that Buonomano and Rovelli face a conundrum in that they begin from an assumption of time’s reality.

To glean the current ideas and philosophy of Lestienne, Anne Giersch provides an insightful interview in Whitehead Crosses the Bridge Between the Physics and Psychology of Time — Interview of Remy Lestienne by Anne Giersch (Lestienne and Giersch, 2024). With regard to reality and in order to distinguish time from the motor of the world, Whitehead called the latter the process. Process is the motor of the world. Process makes the elements of reality to pass from potentialities to actualities. It creates the tangible reality. Thus, the past remains real, although it is not concrete or actual. Adopting that view Lestienne does not consider spacetime as the pre-existing frame to all reality. With Paul Harris he provides a three-volume compendium on time in his upcoming Time and Science (Lestienne & Harris, 2023). On the issue of reality van Wassenhove (2024) in Cracking the Neural Code of How the Brain Represents Time May Make the Dualistic Stance Obsolete, makes a strong case as to why the notion that “physics describes reality and the rest is illusion is scientifically untenable and intellectually disagreeable”. For van Wassenhove “thoughts are as real as black holes.” Lastly, Sheehan (2024) introduces an issue no one else considered in his commentary Thinking Backwards about Time. He says we may be forgetting something about the many parameters of time’s reality. He argues that a missing ingredient is retrocausation — the temporal inverse of everyday causation — in which the future influences the past. He notes that it is entirely absent among the nine layers of time enumerated by Rovelli (Buonomano & Rovelli, 2021). In a sense it is the basis for what could loosely be called a temporal parameter of premonition.

2.3. On the Issue of ‘Flow’ and Illusions

The commentators express a variety of opinions as to what the flow and passage of time means to them, and why they may or may not be illusions. In Physical Time as Human Time, Kastner (2024) emphatically denies that spacetime cosmologies must be taken as incompatible with our everyday experience of change. Therefore, at least some aspects of the FOT may be understood as veridical. For her the spacetime background is the illusion. She argues that we ourselves persist in the “eternal present” of quantum systems, persistence in terms of a basic quantum-spin clock proper time. Thus, persistence is not an illusion in her view. She makes the point that one should be able to attribute physical reality to the FOT at the quantum level, and that human observers are comprised of quantum systems, such that in principle the same essential FOT applies to us. Whether or not is an illusion, Di Sia (2024) in his commentary A Commentary on “Physical Time Within Human Time” is convinced that “the human being needs to feel a persistence and that they are not just a union of impermanent events as indicated by the main cosmological theories of spacetime”.

Herzog (2024), in Bridging the Neuroscience and Physics of Time: Where Is the Problem, asks very reasonable questions. Why do we have these illusions about time at all? Why do we perceive motion if there is no motion? From his view Skokowski (2024) answers in Time, Experience and Belief, by insisting that physical time does not need to be considered as flowing. “We only believe it to be flowing.” Similarly, in The Time of Brain Science and the Time of Physics, White (2024) presents a neuroscience view to support the illusory nature of ‘flow’: “Whether there is an actual present and an actual flow of time in the universe or not, the experienced present and experienced flow of time are perceptual constructs and nothing more.” But, rather than toss the concept of flow altogether Callender and Aspirichaga (2024), in Going ‘Humean’ on the Flow of Time, suggest a better way to appreciate the ‘flow’ in the FOT. They remind us of Humean philosophy in which instead of attributing to the world a property (necessity), he posited that human beings have a tendency to paint the world a certain way due to some aspect of their experience.

An interesting twist on what flow means is provided by Hameroff (2024) in Consciousness is Quantum State Reduction Which Creates the Flow of Time. He takes the position that physicists believe the FOT is a property of consciousness produced by the brain, and neuroscientists believe the FOT is a feature of reality. In his view both are correct — consciousness and the FOT are one and the same. Lastly Dennett (2024) brings up an interesting aspect of illusions. In Doing and Knowing, he puts it clearly and succinctly. Regarding the issue of illusions he introduces the phenomenon of the ‘open future’. “Is this perspective illusory? It is not a mistake. It is an obligatory user-illusion that makes possible all the doing and making that distinguish our world today.”

