Comments on the Paper by Gruber, Block, and Montemayor

In: Timing & Time Perception
Dean Rickles Faculty of Science, The University of Sydney, Sydney, 2006, Australia

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Firstly, let me say that I admire the inventiveness of Gruber, Block, and Montemayor (GBM) in generating novel experiments to engage with difficult issues about time. The problem they address, of figuring out what goes where (reality or illusion) in our manifest image of time, is possibly the most complex. I do have a couple of potential concerns over the philosophical foundations of their ideas, which so far as I can see amount to an assumption that our best theories of physics and cosmology are to be trusted to deliver a temporal worldview of a fairly straightforward sort, which the brain is accurately tracking (and thereupon enhancing with evolutionarily useful though ultimately illusory features). Their idea of treating time in a dual way, with many temporal concepts belonging to one camp or the other (illusory human experience or physical cosmology), seems to beg the question as to the veracity of the theories involved, which as far as I can tell, would require a God’s eye view from which to adjudicate matters.

To set up their view, they utilise James Hartle’s IGUS (Information Gathering and Utilizing System) model as a way of incorporating subjective experience of the flow of time within a 4D Minkowski spacetime framework, which seems prima facie hostile to such a phenomenon. On this view, time’s flow (and the related notion of a Now) is simply a matter of information processing and updating rules in an observer’s brain (an observer that might simply be a robot), rather than a property of spacetime itself. It is, in other words, something that is created by coupling an observer, with a subjective perspective (including working memory, data storage, transducers for external signals, and so on), to a certain kind of environment standing outside of itself (which might possess an entropy gradient and so on). Hartle’s proposal, of embedding an IGUS within a theory of spacetime, might well be seen as the first example of a second-order cybernetic system (i.e., one in which an observer, with its representation of reality, is included in a physical model, e.g., of some physical theory) providing a physically-integrated account (or at least an approximation) of temporal phenomenology. There are several properties that might benefit from this kind of treatment, including other elements of manifest time. Such a patched IGUS approach has indeed been employed by Craig Callender and others, as GBM remark. This gives us an interesting scheme to think about alternative ways of experiencing time, and how the makeup of different kinds of observer might lead to alternative subjective experiences of time. Indeed, cases of brain lesions often amount to examples of different kinds of observer, with radically altered phenomenologies, leading them to view the world (including its temporal features, such as flow and duration) as quite different from a normally-functioning observer. I would suggest those interested in IGUS models draw from modern cybernetics to consider a wider range of features and, in general, I think progress could be made of the problem GBM discuss by thinking more explicitly in terms of second-order cybernetics.

However, we mustn’t oversell what the scheme is capable of, however impressive it is. One of the key elements missing, in my view, from the manifest picture of GBM, is that which led William James (mentioned briefly by GBM, though in relation to the specious present) to question the block picture, which he named thus as a term of disparagement. The block eliminates the idea that there are real possibilities in the world, leaving only the modalities of necessity and impossibility for all events past, present, and future. James preferred a Weltbild (as do I) with some free play (see Rickles and Rankin, forthcoming, for a defence). Programming ‘whooshability’ in to IGUSes is not sufficient to vouchsafe this. And, quite simply, we do not know for certain whether we live in a universe like this, with plasticity (i.e., free play), or not. In fact, given such theorems as those of Bell, Kochen-Specker, and Conway-Kochen, in the context of quantum mechanics, we have at least some reasons to think that there might well be such plasticity in the world, with properties being sensitive to the decisions of the experimenter rather than objective features of the world. But how we stand on this issue will determine what we consider veridical or not.

This is the main qualm I have with the account presented by GBM. They write that “[b]y analyzing known veridical and illusory components of passage a dualistic classification is derived and in turn more veridical components of flow (passage) are found”. Yet the problem of flow is precisely the attempt to figure out what is and isn’t illusory and veridical. The matter is very far from settled, since the physical and cosmological models are so much up for grabs, never mind the other side of the duality. Ultimately, then, GBM beg the question over the truth of our theories. To speak of veridicality and illusoriness depends on our possessing a deictic viewpoint (showing us how things really are, from outside of the world, as if we are Gods looking in) from which to pass judgement on such matters. In an Ellis world, for example, the feeling of flow might well be veridical, while in a Minkowski–Hartle world, it is not (at least, not in a direct way with the flow corresponding to real-world-out-there flow). This is not something to be decided from the phenomena themselves which, of course, fit multiple opposing viewpoints, otherwise we wouldn’t have a debate here. Hence, to say, as they do, of the attempt to include in, e.g., Fay Dowker’s “birth of atoms” scheme that it involves an “illusory, dynamistic aspect of movement,” or that “it is coming from the illusory system within the cranium, not necessarily the edge of an expanding universe”, is precisely to assume just such an all-knowing perspective. But there are no ‘accepted spacetime cosmologies,’ and we expect those we have to be approximations at best. Really, by this stage, we expect the block picture to be wrong as it stands. It is only a local approximation in general relativity, and quantum gravity promises more radical damage to Minkowski space as a fundamental feature of reality. Indeed, we might not unreasonably view the block (Minkowski spacetime) as itself coming from an illusory system, having to do with our own status of IGUSes of a particular scale and complexity, and modelling in such a way that presupposes space and time.

