When is ‘now’ ?
That is a really interesting question Bhatta.
Is now when we experience something, or is it when that thing occurs in reality.
There is often a significant number of milliseconds difference.
It seems clear that most of the time, what we experience as reality isn’t, it is a model of reality that is running in our brains and is running predictively, so that we get to experience things pretty much as they happen, rather than a few milliseconds late as a result of all the signal transmission and processing delays.
It seems that we never actually get to experience reality directly.
It seems that all of our experiences are run through a large set of filters and processes before we get to consciously experience them, and for the most part we don’t notice these.
So it really does get to be a very interesting question, when is now?
Is it when an event is recorded against the external referent clock?
Is it when an external referent clock records that our consciousness displays awareness of some novel signal?
Is it when we consciously notice the time?
We have all experienced times when our subjective experience of time and the objective measurement of time diverge. What is now in such situations?
We can all multi-task to some degree.
I have trained myself to do it in quite a few different situations.
The most I have ever managed is about 20 different simultaneous foci. And often I do 4 or 5, like driving, listening to a lecture in one ear, listening to the phone with the other each, and eating food with one hand while steering the car with the other.
And there are many times when there is only one focus – a singular consciousness, often deep in some abstract space totally unaware of my physical surroundings.
Which now is now – which process, which focus?
Hi OM and Paul
As I started contemplating this reply, there was a sparrow out at the feeding trough I have set up for them, feeding on the wheat I put out each day. It was a juvenile. It picks up a piece of wheat, and squeezes it in its bill a couple of dozen times before swallowing it. At the same time its head is in a constant pattern, move stop, turn and twist, stop. It seems clear that two different patterns are playing out in its neural networks simultaneously. One, a pattern for eating seeds, that usually results in cracking the husk enough for digestion to occur, is the squeezing sequence. The bird has no idea that the seed has already had the husk removed, the pattern is simply going through the sequence built into the brain by the genetics that define what it is to be a sparrow. There is a little room in there for learning from interactions with the environment, but not a lot. Mostly patterns defined in chemistry just trigger.
The constant move stop, of the head seems to be a pattern that allows for the identification of threats that might otherwise be in a blind spot. It is dangerous being a sparrow. Lots of things eat sparrows if they can, cats, weasels, stoats, ferrets, rats, even mice if they are hungry enough, magpies, hawks.
So constant vigilance, constant scanning, is a highly selectable trait – regardless of the metabolic cost.
And the idea of constant vigilance does not exist for a sparrow, just the activity of constant change of perspective. Alert to dangers also defined by genetically delivered patterns.
What has this got to do with being in the now?
I agree with you both, that getting a balance that keeps us largely in the present is powerful.
We all have a past, and that past leaves so many shadows and influences in who we are in the present.
We all have habits and values and dreams and goals, that are part of what directs our being in the now, delivering the next instantaneous iteration of the now as our future. In some senses both now and future are a stochastically independent instantiation of a massive set of probability functions.
It makes no sense to let our awareness be captured and held by things from our past. If we allow ourselves to be captured by some experienced injustice, then we become blind to the possibilities of the present.
If we let our awareness be captured by some particular path to some future goal, then again we are blinded to the possibilities of the present.
We must all have pasts, and those pasts will contain a vast array of thwarted intentions and injustices.
We must all have values and goals, we would not be human otherwise. To be human is to create meaning and purpose.
It seems to me that it is powerful to be clear that the meaning and purpose we have are our own creations (or those we have accepted from others), and are not any sort of attribute of reality.
It seems to me, that every instant of now offers a vast array of possibility, in the things we might possibly choose, and in every instant that possibility must localise down to the actuality of what is chosen.
For the most part, such choice is handled subconsciously, by the vast array of neural networks that are part of our make-up, and we also have higher level influence over that.
Unlike the sparrow, most of our networks are configured, and are reconfigurable, by experience. Having such systems gives flexibility, but comes at the cost of an extended childhood, where adults must protect us while we learn enough to survive. Young sparrows learn quickly what little they can learn. Young humans take much longer, and have far greater possibility space available for exploration.
To the degree that we bring higher level awareness, we have that higher level choice.
To the degree that the higher level awareness is absent, the choice is made by pattern, habit, the past repeating in a sense.
To the degree that we bring abstraction, distinction and transcendence, we create new levels of choice.
To the degree that we can become aware of those levels of habits, to that degree we gain freedom from them. This seems to be the great power of meditation, the great power of what Buddhists call “non judgemental awareness”.
When one understands probability distributions, and can see that most such distributions are continuous, then one has infinite choice. Certainly continuous distributions have peaks, and they also have long tails, and possibility exists across the entire spectrum.
Certainly some distributions are not continuous, but are discrete. Some things are not possible. The idea of the impossible demands discrete distributions, with areas of zero probability. And such things do not need to occur everywhere to be infinite (another really weird aspect of infinite topologies).
So certainly, it is powerful for all of us to be alert to the possibilities of the present, and there is also a sense in which we can never entirely escape the “presence” of our past (both as the influence on who we are, and on our expectations for the future). And the Greeks developed the idea of the virtue of the mean – between the vices of excess and deficiency; and that has a lot of power in many different domains (and it is a recursive tool, applying to itself, infinitely recursive attempts at balance in infinite spectra).
So yes – certainly, being present – and at what level “present”.
How many levels of presence can we simultaneously maintain?
How, when, where and why do we vary the level of attention given to any level of awareness?
How much are we like sparrows at the feeding trough?