Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.1, 45-49
Published Online February 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 45
Does Consciousness Exist Independently of Present Time and
Present Time Independently of Consciousness?
Birgitta Dresp-Langley, Jean Durup
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Unité Mixte de Recherche, Montpellier, France
Received November 20th, 2011; revised December 28th, 2011; accepted January 5th, 2012
While some are currently debating whether time may or may not be an illusion, others keep devoting their
time to the science of consciousness. Time as such may be seen as a physical or a subjective variable, and
the limitations in our capacity of perceiving and analyzing temporal order and change in physical events
definitely constrain our understanding of consciousness which, in return, constrains our conceptual under-
standing of time. Temporal codes generated in the brain have been considered as the key to insight into
neural function and, ultimately, as potential neural substrates of consciousness itself. On the basis of cur-
rent evidence and opinion from neuroscience and philosophy, we consider the interrelation between con-
sciousness and time in the light of Hegel and Heidegger’s concepts of Sein (Being) and Zeit (Time). We
suggest that consciousness can be defined in terms of a succession of psychological moments where we
realize that we exist in, and are part of, a present moment in time. This definition places all other percep-
tual or sensorial processes which may characterize phenomenal experience at a different level of analysis
and centers the debate around consciousness on the fundamental identity link between awareness of the
Ich (I) and awareness of what Heidegger termed Ursprüngliche Zeit (original time). We argue that human
consciousness has evolved from the ability to be aware of, to remember, and to predict temporal order and
change in nature, and that the limits of this capacity are determined by limits in the functional plasticity of
resonant brain mechanisms. Although the conscious state of the Self is the ultimate expression of this
evolution, it is devoid of any adaptive function as such.
Keywords: Consciousness; Time; Temporal Order; Awareness of Self
Lloyd (2004) suggested that once we understand temporality,
possible ways of understanding the complex workings of con-
sciousness may open before us. During early childhood, our
brains learn about temporal and spatial order of the physical
world, well before we become phenomenally conscious of a
Self and its immediate or distant environment (Piaget, 1967).
Current research in behavioral neuroscience indicates that sta-
tistical learning of temporal regularities in sensory input is the
first way through which humans and animals acquire know-
ledge of physical reality and the structure of continuous sensory
environments. This form of non-conscious learning of the tem-
poral frequency of physical events exists in different species
and was recently found to be present at birth in humans on the
basis of experiments where newborns were exposed to and
tested with speech stream inputs (Bulf, Johnson, & Valenza,
2011). Phenomenal experience, conscious knowledge repre-
senttation, and abstract reasoning have occurred relatively late
in evolution. They reflect a mental capacity that develops on-
togenetically in the first two to three years of an individual’s
lifespan (Jaynes, 1990; Edelman, 1993). To explain how physical
information is represented and processed in the brain for learn-
ing and, ultimately, conscious experience, neuroscientists have
tried to decipher structural properties of brain activity patterns.
This has produced theoretical models which link consciousness
to temporal properties of neural circuits (Helekar, 1999; Dresp-
Langley & Durup, 2009; Fingelkurts, Fingelkurts, & Neves,
Consciousness reflects the highest capacity level of the brain
to link space and time within global mental representations
(Smythies, 2003). Temporal order is possibly the most impor-
tant aspect in this linking process, and once consciousness is
fully operational, it is constrained by temporal factors only.
Consciousness may express itself as the reflection of a specific
brain state, the conscious state (John, 2002). It enables humans
to weigh and compare mental events relating to past, present,
and future, in one and the same moment of time, which we call
present time. At this specific instance, time appears to come to
a halt while the conscious mind is busy assessing and taking
stock of data and events. Moreover, although sensations may be
necessary for perceptual experience, the experiential presence
of a particular environmental property or object does not ne-
cessarily involve corresponding sensations (Natsoulas, 1999).
Conscious moments therefore require temporal not spatial per-
manency. The following three postulates will be considered to
take this essay on the ontological links between consciousness
and temporality further:
1) If mankind were to disappear tomorrow and no other con-
scious species exists in the universe, present time as we con-
ceive it would also disappear; what remains of nature and
physical reality will continue to be subject to some form of
order and relativity.
2) Measures of time used in science describe arbitrary forms
of scaling biophysical time, accounting for the temporal order
of events that we observe in nature and physics.
