There are a few questions on this site about time passing and illusion. And it seems that our psychological experience of the flow of time might be best accounted for as illusions are


While we can doubt any particular perception, illusions can appear only against the background of the world and our primordial faith in it. While we never coincide with the world or grasp it with absolute certainty, we are also never entirely cut off from it; perception essentially aims toward truth, but any truth that it reveals is contingent and revisable.


Does this, on Merleau-Ponty, suggest that -- supposing time does not really pass and only appears to -- this illusion occurs "against the background of the world" not really becoming anything?

Specifically, is that static real "background" something that is an element of experience?

  • Davidson expressed a very similar thesis on the analytic side. Unfortunately, it does not mean anything in particular about something specific, it is a "statistical" surmise. To simplify, we can be sure that 90% of things we believe are true, but we can not tell if any particular thing is in these 90%. Time may be an illusion or it may be part of the background against which illusions occur.
    – Conifold
    Jan 14, 2020 at 23:46
  • oh right OK, are you sure mate @Conifold
    – user38026
    Jan 15, 2020 at 0:03

3 Answers 3


While we can doubt any particular perception, illusions can appear only against the background of the world and our primordial faith in it. While we never coincide with the world or grasp it with absolute certainty, we are also never entirely cut off from it;

The background of the world is the inescapable, shared external reality that all of us who are not solipsists participate in. It is the fundamental construction of experience which is nearly universal among thinkers. It is the undeniable naive realism that arises from the universal nature of the human mind, such as qualia and language, which is inevitably subject to philosophical discourse. One may choose to enter into the process of phenomenological reduction, but one must have something to reduce. This constant assertion of the appearance of reality is this background. The nature of the relationship between the Continental and Anglo-American traditions hinges upon how one copes with this background. If one accepts that one's introspection is the best course of dealing with understanding experience, one is apt to accept rational and introspective epistemic methods as privileged; if one broadens one's perspective to include skepticism of that privilege and rejects that rationalism and introspection are indeed privileged, one must break down those introspections not by thought, but by experiment.

Times, Dichotimzation, and Realities

If you want to understand the background of the world, escape the limits of rejecting testimony, measurement, and experimentation. Start with understanding the relationship between the subjective experience of time versus the objectivity of space-time (even under the aegis of the temporal relativity of relativistic physics); Daniel Dennett has a chapter (6, Time and Experience) in his 2017 edition of Consciousness Explained. It is important to both draw an ontological distinction between the two types of time, and to note the fact that advocates of the view that "time is but an illusion" usually post their thoughts using a CPU with a clock while glancing at their wrist watches that they wear to save themselves time by avoiding glancing up and searching for the clock on the wall before collecting their biweekly paychecks. While it is true that time as experienced is subject to the effects of being constructed by neurons, that hardly makes it random and arbitrary. In fact, time perception and psychophysics are quite robust in their empirical content, and help cut through the hoodoo and voodoo of the relativity of time.

There is much to be learned by introspection, but contrary to Descartes' view that introspection is a very reliable and accurate source of the workings of the mind (it is not), the tradition should be respected accordingly. Unfortunately, some thinkers forget that their thoughts are mere representations of external reality, and not external reality itself. This is best remembered by the phrase "The map is not the territory". You read enough metaphysical speculation and you'll notice self-skepticism seems to be parsimoniously applied to the peculiar brand of generous skepticism which doubts external reality.For a quick sketch of the defense of realism, chapters 7 and 8 in Searle's The Construction of Social Reality.

Time and Experience

The most reasonable position to take on time is one which is ontologically pluralistic, that is to say, that time is both external to the mind (as in clocks and sunrises), and internal to the mind (as in stream of consciousness and flow). If you want to experience life with an awareness of time, wait for water to boil. There's a reason that the saw "a watched pot doesn't boil" has become an idiom. If you want to experience life without any awareness of time, I suggest Tibetan bowl meditation. It sounds silly (and sounds lovely literally), and you can lose a few hours of time. Every night, we dream and usually are quite unaware of the passage of time.

The Construction of Time and Time Dilation

It is true that the Newtonian universe has been cast aside for a more accurate model where time dilates. Time dilation can actually be proven mathematically with trigonometry and vectors at the secondary level of math. Paul Hewitt has a lovely appendix in the 4th edition of his Conceptual Physics like the WP article listed above. GPS wouldn't function without technological accommodations to the relativistic nature of time. But as experienced locally here on earth by people, time is relatively unmerciful and unyielding. It is so real and important, that the progress of society and the fate of the British empire was strongly interlinked to the development of the marine chronometer. Tempo and synchronicity in battle is tantamount to life and death, and is explored in Warfighting by Commandant Krulak.

