Time, Consciousness & Identity
Have we made our understanding of the self more difficult by ignoring Einstein's observation that time is just another dimension? If we fully embrace the theory that time is a dimension equal in all ways to the three spatial dimensions, a theory of consciousness and identity, radically different from the prevailing folk theory on consciousness and identity would emerge. This new theory would have profound implications on the notion of the self as an individual. Before we explore this new theory, let us examine the prevailing western folk theory on consciousness and identity.
We see ourselves as distinct individuals. Upon birth we physically disconnect from our mothers, launching a new path through life. Along the way we have experiences. These experiences are processed by our senses, represented in our brain using some internal representation that models the experience and that representation is either stored in our wet neural network or salient features of it are stored such that it can be reconstructed, perhaps approximately, as what we call memory. At any point in "time", the sequence of memories and that special something that it is to BE ourselves form our identity.
We commonly think of "time" as the conjunction of the notions that (1) a sequence of events (partially ordered) have occurred and currently are occurring and (2) some unknown sequence of events, perhaps "caused" by the events of (1) will occur. In this view, our consciousness forms the center of the temporal universe and all existing events are measured relative to this center. If we conceive of time as a dimension, the only dimension for the sake of a thought experiment, we see ourselves at the center of the temporal universe much like pre-Galilean thinkers thought of the Earth as the center of the universe.
If time is a dimension in no way distinguishable in nature from the spatial dimensions, is it not curious that we would think of time as having a center while conceiving of the other dimensions as being infinite and without a center? I think this is strange. Indeed, when arbitrary exceptions are made to the nature of things, one should question whether it is our imagination or whether it is reality that has made the exception.
Our experience of consciousness, however, contradicts the notion that time is a dimension equal to all others. We are conscious only of the present and view the past as a "recollection" and not a direct experience. As for the future, we cannot "see" it.
Our senses are subject to many errors. For example, while watching a motion picture, we perceive continuity in the motion of images when, in fact, what we are actually receiving is the light emitted from a sequence of discrete images. The perception of motion is constructed inside of the brain or in the optical nerve (yes, processing of images begins before information about them reaches the brain). Our perception of motion, when watching a motion pointer, does not correlate with reality.
When we listen to music on a CD, we do not receive the smooth wave forms of the the original recording. What we receive instead is a jagged reproduction of the original sound wave. The upper and lower bounds of the sound frequency are absent beyond the range of normal human sound perception. A dog, for example, will not hear a CD the way we do, for its perception of sound includes a wider range of frequency. Despite this, we reconstruct the perception of sound and generate for ourselves an illusion that we find pleasant but which does not reflect reality.
Chemists can now manufacture chemical stews that make us taste or smell "an orange" when no orange is present. Textile manufacturers can now manufacture cloth that feels like silk when no silk is present. Moods and emotions can be provoked by chemicals when the events that normally produce them are not present.
The conclusion that one must draw from the above is the our perceptions do not reflect reality. Our perception of time appears to be the product of recording these inaccurate perceptions and noting that they are partially ordered. If our ability to process the original physical input responsible for provoking our perceptions is flawed, we should suspect that our ability to derive any conclusion about memories of them is flawed as well. Thus, our perception of time is doubly flawed for it too is based on representations that are erroneous and refer to other representations that are erroneous. If we are wrong about our perception of the objects in our spatial universe, we are even more wrong about our perception of the objects in our temporal universe. If we are so wrong, shouldn't we just dump the entire theory and attempt to start again from new principles? Let's try to do just that.
Let us begin with Einstein's view of the universe as having four dimensions. Let us use Occam's Razor (Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, or "Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity") as a guiding principle. Applying Occam's Razor to the concept of "dimension" let us assume that there is only one kind of dimension (at least as it applies to the macroscopic universe of humans). By "one kind of dimension", what I wish to hypothesize is that all dimensions share exactly the same properties and nature: what is true for any dimension is true for all other dimensions. If this is the case, what implications does this have for time, consciousness and identity. I will argue that we are not the center of the temporal universe; that consciousness, at least as we perceive it, does not exist; and that identity cannot be properly perceived as individual.
Let's take a "God's eye" view of the space/time universe. From our "God's eye" view we see all events, past, "present" and future simultaneously. We see all of space/time laid out before us. There is no center for each of the four dimensions extends infinitely in a positive and negative direction. Within that four dimensional universe there is an object that we think of as "the universe," but it is merely one of many similar scattered about space/time. This object, referred to as "the universe" is the physical universe that you and I live within and which has been proposed to have emerged from a singularity billions of years ago in what is called "the big bang." From our "God's eye" view, it is a single object, beginning at some coordinate (T0, X0, Y0, Z0) in space time and either extending infinitely in space/time or ending at some other singularity at some coordinate (T1, X1, Y1, Z1). Branching off from the singularity at (T0, X0, Y0, Z0), we have a graph-like object in space/time where threads of the original object split into different threads, sometimes rejoining other threads from the same object. If we zoom in on the threads, we see that they branch off into smaller threads which sometimes rejoin other threads and sometimes just repeat the pattern of splitting into other threads. Nothing in this instance of a universe inside space/time is disconnected from the original singularity. Any point in this instance of a universe can be traced, without interruption, through space/time, to the singularity at (T0, X0, Y0, Z0). Therefore, this instance of a universe is one and only one object. There is no "collection of objects" that form this instance of a universe.
