16 Oct 2013

Ch. 5 of Dainton’s Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience, “Phenomenal time: problems and principles”, summary

by Corry Shores
[Search Blog Here. Index-tags are found on the bottom of the left column.]

[Central Entry Directory]

[The Dainton – Gallagher Phenomenal Time Debate, entry directory]

[Dainton’s Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience, entry directory]

[All boldface, underlining, and bracketed commentary are my own.]

Summary of

Barry Dainton

Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience

Chapter 5: 
Phenomenal time: problems and principles


Brief Summary: Dainton explains and defends the idea that diachronic co-consciousness accounts for the unity of our stream of consciousness.




5.1 Time in experience

Previously Dainton has been describing co-consciousness, [which is the passive indirect awareness of the multiplicity of our consciousness. We are always aware of more than one thing, and as well, we are aware of the togetherness of these different components of our phenomenal awareness.] So far he looked at simultaneous co-conscious contents, but now he looks at successive ones in the continuous succession of experiences in our stream of consciousness.

Consciousness is not a static but a flowing thing, it is never still but always on the move. (113)

Diachronic unity of experience, like the synchronic, arises from co-consciousness. (113) All our experiences at any time belong to the same stream of consciousness. But the co-consciousness itself is fleeting, even if the stream never ends:

Diachronic co-consciousness is a very short-term affair, spanning at most a second or so—the duration of the so-called ‘specious present’. But this brevity does not matter: each link in a chain only passes through the links either side of it, but this does not undermine the chain’s integrity. Diachronic co-consciousness is what binds together the adjacent phases of a stream of consciousness, and so is responsible for the very existence of the stream as a temporally extended whole. (113d)

Dainton calls the DC-thesis the claim that “diachronic co-consciousness is responsible for the experienced unity of streams of consciousness from moment to moment.” (114a)

Dainton has us consider some things. Temporality is part of our awareness when we see movement, focus on the stream of our thinking, or notice the persistence of a phenomenon.

Whenever we see movement, our visual experience has a temporal character; the content of such an experience is as much temporal as it is spatial. It is not just in perception that we directly experience change. Thinking, as an activity, involves a continuous succession of occurrent thoughts and mental images, irrespective of whether the content or subject matter of these is continuous or fragmented. Moreover, the succession of thoughts and perceptions is itself something we experience; the succession is not just a succession of experiences, it is a succession within experience. I said that we also directly experience persistence, a fact which may be slightly less obvious, until it is pointed out. Think of what it is like to hear an unvarying auditory tone. Even though the tone does not vary in pitch, timbre or volume, we directly experience the tone continuing on. It is as though, from moment to moment, there is a continual renewal of the same auditory content, a renewal which is directly experienced. Or think of an unvarying yet enduring pain sensation; for as long as the pain is felt, it is felt as a continuous presence; this presence is not static but dynamic, it is an enduring presence. This experienced flow or passage is common to all sensations; indeed, a sensation lacking this characteristic seems inconceivable—perhaps this is why a strictly durationless sensory experience, existing all by itself, seems impossible to conceive. I have been concentrating on particular types of experience, but what holds of particular types of experience also holds of the stream of consciousness as a whole: every part of it exhibits the same dynamic characteristics; the stream as a whole, from moment to moment, undergoes passage; it flows as a whole, and it does so for as long as it lasts. (114)

These examples illustrate what Dainton calls phenomenal temporality.

The fact that we directly experience both change and continuity suggests that contents spread over a brief interval of time can be co-conscious; the fact that our experience consists of a continuously renewed flow of content, a flow within experience itself, suggests that diachronic co-consciousness plays a key role in the generation of streams of consciousness. (114)

Dainton will now consider explanations that are not the DC-thesis, that is, that explain these temporal phenomena as resulting from diachronic co-consciousness. Such alternate arguments reject “one or both of the following doctrines:

(a) that experiences have genuine temporal duration;

(b) that successive experiences can be directly co-conscious.” (114-115)

If someone rejects both then they are rejecting phenomenal temporality [because our experiences neither happen across time nor would we be aware of that in the first place]. Dainton calls this position anti-realism [about phenomenal temporality. They do not think that phenomenal temporality is a real thing.] “Although immediate experience seems to extend a short way through time, the anti-realist maintains that this is merely an appearance which can be explained away.” (115) However,  “Realists about phenomenal temporality, by contrast, accept both (a) and (b).” There is a third position between them, partial anti-realism, which says that “although experience is not confined to momentary time-slices, something other than co-consciousness is responsible for the binding of temporally extended total experiences into streams. This position embraces the phenomenal or specious present, but rejects the DC-thesis.” (115) Dainton will argue against these anti-realisms in favor of his realism about phenomenal temporality.


