25 Jan 2014

Dainton’s “The Experience of Time and Change”, summary

by Corry Shores
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[Except for quotation, the following is summary. All underlining, boldface, and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so mistakes are still currently present.]

Summary of


Barry Dainton

“The Experience of Time and Change”


What does the experience of time and change got to do with you?

We are living here and now, and we experience the presence of the things around us. Although our minds are often flooded with memories, we never actually leave our present experience. This experienced present is the source out of which all the content of our lives flows. Now, in the world around us, the moments that have passed seem to be gone forever, leaving only remnants or imprints of themselves in the present, or show themselves in their causal effects on current conditions, like how a devastating war for a long time continues to adversely affect the economic conditions that people must endure. But in our experience of the present, what has very recently just happened stays here and now, like when a car speeds by and we see a blurry visual trail of where it just was. What does this mean about our consciousness and the world around us? Do our minds have a temporal power of keeping things present which no longer exist? -Not just in memory, but really present in actuality? Or is the car physically in two distant places in the same present time? Or is perhaps the thickness of the present just an illusion, and thus the flow of time just an illusion, that is produced because our recent memories are so vibrant that they trick us into thinking the immediate past really still is present? In other words, is our current moment of experience something that causes us to create the time of our lives, where otherwise there would be no flow of time, or do our minds tell us that in reality objects can be in two places at once, like the frontmost and backmost position in the thick blur following the car?

Very Brief Summary

We experience the present not as an instant but as a small slice of time’s ongoing passage. This is the specious present. Some models of phenomenal time regard the present moment to really only be an instant, but, by means of retentions of recently  past moments, the present just seems to have a thickness. This poses a number of problems. Other models see the present as really being extended, and so they do not suffer from these problems. Danton proposes one such extensionalist model, the overlap model. It has just one unitary flowing present of consciousness and thus does not suffer from problems that models might have when they regard each moment of consciousness as numerically distinct from the others.

Brief Summary


Nearly all theorists of phenomenal time agree that we experience the passage of time during a present that seems to have a temporal thickness. What is unclear is whether that thickness is real or an illusion produced through the vibrancy of immediate retentions. Those who argue that the present moment of consciousness has no thickness, and is thus an extensionless instant, argue that the past is retained in a diminishing series of retentional impressions. One problem with this is the problem of surplus contents. There would be an infinity of retentions if each act of consciousness is infinitely thin, but we do not experience such complexity in our experience of the present. Moreover, a specious present might be no more than a second long, but if it is divided into smaller experience that when each happened were also a second long, then to be retentionally aware of them all in the present moment would mean having much more than a second’s worth of experience all given in an instant.  Another issue is the problem of discontinuous acts of present awareness: if each present act is experienced in isolation, but the present itself is experienced as a fluid connection of such isolated presents, how do we account for their experienced connection? This is similar to  the  problem of the “unrealistic fragmentation (or atomization) of the stream of consciousness.” A current momentary act of awareness might be retentionally aware of a small chain of prior moments. The succeeding moment will be of next more recent chain. But without the experience of connection between acts of awareness, each little chain would be its own individual and independent stream of consciousness, when in reality we only experience one. And such a retentional model, like Broad’s early one, that has a momentary present act being conscious of a spread of contents going back from the present to moments prior to it, may also have the moments overlap so that they have shared intermediaries, which would explain the phenomenon of temporal continuity. However, this would also imply that we hear the shared content in the overlapping acts, and thus hear it more than once, when in fact we just hear it once. This would be the problem of surplus-to-requirements content (elsewhere called the problem of repeated contents). Also, if the retentional model is like Husserl’s where the present moment retains a number of prior moments along with each one’s own retentions along with their retentions and so on, then it would have what he calls elsewhere the problem of clogging of consciousness. Dainton proposes his extensional overlap model, which says that the present experience extends over a brief extent of time. Each step along the progress of the present overlaps a little with its neighbors. But its neighboring moments are not distinct moments. They are the same moment flowing through the present, and the present has a future-most end and a past-most end. Because there is just one flowing moment whose successive yet co-present parts overlap with those in its other temporal phases, it does not run into any of the above four problems, which resulted from viewing time as momentary rather then overlapping.

Abstract [Quoting:]

Can we directly experience change? Although some philosophers have denied it, the phenomenological evidence is unambiguous: we can, and do. But how is this possible? What structures or features of consciousness render such experience possible? A variety of very different answers to this question have been proposed, answers which have very different implications for the nature of consciousness itself. In this brief survey no attempt is made to engage with the often complex (and sometimes obscure) literature on this topic. Instead, a largely schematic examination of the main options is conducted, with a view to determining the most promising avenues for further investigation.


[1]. Passage, Experience, and Paradox

Regardless of one’s theoretical framework regarding the nature of time, Dainton notes and asks: “while the debate on this issue continues, there is one thing both sides agree upon: time certainly seems to pass. Why is this? What accounts for the appearance of temporal passage?” (Dainton 619)

Dainton notes some examples of time perception which involves the role of memory in discerning time’s passage. We are in a waiting room for a 10.30 appointment. We check the clock and see it is 10.20, then go back to our magazine.

