And now a brief word from now

Journal of Consciousness Studies 6 (8-9):8-9 (1999)
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Consider the idea of the present moment in time. This is one of the most imprecise of concepts. Does it last for an instant or for three seconds? Do all the parts of a brain share the same present moment? Is the present moment one is conscious of even coherent enough to compare to the position of the hands of a clock? In a relativistic universe, can it ever be sensible to talk about a present? To the best of our knowledge, the answers to all the above questions must be had at the expense of the integrity of the idea of ‘now'. People do not make very good clocks -- we are poor at sensing the absolute passage of time, and, even if we were better at it, relativity would only allow us to share a ‘now’ with compromised accuracy. Despite the looseness of the present moment, the fact that we can talk about it at all, even with imprecision and ambiguity, is an important bit of evidence to keep in mind when considering consciousness. Let's suppose the universe is, for practical purposes, deterministic. The universe in this case isn't ‘doing anything’ that can distinguish one moment from another. And yet the human perspective does achieve such a distinction. The vaguely perceived present moment is distinguished from other moments. This human ability reminds one of the old joke about a dancing bear: it's not that the bear dances well, but that he dances at all that charms an audience. The very concept of a present moment is only meaningful to one who is trapped in time by being conscious.



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