Dainton will consider case studies of phenomenal time. (115)


Dainton begins with a constraint that he calls the phenomenological constraint. He thinks it is an obvious truth that our experience of change is just as immediate as other experiences.


our experience of change is just as immediate as our experience of shape or colour. I take this to be an obvious truth, and will refer to it as the phenomenological constraint. (115)


Dainton recognizes that “the possibility that an account of the unity of experience across time requires ingredients that are not needed in an account of the unity of simultaneous experiences.” (116) For example, he previously argued against the A thesis, which says that experience involves an awareness content distinction. He did this in the context of synchronic co-consciousness, but we will need to reevaluate it now for diachronic co-consciousness. (116)

Dainton’s primary concern in these investigations of phenomenal time is the unity consciousness. He "will be dealing with some of the various accounts that have been given of the specious present, that brief expanse of immediate awareness which is also known as the living, sensible or phenomenal present.” (116) Dainton then provides some beautiful passages from James and Broad and comments on how they seem to express this notion of the present.

the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time. The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were— a rearward- and a forward-looking end. It is only as parts of this duration-block that the relation of succession of one end to the other is perceived. We do not first feel one end and then feel the other after it, and from the perception of the succession infer an interval of time between, but we seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it. (James 1952:399)

If it is really necessary to have some image, perhaps the following may save us from worse. Let us fancy ourselves in total darkness hung over a stream and looking down on it. The stream has no banks, and its current is covered and filled with continuously floating things. Right under our faces is a bright illuminated spot on the water, which ceaselessly widens and narrows its area, and shows us what passes away on the current. And this spot that is light is our now, our present…. We have not only an illuminated place, and the rest of the stream in total darkness. There is a paler light, which both up and down stream, is shed on what comes before and after our now. And this paler light is the offspring of the present. Behind our heads there is something perhaps which reflects the rays from the lit up now, and throws them dimly upon past and future. Outside this reflection is utter darkness…the now and here, in which the real appears, | are not confined within simply discrete and resting moments. They are any portion of that continuous content with which we come into direct relation. Examination shows that not only at their edges they dissolve themselves over into there and then, but that even within their limits as first given, they know no repose. Within the here is both here and there; and in the ceaseless process of change in time you may narrow your scrutiny to the smallest focus, but you will find no rest. (Bradley 1922: vol. 1, 54–6)

There are questionable elements in each of these descriptions, but both capture something of the phenomenon. We have an immediate experience only of what is present, a present that is surrounded by the comparative darkness of the remembered past and the anticipated future; the experienced present is not momentary, we seem to be directly aware of intervals of time as wholes; within these wholes there is a continual flow of content, and each experienced whole seamlessly gives way to the next. (116-117)

5.2 Continuity in question

Dainton wonders

The experienced passage of time sometimes slows to a crawl and sometimes speeds along; our sensory experience is far more intense and varied at some times than it is at others—periods of heightened emotion or intellectual activity are counterbalanced by periods of relative quiescence. Such variations are compatible with the idea that our consciousness is nonetheless characterized by continuous flow. (117)

Strawson calls this into question:

Strawson writes:

I think William James’s famous metaphor of the stream of consciousness is inept. Human thought has very little natural phenomenological continuity or experiential flow—if mine is anything to go by. ‘Our thought is fluctuating, uncertain, fleeting’, as Hume said…It keeps slipping from mere consciousness into self-consciousness and out again | (one can sit through a whole film without emerging into I-thinking self-consciousness). It is always shooting off, fuzzing, shorting out, spurting and stalling. William James described it as like a bird’s life… an alternation of flights and perchings’…but even this recognition that thought is not a matter of even flow retains a strong notion of continuity…It fails to take adequate account of the fact that trains of thought are constantly broken by detours—by by blows—fissures—white noise. This is especially so when one is just sitting and thinking. (1997:421)


Dainton notes that Strawson here is talking about conscious thought which indeed exhibits discontinuities. But Dainton is instead talking about phenomenal time consciousness, so Strawson’s observation is not incompatible with Dainton’s claim that “consciousness taken as wholes exhibit phenomenal continuity” (118).

