Where one man sorts out his thoughts in public


David Ray Griffin

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Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From KronoScope, 1:1-2 (2001), 75-99


After contrasting process philosophy’s pantemporal-ism with the two other possibilities—nontemporalism and dualism—I argue the following points:

·        The great negative virtue of J. T Fraser’s version of emergent dualism is that it explicitly brings out the paradoxes that must be faced if pantemporalism is denied. 

·         Its great positive virtue, especially when read in conjunction with Grünbaum’s position, is that it brings out the fact that time (in the full-fledged sense) requires experience.

·         These two virtues combined suggest the truth of both pantemporalism and panexperiential-ism, which are mutually implicatory.

·        Pantemporalism, or even the weaker con-viction, shared by almost everyone, that time has existed at least since the origin of our universe, conflicts with another belief that initially seems equally well grounded—the belief in an ontological dualism between experiencing and non experiencing things.  But this latter conviction belongs at best only to soft-core, not hard-core, common sense, so it can be given up without self-contradiction.

·        Because panexperientialism, like pantemporal-ism, solves a host of philosophical problems, a pantemporalistic-panexperientialist worldview can be defended in terms of self-consistency and adequacy to the facts, including the facts of hard-core common sense.

Time in Process Philosophy

David Ray Griffin

The relation of time as known in human experience to the ultimate nature of reality is one of the oldest topics of human thought.  In traditional thought, both East and West, reflection on this topic was often made both vital and perplexing by the conviction that although our experience is undoubtedly temporal the divine reality is not.  In modern times, when belief in a divine reality, especially a nontemporal one, has faded, concern with the topic has been spurred by the widespread consensus that time is ultimately unreal for physics because it is unreal for the objects that it describes.

I addressed this topic, especially in its modern form, in “Time and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness” (1986), which I wrote as an introductory essay to an edited volume titled Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time.  In that essay, I dealt with many of the leading thinkers about time, including G. T. Whitrow, one of the past presidents of the International Society for the Study of Time.  But I did not discuss the position of the founder of this society, J. T. Fraser, who, along with Milič Čapek,1 has probably read, thought, and written more about time than anyone else in human history.  I have used the invitation to write an essay for this inaugural issue of KronoScope as the occasion, finally, to relate my position to Fraser’s.

Being a process philosopher, I defend, not surprisingly, a version of pantemporalism, according to which temporality is eternal and coextensive with actuality.  To be actual is to be temporal. I bring out here, even more clearly than in my previous essay, the idea that this pantemporalism presupposes, and is presupposed by, panexperientialism, according to which experience is coextensive with actuality. To be actual is to experience.

This view, besides not being widespread, also seems obviously false to most thinkers, at least in the modern West.  I defend it on the grounds that, in spite of the fact that it may initially seem counterintuitive, it can do more justice to our fundamental intuitions than can its alternatives.  These alternatives, although they have variations, reduce to two (if we leave aside the positivistic refusal to think about the issue).

One alternative to pantemporalism is nontem-poralism, according to which time as known in human experience is ultimately unreal.  One form of nontemporalism can be called transcendental, according to which the nontemporal ultimate reality transcends human experience, in the sense of being “higher” than it.  This transcendental nontemporal-ism is affirmed by Spinozism, Advaita Vedanta, some forms of Platonism and Buddhism, and most forms of thought referring to themselves as “perennialism,” Huston Smith’s version of which I have engaged in our jointly authored book, Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology (1989).  A second form of nontemporalism is reductionistic, according to which the nontemporal ultimate reality is described not by theology but by physics.  This reductionistic nontemporalism is based on the late modern view that the ultimate nature of reality is treated by physics, combined with the aforementioned widespread consensus that time is ultimately unreal for the objects studied by physics.

The other alternative to pantemporalism is dualism, according to which there are temporal and nontemporal actualities.  Again, variations are possible.  There can be an eternal dualism, according to which nontemporal and temporal actualities have both existed from all eternity.  There can be a created dualism, as affirmed by Descartes and Newton, according to which a divine being created both temporal and nontemporal finite actualities ex nihilo at the outset of the world, so that both temporality and nontemporality are equally fundamental.  (This is true within the created world, anyway.  Whether the ultimate nature of reality is nontemporal or temporal depends upon whether the divine creator is itself understood to be nontemporal or temporal.)  Finally, there is an emergent dualism, according to which temporal finite actualities emerged out of nontemporal finite actualities.

Although I have assumed that the question of whether reality is ultimately temporal, nontemporal, or dualistic depends upon the nature of the ultimate actual being(s), one might hold, as most interpreters have assumed Newton held, that time can exist absolutely, independently of any temporal being(s).  I have ignored this possibility, however, agreeing with Fraser and most others on the relational character of time—that time does not exist independently of temporal processes but only as a relation involving such processes.  Even Newton, in reality, held this view:  His God was a temporal being, so that his “absolute time” was related to successive states of the divine experience (Čapek, 1986: 301; 1976: xxxiv-xxxv).2  In any case, given this relational view of time, the question of the ultimate reality of time as we know it in human experience depends upon the status in the nature of things of this kind of (temporal) experience.

A final preliminary point:  I have been referring vaguely to “time as we know it in human experience.”  By this I mean three features that presuppose but go beyond time in the Pickwickian sense of “anisotropy,” which is provided by thermodynamic entropy.  Although the differences in the entropy of successive states means that the order of events when read off in one direction will be distinguishable from the order when read off in the other direction, this anisotropy is said not to require the distinction between “past” and “future.”  The order of events as measured by increasing entropy in fact goes from the past to the future, but the order of the events, it is said, could in principle go in the opposite direction, so that the entropy would decrease with time.