Thoughts of this kind essentially depend upon the memories we have of our own past experiences. In this instance, as you saw the clock showing 10.20 you also remembered what it showed the last time you glanced at it – 10.15 – and what it showed on the occasion before that: 10.05 (alas, you arrived quite early). In the absence of such memories you would lack the sense you have – the knowledge you have – that now (at 10.20) you have less time to wait than you did a short while ago, and hence that time has passed since you first entered the waiting room. (Dainton 620a)

It is similar for longer time periods, for example children counting down the days to Christmas. There is also the case of brain damage which prevents the ability to record new memories, because impressions are forgotten just a minute after they are made present. Such people are locked in a continual present.

Consider the plight of a certain (fictional) NN, who was unfortunate enough to be struck down with this condition at 2pm on 1 May 1975. More than thirty years have passed since the accident, but for NN it is still (and will remain) 2pm on Mayday in 1975: with every passing minute he is ‘reborn’ at precisely this time. Not for nothing are such patients sometimes described as ‘marooned in time’. (620)

Yet memory is not the only way we perceive temporal passage. There is another factor, our immediate experience of change, which gives us the phenomenon of time in its ongoing and active passing.

Time itself is not something we can perceive – we do not have a sensory organ that can discern time per se – but we can perceive something intimately related to time, namely change. Returning to the dentist’s waiting room, let us suppose that the clock is now showing 10.29, and for the past minute or so you have been intently observing the steady advance of the second-hand around the clock face. Whereas previously you inferred the passage of time, relying on the time currently visible and recollections of earlier showings, now you are – in a fashion – directly perceiving the passage of time. As the second-hand moves past the hour, you see it sweep past the ‘12’ before sliding smoothly on to the ‘1’ then the ‘2’. Its motion is just as obvious, just as visible, as its colour or shape. This sort of case is far from unique: the perception of change is commonplace. There are things which move too fast for us to see (a moving bullet, the beating of insect-wings), and there are others that are too slow (the hour-hand of a clock, a plant’s growth) but between these extremes motion is readily perceivable. Not only perceivable, but in many instances clearly and cleanly perceivable. A fast-moving train may appear blurred when viewed from close range, but when viewed from farther away there is no blurring at all. (620)

In addition to passage, we also immediately perceive persistence. “Think of the way a pain (or a sound, or many other | phenomena) can be experienced as continuing on, even if its character remains exactly the same.” (620-621)

Yet philosophers do not agree whether change is perceived directly or by means of memory. Thomas Reid for example thinks that memory is required to perceive the motion of bodies.

it is only by the aid of memory that we discern motion, or any succession whatsoever. We see the present place of the body; we remember the successive advance it made to that place: the first can, then, only give us a conception of motion, when joined to the last. (236–7) [Reid T. Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man. Ed. J. Walker. Boston, MA: Derby, 1855, pp.236-7] (qt in Dainton 621)

However, Dainton turns to phenomenological evidence which suggests the opposite.

To illustrate yet again: compare what it is like to look at a still photograph of a racehorse in full flight, with a playback of a video recording of the same event – it is not for nothing that the term ‘moving image’ is used in connection with the cinema. (621)

[It is not clear to me why Reid’s account does not also explain the experience of cinema. In fact, the appeal to memory images is a classic way of explaining this phenomenon.]

So it is not obvious how to explain the phenomenon of time’s passage. Reid has cause for his position. Memories give us access to the past while our senses tell us strictly about the present. And the present understood strictly is no longer than an instant, for as Augustine wonders, were the present to extend, it would have earlier and later parts, how could both be present?

Dainton then formulates this matter as a paradox. On the one hand time seems to not allow for the direct perception of change, however our phenomenological data tell us without a doubt that we do directly perceive change [and not mediated by inference, deduced logically, like with the first doctor appointment example].

So we are confronted with a difficult, perhaps paradoxical, predicament. Reid’s reasoning leads directly to the conclusion that we cannot possibly be directly aware of change or persistence, but the phenomenological data is equally clear and unequivocal: we often are directly aware of change and persistence. (Dainton 621d)

[2.] Steps towards the Specious Present

Dainton will now consider accounts to explain our phenomenal experience of change. He will begin with one that will not work in the end.

Suppose Reid is right in his assumption that our awareness is confined to a single point of time. Let us further suppose – as Reid evidently did – that this momentary awareness only apprehends a momentary event (or content). It is clear that a single awareness of this sort would not and could not apprehend motion or any other form of change. (622)

[[Is it possible that a momentary awareness could be aware of the newness of the present moment if it is different from a retained just-prior one?]] Yet our awareness is continuous, for stretches as long as hours at a time. Dainton wonders if a punctual consciousness is capable of perceiving a continuous stretch of time which is sufficient for perceiving a change.

We take Reid’s assumption that our awareness is confined to a single point of time. We also take his assumption that “this momentary awareness only apprehends a momentary event (or content).” (622) Clearly this limited perception alone is incapable of perceiving change. Dainton has us consider the “Moving Beam” Model (fig. 1), in which the beam of awareness has no temporal depth but it is continually advancing because it is continually ‘switched on’. Dainton wonders if such an experience be capable of allowing for the phenomena of change and persistence.

But we know that our consciousness is not so confined: we are able to remain continuously aware, usually for hours at a time. Is a consciousness that is punctal [sic] but also continuous for some stretch of time sufficient to supply a subject with the experience of change? This ‘Moving Beam’ model – as we might call it – is depicted in Fig. 1. The depicted ‘beam’ of awareness has no temporal depth, but perhaps this does not matter. By virtue of the fact that it is continuously advancing – continually ‘switched on’, as it were – it will produce an experience that is itself continuous. Wouldn’t such an experience be capable of encompassing change or persistence? (622)

Dainton. Experience fig 1

Fig. 1 from Barry Dainton´s ¨The Experience of Time and Change,¨ Philosophy Compass 3/4 (2008), p.622.