Danton then notes that

Strawson continues in a more threatening vein:

When I am alone and thinking I find that my fundamental experience of consciousness is one of repeated returns into consciousness from a state of complete if momentary unconsciousness. The (invariably brief) periods of true experiential continuity are usually radically disjunct from one another in this way even when they are not radically disjunct in respect of content. (It is in fact often the same thought—or nearly the same thought—that one returns to after a momentary absence.) The situation is best described, it seems to me, by saying that consciousness is continually restarting. There isn’t a basic substrate (as it were) of continuous consciousness interrupted by various lapses and doglegs. Rather, conscious thought has the character of a (nearly continuous) series of radically disjunct irruptions into consciousness from a basic substrate of non-consciousness. It keeps banging out of nothingness; it is a series of comings to. (1997:422)

Dainton disagrees with Strawson’s claim that there are breaks in consciousness by noting how whether it be focal or peripheral awareness, they are continuous.

This is not what I find at all. My thinking is often scrappy and inchoate, but it takes place in the context of a relatively constant and continuous mass of peripheral experience, bodily, emotional and perceptual, which together constitute the phenomenal background. The phenomenal | background is rarely noticed, but it is nonetheless a constant—and constantly flowing—presence in our consciousness. When my line of thought takes a detour, for example when without noticing I pass from trying to formulate this sentence to indulging in a few moments of daydreaming, I do not find myself in total silence or darkness or bereft of any bodily feeling; the course of my thinking alters, my mental imagery alters, perhaps the focus of my attention alters, but everything else remains much the same.(118-119)

And Dainton later concludes:

So Strawson is right to this extent: so far as both conscious thought and self-conscious awareness are concerned, our streams of consciousness contain frequent discontinuities and many a sudden eruption. But they are also characterized by an enduring constancy and continuity, albeit at the level of the largely unnoticed phenomenal background. (120)


5.3 Experience, the present, and presence


Dainton will now consider a line of reasoning that would support the idea that consciousness is momentary.

Of course our immediate direct experience is limited to the present. We wonder, how long is does the present last? Augustine thought it had no duration, and thus shared nothing with the future and past. Give the present some finite extent, it will have the past at one end and the future on the other; thus

the present, strictly speaking, must be a durationless interface between past and future, between what was but is no more, and what will be but is not yet. Now, if experience is confined to the present, and the present is durationless, it seems experience must be literally instantaneous. (120)

Dainton calls this the Augustinian argument, and the term ‘specious present’ stems from this argument.

Dainton notes that the idea of a durationless present is used in physics.

We talk of present-day trends or standards of living; we talk of the present epoch, the developments now taking place elsewhere, the changes now occurring in the Earth’s atmosphere. In doing so, we are obviously not talking about durationless instants; we are referring to processes or states that endure. But I shall not press this point. Although the notion of the durationless present is to some extent artificial, it also seems an intelligible one in certain contexts, for example the description of movement in physics. (121)

Dainton will now focus on what it means to say that experience is always present. (121)

This could mean that “we cannot, at a given time, be immediately aware of events that are happening at other times.” (121) But even if our experiences only happen in the present, that is, only happen when they happen, that still can mean that the present is extended, experience does not necessarily need to be instantaneous. [This is perhaps because if the present in its reality is understood as temporally extended, then our experiences in the temporal present can as well extend]

A pain sensation is felt when it occurs. One cannot feel a pain before it begins or after it has ended. But this really only amounts to saying that a pain happens when it happens, or more generally, experiences happen when they happen. This tautology does not establish that experience is necessarily instantaneous, for if there were temporally extended experiences, they too would happen when they happen, i.e. they would occupy one stretch of time rather than another. It is true that a temporally extended sensation would | have earlier and later phases, as do all extended processes. But why should adjacent phases not be co-conscious? The earlier and later phases of most processes are related, for example by causation. Relationships as such are not restricted to holding between simultaneous items; why should coconsciousness be any different? (121-122)

Another way to defend this Augustinian argument is to say that the past and future do not exist, and only the present instant exists. Dainton thinks that while we might call into question the existence of future events [as they have not yet actually happened] we cannot question the fact that past events actually did happen and thus exist [as real events that have passed].