Time as known in human experience is not adequately characterized by anisotropy but also involves asymmetry, constant becoming, and irreversibility in principle.  Asymmetry means that the relation of the present to the past is different in kind from the relation of the present to the future.  We express this difference by saying that whereas we anticipate the future, we remember the past.  The past is assumed to be totally determined, while the future is assumed to be partly determinable.  The past is settled actuality, the future involves potentiality to be settled.  The present, the “now” between past and future, is assumed to be the time in which potentialities are being settled.  Constant becoming refers to the fact that this “now” does not stand still but always divides a different set of events into past and future.  Irreversibility in principle means that a series of events could not conceivably turn around and go in the opposite direction.  Events in my past could not also be in my future.  I cannot anticipate past events, or remember future events, and this fact is not simply a contingent feature of our experience but is analytic, being built into the very meaning of “past” and “future.”  I will refer to time in this threefold sense not only as “time as known in human experience” but also as “time in the usual sense” and simply as “time” or “temporality.”

As the basis for showing the need to affirm pantemporalism and therefore a version of panexperientialism, I examine, in the first two sections, problems inherent in nontemporalism and temporal-nontemporal dualism, especially Fraser’s version of the latter.  In the third section, I articulate my panexperientialist pantemporalism.


I. Nontemporalism and Temporal-Nontemporal Dualism

The main problem for nontemporalism, both in its transcendental and its reductionistic forms, is to explain why time seems to be real, although it is not.  If, for example, the ultimate (and, in fact, only) reality is Brahman, and Brahman is timeless, then time is an illusion.  But how does this illusion arise?  The apparent many are, by hypothesis, really one.  All things, including human beings, are Brahman.  If we have the illusion that time is real, therefore, Brahman must be confused.  But that cannot be, because Brahman is perfect consciousness.  We have a paradox.

The reductionistic form of nontemporalism has a similar problem.  It holds that the ultimate particles constituting the world are timeless, and that we human beings, along with all other complex things, are simply aggregates of these timeless particles.  The human mind, according to this reductionistic viewpoint, is not some distinctive type of reality with power to come up with false notions.  In earlier decades, the dominant form of reductionism was “epiphenomenalism,” according to which the mind is “a nonefficacious byproduct of the brain.”  Epiphenomenalism does give the mind a kind of reality, thereby seeking to be adequate to the fact that we do have experiences (whereas the brain, by contrast, is said to be composed of insentient bits of matter, or insentient matter-energy events).  But the word “nonefficacious” in the definition specifies that the mind has no power to originate anything.  It is an effect, not a cause.  Epiphenomenalism thereby does not explain how the mind, being nothing but a shadow cast up by the nontemporal stuff of the brain, has come up with the idea of time.

More recently, the dominant form of reductionism has been “identism,” according to which the mind is strictly identical with the brain.  This position, if anything, makes it even harder to understand how the idea of time arises.  If the term “mind” refers only to the brain, or to some of its functions, and if the brain is composed exhaustively of things to which time in the sense of asymmetry, irreversibility in principle, and constant becoming does not apply, then why does time seem real to the “mind”?  The common answer is that time as we experience it arises from the brain’s enormous complexity, with its billions of neurons.  But billions of times nothing is still nothing.  The further answer is that it is not simply a matter of the number of neurons, but of the extremely complex ways in which they are interconnected:  Each neuron is connected to perhaps 100,000 synapses, so that the brain has the capacity for trillions of trillions of configurations.  But again, such figures do not answer the question.  Even though there are some cases in which quantitative changes give rise to a qualitative difference, how is that conceivable in this case?  How can things for which the distinction between past and future is not relevant in the slightest give rise to something (our experience) for which this distinction is fundamental?

In both forms of nontemporalism, the transcen-dental and the reductionistic, an illusion is said to create an illusion.  The human mind is not real and yet is said to have the power to create the illusion that time is real, an illusion so powerful that we cannot help thinking in terms of it:  Although Einstein considered it “an illusion,” he admitted that it is “a stubborn one” (Hoffman, 258).

The stubbornness of this alleged illusion is the main reason for doubting that it is an illusion.  As Whitehead said, in agreement with William James, the “stubborn facts,” the ones that will not go away no matter what, should be taken as the most fundamental facts to which a theory must be adequate.  Science and philosophy are both committed not only to the ideal of being self-consistent but also to the ideal of being adequate to the facts of experience.  But this purely formal statement of the ideal leaves open the question, Which of the multitude of apparent facts should be taken as the most crucial ones in formulating and assessing a theory?  Reductionistic nontemporalists base their position on the fact that time does not seem to be supplied by physical theory, combined with the assumption that this physical theory does not involve any important abstraction from the nature of the objects and interactions it studies.  It is on the basis of this twofold conviction that reductionistic nontemporalists deny the ultimate reality of time as known in our immediate experience.  Because this nontemporalism is based upon physical science, it prides itself on being empirical.  “Empiricism,” however, is supposed to mean giving more weight to the immediate data of experience than to recondite speculation.  And yet this so-called empiricism denies the ultimate reality of one of the most stubborn facts of our immediate experience, our sense of time, in the name of some of the most recondite speculations ever formulated by human minds, such as relativity theory and quantum theory.

Whitehead, in harmony with the best meaning of “pragmatism” in William James and Charles Peirce, holds that we should not pretend to believe an idea in theory if we cannot live it in practice.  Rather than, with Hume and most modem thought, supplementing our theories with ideas that we inevitably presuppose in practice, we should take practice in this sense as the ultimate criterion for our theories (1978: 13, 156).  In Whitehead’s words, “the metaphysical rule of evidence” should be “that we bow to those presumptions which, in despite of criticism, we still employ for the regulation of our lives (1978: 151).  I have called these presumptions “hard-core commonsense notions” (Griffin 1998: Ch. 3; 2000: 98-101; 2001: 29-35).  They are common in the sense of being common to all humanity.  This does not mean that they are explicitly affirmed by all people; far from it.  They are often explicitly denied.  But they are common in that they are presupposed by all people in their practice, even if they deny them with their words (Whitehead’s “in despite of criticism”).  They are, in fact, presupposed even in the very act of verbally denying them.  An example is the notion of causality, in the sense of the real influence of one thing upon another:  If I seek to convince others that causality in this sense is an illusion, I show by my practice that I believe what my words deny.