Dainton will give an example to show that things are not like this diagram suggests. Consider if we were to listen to a violin making a tone that is rising continually. Dainton says that to perceive in the smallest change in pitch, we would need more than a momentary awareness of it. [[This would not be so, however, if we could perceive infinitely small pieces of change, small cuts of variation in the flow of time which are so brief as to be indivisible but yet more than a mere cut. It would be something in between, like the instant as understood in the application infinitesimal calculus to  physics, which measures instantaneous velocities transpiring during instants. There is no actual motion, because time has not passed. However, there is a virtual change, because this infinitely small moment does not mark merely a location in time where the object was at a location in space. Rather, this instant contains the smallest possible piece of location change, infinitely small and brief, which is like a pure variation, as if it were between points rather than on one (or on two immediately neighboring points, which is conceivable in this infinitesimal framework because no space intervenes between immediately neighboring points).]] Now, in our model, we are only perceiving a single moment, which can only give us the tone at a specific pitch. We would need more than one to perceive it changing from one pitch to another. So this model by itself is not enough to explain the perception of change.

Suppose you are listening to a gradually rising tone (played on a violin, say). The rate of change is such that you can hear the tone continuing to sound, and continuously rising in pitch as it does so. In order for you to be able to directly apprehend even the smallest portion of this change your awareness has to take in more than a single moment of content: you must, in some manner, be aware of a temporally extended segment of the tone (even if the segment is very brief ). But on the view we are currently considering your consciousness never apprehends more than a momentary (or durationless) phase of the tone. Again, it may seem this does not matter. Momentary apprehensions taken individually cannot furnish you with an experience of a steadily rising pitch, but wouldn’t a continuous succession of them do | so? (622-623)

However, if we increase the number momentary apprehensions in this model, we do not improve our account of the direct perception of time. For, we still need to apprehend the moments together synthetically in order to perceive change. However, this cannot be done in just an instant which would only be capable of apprehending just an instant’s worth of content [this does not include memories, which are treated in a different model. To illustrate, we might examine the ‘exploded view’ (fig. 2) which multiplies the present instants and places no temporal gap between them. The problem is that they are all still experienced in isolation, but to sense passage, we need to experience them together in a single act of awareness.

But increasing the number of instantaneous contents changes nothing. It would change everything if some of these contents were apprehended together, as parts of a (temporally) extended content that is apprehended as temporally extended. But in the context of the Moving Beam model the required synthesis or combination is entirely lacking. By hypothesis, your consciousness consists of nothing but a series of entirely distinct pointlike apprehensions of point-like contents. These momentary experiences may be so densely packed that there is no temporal gap between them – in the manner depicted in the solid block in Fig. 2. But this manner of packaging does not alter the key fact that the constituents of this experience-filled period of time are instantaneous tone-phases, each of which is experienced in complete isolation – see the ‘exploded’ view in Fig. 2, where each descending line represents a distinct (and isolated) momentary awareness. It has long been recognized that a succession of experiences is one thing, and an experience of succession is quite another – or as William James put it: ‘A succession of feelings, in and of itself, is not a feeling of succession’ (628 [James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York, NY: Dover, 1890.]). The Moving Beam model is oblivious to this distinction, and that is why it fails. The moving ray of awareness generates a succession of experiences, but nothing more. (623)

Dainton. Experience fig 2

Fig. 2 from p.623 of Barry Dainton´s ¨The Experience of Time and Change,¨ Philosophy Compass 3/4 (2008)

Dainton then suggests those who take the exploded model [with an instantaneous present] might appeal to the illusion of motion that results from the rapid succession of still images in film and television. When still images move quickly like this, there is the phi phenomenon, which is the illusion or the phenomenon of motion.  The Moving Beam theorist cannot appeal to this phenomena to explain our perception of motion, because [although the model might suggest it] the images are not given phenomenally in their still form; we only perceive them as a continuous motion [[when we see something moving, we are never aware of all the snapshot still positions of the object through which it is passing. However, the Beam model might not necessarily carry the assumption that the individual still images are individually discernible. The point as we will see with the retentional model is that there is a series of retained images that instead of being discerned individually are all given simultaneously and blurred together. So using Dainton’s train example, there is a blurry trail because the prior still moments are overlaying upon the current one and blending together indiscernibly because the temporal gap between them is too fast for our minds to be able to notice]]. So we cannot count each still image as a discrete experience, even though it may itself be a brief perceptual stimuli. And thus we cannot say that we experience each still image individually in an instant and secondarily the phi phenomenon creates the illusion of their movement, because we never in the first place had a phenomenal impression of them in their still form.  [[The phi phenomenon is a phenomenon of motion itself, as if divorced from the things that seemingly move. See Galifret, Y. ‘Visual persistence and cinema?’ Comptes Rendus Biologies 329 (2006): 369–85, cited in Dainton’s footnotes, see in particular page 371 column B: “In the case of two geometrical figures (rectangles for instance), with short intervals, inferior to 30 ms, both figures are perceived as in simultaneity. With intervals above 200 ms, they are perceived in succession and, between 30 and 200 ms, the optimum of movement perception is around 60 ms: a single moving object. Between optimal movement and succession, Wertheimer described a curious perception of pure movement that he named phi, ‘just a movement, not a moving across something’, said the subjects..” Also see Wayne Weiten’s Psychology: Themes and Variations. Wertheimer flashed an image in one position then in a distant position. Within a certain threshold of time between flashes, it would seem neither that the object itself moves continuously from one place to another other nor that the two images are unrelated by motion; rather, the subject somehow had the impression of movement between the images, not of the object itself moving, but of its movement itself transpiring without being visually apparent.]]