Dainton will now address a second factor, the conflation of the present with presence, and possible errors that can follow. Dainton has been using

the term ‘presence’ to denote the property of being an immediate object or content of consciousness. Everything that is immediately present in a subject’s experience possesses presence in this sense: it is just there within one’s consciousness. Now, I can see nothing wrong in saying that experience has ‘presence’ if this is meant only to draw attention to the sheer immediacy of what is being currently experienced. (122)

The first error that might result is that we think only current experience has presence. Rather, past experience, when they were happening also exhibited presence. (122-123)

The other error is thinking that presence can only be in the present instant, because even if time were a series of durationless instants, phenomenal presence could still extend across a multiplicity of them.

The second mistake to avoid is to assume, without further argument, that presence is confined to the present moment. Whereas the notion of an instantaneous present is a concept drawn from a mathematical (or quasimathematical) way of thinking about time as a dimension, the notion of presence is connected with experience. The fact that we can think of time as consisting of a succession of durationless instants does not entail that phenomenological presence is instantiated instantaneously. If the sensory present has a non-zero duration, presence will also have a non-zero duration. (123)


5.4 Memory and the experience of time

Dainton will now look at explanations of time that involve memory. “There is no denying that memory and temporal experience are connected in a number of ways, but it is another thing to hold that memory is largely or wholly responsible for our experience of time. Although it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the case, the reasons why this is so are instructive”.

Our memories tell us how our lives have unfolded and that the moments of our lives have been temporally successive.

Memory thus furnishes us with inside knowledge of how our lives have unfolded over time, and so with a sense of how we arrived at the present moment. Then there is what we might loosely call the ‘experience of passage’. We have the impression that our lives are moving forward, in that we live our lives in the present, with future events getting ever nearer while past events recede. Memory plays a role here too. When we recall an earlier experience, we can also remember (if we try) that this earlier experience was followed by later experiences; we can thus anticipate that our current experience will be followed by future experiences. (123)

However, Dainton does not think that our ongoing phenomenal experience of present time involves memory. (123d)

He has us imagine as best we can that we take a drug that eliminates our long and short term memory. We are only aware of the immediate present. He thinks that we would still imagine in this situation that we have conscious of change. But if the phenomenal present is instantaneous, how could we be aware of changes that take place? [[A change requires two moments and thus awareness of it requires more than momentary consciousness. I challenge this assumption that we would be aware of changes happening over different instants. He seems to be describing something like Leibniz’s mens momentanea, or momentary minds. They retain impressions of their immediate experiences but none beyond the immediate present. They have minds in the sense that they are impressionable (two colliding objects obtain impressions of the forces exchanging through them), but they are momentary minds, because they are not recorded and distinguished from other moments. Using this drug would make us momentary minds. We thus could not possible be conscious of two temporally exclusive moments that are not somehow given in that instant. Using the physics reference he makes, one could see the impact as involving an awareness of two infinitely close instants. But the information of those two instants is still given in a single momentary present. And I can imagine that if I do not retain impressions of even the most recent past moment that I would not be able to perceive motion for example, or changes of other kinds.]]

There is a clear phenomenological difference between seeing a shooting star and remembering seeing a shooting star, and the memorial replay of the experience is itself temporally extended, and so involves the immediate awareness of change. Or so it seems natural to think. To take a different tack, suppose you have been given a drug which over the course of a day gradually and sequentially destroys your experiential memory, without impairing your mental functioning in any other way—for example your factual beliefs are unaffected, your reasoning abilities likewise. First to go are your memories of early childhood; then your school years; soon you can only remember a minute or so back, then a few seconds, then nothing at all. But you continue to be conscious. Although you are now stranded in the immediate sensory present, you hear sounds, you have bodily sensations, you see movement, you feel strangely bewildered. The phenomeno-temporal character of immediate sensory experience is much as it ever was. True, it is impossible to imagine with any clarity what it would be like to be in this condition; but it is easy to believe that one could continue to be conscious, and continue to be directly aware of change. How could this be if the experience of temporality depended on memory? Nonetheless, despite these apparent difficulties, there are philosophers who have assumed that memory can explain the short-term awareness of time (cf. Mellor 1998:122–3).  (Dainton 124)