The term “hard-core” is added to emphasize the fact that I am not speaking of common sense in the modern, degenerate sense of the term.  Common sense in this degenerate, soft-core sense has held that the world is only a few thousand years old, that the Earth is flat, and that God is directly responsible for hurricanes and droughts (still called” acts of God”).  Common sense in the modern West believes that molecules have no feelings.  Now the point here is not whether these beliefs are true or false (although I consider all of them to be false); the point is that these beliefs are not presupposed by all human beings and (which amounts to the same thing) are not inevitably presupposed in practice.  One can deny them verbally without contradicting oneself by the presuppositions expressed in one’s practice.  This fact makes these soft-core common-sense beliefs different in kind from the hard-core commonsense notions.  The falsity of many of the former, therefore, cannot be used to cast doubt on the latter.

If hard-core commonsense notions truly exist, then we have little choice but to assume that they are true.  The reason for this is the need for self-consistency.  If we inevitably presuppose a notion in our practice, then we contradict ourselves if we deny this notion verbally in our theory.3  If we are concerned to approach the truth about the nature of reality, we should take the self-contradiction involved in any denial of hard-core commonsense notions as sufficient reason to re-examine the premises involved in the reasoning that would lead to such a denial.  We should ask:  If E seems to be a denial of a hard-core commonsense idea, and if A, B, C, and D, when taken together, imply E, do we really have sufficient reason for confidence in A, B, C, and D to accept E?  For example the argument might be formulated thus:

A. Physics does not reveal time in atomic and subatomic particles.

B. Physics deals with the full, concrete reality of atomic and subatomic particles; at least it does not abstract from anything about them that would make time (in the threefold sense of temporal asymmetry, constant becoming, and irreversibility) real for them.

C. Therefore time does not exist for subatomic particles.

D. What does not exist for atomic and subatomic particles does not exist, period.

E. Therefore time as experienced by humans (and evidently other animals) is an illusion.

Dualists reject D rather than accepting E, and for good reason:  We have immediate awareness of the reality of time, and it is presupposed in everything we say and do.  But D is a highly speculative belief, many times removed from any truth directly vouchsafed by immediate experience.  Dualists could well argue that, although A, B, and therefore C are unobjectionable, there is no reason to accept E.  Even though dualism has its problems, they say, it is better to live with these problems than to deny the ultimate reality of time.

If D were the only challengeable premise, I would probably agree.  But other premises can be challenged.  Premise A could be challenged, and some physicists and philosophers do so.  This move can allow one to accept B, C, and D without accepting E.  One can be a reductionist, therefore, without being a nontemporalist.  I expect that premise A will continue to be challenged:  If time is ultimately real, and if dualism is false, then physics, to the degree that it reveals the truth about its subject matter, should increasingly reflect the existence of time in atomic and subatomic interactions (as in the study reflected in a report titled “Time Proves Not Reversible at Deepest Level” [Weiss 1998]).

However, the most important challenge to make is to premise B, which involves the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”—taking the abstractions of physics, which are based upon very limited interests and methods, as if they were adequate statements about the full, concrete reality of that level of reality we call atoms and subatomic particles.  Physics, after all, is not metaphysics.  Physics does not pretend to deal with its objects as they are in themselves.  The idea that it tells us all that there is to know about them is a doctrine of that form of metaphysics known as positivism.  This was the chief point of my previous essay, “Time and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness” (Griffin, 1986: 22-25).  Although this point is crucial to my present argument as well, I can here only refer the reader to that earlier essay.  Even apart from that argument, one can see that the reality of time is a given element of immediate experience whereas premise B is highly speculative, depending upon chains of reasoning with plenty of room for faulty premises and invalid inferences.  We have less reason to be confident of the truth of B than we do of the falsity of E.

Dualists, however, take a different approach. While believing the reality of time to be obvious, they take it to be equally obvious, or at least well-grounded, that actual things exist for which time (in the threefold sense at issue here) does not exist. As mentioned earlier, they may think that this dualism of temporal and nontemporal things has existed eternally, or that it has existed only since our world was created, or that it emerged still later. In any case, the chief problem shared by all the forms of dualism is the problem of interaction. How is it conceivable that temporal and nontemporal things interact?4  How can those things for which time does not exist—for which there is no distinction between past and future, for which “now” is meaningless, and which could move backwards in (what is for us) time--affect, and be affected by, those things for which time in this threefold sense is real?  And how is it that they happen to be here “at the same time”?  It is sometimes thought that these quandaries can be ignored by simply pointing to the fact that mind and body, and therefore mind and subatomic particles, do interact.  On the old and indubitable principle that the actual is possible, the possibility of the interaction of temporal and nontemporal things is shown by the fact that they do.  But this response begs the question.  The question (here) is not whether mind and body interact; it is, rather, whether the dualists’ description of this interaction is correct.  Given the agreement that mind and body do interact, the challenge is to conceptualize both mind and body so that this agreed-upon fact is not inconceivable.  This is what dualists have failed to do.  With these general comments about the problematic nature of nontemporalism and dualism in general, I turn now to J. T. Fraser’s version of dualism in particular.


2. Fraser’s Dualistic-Pluralistic Position

Fraser’s position agrees with my process position on many points.  We agree, first, that creativity is to be prized and that this requires, second, a positive appraisal of temporality (1980: 143).  Fraser is critical of any view, such as the Platonic view of timeless forms and their temporal imitations, that suggests “the negation of the idea of creativity in nature in general, and in the worlds of life, mind, and society in particular” (1980: 159).  He means his own position to support creativity by showing temporality to be both real and important.  Third, Fraser holds a hierarchical view, rejecting all reductionistic views according to which, unless something is in physics and its objects, it is not real.  Fourth, he agrees that, in our post-Darwinian world, we cannot have a worldview that “sees the world as divided into the temporal and the timeless” (1980: 143).  Fifth, he believes that our world was not created out of absolute nothingness but instead emerged out of a primordial chaos.5  Sixth, Fraser accepts the relational view of time, which means that the reality of time presupposes the reality of temporal things, with time depending upon the transitions from thing to thing.  Seventh, Fraser agrees that time involves irreversibility in principle, which means that the idea of time’s going in the reverse direction is meaningless (1982: 110).  Eighth, Fraser agrees that there can be no asymmetry and irreversibility in principle without a “now” (1982: 34).  Finally, Fraser holds that positions that are self-contradictory are to be rejected (1982: 32).  This list shows that our overall concerns and also many of our fundamental intuitions are identical.  My only question about Fraser’s position is whether it carries out his concerns in a way that is intelligible while honoring all his fundamental intuitions.