The experience of watching a collection of still photographs of an event (e.g. a lively football match) is obviously very different in character from the experience of watching the event itself, or a video recording of it. But it is also true that if we are shown a collection of still images in rapid succession, and each successive images depicts the action at a slightly later stage (e.g. a 20th of a second later), the images can come alive: all of a sudden we find ourselves seeing things move (e.g. the striker embark on a run towards goal). This well-known effect – first explored systematically by Exner in the 19th century, sometimes called ‘illusory motion’, but also ‘the phi phenomenon’ – underpins the television and cinema industries: for all that is actually displayed on a | TV or movie screen is a rapid succession of still images. Returning to our theme, can the Moving Beam theorist appeal to this phenomenon to explain how a series of durationless episodes of awareness, each having momentary (and hence static) contents, can combine to produce phenomenally dynamic experience – experience which includes change, succession and persistence? Once again, the answer is ‘no’. The phi phenomenon does not show that a succession of momentary (or very brief) experiences with static contents can combine to generate an experience of motion. Why? Because the still images displayed onscreen do not register in consciousness at all – or at least, not as still images. All we actually see onscreen as the player moves towards goal is smooth motion: the still images have no phenomenological reality whatsoever. What the phi phenomenon does show is that a series of brief perceptual stimuli, each corresponding to a static image, can be taken by our perceptual systems and transformed, after much neural processing, into dynamic phenomenal sequences. These stimuli are not themselves experiences, they are merely patterns of photons impinging in our retinas. (Dainton 623-624)

Thus the Moving Beam model fails to explain our perception of change, so we must seek an alternative. The problem with it is that experience is limited to durationless phases that can neither themselves contain temporally extended contents [as they last no longer than an instant] nor can they combine to make a temporally extended experience [because they are each experienced in exclusion of one another.] But to perceive change, we need to have experiences that are temporally extended or that perceive a temporal extension. The brief temporally extended duration of our present awareness is called ‘the specious present.’ The are primarily two ways that the specious present has been modeled (fig. 3). The horizontal line can mean one of two things, depending on ones view of the nature of perception and the sort of experience in question. [If one believes that events continue momentarily but the specious present of consciousness extends, then] it can represent a temporally extended stretch of phenomenal content or [if one believes that events continue in an extended present but consciousness either extends or is a snapshot moment within the continuous passage of consciousness then] it can represent temporally extended external events. Dainton will use the term ‘contents’ to mean either what is in the flow of events or what is in the flow of perception. Both camps believe there is a specious present of awareness and contemporary theorist think it is around a second or less in duration. In the extensional approach the specious present is horizontal “running parallel to ordinary time”, where in the retentional approach it is vertical “or or orthogonal to ordinary time”. Each camp offers a fundamentally different way of accounting for time in our experiences. Extensional theorists think that our present consciousness extends across a section of objective time where retentional theorists hold that our awareness never itself extends beyond a durationless present.

Extensional theorists take a simple and direct approach: they hold that our awareness (or consciousness) itself extends a short distance through ordinary objective time. Retentional theorists take a different tack: they hold that our awareness is confined within momentary (or very brief ) episodes of experiencing, but they also hold that these momentary episodes of experiencing seem to extend over temporal intervals, and hence can contain change and persistence. The appearance of temporal depth is a direct consequence of the contents contained in a specious present. (625)

In the diagram (fig. 3) for the Retentional model, the diamond on the line is the our momentary awareness (what Husserl calls the primal impression) and the rest of the vertical line “corresponds to a series of representations of the subject’s recent experiences – Husserl often called these ‘retentions’,” with the diagonals being the backward looking retentions  (625). “This combination of presentations and retentions seemingly possesses phenomenal depth: together they provide us with the sense that we are directly experiencing change and persistence.” (625) [[The phenomenon of temporal depth gives us the impression that time spans between distant moments.]] Yet, Retentionists do not think that retentions are a sort of short–term memory; they think that retentions have their own distinctive traits. Unlike regular memories, we cannot summon retentions at will, thus “we cannot choose the manner in which we experience change” (625). Also, retentions have their own distinct phenomenal character, and they “contribute the vast bulk of our immediate or impressional experience of change.” [Since their phenomenal character is distinct from memory]

It follows from this that their character must be very different from that of ordinary memories. After all, we are never in any danger of confusing even the most vivid of ordinary memories with our current perceptual experiences – a remembered toothache and a currently-being-felt toothache do not occupy the same phenomenological stage, as it were, for they have very different phenomenal characteristics. (625)

Dainton. Experience fig 3

Fig. 3 from p.624 of Barry Dainton´s ¨The Experience of Time and Change,¨ Philosophy Compass 3/4 (2008)

So we see that Extensionalists completely reject the idea of present consciousness being limited to a durationless instant while Retentionists are much less hostile toward that notion. (625-626) Retentions do not necessarily think that our stream of consciousness is composed of discrete moments of awareness, however they do think that the experience of change is one where we are in an instant aware simultaneously of a number of past impressions. Both sides however believe that the specious present is a structural feature of consciousness [and that structural feature is the fixity of a present awareness through which a stream of contents flows]. Dainton quotes James for a description of this structure and gives a diagram for it, fig. 4:

