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Temporal phenomenology: phenomenological illusion versus cognitive error


Temporal non-dynamists hold that there is no temporal passage, but concede that many of us judge that it seems as though time passes. Phenomenal Illusionists suppose that things do seem this way, even though things are not this way. They attempt to explain how it is that we are subject to a pervasive phenomenal illusion. More recently, Cognitive Error Theorists have argued that our experiences do not seem that way; rather, we are subject to an error that leads us mistakenly to believe that our experiences seem that way. Cognitive Error Theory is a relatively new view and little has been said to explain why we make such an error, or where, in the cognitive architecture, such an error might creep in. In this paper we remedy this by offering a number of hypotheses about the source of error. In so doing we aim to show that Cognitive Error Theory is a plausible competitor to Phenomenal Illusion Theory.

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  1. 1.

    Also known as A-theorists. For a defense of the A-theory in its various guises see Cameron (2015), Tallant (2012) and Tooley (1997).

  2. 2.

    Models of temporal passage therefore include presentism, the growing block, and the moving spotlight.

  3. 3.

    Of course, if representationalism is true then phenomenal character just is representational content. While we are amenable to such a view, we make no such assumption here.

  4. 4.

    See Baron et al. (2015).

  5. 5.

    i.e. B-theorists or C-theorists.

  6. 6.

    Perhaps it need not be as good since non-dynamist’s views might have other theoretical virtues lacked by dynamist views.

  7. 7.

    Following Baron et al (2015) this view is sometimes also known as veridicalism, since it holds that our phenomenology has veridical, not illusory, content, it is just that said content is not as of passage.

  8. 8.

    Price (1996), Callender (2008), Dyke and Maclaurin (2002), Feinberg et al. (1992) and Kutach (2011).

  9. 9.

    Ismael’s goal is to explain why the world (mistakenly) seems to us to have an open future. Interestingly, Ismael moves between Phenomenal Illusion and Cognitive Error regarding the phenomenology of future openness. She notes that “It is the discovery that what happens depends on our will, and the fact that we cannot experience the activity of our own wills passively, that makes the world itself appear to be in process,” which suggests a phenomenal illusion. She also writes that we “reify features of the embedded point of view and regard them as aspects of time itself” (p. 164), which suggests that although we do not have a phenomenology of openness, we mistakenly come to believe we do.

  10. 10.

    Though for somewhat different purposes; Hohwy et al aim to explain why our temporal phenomenology is as of passage, though they use the phrase ‘temporal flow’ instead of ‘temporal passage’.

  11. 11.

    At least some aspects of phenomenology that Hohwy point to can be explained by mechanisms other than their particular hierarchical Bayesian account of perception. So one arguably need not suppose that a Bayesian account of perception is the correct one. For example, the changing perceptual experience of the present is traditionally attributed to the fact that we are organisms with a sensory register that is near-constantly receiving new information (Hartle 2005). Hohwy et al. suggest that this is insufficient to explain why perception changes even when the sensory input is constant. That aspect of perception is traditionally explained by the concept of perceptual adaptation (Clifford et al. 2007), without invoking Bayesian inference.

  12. 12.

    However, a recent meta-analysis has raised the prospect that the evidence for such “stereotype threat” effects is not as strong as it seems (Flore and Wicherts 2015).


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Correspondence to Kristie Miller.

Additional information

With thanks to Michael Duncan, Dana Goswick, Naoyuki Kajimoto, Shang Liu, James Norton, Michael Raven, Jonathan Simon and Rory Torrens for comments on previous drafts, and helpful discussion of these issues.

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Miller, K., Holcombe, A. & Latham, A.J. Temporal phenomenology: phenomenological illusion versus cognitive error. Synthese (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1730-y

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  • Time
  • Temporal phenomenology
  • Illusion
  • Cognitive error
  • Temporal dynamism
  • Temporal passage