Fraser’s entire enterprise, with its emergentist view of time, seems to be predicated on the widely held assumption to which I drew attention earlier—that time as we experience it, with its asymmetry, constant becoming, and irreversibility in principle, is not real for physical theory and for the objects it studies.  This twofold assumption seems reflected in Fraser’s statement that “[w]e know about the time of atoms . . . because we write equations which depict their behavior and those equations tell us about their temporalities” (1980: 148).  This assumption leads him to conclude that time is an emergent reality.

In Fraser’s account of evolutionary emergence, there are six distinguishable realms.  The world of quantum physics, which Fraser calls the realm of proto-temporality, is the second level of existence.  Below it in the hierarchy of temporalities is the atemporal chaos, consisting of “atemporal processes” with no causal connectedness (1982: 37, 69).   Above the prototemporal world is the eotem-poral realm, in which there is no “now” and therefore no past, no future, and no asymmetry, only pure succession (1982: 34).  Although I have not found a passage in which Fraser says so explicitly, I take it that there is no “now” at this level because there is no experience.  A “now” first arises in the next level, the biotemporal.  The unique kind of connectedness among events that arises at this level is final causation, or goal-directedness, which provides the basis for a “now” dividing past and future (1982: 154).  Final causation with its “now” arises here, I assume, because experience arises here.  (This assumption would fit with the fact that, although his term “biotemporal” suggests the realm of the living in general, Fraser seems to have in mind only animals, not plants.)  The next realm is the nootemporal realm of human beings.  The new element here is mentality, or at least a qualitatively different form of mentality: Fraser sometimes seems to deny mentality to nonhuman animals altogether, speaking of a pure “physiological present,” a “perceptual and cognitive set but without mental content” (1982: 34), whereas he elsewhere speaks of “the difference in mental capacity between man and the higher apes” (1982: 166).  In any case, what is unique about our species is “long-term expectation and memory”; other animals have only “some limited foresight and memory” (1982: 166).  The sixth and final realm, called the sociotemporal, can be ignored here.

Fraser’s account raises several problems.  One problem is that although Fraser has said that we should not speak of the world as “divided into the temporal and the timeless” (1980: 143), he seems to do just that.  In the first place, it is not clear how the “atemporal” realm differs, except verbally, from the strictly nontemporal.  If whatever “processes” occur at that level are atemporal, involving no causal connectedness, so that there is no transition from cause to effect, then the realm would seem to be strictly timeless.  In the second place, the truly crucial emergence in Fraser’s scheme is that from the eotemporal to the biotemporal.  It is only in the biotemporal realm that time as we experience it, with a “now” separating a past and a future, arises.  So although there are said to be six levels, we in essence have a dualism between the top three levels, which are timely, and the bottom three levels, which are timeless.  Fraser could perhaps overcome this apparent contradiction by simply retracting his statement about not dividing the world into the temporal and the timeless.

A more serious set of problems arises from Fraser’s agreement that self-contradictory positions are untenable.  He makes this statement in the context of discussing the type of time called the “B-series” by J.M.E. McTaggart.  Whereas the A-series is time involving pastness, presentness, and futurity (which McTaggart considered illusory), the B-series (which McTaggart thought to reflect the real nature of time) contains no “now” but only the distinction between earlier and later.  In response, Fraser says, rightly:  “the concept of the B-series—a condition of earlier-later but without a now—is self-contradictory.  For that reason, it must be rejected” (1982: 32).  If ideas that are self-contradictory are to be rejected (and I agree), then some of Fraser’s own ideas are in trouble.

To begin with the example that is closest to the idea just discussed:  Fraser says that the eotemporal realm involves succession but no “now.”  The idea of “succession,” however, is in the same boat as that of “earlier and later.”  The relevant dictionary meaning of succeed is “to follow in time, to come after.”  If the notion of earlier and later requires a “now,” then so does the idea of succession.

A second example is one that Fraser himself admits to involve self-contradictory talk.  His position, he says, is that “time itself has developed along evolutionary steps.”  This leads to a serious difficulty, because “there is no noncontradictory way in which to state that time evolved in time” (1980: 147).  Fraser seeks to mitigate the difficulty here by blaming limitations of language:  The difficulty is due to “prevailing linguistic customs.”  He is certainly right to say that language is limited and limiting, so that fundamentally new thoughts require us to extend language’s present limits.  But the difficulty here runs deeper.  The very concept of time itself as having evolved in time is self-contradictory, because the notion of evolution itself presupposes time.  We can no more ask how time evolved than what caused causality to emerge (which, incidentally, makes problematic Fraser’s notion that the first realm, the atemporal, has no causal processes).  Some things must simply be, eternally, and time—along with causality, which it presupposes and is presupposed by—must be among them.

Fraser’s contrary idea, that time has not always been but began and then evolved (the title of Fraser’s book that I am citing is The Genesis and Evolution of Time), creates more problems of self-consistency.  Although Fraser says that the “atemporal chaos. . . preceded Creation” (1982: 66), he recognizes that this way of speaking does not really make sense, saying:  “We thus imagine biotemporal ordering where there can be none.”  We have to speak this way, even though it is inaccurate, he says, because we human beings, living as we do in the nootemporal realm, “are able to give descriptions only in terms of space and time.”  Besides, he suggests, the only alternative would be equally bad:  “Discussing the dynamics of Creation in tenseless language is awkward and would be just as inaccurate as speaking about chaos having preceded Creation” (1982: 66).  Given Fraser’s starting point, either of the available positions leads to self-contradiction.  Fraser himself holds, as we have seen, that self-contradiction cannot be tolerated.  It would seem, then, that his starting point should be rejected, which would mean accepting pantemporalism, according to which time had no beginning.