Its content is in a constant flux, events dawning into its forward end as fast as they fade out of its rearward one . . . Meanwhile, the specious present, the intuited duration, stands permanent, like the rainbow on the waterfall, with its own quality unchanged by the events that stream through it. (630) [James 630] (Dainton 626)

Dainton. Experience fig 4

Fig. 4 from p.626 of Barry Dainton´s ¨The Experience of Time and Change,¨ Philosophy Compass 3/4 (2008)

But although both camps agree [that there is a fixed present though which a flow of contents streams by], they construe this fixed structure, the specious present, in fundamentally different ways. (626)

James himself construed the specious present both extensionally and retentionally. “The fact that James himself (seemingly) entertained both models legitimizes adopting a fairly liberal policy on what can count as an account of the specious present” (626).

[3.] Retentional Approaches: Strengths and Weaknesses

Dainton explains: “Retentional theorists explain our experience of change and persistence in terms of presently existing (momentary) contents that are apprehended together.” This means that somehow simultaneously given contents appear as though in succession. One advantage of the retentional model is that we already recognize the synchronic phenomenal unity of sense data given at any given moment. The retentional model could just build from this familiar trait of present appearings. The other advantage is that our common sense seems to tell us that the real present in time cannot have a duration, and thus it would seem also that the present of our consciousness would also not have a duration. This position is called Presentism.

Many of us find it natural to think that only the present is properly or fully or properly real: the past is over and done with, the future has yet to occur, reality in the fullest sense is confined to what is happening now. If reality is confined to the present, and if – as widely assumed – the present has no duration, then it seems we have no option but to adopt the Retentional approach: for presumably, if reality is confined to momentary phases, so too is our consciousness. Of course, this conception of time – Presentism – may be congenial from the standpoint of common sense, but this does not mean it is correct; as noted earlier, the four-dimensional conception of reality currently has many aficionados. Nonetheless, if we want an account of temporal consciousness which is neutral with regard to the different metaphysical options concerning the character of objective time, we need an account which is at least compatible with Presentism, and only the Retentional approach can offer anything approaching this. (627)

Dainton will now consider a simplified version of one of Broad’s accounts to illustrate the retentional model.

Dainton. Experience fig 5
Fig. 5 from p.628 of Barry Dainton´s ¨The Experience of Time and Change,¨ Philosophy Compass 3/4 (2008)

We first consider a series of very brief tones A, B, C, D … G, H, [see fig. 5 above]. Each tone sounds during a particular phase of experience, here noted as P1, P2, P3…P8. Before hearing tone A, we experienced silence. In P1, we just hear A. In P2, we now hear B, along with a representation or retention of A, and thus we hear both. But even though we experience B simultaneously with A in P2, we still perceive them as happening in succession. To explain how they do not get mixed up in our awareness, Broad posits an existential property ‘presentedness’. A phenomenal content will have less of this quality the further in the past it is in relation to the present. The diminishing font size in the diagram indicates lessening presentness, so by P8, tone A is very faint, but the most recent predecessor G has the most presentedness. (628) The diagram also shows how the presentedness of retentions declines past a threshold when they are no longer perceived in the specious present. Note for example how B-C has left from present experience. But as they diminish, they do so relatively to one another in their order in the chain of succession. So retention B will always have less presentedness than retention C, no matter how old they both are.

In each successive instance C possesses slightly less presentedness, but it always possesses slightly more than B: in this manner the original temporal ordering of contents is preserved as they pass through the retentional domain. (628)

This retentional account leads to some problems. But we first recall the problem of past contents being perceived simultaneously but still somehow having temporal depth. The Retentionalist offers a two dimensional model of time consciousness in hopes of resolving this problem. Consciousness can be momentary objectively but deep phenomenally because the retentional depth is orthogonal to the flow of objective time.

how can E-D-C-B-A appear as successive, given that they occur simultaneously? Although this question might seem dangerous in the extreme, Retentional theorists have an effective reply. What they are proposing, in effect, is a two-dimensional account of time. This much is implicit in the standard Retentionalist diagrams: ordinary external time runs horizontally, phenomenal time – or the dimension of experienced depth or succession – is situated at right-angles to ordinary time. In virtue of this, each moment of ordinary clock time has zero objective depth but it potentially contains a full specious present’s worth of phenomenal depth – enough to contain our immediate experience of change and persistence. By positing this complex (2D) temporal structure the menace of simultaneity is averted. (629)

There are some problems with this account. What is the phenomenal property of presentedness? It cannot simply be something like Hume’s ‘force and vivacity’, because a whispered hello does not sound like it is in the past in comparison with a shouted one.

How is the additional dimension created? Broad appeals to different degrees of the phenomenal property presentedness, but he does not say how it functions. Might it be something akin to Hume’s ‘force and vivacity’? It better not be, for this would not do the job required. A whispered ‘Hello’ has less force and vivacity than a shouted ‘Hello’, but does it seem to be located in anywhere other than the present? (629)

[[Later Dainton defines presence in his opposing extensional model as being like Hume’s force and vivacity: “All phenomenal contents can be said to possess presence as and when they occur, if by this we simply mean they possess their fullest measure of force and vivacity, in Hume’s sense.” (632) In the case of the retentional model, force and vivacity cannot be an indicator of how less present something is, because less vibrant present things do not seem to occur in the past. But in the extensional model, present things have a maximum force and vibrancy and all things which maintain that maximum force and vibrancy are in our specious present. So in the extensional model, a softly spoken Hello uttered in the present will have even less force and vibrancy after it leaves the present. It would seem then that Dainton’s retentional model still allows for idea of presentedness in the context of contents no longer in the present. The idea of presentedness just has no meaning in the context of the present. One important point of contention between the models would seem to be this. The extensional model would say that a present moment and its present successor have equal force and vibrancy, while the retentional model would say it has very slightly less vibrant. Could the retentional model not say that it is indiscernibly less vibrant? If so, there would seem to be no phenomenological basis to determine which model is truer to our experiences.]]