However, I think there is something to GBM’s duality idea; but not, I think, in their suggested form. I agree fully that “there are not two opposing times, one outside and one inside the cranium”. I do not agree that “[t]here is just one fundamental physical time which the brain developed, now possesses and is itself sufficient for adaption but then enhances”. This does not sound like dualism to me, but monism: there is just one time in reality, and it is out there, and what is in the head is illusory (apart from some basic correspondences to do with ordering and so on). Moreover, as mentioned, it simply upholds as veridical whatever can correspond directly to our current theories, without sufficient discernment as to whether they are correct or not.

I prefer to think of the curious relationship between physical (objective) time and human (subjective) time in terms of dual-aspect monism. This view offers an alternative way of thinking about the flow of time and the general apparent mismatch between such human features and physical time since it does not have to take a stance on the issue of illusory versus veridical elements: they are simply different ways of representing one and the same structure, both from an objective and a subjective standpoint. The idea is that both human and physical time emerge from some deeper structure, which is split apart into a subject and an object. It is vital to include the subject (and I appreciate that GBM at least consider this component), and many of the problems we face in thinking about time in fact come from supposing that there is a way the world is independently of any perspective. Thus, when, for example, Carlo Rovelli says that “Reality is change and the four-dimensional spacetime of General Relativity is not static: it is a way to account for change” (Buonomano and Rovelli, forthcoming), we see the kinds of tangle we can get into when not adequately involving the agential (inside) view. Of course a four-dimensional (4D) spacetime is static. But the problem is a jumbling up of meanings: GR is dynamical in the sense that the spacetime is not fixed a priori but is dependent on solving the field equations, which involve the mass–energy, and so it has many possibilities in this regard. But this amounts to a dynamicism that is properly situated in the space of possibilities, rather than time-evolution and change (and stasis-versus nonstasis) which would require a metatime. When a computationally bounded agent is included in the model, however, then we can see how a 4D spacetime representation is no trouble for including features such as change and flow: we simply have dual representations in which quite clearly the agent cannot process the totality of the spacetime manifold at once.

On my preferred view, then, there is, as with GBM, a duality of descriptions: we can either views things externally, with time manifesting in the world, possibly as a block (an ‘allocentric’ viewpoint). Or we can view things internally, with each point or cross-section of the block picking out a different set of past and future events (we can call this the ‘egocentric’ viewpoint, since it is tied to the here and now of an observer or agent). Of course, to reiterate, in the latter view, a computationally bounded embedded entity would not be able to see beyond its immediate location (as determined by whatever transducers it possesses for its sensory inputs) to other times other than via memory and anticipation, and so its sense of time would be generated from such features. But while GBM appear to want to separate this pair of descriptions such that the physical model is true of the world, and the egocentric description is mostly giving an illusory representation of that world, the dual-aspect monist view would take the allocentric and egocentric pair to be a genuinely dual pair (so that flow is how some part of the objective world is given subjectively, but not in fact a different thing), and as with other dualities, we might trace its existence back to a source that transcends both descriptions, and that would likely be some more primitive order or pre-geometry/pre-space (see Atmanspacher and Rickles (2022) for further development of this idea). This deeper description is exactly what many quantum gravity researchers are attempting to figure out, since we have reasons (coming from background independence and so on) to believe that what we think of as physical time is itself a kind of illusion. In any case, on this view, both subjective and objective time arise simply as manifestations (or explications, in David Bohm’s terminology) of a deeper order. I believe that the resolution of GBM’s problem lies in this deeper domain, though much work remains to be done in spelling out the details.


  • Atmanspacher, H. & Rickles, D. (2022). Dual-Aspect Monism and the Deep Structure of Meaning. New York, NY, USA: Routledge.

  • Buonomano, D. & Rovelli, C. (forthcoming). Bridging the Neuroscience and Physics of Time. To appear in P. Harris and R. Lestienne (Eds), Time and Science. World Scientific.

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  • Rickles, D. & Rankin, J. (2023). New work on the fundamentality of time. In R. Lestienne and P. A. Harris (Eds), Time and Science, Vol.3 (pp. 5787). World Scientific.

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