The paradoxical nature of Fraser’s position does not stop there.  He says: “Creation was neither followed nor preceded by other instants, because the relationship future-past-present had no meaning in the atemporal, or even in the proto- or eotemporal worlds.”  Accordingly, Fraser says, because there could be no “relations among events corresponding to the notion of before and after,” we must say that those events were “contiguous with the instant of Creation” (1982: 132).  Fraser adds that we are free to describe these early periods as if they were temporal intervals, provided we realize that the description is only a convenient way of speaking (1982: 132).  In other words, although it is customary to say that there were some 10 to 15 billion years of cosmic evolution prior to the rise of life (on our planet at least), we cannot really say that any time passed at all, because prior to life the relation of before and after could not occur.  Surely this paradox is intolerable.

A final paradox:  The beginning and the end of the universe become the same event.  The reason is that humans and, in fact, all life will have disappeared, so that the biotemporal and nootemporal worlds will be no longer.  The most complex world will then again be at the eotemporal level, for which the distinction of past and future makes no sense.  Accordingly, although from our nootemporal perspective the beginning is in the past and the end in the future, “from the point of view of the universe itself” the beginning and the end will be indistinguishable.  Accordingly, “by the identity of indistinguishables we are compelled to conclude that we have been contemplating only one single event” (1982: 135).

Besides the fact that the conclusions to which Fraser is led are self-contradictory, or at best extremely paradoxical and counterintuitive, these conclusions tend to undermine his deepest concerns.  He wants, as we saw, to support the notion that novelty and creativity are important in the nature of things, which presupposes, he sees, that temporality is real and important.  And yet he says that “the primordial stratum of the universe” is constituted by atemporal processes (1982: 37) and that the worlds with real time—the biotemporal and nootemporal worlds—are merely passing fancies.  The eotemporal “perspective,” in which there is no past, present, and future, is “the point of view of the universe itself.”  Can we take time, creativity, and novelty seriously while believing that they are, from the ultimate perspective, passing fancies?

As serious as the previous problems are, the most serious is the problem of the relation between the temporal and the nontemporal.  Fraser has sought to mitigate this problem, evidently, by two moves:  denying that there is any strictly nontemporal or timeless realm, and then having a plurality of temporalities, rather than a stark dualism between the nontemporal and the temporal.  But, as we have seen, his denial of a realm of timeless actuality seems to be more verbal than real:  The atemporal cannot be distinguished from the strictly nontemporal or timeless.  And, although Fraser speaks of six realms rather than only two, hence apparently endorsing a plurality rather than simply a dualism, the crucial transition occurs between the third and fourth levels, the eotemporal and the biotemporal.  Time as we know it, with its “now,” its asymmetry between past and future, and its irreversibility in principle, arises only in the biotemporal realm.  Although the prototemporal realm and especially the eotemporal realm—with its anisotropic succession—are together posited as a buffer zone, an intermediary between the atemporal and the genuinely temporal, the problem is not really mitigated.  It is still the case that with the emergence of life, at least animal life, we have the one truly qualitative emergence in the system.  The move from the biotemporal to the nootemporal is called a qualitative difference, but it is really a difference in degree, not kind:  Memory and expectation become much greater.  The move from the prototemporal to the eotemporal is also called a qualitative change, but it is not really:  In neither realm is there any “now,” any distinction between past, present, and future.  The one truly qualitative change is from the eotemporal to the biotemporal, because it is with life that time as we know it emerges—evidently abruptly.

This emergence is not understandable.  The distinctive feature of the biotemporal realm is said to be final causation.  We cannot understand how final causation--action directed toward a goal—could have emerged out of things that interact solely by means of efficient causation.  Fraser believes that “the qualitative differences among the temporalities of the stable integrative levels of nature derive from the radically different complexities of those levels” (1982: 156).  In the shift from the eotemporal to the biotemporal levels, however, he is positing a miraculous transmutation that no complexity, no matter how complex, could in principle explain.  Again, billions of times nothing is still nothing.  If the primordial elements contain no experience, therefore no final causation, therefore no “now,” therefore no asymmetry and irreversibility, then even a complexity greater than which none can be thought will be a complexity wholly devoid of experience, final causation, asymmetry, and irreversibility.

With my summary and critique, I am emphasizing a point that is more implicit than explicit in Fraser—the point that time in the usual sense presupposes experience.  One philosopher of time who has stressed this point is Adolf Grünbaum, who argues that time in the sense of becoming is a mind-dependent property, from which he concludes that time does not exist in the physical universe.  He sometimes speaks of time as “anthropocentric,” as if, like Descartes, he attributed mind only to human beings.  In more careful formulations, however, Grünbaum makes clear that he generalizes the kind of mind presupposed by time in the normal sense to other animals.  Where exactly he would draw the dualistic line between some mind and none at all is unclear, but it seems to be at about the level of cockroaches, regarding which Grünbaum is hesitant (1967: 152, 179-80).  But wherever this line be drawn, the point is the same:  A dualism between experiencing and non-experiencing actualities means we must speak of time in the usual sense as something that does not exist prior to the emergence of mind.  I am using “mind” here in the most generalized sense, as does Grünbaum, to indicate the presence of experience, however minimal, not in the more restricted sense that Fraser has in view when he sometimes limits mentality to human beings.  A better way to express the point is, therefore, to say that time in the usual sense is an experience-dependent feature.