Dainton says that because it is so difficult to explain how a phenomenal quality could account for how contents get pushed into the past, that we should not think of it as a phenomenal quality at all. Dainton says that Broad probably understood presentedness as a primitive feature of experience that cannot be reduced to other terms, so it need not have further explanation. “If we cannot explain phenomenal colour in other terms, why expect it to be otherwise with presentedness?”  (Dainton 629)

The second problem is much more difficult to resolve. If each present is an instant, then even within one second of specious presence there must be a near infinity of them [moments between A and B and C etc.etc that are implied but not shown in the diagram]. But we do not experience the present as being made up of an infinity of impressions.

Returning again to the example of the rising violin tone, if we suppose that each specious present can contain about one (objective) second’s worth of sound, and if we follow Broad in assuming that specious presents are densely packed, then in only a few seconds of listening to the tone you will apprehend an infinite amount of tonal content. This is obviously absurd – if our experience contained this much phenomenal content it surely could not have the character it actually has – but it is unavoidable given the assumptions currently in play: if specious presents are densely packed, there is an infinite number of them in any uninterrupted period of experiencing. (629)

Perhaps the specious present is not infinitely dense but made of a hundred retended presents. [At this point I think we need to add a diagonal into the diagram]. At note C, we retain B and A. But experience B was of a specious present one second long, as was A, so already in this simplified form the experience of C would somehow be an experience of three seconds. If we interpose a 100 retentions within a specious present, then we would have one current impression of the present in which is packed a 100 seconds of retended experience. But our experience of the present does not seem to allow for this notion that we in each present perceive over a minute of time. [[However consider a different retentional model. Think of how memory foam works. You press into it, and it holds its shape but gradually returns to its uncompressed form. If you make a rhythmic pattern of impressions in various places, you do not have hundreds of surfaces, you have one surface that is continually modified by the new impressions but also by the decay of the older impressions, with the oldest ones contributing the least to the current form. Is not present consciousness like this? That there is one memory impression that is continually modified by new modifications (like turning our head or watching new images in a film) holding on to the most recent in immediately memory, and letting go of those retentions gradually as they age?]]

Dainton calls this the problem of surplus content. There are possible solutions but none are problem free. One possibility is to say that the specious present is much shorter, like 1/20th of a second. But that is probably not long enough to perceive most change. The other solution is to say that the retentions far less vivid then present perceptions. This will make the surplus content no longer detectable, but it also like the first solution makes the changes we perceive undetectable, as they require more than a faint awareness of the immediate past. (630)

Another problem with retentional models is that they portray time as being experienced in separate and discrete bubbles of experience when in fact we experience time as continuous. For example, when we hear the violin, we can break up the experience into tiny phases, however, we experience each phase flowing into its successors in a continuous way, which does not reflect the retentional model’s isolated parts of experience.

Retentional models face another problem, also of a quite general sort, one that is at least as serious as the problem of surplus contents. According to this class of models, a stream of consciousness consists of a succession of specious presents; each of these is a momentary (or very brief ) episode of experience, and the direct experience of change is confined to contents which exist inside individual specious presents. These ‘internal’ transitions are the only directly experienced transitions which the model recognizes. But if the experience of change is so confined, it is difficult to see how streams of consciousness of the sort we routinely enjoy could be possible. If directly experienced change really were packaged into entirely separate and discrete ‘bubbles’ of consciousness, would our consciousness be continuous in the way it in fact is? Think again of what it is like to experience an extended violin tone; although the tone, as it is experienced, is as smooth and continuous as a violin tone can be, it nonetheless can be divided (if only in thought) into successive brief phases. We can | make these phases a tenth of a second long, or half of a second, or a second: however we impose the slices it remains the case that each phase is experienced as flowing into (is directly co-conscious with) its successor. How would this be possible if directly experienced transitions are compartmentalized in the way Retentionalism entails? (630-631)

[[Dainton says that each small part is a transition. If transitions are retained in the mind and perceived as transitions in the present, would they not be continuous? It is a series of transitions, so  series of continuity. Perhaps we are not aware of the transitions between the transitions, because each part was experienced in isolation of the others. So in the Retentional model, we retain in our present awareness a series of isolated transitional experiences with no bridge between them. But what if each moment we experience not just the present moment but as well the difference between this moment and the prior. Along with every impression is already the link bridging it the its predecessor. We experience as a phenomena the connections between moments. Each moment of our awareness feels new, because of its difference from its predecessor. So its link to its predecessor is given phenomenally in each moment, and that link is retained in the prior succession of mutually related moments.]]