3) What some have called “mind-phenomenal” and others
“psychological” time corresponds to a subjective form of scal-
ing that is not part of objective or physical reality.
Brain Operations in Biophysical Time
Brain activity is measured in terms of firing activity recorded
in biophysical time, sometimes described in terms of periods or
epochs. These latter, specific or non-specific, are characterized
by variations in the amplitude and temporal frequency of elec-
tric signals emitted by single neurons or groups of neurons.
Electric activity patterns of neurons and circuits in the human
brain appear to have some form of spatial and temporal organi-
zation, which can be observed with greater or lesser precision
depending on currently available technology (Von Stein et al.,
2000, Palva et al., 2005, 2007; Başar, 2006, Axmacher et al.,
2006, 2010; Canolty et al., 2006, 2010; Jacobs et al., 2007).
The characteristics of such functional organization have been
linked to specific brain operations within limited space-time
frames (Engel & Singer, 2001, Rees et al., 2002, Crick & Koch,
2003, Libet, 2004, Melloni et al., 2007, Singer, 2009, Mathewson
et al., 2009, Lisman, 2010, Fingelkurts et al., 2010), enabling
the execution of complex cognitive activities such as reading,
analytical reasoning, creative thinking, volition and guided
motor control (e.g. Rosenthal, 2008). However, most of our
sensations and perceptions are processed implicitly by the brain,
and truly conscious states seem to be reflected by short oscilla-
tory activity periods of not more than a few hundreds of milli-
seconds each (Buzsáki, 2007, Luo & Poeppel, 2007, Del Cul et
al., 2009, Droege, 2009, Forget et al., 2010). The clockworks of
consciousness may thus be conceived in terms of rapid tempo-
ral successions of microscopic brain states (Helekar, 1999), and
it has been suggested that such temporal mechanisms would be
capable of generating epigenetically determined activity pat-
terns which constitute the code through which consciousness
may be encrypted in the brain (Dresp-Langley & Durup, 2009).
Consciousness enables the subjective recollection or experi-
ence of mental events relating to the past, present, or future at a
given moment in time. The resource limits of a conscious mo-
ment (Cowan, 2001) may be identified with those of working
memory (Amiez & Petrides, 2007), which can be seen as a
brain processing state where short-term and long-term memory
representations coincide and interact (Hermann et al., 2004,
Jonides et al., 2008, Holz et al., 2010). Conscious brain proc-
essing has been associated with resonant neural mechanisms
(Grossberg, 1999, Maia & Cleeremans, 2005, Lamme, 2006)
that stabilize over a time scale of no more than a few hundred
milliseconds (Taylor, 1998, Grossberg, 1999, Herzog et al.,
2007), according to the biophysical clockworks of conscious
brain activity. Sound signals, for example, are processed by
cortical neurons in less than half a second, and our brain is able
to compare a first signal pattern to a second in order to deter-
mine how much time has elapsed between the two. Long peri-
ods of time may be analyzed by the brain in terms of pulses
(Buhusi & Meck, 2009) and in similar ways as rhythm or music.
It is, however, still not known how brain regions are able to
record and understand time. Reading sense into the brain’s
signalling is one thing, understanding how its neural networks
generate memories from such signalling requires additional
forms of knowledge.
Brain processing has much to do with attributing temporal
order to objects and events, which may or may not be present
together at the same moment in time, and which may or may
not do so in the future. The notion of temporal periods and
event succession is accessible to non-human animals, and helps
them to find, in the right order, food items they had hidden in
successive locations weeks ago. The specifically human ability
to be conscious of a Self that exists at a moment of present time
raises the question of the place this ability takes across evolu-
tion, and its possible adaptive role. It was recently shown by
Nyberg et al. (2010) that specific brain areas are activated when
a person’s mind travels into past or future (chronesthesia), as
compared to focusing on the present moment, and the mind’s
ability to travel in time is well known to be impeded by various
forms of amnesia. It is not known, however, whether from an
evolutionary viewpoint the capacity of representing past or
future is more or less recent than that of being conscious of
present time. While the former is likely to be operational in
species other than man, such as non-human primates, the latter
is almost certainly characteristic of humans only, who are ca-
pable of communicating conscious experience of Self and pre-
sent time to each other through language or, more precisely, the
spoken word. While any animal would gain a definite evolu-
tionary advantage from being able to follow the temporal
course of physical events for the priming of adaptive behaviour
and action, no particular moment in time stands out as the pre-
sent moment (here and now) in such ability. The fact that the
human conscious mind is able to realize its own existence in a
changing world (I am part of what happens right now), which
also defines any present moment of the Universe, does not in-
crease human capacity to act on either the world or the Self.