The great service of Grünbaum and Fraser, especially when taken together (because of Grünbaum’s more explicit focus on the experience-dependent nature of time), is that they bring out the paradoxical, even self-contradictory, implications for time that follow from any dualistic view of reality (taking dualism to mean that the actual world is composed of both experiencing and non-experiencing actualities).  This message will be an uncomfortable one for most people in our culture, insofar as they, on the one hand, are dualists, and yet they, on the other hand, presuppose that time has always existed—at least as long as our universe has existed.  They assume that it makes sense to debate whether the universe is, say, 15 or only 12 billion years old, to try to figure out what happened during the first billion years of cosmic evolution, to try to understand the nature and order of the developments on Earth that led to the emergence of life, and so on.  And they assume that time in the usual sense—with its distinction between past, present, and future and its irreversibility—was all along, so that when we try to reconstruct the cosmic past our intention is to speak about the order in which things really happened, not simply to tell an “as if” story because we as temporal beings can do no other.  Most people assume, in other words, that time as we know it did not suddenly come into existence with the rise of human beings, or even with the rise of animals or life itself. They believe, of course, that the experience of time emerged only when beings with experience arose.  But they assume that this is an experience of something that had pre-existed it, that the experience did not create its own object.  They do not assume that all the events prior to this emergence of experiencing things were all contiguous with the first moment of creation, as if no real time passed between, say, the formation of the Milky Way and the rise of amino acids on the Earth.  The suggestion that those events that are described in our science books as occurring 10 billion years ago and those that are described as occurring four billion years ago were, in reality, simultaneous with each other, because both of them were contiguous with the moment of creation, would strike them as absurd, even unthinkable.

And yet Fraser and Grünbaum are right:  Time in the usual sense cannot be thought to exist without experience.  It follows, then, that if experience is a contingent feature of the universe, arising only with the emergence of some particular species of being, time is likewise emergent.  Of course, it is, as Fraser admits, hard to enunciate this position without self-contradictory expressions:  One can hardly help saying that “experience first arose at a particular time” and therefore that “time first arose at a particular time.”  But if the widely-held dualistic assumption is maintained, no alternative is possible.  The great merit of Fraser’s work, from my perspective, is that it brings out and forces us to face the various paradoxes about time that must be swallowed if dualism is assumed.

We are confronted, therefore, by a clash between two intuitions that probably seem equally fundamental to most people.  The one is the reality of time, back at least to the beginning of our universe; the other is the truth of dualism, in the sense of a division in the world between experiencing and non-experiencing actualities.  Many thinkers who are dualists, given this definition, refer to themselves, to be sure, not as dualists but as materialists.  Being reductionists, they deny that the word “mind” or “experience” refers to a type of actuality, entity, or substance that has equal ontological status with non-experiencing matter.  But such thinkers are, in fact, cryptodualists.  Regardless of how much they may loathe the idea of dualism, they are dualists in terms of the above definition, because they think of the world as divided between actual things with experience and actual things wholly devoid of experience.  The difference between self-confessed and closet dualists in respect to time is that the self-confessed dualist will speak of time as a real emergent, whereas the cryptodualist is more likely to say that time as we experience it is an illusion.  But both must say, if they think as clearly about it as do Fraser and Grünbaum, that time as we know it cannot be attributed to the “history” of the universe “prior to” the rise of experiencing beings.  Both types of dualists are, as the words in scare quotes indicate, forced into paradoxical expressions.

The question, then, is what to do about this clash between two seemingly fundamental intuitions.  One possibility is simply to make the best of it, as Fraser seeks to do.  A second option is to try to overcome the tension by rejecting dualism in favor of materialism with its attendant nontemporalism.  But this, as we have seen, provides only a pseudosolution:  People, being examples of experiencing beings, cannot really deny the existence of such, so that the result is a cryptodualism with all the same problems.  The only other possibility is to reject dualism from the opposite direction, by denying the existence of non-experiencing things.  It is this panexperientialist position, with its attendant pantemporalism, that I have advocated.


3. Panexperientialist Pantemporalism

I have elsewhere tried to layout the Whiteheadian panexperientialist position completely enough to make it intelligible and convincing (Griffin 1998).  Here I can only provide a brief sketch aimed at showing how such a position would lead to the pantemporalist conclusion that time has always existed, which would avoid all the problems created by the notion that time is emergent.

The basic twofold idea, which was first developed by Whitehead (except to the extent that it was anticipated by Buddhists), is that there is only one type of actual thing and that all actual things are momentary events.  Enduring individuals, such as protons, atoms, and minds, are temporally ordered societies of such events, with perhaps from a dozen (in human minds) to over a billion (in protons) such events occurring in a second.  An event, in other words, can be more or less brief.  The important point is that enduring individuals that move through space, such as protons and photons, are not the finally real things, the fully actual entities.  The fully actual entities are the momentary events, and they do not move through space.  They happen when and where they happen, constituting and filling a particular spatiotemporal locus.  What we call locomotion, or motion through space, is a result of the different spatiotemporal loci of successive events within the enduring individual—which is, again, a temporally ordered society of these spatiotemporal events.  Whitehead used the word “occasion” to refer to this spatiotemporal extensiveness of the events.  All truly actual entities, he said, are” actual occasions.”

The other crucial feature of these actual events is that each is an experience.  Whitehead therefore said that each actual occasion is an “occasion of experience.”  To be an experience does not necessarily involve conscious experience, or even sensory experience.  Experience with sensory data and/or consciousness (let alone the self-consciousness involved in being able to anticipate one’s death) is a derivative, high-grade, very rare form of experience.  Thought and sensory data are high-level products of experience, not its foundations.  In other words, just as the spatiotemporal extensiveness of the occasions of experience can vary enormously, so can the complexity and sophistication of the experience.  Dogs have simpler experiences than do humans; mice, cockroaches and amoebae have increasingly simpler experiences; and molecules, atoms, and then electrons have experiences so remote from ours that we can say nothing about them beyond certain abstract features that they must be thought to have in common with our own experience if ontological dualism is to be avoided.  We can say that each event exists not only for others (as an object of their experience) but also for itself (assuming that this expression is used in the most general sense, far removed from any necessary connection with self-consciousness).