2.4. On the Arrow of Time and Entropy

An understanding of human time must take into consideration where physics stands on the issue of the arrow of time, particular the entropic arrow, and how that may relate to human time. In The Muddlescape of Time, Davies (2024) clearly explains his understanding of the TTP as it pertains to the ‘arrow’. What is absurd to say, in his view, is that the arrow of asymmetry implies a movement towards the future along the timeline of events, that is, a movement or passage of time. For Davies that ‘movement’ is a human fabrication, a necessary one but a fabrication nonetheless. By contrast, Buonomano and Rovelli (2021), in their target paper Bridging the Neuroscience of Time, indicate that the entropy gradient is a necessary ingredient for the veridicality of flow. The need here for reification rings loud and clear. In an update of his long-standing view of the ‘end of time’, Barbour (2024) in Time’s Arrow and Simultaneity, examines the ‘arrow’ in greater detail than ever before. He takes it a step further by suggesting that the growth of entropy is not the origin of time’s arrow and identifies a notion of universal simultaneity within general relativity. As regards time’s arrow, he mathematically defines a quantity that reflects the evolution of our system of particles into something that looks like structure and calls it “complexity”. It differs from entropy in that its growth reflects an increase in structure rather than disorder. But, he does not shake his original belief that time is not so much fundamental as it is an emerging property and that it is the brain that evokes the flow of its asymmetry.

2.5. Views on the IGUS Model

The Dualistic Mind view is based upon the spacetime view of Hartle and his IGUS view which provides a basis to understand the passage of time from future to present to past and under what circumstances such a human experience can be justified. But different commentators share different views of the IGUS model. In The Nature of Time in Relativistic Operational Reality, Aerts (2024) is not in full agreement with the IGUS view, which he indicates takes the position that past, present and future are notions that arise from the cognitive information-processing capacities of humans, within a reality otherwise described by a spacetime continuum in which no change takes place. This, he says, is clearly different from his view, where change is considered to be intrinsically part of the very operational construction of the human’s personal spatiotemporal reality. Also with a critical eye, White (2024), in The Time of Brain Science and the Time of Physics, argues that the IGUS robot cannot generate an experienced present moment. In fact, it would not be capable of generating an idea of the FOT. All it would have is the states of information. In agreement with White, Hoerl (2024), in The Mechanics of Representing Time, forcibly argues that the IGUS ultimately explains nothing because it presupposes the very capacities it purports to explain.

Being more acceptable of the IGUS concept, Skokowski (2024), in Time Experience and Belief, provides an upgraded and improved model, even if more complex. It is proposed for human-like IGUSes using sensory experience and subsequent processed contents that provides a notion of psychological time for these agents. His model shows how a narrative can be formed to provide concepts of a ‘now’, a ‘past’, a ‘future’, and perhaps even a ‘flow’ for psychological time. The proposal is that conscious, current access at any moment to registers with different kinds of contents warrants beliefs about relations in time.

3. Possible Paths to Help Solve the Two-Times Problem

The above commentaries provide a much better understanding of the ‘problem’ that exists for so many. Where we go from here is the final issue and we propose three avenues. First more can be done to carefully define terms as there is to this day a horrific conflation of terms and meanings. Second, the issue of emotional reification should be highlighted as it tends to bias well-intended arguments. Third, there would appear to be a role for falsifiability. Much of the controversy is based not just on explanations and logic but also upon experimentation.

3.1. The Need for Definitions

In Bridging the Neuroscience and Physics of Time: Where Is the Problem, Herzog (2024) asks a very reasonable question as to the nature of illusions: “When I am watching a soccer game, there is motion of the ball and movements of the players but there is no flow.” His question is reasonable but makes us realize that we have a problem of definitions here. What do we mean by flow? For Callender (2017) one option is the ‘whoosh’. For the Dualistic Mind view it is the superimposed dynamistic experience noted in certain temporal parameters such as change, motion and the ‘feeling of succession’. At the very least definitions at the beginning of any thesis would be beneficial. For Callender and Aspirichaga (2024) in Going ‘Humean’ on the Flow of Time, there is no stream (flow) unless there is a subject who considers itself to persist through time. A crucial part of the story according to them is using Velleman’s (2006) idea that the self is taken to persist through time. This interesting idea suggests that even words like perception, cognition and belief need very careful definitions. Lastly, there is a need to eliminate the ongoing conflation between ‘flow’ and ‘passage’. We have been specifically reserving ‘passage’ for the future/present/past phenomenon, the problem of the ‘present’ (‘now’) and Einstein’s stubborn illusion. ‘Flow’ is for the dynamicity of temporal parameters or Callender’s ‘whoosh’.