Although this suggests that consciousness may be devoid of
any adaptive function, only very few authors (e.g. Pockett,
2004) have considered such a possibility.
Mind Phenomenal or Psychological Time
The relative temporal permanency of existence in space or
time is different from what we may call “psychological time”
(Dresp-Langley & Durup, 2009), or what Fingelkurts et al.
(2010) have called “mind-phenomenal time”. Psychological
time relates to what our conscious minds perceive in terms of
long or brief events, sometimes experienced in terms of boring
or exciting. Such inner clockworks may not bear any relation
with physical reality and need to be distinguished from the
clockworks of biophysical time. The philosopher David Hume
in his Treatise of Human Nature (1740) described events in
psychological time in terms of a flux of scenes passing by, or
coming and going. Thus, phenomenal consciousness appears to
continually move from one relatively stable representation to
another, yet, we experience such movement in terms of a single
moment in present time, the h ere and now. The subjective sense
of present time is the temporal framework in which all experi-
ence takes place (cf. Grush, 2005). If one of the major functions
of consciousness is, indeed, that of ordering events into tempo-
ral sequences (Seth et al., 2006), taking stock, and assessing the
meaning and significance of what is happening both within and
outside the mind at a given moment in time, then a scientific
understanding of the relationship between time and mind de-
pends on our ability to explain how the scaling of phenomenal
time can be linked to that of biophysical time.
Observations of experience-related neural timing patterns
(Johnson & Buonomano, 2010, Nyberg et al., 2010) suggest
that there may be ways of linking psychological to biophysical
time, but too little is still known about functional implications.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Our conscious perception of time can definitely mislead us, as
demonstrated by the well-known Kappa effect, where the dura-
tion of two successive stimulations is perceived longer when
the two sources of stimulation are closer in space (e.g. Sarrazin
et al., 2007). The only characteristic of temporality that the
human mind is able to asses spontaneously and with certainty is
that of present time and consciousness, although private and
hard to define, is intricately linked to a present state of the
Mind and Time in the Philosophies of
Kierkegaard, Hegel and Heidegger
Man has used and studied the concept of time for 2500 years,
yet, there are many issues regarding time that have remained
unresolved (cf. Carroll, 2010). Physicists have developed pre-
cise temporal descriptions of the past of the Universe, and there
is an amazing consistency between theory and a steadily grow-
ing amount of observations, yet, no physicist has ever defined
what present time is. Questions about the nature of the differ-
ence between present, past and future are at the heart of current
controversy in philosophy (Carroll, 2010). Some argue that
only present objects and present experiences are real, and that
conscious beings recognize this in the special “vividness” of
their present experience. The past has already slipped out of
reality. According to other viewpoints, both the past and pre-
sent are real, but the future is not, it is only potential. The Gulf
Wars are real, but our dying is not, for example. A current phi-
losophical argument states that, if the future were real, then it
would be fully determined in the here and now and we would
have no freedom or power to shape that future, but since we do
have that freedom and power, the future cannot be real. A third
theory claims that there are no significant ontological differ-
ences between present, past, and future because our perception
or appreciation of such differences, whether they exist or not, is
purely subjective. Our minds tend to confuse mind time with
the objective biophysical clockworks, which must exist in na-
ture and may be described in terms of observable, periodic or
cyclic, events through some arbitrary measure. But which of the
different, intuitive and culturally determined beliefs that exist
about time or calendars should be considered? Intuitions about
time and temporal order may well stem from some deeper in-
sight into the nature of physical reality, or they may well not.
This leads to the question of what physical science can actually
teach us about time, and whether we can be sure that the instant
we perceive as occurring at a specific time of our calendar year
exists independently from the events that occur at that instant.