To elaborate, Dainton has us consider hearing a series of notes, C-D-E-F…. We experience it is a continuous succession. But memory as a simple receptacle of past impressions is not enough to explain why we hear it as a continuous succession. So when we hear E, we remember D, and thus in that way we know it came after. But we don’t necessarily know how much after. And we can also remember a D from months ago, but that is not the one we are comparing the current E with. So we need to also remember not just past things but also their temporal order or temporal distances from one another. [[And that is something a momentary consciousness cannot accomplish. In the mens momentanea model we proposed above, perhaps we can still conceive of this information about temporal depth being recorded. So we are to understand our minds as receiving impressions only in the present but retaining past ones. But as we noted, the present instant contains information about how it is tending into the next instant. And that instant into its next instant. The idea is that the phenomenon of passage is the basic unit of our temporal awareness, and it is given in the smallest possible increment of time, a jump between states of affairs. The present then is not to be understood as being in moment A or B but rather in the infinitely brief passage of time in between them. We thus are given impressions not just of the content of our experiences, we also experience the shock of the immediacy of the transition between moments. That shock is the basic phenomenal content of phenomenal temporality. The basic experience of time is not an experience of one or another thing, but rather of the difference or incompatibility between them. This raw shock tells us not necessarily that something has changed, as that would require more than one present instance of awareness, but rather it tells us that something is now changing, under self-variation from itself.]]

It will help to have a simple example. Imagine the experience of hearing someone play a C major scale on the piano: C-D-E-F…Suppose the scale is played quite quickly, so each note lasts a only short time and is immediately followed by another. Now think of the experience of listening to this scale: a corresponding succession of auditory sensations, C-D-E-F…We hear each tone in turn, but we also hear each tone being followed by another. How could it be that memory is responsible for this experience of succession? One answer comes quickly to mind: when I hear the sequence C-D-E, I have an experience of tone C; this ends and I then hear D while simultaneously remembering hearing C; the experience of D gives way to the experience of E, and while I experience E, I simultaneously remember hearing C and D. But this basic proposal is clearly inadequate. Simply remembering having heard C while I hear D is not enough: this state of affairs is compatible with my having heard C hours or years previously. My memory must register the temporal distance between present and past experiences. What we need to account for is my (apparent) experience that D follows immediately on from C. Likewise for temporal order. I hear C then D then E. The experienced temporal order is something we need to account for. If we try to explain this simply by saying that when I hear E I do so whilst simultaneously remembering having heard C and D, this is compatible with D occurring before or even simultaneously with C. (124)


Dainton explains our capacity to know temporal depths in terms of us having beliefs about the temporal orders of past events and thus the depths between distant ones.

When I hear D, after hearing C, I have a memory of hearing C, and accompanying this memory is the belief that C has only just occurred. Similarly, when I hear E, I simultaneously remember hearing both C and D, and the memories of these earlier experiences are accompanied by beliefs: that C occurred just prior to D, and D occurred just prior to E. (125)

But this is incorrect, because we are not explicitly conscious of these beliefs; if we were, we would not be able to also focus on the changes themselves. And if these beliefs were unconscious, then how could we also be conscious of the changes that we observe by means of them?

Dainton then considers the possibility of that immediate short term memory, which is more vibrant than long term memory, could allow for both a durationless present and as well a perception of continuous change. Memory of distantly past things we can call to mind or try to forget. But we cannot do that with our still fresh retentional impressions. One explanation is that this is an involuntary memory. (126)

Dainton then produces an example to show that involuntary short term memory is not enough to explain the experience of change. He argument seems to go like this. Imagine we hear in succession notes C-D-E. We first hear C, and as we then hear D, we produce a short-term memory-image for C. We then hear E, and thereby also produce a short-term memory image for D. But in order to experience change, we need to also be aware not just of past experiences but also of their transition one to another. Thus when hearing E and forming an image of D, we as well form a short-term memory of C-being-followed-by-D. But supposedly we are only aware of the present instant, and upon this limitation still explain the experience of change. Well, if we are only aware of the present instant, then we cannot also be aware of the transition between them. We presume that we experience succession when in fact we were trying to argue that we do not experience more than one moment at once.