3.2. Recognizing the Intrinsic Desire for Reification

Rovelli in Buonomano and Rovelli (2021) left the door open for reification when ‘flow’ was attributable to not just memories but the (veridical) entropic gradient. Understandably, having to think of ourselves as possessing conscious behaviour that by someone’s estimation is illusory does not sit well. In Cracking the Neural Code of How the Brain Represents Time May Make the Dualistic Stance Obsolete, van Wassenhove (2024) makes a forcible argument that “denying psychological reality as part of reality would fall into a reductionist bias that will not provide a satisfactory explanation for the complexity of animal cognition and of the human mind. It may even lay roots for dangerous ideologies by abnegating the very existence of rational thinking and its impact on political and socio-economic systems.” Clearly, the motivation for reification has strong roots in her thesis. However, Davies (2024) in The Muddlescape of Time, has no qualms about the possibility that we humans possess illusions for very important temporal parameters and for very good reasons. For example, on the topic of persistence he argues that the brain creates “… a false impression that I am a fixed entity (me!) while the world about me changes. But continuity is not conservation”. Put in other words, Davies (2002) and also Barbour (1999) insist that we humans “play the movie”. Generally speaking, the Dualistic Mind view would agree and add that we do so without shame because the brain, upon close inspection, possesses many fundamental parameters of physical time.

3.3. A Place for Falsifiability in a Two-Times Debate

Falsifiability would seem to be a powerful tool for not only theories but hypotheses and views. When Hartle (2005) came out with his seminal paper, The Physics of Now, he made it easy for all of us suggesting how his hypothesis should be tested. He insisted that the notions of past, present, and future are not properties of four-dimensional spacetime. Rather, these concepts are properties of a specific class of subsystems of the universe that process information and can usefully be called IGUSs. In effect, a human is one such robot. He predicted that it would be possible to construct different robots that process information differently from one another. Specifically, different notions of ‘present’ and even ‘future’ could be had for some of these robots with the aid of a virtual reality (VR) apparatus in which the data displayed were utilized differently than that of the human. To test his hypothesis we constructed a customized VR system (Gruber & Smith, 2019) which allows an observer to switch between present and past. This ‘robot’ (human with VR system) can experience immersion in the immediate past ad libitum. Being able to actually construct an IGUS that has the same ‘present’ at two different coordinates along the worldline lent support to the IGUS hypothesis. In fact, Hartle was able to test his own hypothesis in Smith’s laboratory (Fig. 1).

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

The human Information-Gathering and Utilizing System (IGUS) ‘robot’ has a VR system (target computer) worn as a backpack, base stations on retractable (telescopic) shoulder outriggers, and stereoscopic chest cameras for both viewing and recording

Citation: Timing & Time Perception 12, 2 (2024) ; 10.1163/22134468-20240001

The Dualistic Mind view argues that the various dynamistic ‘flow’ experiences are cerebral add-ons and predicts that they can be dissociated (subtractable). For example, it is argued that temporality is temporal order with a cerebral add-on of the ‘feeling of succession’ (FOS) — an experience seen notably in the seminal clock hand demonstration (reviewed by Arstila, 2016). Consider the following heartbeat demonstration because, unlike clock hands, it exposes temporality without being complicated by the experience of motion. When listening to the normal first and second heartbeats (‘lub-dub’) there is a strong before/after (i.e., FOS and temporal order) feeling. The normal heartbeat is experienced as: lub-dub-pause/ lub-dub-pause/ lub-dub-pause. The lub and dub are of slightly different frequencies and are due to closing of the atrioventricular valves. The experience is that dub follows lub — not the other way around. There is some before/after experience for dub-lub but it is missing much of the dynamistic impact that lub-dub evokes (Gruber et al., 2023). Credit for this observation belongs in part to Pöppel (1997) who noted that the brain has a tendency to experientially draw a series of two or more chronologically separated stimuli together to create this type of temporality. That drawing together is a synthesized but illusory continuity. It heightens the temporal order experience and makes it more impactful than order information alone.

To subtract all or much of the cerebral add-on of FOS we start with a patient whose heartbeats exhibit a temporality experience of rapid tachycardia such that the intervals between lub-dub and dub-lub are equal (because ejection and fill times are equal). Then we slow the patient’s heart with a beta adrenergic blocker such as Metoprolol. So doing now results in a normal heart rate pattern, described above, with short lub-dub intervals and long dub-lub intervals. Strikingly, the FOS of the dub-lub interval is severely dampened while preserving temporal order. This heartbeat demonstration can be found at: In sum, more emphasis on issues such as definitions, reification and falsifiability may help move the field further yet. This extraordinary, exciting topic of time that keeps many of us awake at night will no doubt continue to do so. Much of that enthusiasm has been generated by our generous commentators to whom we editors are eternally grateful.


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