Sanfey, J.J (2003), ‘Reality, and those who perceive it’. In The nature of time: geometry, physics, and perception. R. Buccheri, M. Saniga, W.M. Stuckey, (eds.) NATO Science Series. Dordrecht. Kluwer Academic Press.



General Medical Practitioner. Alvaston Medical Centre

Derby UK

1. Introduction

Most scientists think that reality can be accurately described while ignoring human subjectivity, as Buccheri points out in this volume. The observer’s sense of being, the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness [1] is considered not just irrelevant but an impossible problem [2,3]. Even those who think consciousness can be explained but only after the discovery of some ‘new physics’ [4], believe that reality can be objectively analysed without taking account of the mind of the observer or thinker. But they are wrong. Here, I show that failure to take the human mind into account in physics causes confusion about time and makes us attribute properties to the physical world that really arise from consciousness.

The argument is really quite simple. Most would agree that material reality is inferred hypothetically from invariance that humans have experienced and agreed upon ever since consciousness and communication first evolved. Suppose that whenever a human experienced invariance the event was imprinted by something unique to consciousness. Our theories would then attribute to the physical world some property arising from the mind, and it would then become necessary to understand consciousness before having an objective, accurate picture of fundamental reality. This is indeed the case, and that unique feature of consciousness reflected in objective descriptions of reality is something Einstein famously thought was completely beyond the reach of scientific enquiry [5], namely the subjective experience of ‘now’. There is no ‘now’ in physics despite our strong and certain sense of being, of existing here and now. ‘Now’ is unique to consciousness, indeed some argue is identical to the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness [6,7]. I show here that ‘now-ness’ is reflected in scientific theory, making the ‘subjective now’ not only solvable, but the key to establishing a law of observer and observed, a law applicable in every human theory including quantum and classical physics. The method used is to find the simplest model of perception by an observer who experiences ‘now-ness’, of an observed that is changing constantly.

2. The Law of Conservation of ‘Now-ness’

Let us begin by defining ‘empirical reality’. A thing is empirically real if it has an observable consequence, some phenomenon that can be experienced. It becomes objectively real when that observable phenomenon shows patterns that are invariant under subjective and inter-subjective manipulations i.e. when we agree that its properties are predictable. We call the source of this invariance ‘matter’. However, it remains true despite centuries of debate from Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and others, that we can never know for certain what matter really is, nor indeed whether everything we experience is not some clever illusion of the mind. Of course we have perfectly sensible reasons for supposing there really is some a priori ‘stuff’ out there causing what we experience, but that is hypothetical not certainty. In fact there are only three absolute certainties. Firstly, something seems to be happening, secondly whatever that ‘something’ is, it is changing, and thirdly everything else is uncertain. The argument I present here is rooted on this phenomenological bottom line. Subjective experience is primary, the presence of matter is inferred, albeit sensibly, from invariance in subjective experience. In philosophy this view is known as ‘indirect realism’ and is often attributed to John Locke. ‘Objective science’, the study of empirical reality, is the process of reaching agreement on invariance that has been experienced subjectively. In modern science it has become so automatic to step from subjectivity to objectivity that we tend to forget how human experience remains the starting point, the foundation of science. Remarkably, no one has yet pointed out that every subjective experience of invariance requires something unique to consciousness and consequently, there is always some artefact in our objective theories and descriptions of reality by which we attribute to the physical world properties that really arise from subjective but collective experience.

As mentioned above, that artefact is the phenomenon of ‘now’, which cannot exist in physics without causing a paradox between causal determinism and continuous change [8]. The principle of causality dictates that for any change in state from A to B, state A no longer exists when B does if A causes B. One must be in the past of the other. They cannot share a ‘now’ in any sense even one that is infinitesimally brief. A must always be in the past of B or vice-versa. ‘Now’ is therefore impossible if change is continuous, and in nature change is indeed both continuous and ubiquitous. Constancy of change is a core feature of both relativity and quantum theories. Relativity’s time-space continuum implies that something unchanging in space is moving at light speed through time and vice-versa. Quantum theory’s uncertainty principle means that if position is fixed, momentum cannot then be zero, because that would violate the uncertainty relation. Since change is constant and also causally determined, ‘now’ is impossible in physics. The only place in nature where ‘now’ exists, i.e. where A, (or some memory of A), and B exist together ontologically, is in consciousness.