This is all rather speculative, but assuming that short-term experience-memory is distinctive, in the ways just outlined—which seems plausible—how might it be put to use in accounting for our experience of change? The account could run something like this. First I hear C; I then hear D, the experience of which is automatically accompanied by a short-term memory-image corresponding to my hearing C; I then hear E, and as I do so I have a short-term memory of C-being-followed-by-D. The problem here is that we have posited a short-term memory of an experience of succession: ‘C-being-followed-by-D’. The sort of experience which the memory-account is meant to eliminate and explain is in fact being presupposed: we cannot remember what we have not already experienced. Also, we must not lose sight of the fact that remembered (and imagined) experiences display the exactly same phenomeno-temporal characteristics as the original experiences. If I remember my experience of hearing C-D-E, three notes occur sequentially in my | auditory imagination. I can ‘replay’ the notes at will, faster or slower, but they always occur in sequence, and I always experience them as occurring in sequence, just as I did when I first heard them. If the memory theorist is prepared to admit that we are directly aware of succession when we remember and imagine, why not admit that we are directly aware of succession in ordinary experience? (127)

To solve this, the memory theorist might propose a model of nested short term memories [perhaps something akin to Husserl’s triangle diagram of retentional consciousness]. At note E, we are simultaneously remembering that we had note D, in which was nested its memory of note C, and so on. [So this explanation seems to regard the awareness of change as an awareness of the nestedness of moments and their order of nesting]

To avoid this problem, the memory theorist could posit nested shortterm memories. When I hear E, I do not have an accompanying memory of C-being-followed-by-D. Rather, as I experience E, I simultaneously have a short-term memory of hearing D, but this memory is not of the note D alone, it is a memory of hearing D whilst simultaneously having a short-term memory of just having heard C. But as with the belief theory, the complexity of this proposal counts against it. Simply hearing the sequence C-D-E does not seem to involve intricate compound memories of the required sort. (127)

Dainton then distinguishing two sorts of claims in these matters: the weak claim says that “experiential memory plays a central and indispensable role in temporal awareness. The strong claim is that temporal awareness is wholly the product of experiential memory.” (127) If we take the strong position, that means when we experience a brief tone C, we know that it extended past a number of instants, and this on account of their remembered layers of nestings. Dainton thinks this is implausible. He cannot conceive of a durationless experience, and he finds it hard to believe that our experience of duration depends on a vast number of nested retentions.

This last point relates to a deeper difficulty. We can distinguish two claims, one weak, one strong. The weak claim is that experiential memory plays a central and indispensable role in temporal awareness. The strong claim is that temporal awareness is wholly the product of experiential memory. The various proposals we have considered thus far are all versions of the weaker claim. Why? Because of the example we have been working with: the sequence of tones C-D-E. Each of these individual tones has (it was stipulated) a short but noticeable duration, i.e. a duration which is directly experienced. Since the weak claim recognizes that some experiences possess genuine temporal depth, it falls short of full anti-realism; it amounts only to partial anti-realism. The strong memory theory is fully anti-realist. If phenomenal temporality is wholly the product of memory, there can be no direct experience (or memory) of duration or change whatsoever. This means that our experience of even a single brief tone must be explained in terms of involuntary short-term memories. But memories of what? The answer must be: a succession of strictly durationless experiences. My experience of the tone C consists of a large (infinite?) number of momentary durationless experiences, each (except the first) being accompanied by a large number of nested involuntary short-term memories of other momentary experiences. And what holds of the single tone C also holds of the experience of C-being-followed-by-D. This proposal suffers from a very severe plausibility problem. On the one hand, it is hard to believe that we are not immediately aware of some duration in experience. Is a strictly durationless auditory experience even possible? On the other hand, we are being asked to believe that our experience of duration depends on vast numbers of nested momentary memory-images (for it should not be forgotten that the short-term memories must themselves be durationless). This too is very hard to believe. On hearing the succession of tones C-D-E, are we aware of vast numbers of constantly changing momentary memories? I think not. (127)

[In other cases Dainton does not seem to regard what is difficult to imagine or conceive to be necessarily incorrect. We might here want more argumentation to show why these positions cannot be so or probably are not so.]

5.5 Pulses and binding

We now look at the weak claim, which again says that “we are directly aware of the duration of individual tones (such as C, D and E), and memory only comes into the picture to explain our (apparent) experience of one tone being succeeded by another.” But because we can be directly aware of durations, that means our consciousness might occur not in instants but in pulses [I suppose in thicker presents].