Broad does not deal with this problem of discontinuous acts of present awareness. Husserl, however, does see the need for phenomenal connections between such moments. [[“Whereas Broad does not address this issue, Husserl was certainly aware of the need to introduce phenomenal connections between neighbouring stream-phases (although he did not use this terminology), and he developed his position accordingly.” (631) Husserl by the way does use the concept of ‘bridging term’ for each moment of our awareness being linked to its neighbors in Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis.]] However, Husserl’s retentional model has us retaining not just prior acts of awareness A, B, C, at moment D, for example, but also in a diagonal way we retrain the prior C’s way of of retaining B and A, along with each of those’s own sets of retentions, which multiplies the retentions to a staggering number. However, our experience of the present is not so complex. (631)

[4.] Extensional Approaches: The Merits of Overlap

Dainton has shown the problems with the retentional models, which “stem from the attempt to compress temporal awareness into momentary episodes of consciousness”. (631) The extensional approach does not have these problems because its present is not limited to a momentary isolated now. There are different ways to extensionally model phenomenal time.

All the main versions of the extensional model regard the specious present in terms similar to James’ ‘duration block’, that is, “as a temporal spread of content that is experienced as a whole, and which also extends across an interval of objective time.” (631) Dainton will illustrate with an example of hearing two notes of a violin, do and re, as diagramed in figure 6.

Dainton. Experience fig 6
Fig. 6 from p.631 of Barry Dainton´s ¨The Experience of Time and Change,¨ Philosophy Compass 3/4 (2008)

The whole present experience encompasses two successive notes, so this extensional model has both the unity of a singular present moment with succession built into it.

The do and the re are experienced as successive, but they are also parts of a single temporally extended experience. If do and re are parts of a single experience that is apprehended as a unified whole, they must also be present together in consciousness. (632a)

But this seems problematic. Would not things that are given together in the same present also be simultaneous rather than successive?” Dainton now evokes a concept that is reminiscent of [[and perhaps indistinguishable from]] the concept of presentedness that he rejected in the context of retentional contents. He says that successive phenomenal contents can all have presence if they all maintain their force and vivacity in Hume’s sense.

Extensional theorists will agree that it is wrong to suppose do and re are both ‘present’ in the sense of ‘occur at the same moment of time’. But lacking presence in this sense is compatible with possessing it in another sense. All phenomenal contents can be said to possess presence as and when they occur, if by this we simply mean they possess their fullest measure of force and vivacity, in Hume’s sense. A pain that is currently being felt possesses more presence (of this sort) than a pain that is remembered or imagined. It is only presence in this Humean sense that the contents of the specious present are alleged to possess, and presence in this form is a property non-simultaneous items clearly can possess. (632)

[[A portion of consciousness can be present with its successor if they both have presence, the full force and vivacity they can have in consciousness. Could this not apply to and support the retentional model? What if, like Bergson suggests, a moment and its successor are indistinguishably vibrant, and indeed have equal force?]]

Dainton now wonders how specious presents of this extensional sort combine so to compose our streams of consciousness. Dainton will address different ways to account for this. In his early writings, Broad offers such an account. He begins with the notion that our consciousness involves both acts of awareness in addition to our phenomenal contents. (632) In this model, our acts are momentary but they are aware of extended contents. consider for example a series of acts, A1, A2, and A3 [figure 7].

Dainton. Experience fig 7

Fig. 7 from p.632 of Barry Dainton´s ¨The Experience of Time and Change,¨ Philosophy Compass 3/4 (2008)

They are aware of the contents do re mi fa. Each act is only able to be aware of two contents, do-re,  re-mi, and mi-fa. Notice that all we need are A1 and A2 for being aware of all four contents, so why the need for A2? There are two reasons for this. The first is that Broad really regarded the momentariness of the acts as a useful fiction for arriving at a notion of the act as extensive. Dainton explains in a footnote why this is so. The act’s specious present is the content “which is apprehended throughout the relevant period of awareness.” (637) In this case, one extended act of awareness would be A1-A2. What is apprehended throughout (and not exclusively to each act) is re, and so re’s apprehension is the specious present of extended act A1-A2. The other reason for the intermediary act is that it accounts for the continuity of our consciousness. We need to hear each note flowing into the next, we would not hear re flow into mi, since it is found in distinct acts of awareness unlike the other two passages. “The overlapping of acts plays a crucial role in securing phenomenal continuity across the boundaries of individual specious presents.” (633)

Dainton will note two problems with this approach. One problem, “a problem of surplus-to-requirements content”,  is that this model implies we hear re three times, as it is a content in three distinct acts of consciousness. But we do not actually hear it three times. (633)

A second problem is the “unrealistic fragmentation (or atomization) of the stream of consciousness.” (633) We still do not have an experienced connection between extended acts. There is no act of consciousness joining these acts and so they form distinct streams of consciousness [since the stream is made up of acts of awareness of contents and there is nothing to connect the acts together into a continuum.]

Dainton will now build a better extensional account by making two modifications to the awareness-content conception. The first is that unlike Broad’s model, Dainton will not suppose that the acts are aware of contents that go beyond their own temporal scope. Instead the acts and the contents run concurrently in time. (633) Recall also how for Broad the acts form a discrete sequence. Dainton’s model instead will have the act-content sections overlap. (633d) There two sorts of overlap [explained as ‘overlap by superposition’ and ‘overlap by sharing of common parts’ in another work, “Time in Experience: Reply to Gallagher”:

dainton reply fig 5
(From Dainton “Time in Experience: Reply to Gallagher” p 12)

dainton reply fig 9

(From Dainton “Time in Experience: Reply to Gallagher” p 12)

] One sort of overlap would be if the contents were distinct but superposed, for example one opera broadcast on the east coast finishing after another broadcast on the west coast begins. [The two are separate performances that are present simultaneously in the airwaves.] [If we were to use this sort of overlap, we could still have problems with repeated contents, because in this model, the acts and contents are united, which means that just as one content slides over another, so too could the shared content be repeated in each act.] The other sort of overlap regards the overlapped parts to be numerically the same. [We might say that we have one experience of one re that is moving from the temporal front to the temporal back of our awareness, like our eyes watching a car go by.] [[One thing to note with regard to the idea of the present having a future-most and a past-most side to it. What tells us which side the content is on? Would it not again be some degree of some quality, for example presentedness?]]

