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Kristie Miller – “Against Passage Illusionism”

Detail of Salvador Dalì’s tarot card “The Magician” (1983)

In this post, Kristie Miller discusses her article recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Kristie’s article can be found here.

It might seem obvious that we experience the passing of time. Certainly, in some trivial sense we do. It is now late morning. Earlier, it was early morning. It seems to me as though some period of time has elapsed since it was early morning. Indeed, during that period it seemed to me as though time was elapsing, in that I seemed to be located at progressively later times.

One question that arises is this: in what do these seemings consist? One way to put the question is to ask what content our experience has. What state of the world does the experience represent as being the case?

Philosophers disagree about which answer is correct. Some think that time itself passes. In other words, they think that there is a unique set of events that are objectively, metaphysically, and non-perspectivally present, and that which events those are, changes. Other philosophers disagree. They hold that time itself is static; it does not pass, because no events are objectively, metaphysically, and non-perspectivally present, such that which events those are, changes. Rather, whether an event is present is a merely subjective or perspectival matter, to be understood in terms of where the event is located relative to some agent.

Those who claim that time itself passes typically use this claim to explain why we experience it as passing: we experience time as passing because it does. What, though, should we say if we think that time does not pass, but is rather static? You might think that the most natural thing to say would be that we don’t experience time as passing. We don’t represent there being a set of events that are non-perspectivally present, and that which those are, changes. Of course, we represent various events as occurring in a certain temporal order, and as being separated by a certain temporal duration, and we experience ourselves as being located at some times (rather than others) – but none of that involves us representing that some events have a special metaphysical status, and that which events have that status, changes. So, on this view, we have veridical experiences of static time.

Interestingly, however, until quite recently this was not the orthodox view. Instead, the orthodoxy was a view known as passage illusionism. This is the view that although time does not pass, it nevertheless seems to us as though it does. So, we are subject to an illusion in which things seem to us some way that they are not. In my paper I argue against passage illusionism. I consider various ways that the illusionist might try to explain the illusion of time passing, and I argue that none of them is plausible.

The illusionist’s job is quite difficult. First, the illusion in question is pervasive. At all times that we are conscious, it seems to us as though time passes. Second, the illusion is of something that does not exist – it is not an experience which could, in other circumstances, be veridical.

In the psychological sciences, illusions are explained by appealing to cognitive mechanisms that typically function well in representing some feature(s) of our environment. In most conditions, these mechanisms deliver us veridical experiences. In some local environments, however, certain features mislead the mechanism to misrepresent the world, generating an illusion. These kinds of explanation, however, involve illusions that are not pervasive (they occur only in some local environments) and are not of something that does not exist (they are the product of mechanisms that normally deliver veridical experiences). This gives us reason to be hesitant that any explanation of this kind will work for the passage illusionist.

I consider a number of mechanisms that represent aspects of time, including those that represent temporal order, duration, simultaneity, motion and change. I argue that, regardless of how we think about the content of mental states, we should conclude that none of the representational states generated by these mechanisms individually, or jointly, represent time as passing.

First, suppose we think that the content of our experiences is exhausted by the things in the world that those experiences typically co-vary with.  For instance, suppose you have a kind of mental state which typically co-varies with the presence of cows. On this view, that mental state represents cows, and nothing more. I argue that if we take this view of representational content, then none of the contents generated by the functioning of the various mechanisms that represent aspects of time, could either severally or, importantly, jointly, represent time as passing. For even if our brains could in some way ‘knit together’ some of these contents into a new percept, such contents don’t have the right features to generate a representation of time passing. For instance, they don’t include a representation of objective, non-perspectival presence. So, if we hold this view on mental content, we should think that passage illusionism is false.

Alternatively, we might think that our mental states do represent the things in the world with which they typically co-vary, but that their content is not exhausted by representing those things. So, the illusionist could argue that we experience passage by representing various temporal features, such that our experiences have not only that content, but also some extra content, and that jointly this generates a representation of temporal passage.

I argue that it is very hard to see why we would come to have experiences with this particular extra content. Representing that certain events are objectively, metaphysically, and non-perspectivally present, and that which event these are, changes, is a very sophisticated representation. If it is not an accurate representation, it’s hard to see why we would come to have it. Further, it seems plausible that the human experience of time is, in this regard, similar to the experience of some non-human animals. Yet it seems unlikely that non-human animals would come to have such sophisticated representations, if the world does not in fact contain passage.

So, I conclude, it is much more likely, if time does not pass, that we have veridical experiences of a static world rather than illusory experiences of a dynamical world.

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About the author

Kristie Miller is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Time at the University of Sydney. She writes on the nature of time, temporal experience, and persistence, and she also undertakes empirical work in these areas. At the moment, she is mostly focused on the question of whether, assuming we live in a four-dimensional block world, things seem to us just as they are. She has published widely in these areas, including three recent books: “Out of Time” (OUP 2022), “Persistence” (CUP 2022), and “Does Tomorrow Exist?” (Routledge 2023). She has a new book underway on the nature of experience in a block world, which hopefully will be completed by the end of 2024. 

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Kengo Miyazono – “Visual Experiences without Presentational Phenomenology”

The image represents a landscape in the style of cubism, where the surfaces of three dimensional objects are laid out in two-dimensional space with alienating effects. This is meant to be somewhat analogous to the visual experience of patients with derealization/depersonalization disorder described in the article.
“Mediterranean Landscape” (1952) © Pablo Picasso

In this post, Kengo Miyazono discussed the article he recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Kengo’s paper can be found here.

Compare the following quotes.