If we can be directly aware of the duration of single tones (of the right duration), we can presumably be similarly directly aware of other forms of experience: short stretches of thought, visual experience, and so forth. We are thus led to the view that consciousness itself occurs in short pulses, each of which is experienced as a whole, from which it is but a short step to the view that a stream of consciousness consists of a succession of such pulses, each a short-lived total experience. (128)


We see such a view in Whitehead’s ‘actual entities’ or ‘actual occasion’ which are drops of experience that make up the world, but they do not come into being part by part but rather all at once as wholes. Timothy Sprigge also has a similar idea of ‘momentary centres of experience’ that are not instantaneous but have a duration because they contain earlier and later phases. “Despite allowing qualitative changes within single momentary centres to be directly experienced, Sprigge denies that the transition from one momentary centre to another can be experienced in the same way: all experience is confined within discrete experiential units.” (128)

But in this pulse model, we need to know how we are aware of them happening in succession [assuming it seems that these models do not include co-consciousness]. It could be memory that links them, but we saw that this is problematic. Instead, the end of pulse 1 [C-D] and the beginning of pulse 2 [E-F] might be qualitatively similar not just in auditory respects but also in others [other elements of the experience might remain the same, for example sensations on our body from the chair we sit in through both pulses]. Even so, Dainton does not think this can account for our uninterrupted flow of consciousness. (128)

In pulse theory, we are aware of some transitions and not others, so between C and D, and between E and F, and yet D to E was supposedly of the same nature. But pulse theory would distinguish them, which makes it hard to explain the whole continuity of C-D-E-F. (129)

More generally, we are constantly aware of phenomenal contents undergoing passage, there is a constant flow and continual renewal of content. This experienced passage is both continuous and homogeneous: when we witness a continuous change, to the extent that we are directly aware of the change occurring, we are aware of every part and portion of it in the same way. If experience were packaged into discrete units, this would not be the case. Move your hand slowly but smoothly across your field of vision. At each moment you see your hand at a different position; you also see your hand continuously moving. Not only is the movement continuous, but your experience of the movement is continuous: you are directly aware of every perceivable change in your hand’s location in the same way. Or imagine hearing a succession of fast clicks. You have an immediate awareness of each individual click, in that you do not hear part of a click and remember or anticipate hearing the rest of it. The click as a whole is apprehended. But is it not the case that each click (except the first and last) is experienced with its immediate predecessor and successor? Is not each click co-conscious with its immediate neighbours? These fact suggests an important principle: that each brief phase of a stream of consciousness is phenomenally bound to the adjacent (co-streamal) phases. (129)

Dainton then has us consider a thought experiment. A copy of ourselves is in another room, but each of us on our own is watching a pendulum swing. It has a series of moments. But the moments are indistinguishable for both of us. That means according to the pulse theory, we could ever other moment insert the moment that our copy is having simultaneously [because pulse theory regards moment groupings as independent and secondly conjoined. But Dainton’s co-consciousness regards each moment already conjoined with its neighbors. So pulse theory can interchange the moments, which seems absurd, as it becomes unclear how one moment will pass in continuity to the next insofar as we are having an experience of the continuity of time and not just of the phenomenal contents of time. But Dainton’s theory would say that for continuity to happen you need just one continuously conjoined stream.]

Dainton then shows how this divided consciousness cannot explain a synchronic phenomenon. If we take half our visual field and the other half from out copy, that does not make a single experience. Dainton then wonders if it is not also the case for diachronic experiences. (131)


Dainton then considers a possible situation that could challenge his binding principle. If the world were to freeze and then resume, there would be a temporal gap between the moments, but presumably in our consciousness we were perceive continuity. (131)

He then distinguishes total cessations without binding and total cessations with binding. Those without binding would not be noticed because the connections never are experienced in the first place. But those with binding would notice something strange had happened, since the binding would have been compromised. (131)

The pulse theory fails in this respect, and this failure results in an inadequate description of the stream of consciousness. (131d)

5.6 A conflict of principles

Daintong will consider another reason for rejecting realism about phenomenal extension. “ No one denies that we experience change, so why would anyone be tempted to deny that consciousness extends some short way through time?” (132)


Phenomenologists of time often assume an awareness-content structure. (132)

William James thought that a succession of feelings is not itself a feeling of succession, and this feeling needs to be added and account for. We must know the past with the present in the present. (132)

In the chapter of James’ (1952) Principles devoted to the perception of time, there is a section entitled The feeling of past time is a present feeling’. James here discusses (and seems to endorse) a principle concerning the experience of time that has been regarded as self-evident by many philosophers and psychologists. [Dainton quoting James:]

between the mind’s own changes being successive, and knowing their own succession, lies as broad a chasm as between the object and subject of any case of cognition in the world. A succession of feelings, in and of itself, is not a feeling of succession. And since, to our successive feelings, a feeling of their own succession is added, that must be treated as an additional fact requiring its own special elucidation…. what is past, and known as past, must be known with what is present, and during the ‘present’ spot of time.