Knowing Time

So, keep in mind Ryle's distinction between knowing-how and knowing-that. On the one end, if you want to understand time better, learn the mathematical and scientific theories of space-time (start with learning the proof for time dilation), and the psychophysics of the mind. Once you understand the science of perception, you'll be able to pair up theory with praxis. Praxis, in this case, means experiencing the variability of time awareness through different activities such as sports, meditation, and the like. But whatever you do, beware of the philosophical mumbo-jumbo that "time is an illusion". That's just a deepity.


If time does not pass there is no future or past and the present is not a duration. This means that the phenomena you call the 'background of the world' cannot be any more real than time. Time is required for the phenomena of the world so must be prior.

This is a difficult idea of time yet is unfalsifiable. It is best explained in the metaphysics of Middle Way Buddhism, for which nothing really exists and nothing really happens.

It would not quite be right to call time and phenomena illusions. They would be as real as the they seem, but not real in the way we usually believe. They would be unreal in the sense they are not fundamental, not basic to consciousness. The Ultimate would be Eckhart's 'Divine Instant' or Plotinus and Peirce's 'First'.

Experience itself would be unreal so would require no phenomenal background. The background (as Schrodinger notes) would be the 'canvas on which they are painted'. This background would be undifferentiated consciousness.

All this may be verified, but for most people it will take a long time to do so. You might like a poem by Bernardo Kastrup called 'Legacy of a Truth -Seeker'. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgiwVYZM5A8

You do not experience time-not-passing since experience requires time to pass. When you become what lies beyond experience then time will have ceased to be experienced and you are beyond time and experience. This is where only the Grail-seeker ventures.

This transcendence is represented by Spielberg as a vast empty Chasm into which Indie must step with only faith to rely on.

  • "If time does not pass there is no future or past": that doesn't follow. The B-theory of time, which is the most popular metaphysics of time that denies passage, still accepts the existence of a total order (ignoring relativity) among moments: there is an objective sense in which some moments are later than or earlier than others.
    – Schiphol
    Jan 16, 2020 at 12:24
  • @Schiphol - What is the duration of your 'moments'? A second? A nano-second? A moment no more has existence than a point.
    – user20253
    Jan 17, 2020 at 12:13
  • I was only commenting on your claim that past and future do not exist. The "specious present" is a slippery notion, you are totally right about that :)
    – Schiphol
    Jan 17, 2020 at 13:54
  • @Schiphol - I wouldn't want to labour the point, but is it not obvious that the past and the future do not exist? It seems inarguable to me.
    – user20253
    Jan 17, 2020 at 14:05
  • A majority of philosophers of time (but by no means all) would claim that they do exist, though, and endorse the B theory of time (plato.stanford.edu/entries/time/#TheBThe). Anyway, I just thought the point I took issue in my original comment might have been an overlook; but if you stand by it that's of course fine.
    – Schiphol
    Jan 17, 2020 at 14:33

Do you experience the weight of the air? Or to be trite, does the fish experience being surrounded by water? To adopt a definition of 'experience' that simply means 'undergo' is not useful. We already have words like 'suffer', 'undergo', etc. And it creates pointless confusion.

So to claim you 'experience' these things that are simply present without having any changing effect upon you is not a productive use of language. But that is the only sense in which one could 'experience' time not passing. Any other sense of 'experience' requires that the event be at least temporarily available to be recorded mentally. And that would express the passage of time.

Memory is an exothermic process. To take Dennett's contention that that quale are simply labeled perceptions and therefore consciousness is simply a very temporary layer of memory and bend it in a Kantian direction, then, in a very real sense, it is the fact that our memory is an exothermic process that causes the second law of thermodynamics. Time does not 'pass' or 'flow', there is no 'arrow of time', as a part of essential reality.

But our experience takes a given direction through time because of the way we record information. Then we interpret the effect of our nature as a necessary aspect of all physical processes. But that is mere projection. The stream of memory is real, but it is not caused by the passage of time, it is simply correlated with a given direction through four-dimensional space which always accompanies increasing entropy because it is itself a process that depends upon increasing entropy.

So there is a real lack of the passage of time, for any 'being' who might assemble information in some other way than by being. But you cannot experience it, because you are not such a thing.

That does not make the passage of time an illusion, in many senses of the word, just a subjective shared human trait, like color. We can see it as very much the exact thing Kant said it was -- an underlying form for our intuitions.

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