Beyond this negative assertion, it is difficult to find a word to suggest positively the nature of this experience (here what Fraser says about the limitations of our inherited language is particularly germane, because our language has been heavily shaped by dualistic assumptions).  But Whitehead considered the terms “feeling,” “emotion,” and “appetite,” taken in the most general conceivable sense, to be among the least misleading.  He says, for example, that “the emotional appetitive elements in our conscious experience are those which most closely resemble the basic elements of all physical experience” (1978: 163).  In explicating this idea, he says something that moves us a step closer to the issue of time:

The primitive form of physical experience is emotion—blind emotion received as felt else-where in another occasion and conformally appropriated as a subjective passion. (1978:62)

This expresses Whitehead’s notion of “prehension,” which is his more technical term for “feeling.”  A prehension grasps a prior occasion of experience and appropriates some of its feelings for itself.  The word “appetite,” used above, indicates that the appropriation is not simply for itself in a narrow sense, but that there is also an orientation toward the future.  Each occasion of experience actualizes itself in such a way as to pass on experiential energy to subsequent occasions.  This idea results, of course, from generalizing a ubiquitous feature of our own experience all the way down.  This general structure of experience means that there is something analogous to both memory and anticipation (or expectation) in all occasions of experience.

The implications for the question of time are obvious.  As Fraser and Grünbaum have rightly seen, time as we know it is unthinkable apart from an experienced “now” that distinguishes between past and future.  The words that point to this twofold experience are “memory” and “anticipation.”  Fraser and Grünbaum conclude, given their dualistic assumptions, that time is therefore unreal in the physical world.  But if we can talk about “physical experience,” about the presence of at least some iota of experience at even the most elementary level of nature, then we can say that time is real there, too.

The notion that each event prehends previous events—and this feature, that prehension is always of antecedent events, is fundamental—gives us not only time’s asymmetry but also its irreversibility.  A prehension should not be thought to be simply a primitive form of sensory perception, at least if sensory perception is thought to involve merely a representation of an external thing.  Rather, prehension involves an actual grasping of the prehended object, so that that object is included within the prehending experience.  This means that, insofar as we speak of the prior, prehended event as the cause and the prehending experience as the effect, the cause has literally (if only partially) entered into the effect.  And this gives time its irreversibility in principle.  In Whitehead’s words: “This passage of the cause into the effect is the cumulative character of time. The irreversibility of time depends on this character” (1978: 237).

As Fraser has rightly seen, time as mere succession, which he assigns to the eotemporal realm, does not give irreversibility.  But this does not mean, according to the panexperientialist view, that we should say that “once upon a time” time had this character of mere succession.  Rather, mere succession is an abstraction from the full nature of time. In Whitehead’s words:

Time in the concrete is the conformation of state to state, the later to the earlier: . . . pure succession is an abstraction of the second order, a generic abstraction omitting the temporal character of time. (1959: 36)

The two unique elements of this Whiteheadian view—the idea that enduring things are really temporally-ordered societies of momentary events, and that each event is an experience with memory and anticipation—makes it possible for us to reject the conventional view that time even in the limited sense of anisotropy does not exist for single atoms, and that time in this limited sense first comes into existence with aggregations of atoms complex enough to suffer entropy increase (a decrease in order).

That conventional view assumes a materialistic-substantialist notion of an atom.  That is, the atom is assumed to be simply a bit of matter (or matter-energy) that endures as a numerically self-identical individual through space and (what from our perspective is) time.  If time is not something that exists absolutely in itself, but only as a result of temporal relations, then time can only exist when truly temporal relations occur.  But atoms conceived as material substances buzzing through space do not provide the types of relations needed for true time, because their only changes are locomotive.  In such a universe, there would be nothing to designate one configuration of atoms as having been in the past of another configuration.  Even something as remotely analogous to time in our sense as mere anisotropy could arise only with complex aggregations of atoms that could become increasingly less ordered; the direction of this change could be said to establish time of a sort, especially because this direction “happens” to coincide with our own sense of time:  The further into the past we look, the greater was the order (at least if we ignore the enormous increase in local order brought about by chemical and biological evolution on our planet); the further into the future we look, the greater will be the entropic disorder.  But this coincidence is said to be purely fortuitous.  And that follows, given the materialistic-substantialist view of atoms, because there is no reason in principle why the processes that have happened in, say, the past 10,000 years could not reverse themselves.  The teacup that was broken this morning could spontaneously reassemble itself; the photons arriving from the sun could reverse direction, and so on.  Such an eventuality is said to be extremely unlikely, of course, but it is not ruled out in principle.  Entropy increase does not give us irreversibility in principle.

However, if an atom is not a bit of insentient piece of matter that remains numerically one through (what to us is) time, but a series of occasions of experience, each of which includes its predecessors in itself and projects itself into its successors, then time in the full-fledged sense exists already for a single atom.  Each atomic event has temporal relations with its predecessors and its successors (as well as with other events).  Asymmetry, irreversibili-ty, and constant becoming are already there, with anisotropy being simply an abstraction therefrom.  We do not, therefore, have to say that time emerged sometime within the creation and then try to figure out when and how this occurred, and to swallow the paradox involved in saying that it did occur.  There has been time as long as atoms, or even subatomic enduring individuals, such as electrons and photons, have existed.  The idea that time exists wherever such entities exist is built into their description as “temporally ordered societies.”  Time exists with such entities because of the temporal relations among the momentary events constituting these enduring individuals.6

But if we had to stop there, we would still have the paradox involved in saying that time arose once upon a time.  And this paradox is just as serious whether we locate it a million years ago, a billion years ago, or twenty billion years ago.  And it is as serious whether we say that a nontemporal God created temporal things and thereby time (which always evokes the question, “What was God doing before this?”), or that temporal things evolved out of a nontemporal chaos.  The panexperientialist view says that our world did indeed evolve out of a chaos of processes or events (rather than having been created out of absolute nothingness, whether by God or spontaneously), but that there were temporal relations even in that chaos.