James also quotes a passage from James Ward:

‘In a succession of events, say of sense-impressions A B C D E…, the presence of B means the absence of A and C, but the presentation of this succession involves the simultaneous presence in some mode or other of two or more of the presentations A B C D. In reality, past, present and future are differences in time, but in presentation all that corresponds to these is in consciousness simultaneously.’ (132)

Dainton has us consider first we see a flash of red and then a flash of green: R and G. When we see G we are simultaneously aware of having seen R, but not vice versa, because G does not happen yet when we see R. So the feeling of past time is a feeling or awareness happening in the present.

Miller (1984:109) calls this The Principle of Simultaneous Awareness, or PSA. This label is in one way apt, in another it is misleading. It is misleading in that R is not experienced as occurring simultaneously with G. The two flashes are not perceived to happen at the same time: they are perceived to happen in succession, first R then G. The label is apt in that as G occurs, one is simultaneously aware of R as having just occurred. (133)

Many who hold to PSA also subscribe to an awareness-content model and assume awareness is point-like and momentary. (133) But if we accept that experience is temporally extended, that means we are simultaneously aware of the first and the second half of the experience. But then those who follow PSA [and as well assume that experience is temporally extended] must claim that an act that apprehends temporally extended experiences is itself momentary. Also, we are aware of continuous successions. It is not enough for the past to be simultaneous with the present for us to be aware of its continuous flow. So following this line of reasoning, if we are aware of flow, then we are aware of some temporal extent in the flow. (134)

Now we wonder something. Assume PSA and the awareness content model. We see the sequence of flashes R-G and at G we experience something that provides us with an experience of their succession. What could this be? There seems to be realist and anti-realist possibilities.

The realist would say that somehow when we are aware of G, although our awareness is the momentary, it somehow has in its scope the extended duration across the appearings of R and G. But this goes counter to what Miller calls The Principle of Presentational Concurrence (PPC) which says that:

the duration of a content being presented is concurrent with the duration of the act of presenting it…the time interval occupied by a content which is before the mind is the very same time interval which is occupied by the act of presenting that very content. (1984:107)

Dainton thinks this seems plausible. (134)

If we take the anti-realist position, that means we “deny that the momentary awareness whose content is the succession R-G actually extends into the past.” (134) In this case, to be aware of the succession R-G means that we instantaneously apprehend both G and a representation of R and not R itself. 

If consciousness does lack any genuine temporal depth, then an account along these lines seems unavoidable, assuming adherence to PSA. At any instant, we are apprehending a content which although instantaneous also represents or encodes a temporal spread of phenomena, such as a sequence of notes or a perceived movement. When these contents are apprehended, in a momentary act of experiencing, the result is an awareness of a temporal spread of phenomena. A stream of consciousness consists of a continuous succession of these momentary acts of awareness, each apprehending a representation of a temporal spread of phenomena. For obvious reasons, I will call accounts of this type representational anti-realisms. Are such accounts in conformity with PPC? In one sense they are: the awareness I have at any given instant is instantaneous and only apprehends an instantaneous part of my stream of consciousness. In another and more important sense they are not: at any typical instant my experience seems to be temporally extended, for example I am perceiving an extended tone, or an object moving some short distance within my field of vision, so the content of my awareness has at least an apparent temporal depth, a depth which is not possessed by my awareness itself. (135)

Dainton concludes this chapter:

The discussion of this section has suggested at least this much: PSA and the awareness-content model of consciousness are natural partners. For whether we accommodate PSA in a realist or anti-realist fashion, we are positing momentary acts of awareness with phenomenal contents that are non-momentary. If either type of account proves viable, proponents of the A-thesis would be back in business. (135)



Barry Dainton. Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.


No comments:

Post a Comment