The next step is to show that because of this ‘now paradox’, every objective model or description must contain some framework that describes the function of human consciousness. Consider the definition of motion as a change in position ‘relative to some set of fixed co-ordinates’ [9]. The requirement for fixed co-ordinates holds true for any change. Indeed, the very concept of change implies a framework that remains un-changed in respect of it. Consequently, since ‘matter’ is always in a state of change, there must always be some framework that is fixed, relative to it. Furthermore, that framework is unobservable in principle because observable properties interact dynamically with our instruments and senses, and being dynamic would always require a fixed framework under the definition of change. A fixed framework is therefore hypothetical, something we just assume to explain our experience of invariance, part of Kant’s unknowable ‘thing in itself’ or noumenon. Here is the crucial point: the fixed framework we attribute to material, objective reality also describes subjective consciousness, as the next step in the argument shows.

At the moment of empirical observation or experience, when a ‘thing’ is known to be real, its observable properties are in a state of change, from A to B, such that state A no longer exists, being in the past of B. What we actually experience therefore, is some lingering knowledge of A held in relation to B by a framework that must equal the mind of the observer since it is both fixed and yet part of the act of observation (see figure 1). No external framework could meet these two requirements, because being external to the mind, an external framework could only participate in experience by some dynamic process which would itself require some further fixed framework, an infinite regress. We must conclude that the objective, empirical presence of any ‘thing’ in the universe requires that lingering knowledge of the immediate past be held in a framework equal to the function of human consciousness, by a process that defines human consciousness. When scientific theories are created, this framework must be reproduced. If it were not, then the theory in question would not describe empirical reality. This conclusion is an axiomatic law of perception, stating that all empirically valid statements about reality must deploy an imaginary ‘observation framework’ whose properties, equal human consciousness. In effect, the ‘now-ness’ we experience as a paradoxically thick slice of time and space, is conserved in our descriptions of reality, hidden in their structures, assumptions and paradigms, such as the approximation of infinitesimal durations to zero, discussed further in the next section. I have called this principle the Conservation of Now-ness, (CON).

Figure. 1. Change exists relative to some fixed framework. The only empirically real, fixed framework, is not X but the mind of the observer since we do not experience A→B but Ar→B. Objectively therefore, matter exists in a state of change from A→B such that A, as the representation Ar, and B are held together by a process unique to human consciousness. The same process must be reflected either explicitly or inadvertently in any empirically valid, objective description of reality. This is the 'Law of Conservation of 'Now-ness'

It is clear from the above argument that the term ‘now-ness’ is identical to consciousness. We have therefore formulated the ‘hard problem’ of subjective experience in terms of the observation of change and thereby established a bridging principle between subjective experience and objective reality. The property of ‘now-ness’ equivalent to consciousness and present in physical descriptions can be precisely defined. Consciousness is the extent to which knowledge of the past influences a causally defined physical process. Subjective experience occurs when the causally defined physical world interacts with an unconscious but highly active field of knowledge. We are each a void of unconscious biological and personal memory in which the physical world lights up as meaning.

3. ‘Now-ness’ in Objective Theory

The ‘conservation of now-ness’ or CON hypothesis declares that whatever form the informational framework (CON framework) takes in a particular theory is irrelevant, provided it fulfils the function of human consciousness and allows knowledge from the past to have causal influence in the present. This ‘arbitrariness’ can easily be found in the history of physics. It is seen in the debate, beginning in the 1940’s between field approaches to physics and alternative strategies such as the Wheeler-Feyneman absorber theory allowing backward in time causation [10]. To describe the observation of change, you must either attribute determinist properties to empty space and call it a field or else allow the future to influence the present. The choice of which approach to use is not an empirical one, i.e. it can never be resolved by experiment. It is a question of taste, of personal preference, arbitrary, just as long as knowledge of the past influences causally defined events i.e. as long as ‘now-ness’ or consciousness is conserved. Arbitrary duality appears elsewhere in what Smolin calls the hypothesis of duality [4], which states that quantum chromo dynamics (QCD) and string theories are two ways of describing the same thing. QCD is a field theory that attempts to ‘quantise’ the space-time of relativity and so produce a theory of quantum gravity i.e. to unify relativity and quantum theory. It regards fields as the basic stuff of reality. String theory on the other hand ‘relativises’ quantum mechanics and regards the string entities as fundamental rather than the fields. According to CON, Smolin’s hypothesis of duality is simply an instance of the more general law that all descriptions of reality deploy an arbitrary framework conserving the ‘now-ness’ of human consciousness. Further specific examples of inadvertent CON frameworks are given in table 1.