To call that pre-creation situation a “chaos” means that it had no enduring individuals, even ones as primitive as photons and electrons.  Rather, all the events occurred randomly, with none of them organized into temporally ordered societies in which each event largely repeats the form embodied in its predecessor.  But even in this chaotic state (which, by hypothesis, is the nature of so-called empty space today), temporal relations occurred.  Each event prehended, and thereby was causally affected by, prior events, meaning events that had already enjoyed their “now”; and each event causally influenced, and thereby was prehended by, later events.  (Events are contemporaneous with each other when neither causally affects the other.) Given this view of what actual entities are, therefore, we need not, with Fraser, suppose that the pre-creation chaos was comprised of processes that are acausal and thereby atemporal.  We can suppose that time, with its asymmetry, irreversibility, and constant becoming, existed even in this chaos.

In this way, this form of panexperientialism implies pantemporalism.  And the opposite, which is the main point of this paper, is equally true:  Pantemporalism implies panexperientialism.  I have suggested that any position that denies pantemporalism, the view that time has always existed, inevitably runs into paradoxes, some of which are so strong that they must be called self-contradictions.  We can avoid these self-contradictions, if we carry out the logical implications of our premises, only by affirming pantemporalism.  And we can do this, once we realize the connection between time and experience, only by affirming pan-experientialism.  This doctrine of panexperientialism, in spite of the fact that it initially seems so counterintuitive, especially to modern minds, turns out to be the key to protecting some of our basic intuitions—including our intuitions about time.7  We should take this route because the two sets of intuitions are not really on the same level.  The reasons for initially considering panexperientialism counterintuitive turn out to be defeasible, whereas our intuitions about time are hard-core common-sense notions, which are indefeasible:  We cannot deny them without running into self-contradiction.


1 Milič Čapek died in 1997.  My review of his last book, The New Aspects of Time: Its Continuity and Novelties: Selected Papers in the Philosophy of Science, edited by Robert S. Cohen, was published in tribute to Čapek in Process Studies 27/3-4 (1998): 345-48.

2 Whiteheadian process philosophy and theology, while disagreeing with Newton about divine power, agrees with him about divine temporality.  Some critics of process thought have used this point against it, arguing that the idea of a cosmic “now,” which temporalistic theism implies, has been rendered otiose by special relativity theory.  I have replied to this view in Griffin 1992.

3 A similar point is made by members of the school known as “critical theory,” especially Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel, in their criticism of modes of discourse that force their proponents into “performative self-contradictions.”  Such self-contradictions arise, explains Martin Jay, “when whatever is being claimed is at odds with the presuppositions or implications of the act of claiming it” (1993: 29).

4 It was partly Henri Bergson’s later realization that his first book, Time and Free Will (1889), contained this insoluble problem that led to his new view of matter in Matter and Memory (1896), according to which what we, from without, call matter has, in itself, memory and thereby temporal duration.

5 I have discussed this issue at some length in “Creation out of Nothing, Creation out of Chaos, and the Problem of Evil.” Stephen T. Davis, ed., Encountering Evil, 2nd edition (Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox, 2001), 108-25. [An earlier (1981) version of this essay is available elsewhere on this site as “Creation out of Chaos and the Problem of Evil.”—A.F.]

6 The idea that time is ultimately unreal, of course, is not based entirely on the idea that time does not exist for the ultimate units of nature.  Another basis for nontemporalism, or eternalism, is the occurrence of so-called precognitive experiences.  Although true precognition, which would mean having noninferential (perceptual) knowledge of an event prior to its occurrence, would indeed suggest the unreality of time, there is no good reason to give this interpretation to events of apparent precognition, because there are numerous alternative interpreta-tions available.  I have discussed this issue in Griffin 1997: 90-95; Griffin 2000: 228-29; and most fully in Griffin 1993: 270-75.

7 Panexperientialism is also necessary, I argue elsewhere (Griffin 1997: Ch. 2; Griffin 1998: Chs. 7-10; Griffin 2000: Ch. 6), to protect our intuitions about the reality of freedom and even consciousness.  [See Griffin’s related “Panexperientialist Physicalism and the Mind-Body Problem” elsewhere on this site.—A.F.]


Čapek, Milič, 1976. The Concepts of Space and Time. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 22. Dordrecht, Holland: Reidel.

Čapek, Milič, 1986. “The Unreality and Indeterminacy of the Future in the Light of Contemporary Physics,” Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time: Bohm, Prigogine, and Process Philosophy, ed. David Ray Griffin. Albany: State University of New York Press, 297-308.

Fraser, J.T., 1980. “Out of Plato’s Cave: The Natural History of Time,” Kenyon Review 2 (Winter), 143-62.

Fraser, J.T., 1982. The Genesis and Evolution of Time: A Critique of Interpretation in Physics.  Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Griffin, David Ray, 1986. “Introduction: Time and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness,” Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time: Bohm, Prigogine, and Process Philosophy.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1-48.

Griffin, David Ray, 1992. “Hartshorne, God, and Relativity Physics,” Process Studies 21/2 (Summer), 85-112.

Griffin, David Ray, 1993. “Parapsychology and Philosophy: A Whiteheadian Postmodern Perspec-tive,” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 87/3 (July 1993): 217-88.

Griffin, David Ray, 1997. Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Griffin, David Ray, 1998. Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Griffin, David Ray, 2000. Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Griffin, David Ray, 2001. Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Griffin, David Ray, and Huston Smith, 1989. Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Grünbaum, Adolf, 1967. “The Anisotropy of Time,” The Nature of Time, ed. Thomas Gold. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 149-86.

Hoffman, Banesh (with Helen Dukas), 1972. Albert Einstein: Creator and Rebel. New York: Viking.

Jay, Martin, 1993. “The Debate over Performative Contradiction: Habermas versus the Poststructural-ists.” In Force Fields: Between Intellectual History and Cultural Critique, by Martin Jay, 25-37. New York: Routledge.

Whitehead, Alfred North, 1959. Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. New York: Capricorn Books.

Whitehead, Alfred North, 1978. Process and Reality: An Essay on Cosmology, corrected edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York:  The Free Press.

Posted April 18, 2007

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