If we divide the universe at any point by cleaving it perpendicular to the direction of time and remove a slice, we see something very familiar. In fact, if we cut a slice out of this universe at TP, where TP is this moment in time, and place ourselves into the three dimensional sub-universe that is this slice, we see what we currently think of as "the universe" in our folk theory of physics. Since we sliced the multi-threaded space/time object known as time, we find not a single object but a large collection of individual objects that have been severed from the space/time universe. Within the three dimensional (spatial) universe they appear to be individuals. One of these individuals is "you" and another of these individuals is "me".
I put "you" and "me" in quotes because, in our four dimensional universe, there is no "you" and "me" as distinct objects. "You" and "me" are artificially constructed individuals created by a thought experiment where the four dimensional universe is sliced - something that does not happen in reality.
If there is no "you" and "me", what are we?
We are best thought of as threads within the space/time object that extend from other threads. I extend from the thread known as "my mother" and you extend from the thread known as "your mother." If you are a male and you have a natural child, then that natural child is connected to you (in space/time) by a very thin thread that is the physical DNA of the sperm that inseminated the natural mother of your child. If you are a female and you have a natural child, then that natural child is connected to you (in space/time) by a much thicker thread that includes not only the physical DNA of the egg from which your child began, but the other materials that came from your body to construct the child up until its "birth."
Following the threads back from individual to mother, mother to grandmother and so on, there exists a thread in the space/time universe to which all of us (all of humanity) are connected. Studies of DNA confirm that at some point in space/time there exists one woman such that she is the ancestor of all of humanity. There may be a man such that he is the ancestor of all of humanity as well, but that has not been established. This woman, an ancestor of us all, is connected by threads to her mother and father, also human, and from there, moving up the chain of threads, we mesh into the other species on our planet. These species as well thread backwards until they are connected to the inanimate substances of the thread that we call the Earth. The Earth itself traces back to the collection of threads that formed our solar system, which in turn, threads back to our galaxy, our cluster of galaxies and our universe. Our universe traces back, as a continuous object to the singularity at (T0, X0, Y0, Z0). Therefore, we are one with the universe.
If we are not individuals, but are threads, what then is consciousness? Does it make sense for some non-material thing to move in one direction along the thread we identify as "our self" and not in the other direction? If time shares all of the properties of any other dimension, why should consciousness travel in only one direction? I would expect consciousness to travel in both directions. However, we are unable to "remember" the future. If consciousness traveled in both directions, we would "remember" the future. Therefore, consciousness does not travel in both directions. If time is like any other dimension, that is, if time is symmetrical, we must conclude that nothing exists that can travel in only one temporal direction. Since consciousness travels in only one temporal direction it must not exist. Consciousness must be an illusion. This is not to say that there is not something else mistaken to be consciousness. I am not throwing out the notion that there is something that it is to BE and remember. I am merely pointing out that this thing is not consciousness. If it is not consciousness, what is it?
Let's do our best to think four dimensionally and attempt to account for the phenomenon we call consciousness by constructing a four-dimensional account where time is symmetrical. I propose the following.
At any point along the thread known as "my self," those events occurring in that portion of the thread between this chosen point and the point at which my thread connects to my mother, for which the thread had developed and applied the physical senses, are accessible either in the form of causal links backward in the direction of my mother or through encoding them into the current slice of the thread through each point. When I think of "my self," I think of that sequence extending backward. That "self" is not me (i.e. the whole thread), but a slice of me and that slice of me is what it is to BE me at that point in time. At the moment in time immediately following that slice, moving in the direction away from my mother, we have what this new slice perceives to BE me at the next point in time. That this slice believes itself to be identical to the previous slice is a conceptual error. It is a different slice of the same thread. The real me is the entire thread.
I propose that our sense of time, for some reason related to the primitive state of our development, links only backward, ignoring the rest of the thread in front of it. This might explain a few things in our experience that our folk theory of consciousness does not explain.
The universe appears to be non-deterministic. Of course, the appearance of non-determinism may be the product of ignorance. For example, if we knew enough about the nature of the universe we would be able to make "predictions" about the next event in time. The more we know, the better our predictions should be. In fact, the history of humanity shows evidence that this is true. Thousands of years ago, we could not predict eclipses and today we can. Thousands of years ago our predictions of tomorrow's weather were inferior to the predictions we make today. Despite this, however, there seems to be some randomness in the universe not explained by simple ignorance. Sub-atomic physics embraces this randomness. This randomness may be real. It may have nothing to do with the dimension of time. String theorists propose yet other dimensions that are not symmetrical. Let's assume that this kind of randomness is not very important at the macroscopic level. Perhaps over very large space/time distances, at the macroscopic level, its cumulative effects are great, but over short space/time dimensions it largely cancels itself out.
Our own experience demonstrates that the unexpected happens. Despite our knowledge of the world around us, events occur that do not appear to be predictable. Our folk model for prediction is based on the principle that time is not symmetrical (i.e. that causation is unidirectional in time, it moves from points in the past to points in the future). If we embrace the four dimensional model where time is symmetrical, it would then follow that causation is not temporally unidirectional. On the contrary, it would follow that future events cause past events as much as past events cause future events. If our primitive state of development causes us to only link our perceptions backward only, thereby giving us a distorted view of time such that we can only perceive causation moving in one of the directions, we miss out on noticing half of the causal relationships in the universe. This would make the universe appear to contain some degree of determinism and some degree of randomness, which is exactly how we perceive it.
This paper is an example of such negative causation. For it "has been" caused by a future paper I have not yet written.