In classical, relativistic physics we assume that equating infinitesimal durations to zero has no serious consequences. It seems to fit neatly with another assumption that there must be some actual “stuff” out there, persisting from moment to moment causing the material phenomena we observe, and so appears quite a harmless assumption. However, mind-matter duality cannot be taken for granted, as we have seen and shall return to below. In quantum theory the fixed framework is less subtle. It exists in the persistence of a Newtonian external time framework in contrast to relativity theory where the time co-ordinate is interchangeable with three spatial ones. The CON principle applies to all theories by human observers. Unless we recognise the nature of perception in a world where change is constant, all our theories will contain rigid structures that we mistakenly believe are part of external reality.

Table 1. Examples of conceptual devices used in physical theory to perform the function of the observer framework.


Conceptual Device

Fields vs. Backward causation

Either a field is considered real or the future is allowed to influence the present [10]

‘Hypothesis of duality'

Quantum chromo dynamics (QCD) and string theories are two ways of describing the same thing. [3]

Relativity theory

Equating infinitesimal durations to points eliminates observer but creates a fixed abstract framework of infinities

Quantum Theory

External fixed time framework

Orchestrated Objective Reduction

‘platonic truth’ ‘embedded in the fabric of space-time’ [11]

Implicate Order

Bohm & Hiley’s implicate order is hidden to physical laws [12, 13]

4. The Structure of Time

The CON principle describes the process of assuming there is some external reality that interacts with our unconscious information field and forms the construction we call reality. The interaction of these two worlds cannot be just explained by causality but involves a process of creative speculative modelling within the context of biological evolution. Carl Popper emphasised this theoretical nature of biological structure [14]. Our bodies are testable hypotheses facing falsification by death. Each interacting world is constantly changing, and each must have its own orthogonal time dimension.

Figure 2. Subjectively we experience Ar→B as real (represented by the continuous arrow). The A→B axis is our projected, hypothetical opinion of what reality is. Objectively however, the A→B temporal axis is considered real, while the Ar→B is imaginary in the common sense of the word. In both perspectives the vertical axis is informational while the horizontal is causal. Thus there is a common framework in both physics and subjectivity, the CON framework.

In Figure 2 we see that a structure emerges, common to both subjective experience and objective descriptions of reality. Subjectively, we experience the informational dynamic as real, and hypothesise the existence of a causally determined world. Objectively however, the causal dynamic is considered real and the informational one as imaginary, buried in the constraints, paradigms and general assumptions comprising the framework of the theory, the external time framework of quantum theory, and so on. However, in both subjective and objective models, the informational and causal dynamics have the same relationship. Informational time and causal time always exist together; each has meaning only in relation to the other. Alone, each is reversible or time-symmetrical. The arrow of time that we experience as having a particular direction arises by virtue of their intersection, at which point time becomes irreversible and memory is established. The direction of time is determined by memory.

5. Implications for Consciousness

The CON principle is axiomatic, describing conditions at the limit of what we know as human beings. Being axiomatic, it should make definite predictions of how the brain is set up in order to instantiate ‘now-ness’. Thus the brain should be structured to try and make the whole memory of a person available across any area in which correlated neural firing can happen. This imposes several conditions. Firstly there should be some mechanism for replicating memory of widespread neural synchrony holographically in each neuron. Secondly the holographic memory must in turn interact dynamically with the new distributed neural firing patterns. In fact none of this is very far-fetched. Theories of holographic memory have been suggested before [15]. Furthermore, we know that synchronously firing neurons are associated with consciousness [16], and that this does constitute a correlated classical electro-magnetic (EM) field distributed widely across the brain. Associated with this classical field is a correlated photon (quantum) field. It is conceivable that the correlated photon field could couple holographically with quantum field vacuum states [17] or with space-time geometric patterns in individual neurons [11] depending on whichever quantum model is being used. In phenomenological terms the correlated EM field of synchronous neurons occurs inside a huge expanse of holographic memory – satisfying the organising principle. Thus the CON hypothesis specifically predicts that there is a micro to macroscopic quantum dynamic coupling process in the brain.