In other words, does time exist if nothing is happening? We
recognize time and direction as we do because we assume the
one-directionality of all processes of nature, however, what
actually constitutes the present, how long it lasts, and why ex-
actly it moves into the past has not ever been accounted for
scientifically. What we experience as the march of time may
not be a property of physical reality at all, but merely a property
of human consciousness (see, for example, the recent discus-
sion by Callender, 2010), yet, most of us would probably firmly
maintain that time flowing in a single direction is real, and must
therefore exist objectively and independently from our percep-
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1849, 1949)
conceived present time as a moment in which the mind is able
to recognize its own finality, through which it inevitably seizes
the full meaning of nothingness, and despairs. Kierkegaard’s
implicit assumption of some fundamental identity link between
human consciousness, awareness of the Self and present time is
also found in the philosophies of Hegel (1807) and Heidegger
(1927). In his essays on the phenomenology of the mind
(Phänomenologie des Geistes, 1807), Hegel discusses the iden-
tity link between time and a conscious observer, the conscious I
(Ich), of states of being (Sein). In time only, which is something
abstract and ideal, the conscious I conceives its own Being (das
Sein) which, by being is not, and by being not is. In other words,
time is the Becoming (das Werden), or the transition between
Being and Nothingness (Nichts) and between Nothingness and
Being, as seen by a conscious observer. The being of time itself,
according to Hegel, is the here and now (das Hier und Jetzt).
However, since each here and now is a transition between not
yet and not anymore, it can also be conceived as Nothingness,
meaning that the state of here and now may be regarded as
either a state of pure being, or a state of pure nothingness. In-
terestingly, this way of conceiving the consciousness of Being,
or the conscious I, also appears in Buddhism, where pure Being
and pure Nothingness are one and the same thing. In his essays
on time and being (Sein und Zeit) Heidegger elaborates on
Hegel’s theory of the identity link between time and con-
sciousness, but with a different view of the nature of this link.
Heidegger argues that present time (Gegenwart), or the pure
now (das Jetzt), needs to be distinguished from what we may
call the “moment” (der Augenblick), which Heidegger con-
ceives in terms of an “ecstatic” phenomenon of the conscious
mind projecting a present state of being towards some future
state of being. Thereby, Heidegger does not see time as the
transition between Being and Nothingness as seen by the con-
scious “I”, but as a result of the temporality (Zeitlichkeit) of
consciousness itself. In Heidegger’s view, consciousness and
now time (Jetzt Zeit), which he also calls natural time (ur-
sprüngliche Zeit) are, indeed, one and the same thing.
To separate present time from some state of consciousness is,
thus, impossible. This has important implications for current
models of consciousness. The true state of the conscious I,
identical with the present moment of time, should be separated
from what is commonly called phenomenal consciousness,
which describes a flux of perceptions, memories and thoughts
invading the conscious mind. How the conscious I would be
related to all this phenomenal subjectivity is illustrated here in
Figure 1. A direct consequence of the identity link between
present time and a conscious state of being would be that all
phenomenal reality including temporal reality inevitably origin-
nates from this identity link, or as Heidegger writes “nur
Jetzt-Zeit ist wirklich” (only now-time is real). However, as
pointed out by Libet (2004), our subjective inner life is what
really matters to us as human beings. How our conscious ex-
perience of temporality relates to the true temporal order that
governs the universe is not known.
Before Kierkegaard, Hegel or Heidegger, Aristoteles wrote
in his essays entitled Physis “Whether, if the soul did not exist,
time would exist or not, is a question that may well be asked;
for if there cannot be someone to count there cannot be any-
thing to be counted… all depends on whether time is the con-
scious numbering of movements, or the possibility of move-
ments being numbered where consciousness exists.” When
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 47
Figure 1.
All phenomenal reality originates from the identity link between pre-
sent time and the conscious I. This leads to consider consciousness and
specific cognitive abilities such as perception, memory or projective
thinking or reasoning at separate ontological levels.
physicists investigate speed as the rate of change of the position
of an object within some measure of time, they learn about
events taking place in the physical world. When psychologists
investigate memory as the number of items correctly recalled
from a list within some measure of time, they learn about
events taking place in the psychological world. Measures of
time are the grounds upon which all science is built. Like con-
sciousness itself, time places events. Time is to suggest the
existence of order, and is therefore expressed in numbers.
These numbers are given by regular oscillatory signal events,
which behave like the regular ticking of a clock, and exist in
many physical systems including the human brain. There can be
no doubt that the mechanisms through which our brain per-
forms a conscious analysis of temporal order and change origi-
nates from the neural connections which enable man to realize
that he exists at this present moment of time. Man is hitherto
the only species known capable of such realization.
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