[1] Suppose you are standing in a field on a bright sunny day. Your vision is good, and you know that, and you’ve no thought to distrust your eyes. A friend shouts from behind. You turn. It looks as if a rock is flying at your face. You wish not to be hit. [...] Your visual experience will place a moving rock before the mind in a uniquely vivid way. Its phenomenology will be as if a scene is made manifest to you. [...] Such phenomenology involves a uniquely vivid directedness upon the world. Visual phenomenology makes it for a subject as if a scene is simply presented. Veridical perception, illusion and hallucination seem to place objects and their features directly before the mind. (Sturgeon 2000, 9)
[2] Everything appears as through a veil [...] Things do not look as before, they are somehow altered, they seem strange, two-dimensional. [...] Everything seems extraordinarily new as if I had not seen it for a long time. (Jaspers 1997, 62) 
[3] Familiar things look strange and foreign. [...] It’s all just there and it’s all strange somehow. I see everything through a fog. Fluorescent lights intensify the horrible sensation and cast a deep veil over everything. I’m sealed in plastic wrap, closed off, almost deaf in the muted silence. It is as if the world were made of cellophane or glass. (Simeon & Abugel 2006, 81) 

The first quote is from Scott Sturgeon’s discussion of the phenomenology of visual experience. The second and the third quotes are subjective reports of patients with depersonalization-derealization disorder. In my view, these quotes, although taken from very different contexts, are referring to the same thing. Or, more precisely, the first quote is describing the presence of something, while the second and the third quotes are describing the absence of it. The thing in question is “presentational phenomenology” (Chudnoff 2012; “Scene-Immediacy” in Sturgeon’s own terminology).

My hypothesis is that presentational phenomenology is absent from visual experiences in cases of derealization. This hypothesis provides a plausible explanation of the peculiar subjective reports of derealization. Frequent expressions of derealization reported in the Cambridge Depersonalization Scale (Sierra & Berrios 2000) include the following:

Out of the blue, I feel strange, as if I were not real or as if I were cut off from the world.
What I see looks ‘flat’ or ‘lifeless’, as if I were looking at a picture.
My surroundings feel detached or unreal, as if there were a veil between me and the outside world. 

A remarkable feature of the subjective reports of derealization is that they are metaphorical, not literal. As Jaspers points out, it seems as though it is impossible for the patients to express their experience directly. They do not think that the world has really changed; they just feel as if everything looked different to them. (Jaspers 1997: 62). 

Another remarkable feature is that the metaphorical expressions of derealization have some recurrent themes. People with derealization often say that they feel as if they were in a “fog”, “dream”, or “bubble”, or as if there were a “veil” or a “glass wall” between them and external objects. Metaphors of this kind seem to express the idea of indirectness or detachment. They also say that they feel as if they were looking at a “picture” or a “movie”, or as if external objects were “flat”. Metaphors of this kind seem to express the idea of representation.

My hypothesis explains why subjective reports of derealization tend to be metaphorical rather than literal. When presentational phenomenology is absent from visual experience, most patients (except philosophers of mind) do not have a suitable concept (such as the concept of “presentational phenomenology”) to refer to what is missing in a direct, non-metaphorical manner; the best thing they can do is to describe it metaphorically. 

My hypothesis also explains the recurrent themes of the metaphors, namely indirectness and representation. In general, presentational phenomenology involves a sense of directness (e.g. “place objects and their features directly before the mind” in the first quote above) as well as a sense of presentation (e.g. “as if a scene is simply presented” in the first quote). Thus, it makes sense that patients with depersonalization-derealization disorder would use metaphorical expressions of in-directness and re-presentation in order to signal its absence.

Is the hypothesis that presentational phenomenology is absent from visual experiences in cases of derealization also empirically plausible?

The general consensus in the empirical and clinical literature is that affective or interoceptive abnormalities are at the core of depersonalization and derealization (e.g. Sierra 2009; Sierra & Berrios 1998; Seth, Suzuki, & Critchley 2012). One might think that this is a problem: the empirically and clinically plausible view might seem to be that derealization is an affective or interoceptive abnormality rather than an abnormality in presentational phenomenology. Note, however, that this interpretation presupposes that an abnormality in presentational phenomenology is not also an affective or interoceptive abnormality. A different, better interpretation is also available: that an abnormality in presentational phenomenology in itself constitutes, at least in part, the affective/interoceptive abnormality in question. This interpretation suggests that these are not at all alternative accounts, and that presentational phenomenology is, generally speaking, a kind of affective phenomenology.  

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  • Chudnoff, Elijah (2012). Presentational Phenomenology. In Sofia Miguens and Gerhard Preyer (Eds.), Consciousness and Subjectivity (51–729). Ontos Verlag.
  • Jaspers, Karl (1997). General Psychopathology (Vol. 1). Trans. J. Hoenig and Marian W. Hamilton. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Seth, Anil K., Keisuke Suzuki, and Hugo D. Critchley (2012). “An Interoceptive Predictive Coding Model of Conscious Presence”. Frontiers in Psychology2(395), 1–16.
  • Sierra, Mauricio (2009). Depersonalization: A New Look at A Neglected Syndrome. Cambridge University Press.
  • Sierra, Mauricio and German E. Berrios (1998). Depersonalization: Neurobiological Perspectives. Biological Psychiatry44(9), 898–908.
  • Sierra, Mauricio and German E. Berrios (2000). “The Cambridge Depersonalisation Scale: A New Instrument for the Measurement of Depersonalisation”. Psychiatry Research93(2), 153–164.
  • Simeon, Daphne and Jeffrey Abugel (2006). Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and the Loss of the Self. Oxford University Press.
  • Sturgeon, Scott (2000). Matters of Mind: Consciousness, Reason and Nature. Routledge.

About the author

Kengo Miyazono is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Hokkaido University. Previously, he was Associate Professor at Hiroshima University and Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. He received his PhD from the University of Tokyo. He specializes in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, and philosophy of psychiatry.