The CON hypothesis fulfils Brooks requirement for an ‘organising principle’ to recognise and define artificial consciousness [18]. Any system, in which knowledge is holographically active across the whole system, is conscious. The word ‘holographic’ also suggests a possible definition of life. While consciousness requires information to be holographically distributed, life could be defined as any occasion in which knowledge of the past influences a causally defined event outside of a causal pathway.

6. Conclusion

Absolute certainty only applies to knowing that something is happening, and that it is changing. Everything else is hypothetical, including mind-matter duality. The only real duality is between qualitative experience and objective, hypothetical modelling, and that begins the moment we notice invariance and think it might arise from something other than ourselves. The CON principle states that this first thought like every other hypothesis must deploy some form of informational framework with its own time-like dimension to perform the function of subjective human consciousness. This means that reality as perceived, is already a hypothetical construct, and consciousness is reflected in it as with every ‘object’. Whenever there is a duality between self and other, the ‘other’ is a hypothesis embedded in some arbitrary informational framework equivalent to subjective human experience. This applies to actual objects we encounter physically in the world and to the ‘world’ itself. It applies to thoughts as ‘objects’ in our minds, and to the structure of theories in physics both classical and quantum. It is only when we understand this hypothetical nature of perception with its projected information field conserving ‘now-ness’, that we can tease out the true nature of fundamental reality, and only then can we begin to speculate how that reality might cause consciousness. One thing seems clear; whatever causes consciousness will not be understood in terms of time, space or energy because these simply have no meaning except in relation to a whole that includes the informational dimension of a conscious observer or thinker. Take out one of those four elements and the others no longer have any meaning. It follows therefore that time, space, energy and indeed information cannot be seen as fundamental. Others at this meeting regard time and space as emergent properties [see Jaroszkiewicz, this volume].

It might seem that CON makes the task of understanding reality more hopeless, but that is not the case. It simply specifies that we must learn a new doubling-back procedure in order to think objectively. In every consideration by a human mind, the object under consideration is embedded in a spurious structure arising from human consciousness. We need to recognise and remove that structure. Unfortunately, that is no small task. The structure is common to both quantum and classic theories, and recognising it amounts to finding a unified theory. CON only gives us the first step.

7. References

1. Chalmers, D.J. (1996) The Conscious Mind. Oxford University Press. Oxford

2. Barbour, J. (1999) The End of Time. Weidenfeld & Nicholson. London

3. Smolin, L. (2000) Three Roads to Quantum Gravity Weidenfeld and Nicholson. London

4. Hawking, S. Penrose, R. (1996). The Nature of Space and Time. Princeton University Press. Princeton

5. Carnap, R. (1963), Autobiography in The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, P. A. Shillip (ed), Library of Living Philosophers. P.A.

6. Sanfey, J. (2001) The Experience and Description of ‘Now’: Key to a Fundamental Equation of Consciousness? Conference Proceedings. Towards a Science of Consciousness. Skovde. Sweden

7. Franck, G. (2000) in Science and the Primacy of Consciousness, Amoroso, R. L. Antunes, R. Coelho, C. Farias, M. Leite, A. Soares, P. (Eds.), The Noetic Press. Orinda, CA.

8. Sanfey, J. (2000) The Physics of Meaning in ‘Art, Technology and Consciousness: mind@large Ascott R. (Ed). Intellect. Bristol. 2000

9. Einstein, A. (1961) ‘Relativity: The Special and General Theory.’ Three Rivers Press. New York

10. Wheeler, J.A and Feynman, R.P. (1949) Classical electrodynamics in terms of direct interparticle action. Rev. Mod. Phys., 21(3):425.

11. Hameroff, S, Penrose R, (1996) Conscious events as orchestrated space-time selections. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3, pp36-53

12. Bohm D. Hiley B. (1995) The Undivided Universe. Routledge. London

13. Jibu M. Yasue K. (1995). Quantum Brain Dynamics and Consciousness. John Benjamins. Amsterdam

14. Magee. B. (1985), Popper. Fontana. London

15. Pribram, K.H. (1991). Brain and Perception. Lawrence Erlbaum. New Jersey.

16. Lutz, A., Lachaux, J.-P., Martinerie, J., Varela, F. J. (2002). Guiding the study of brain dynamics by using first-person data: Synchrony patterns correlate with ongoing conscious states during a simple visual task. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 10.1073/pnas.032658199v1

17. Vitiello, G. (2001) My Double Unveiled. John Benjamins. Amsterdam

18. Brooks, R. (2001) The Relationship between Mind and Matter Nature 409, 409 - 411