Dainton. Experience fig 8

Fig. 8 from p.631 of Barry Dainton´s ¨The Experience of Time and Change,¨ Philosophy Compass 3/4 (2008)

In figure 8, the left diagram illustrates this sort of overlap. However, there are not discrete act-contents A1, A2, etc, but instead  there is one continuous motion.

In reality, of course, specious presents are not separated by discrete intervals in the manner of A1 and A2. Our temporally extended ‘window’ on the world advances in a smooth, continuous manner.” (634)

The overlap model, as depicted on the left, shows a unitary  specious present that makes discrete jumps and thus in that rendition does not seem continuous. However, its continuity can be described by multiplying the depicted positions of the present along the flow, as in the right side diagram. Dainton does not think that instances of the specious present are separated by discrete intervals. Instead, the instances of the specious present are separated by differences that are right at the threshold of discernibility [[such that we are aware that each instance is new and different but not enough has changed in time that we feel a jump in time.]] [[But if the gaps are not discrete, would that not mean they are smaller than finite and thus the movement of the specious present is made up of a series of discrete transitions no longer than an instant, as conceived in physics?]]

It suffices to suppose specious presents are separated by just-discernible differences, in the manner shown in the right-hand diagram in Fig. 8. In this more realistic version adjacent specious presents overlap almost completely, but since they also have almost all their parts in common there is no surplus content generated. (634)

In addition to solving the problem of repeating contents without at the same time creating new problems, the overlap model has other advantages too. All the other models, whether retentional or extensional, so far have had the problem of fragmentation, because each specious present was not experienced as connected with others.

The Overlap Model eliminates this problem entirely. Successive specious presents are connected in the most intimate of ways, by the sharing of parts. And since these parts are themselves phenomenally unified, all the successive brief phases of stream of consciousness are phenomenally connected to their neighbours. In this manner full experiential continuity is secured. (634)

Although so far explained in these terms, the Overlap Model does not need to make use of the awareness-content conception as was used in Broad’s model. (634) Dainton proposes a simpler conception which regards phenomenal contents as intrinsic to consciousness and thus no higher level act is required to be conscious of them. He depicts this with the diagram of figure 9.

Dainton. Experience fig 9

Fig. 9 from p.635 of Barry Dainton´s ¨The Experience of Time and Change,¨ Philosophy Compass 3/4 (2008)

As we can see, there are dot enclosed dashes and arrows underneath them. This does not depict a tiered structure. The arrows merely indicates flowing movement of the specious present. The dots on the lines above are the different contents of consciousness, and they are linked by diachronic co-consciousness, which are the straight lines connected the dots. The dots and the lines however are not to be understood by means of an awareness/content distinction. [[The specious present is one act of co-consciousness with a variety of co-conscious parts, both synchronic and diachronic. We can portray the parts either as contents that are glued together by one act of co-consciousness, or we may regard the parts as the various ways the one act of consciousness is modified continuously as time goes on, with a diachronic swath of that modification having the phenomenal quality of presence, which he here defines as full vivacity and force of the content in his book Stream of Consciousness as the property of being an immediate object or content of consciousness” (Dainton Stream of Consciousness, p.122)]

Here the upper level of double-headed links depict the relationship of diachronic phenomenal unity – and hence individual specious presents. The lower level of single-headed arrows serves the purpose of reminding us that the contents organized into these overlapping structures typically possess a dynamic character: think of the way sensations seem to flow on. This combination of overlap-structure and inherently dynamic contents can together account for the temporal appearances: for the manifest character of our immediate experience of change, succession and persistence. Or so proponents of the Overlap Model will claim. (635)

[5.] *** [Concluding part]

Although we had to neglect many important details regarding these models, we can still make some observations regarding the “overall shape of the debate.” (635). The retentional model creates problems that are not easily remedied. The extensional overlap model explains just as much as the retentional model but without the problems. Those who would still reject the extensional overlap probably do so because they think it implies consciousness extends through time when instead they prefer to think that reality cannot exist outside the present. But this can be inverted in the overlap model’s favor. We can instead say that the real world must have an extensive temporality because that is what our phenomenological evidence tells us.

there are those who would reject all Extensional models precisely because they entail that consciousness extends through time. As already noted, anyone inclined to | confine reality to the present moment of time has little option but to embrace a Retentional model of temporal awareness. But although broader metaphysical debates about the large-scale structure of the universe are certainly relevant here, it is important to recognize that the argument can be run in the other direction. Anyone who is convinced that the Retentional approach is fundamentally unworkable can reasonably insist that the universe must be such as to accommodate the most basic features of our experience. (635-636)

Most text citations from:

Dainton, Barry. “The Experience of Time and Change”, Philosophy Compass 3/4 (2008): 619–638.

Except one for:

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

Some images from:

Dainton, Barry. “Time in Experience: Reply to Gallagher”, Psyche 9 (12), 2003.

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