The perception of Time is apperceptive

It occurred to me yesterday that the perception of time may be apperceptive – that is, it may belong only to those creatures who not only perceive, but perceive that they perceive. Human beings, as far as we know, are the only creatures who apperceive. Consider in psychology some case studies have shown that people can perceive without really being aware that they are perceiving. For instance, when a man can walk around a table, and yet when asked if there is a table in the room is oblivious to it, and cannot ‘see’ any table in the room. Similarly animals perceive their environments and to that extent they can negotiate their way through their environments, and yet they do not really ‘perceive’ their environments at all. However, the perception of the passage of time requires not only that we have memories, but that we perceive that we have memories. It is the apperception, therefore, which makes the phenomenal passage of time possible.

At least, it seems to me this is likely to be true. Thus, even if your dog remembers you, it doesn’t perceive that it remembers you.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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4 Responses to The perception of Time is apperceptive

  1. Animals seem to perceive something like time though, right? Consider trying to get out of the way of an attack, they see that it may come by noticing another in the distance, so, they’re assuming that they MIGHT get attacked in the future? Just a thought.

    • If you mean that animals perceive time in the same way that the man in the example ‘saw’ the table – seeing it without perceiving that a table was present, then sure. However, they aren’t aware of the passage of time as we are. They can negotiate their way through experiences, but cannot abstract from those experiences as we can.

      As a thought experiment, imagine that a dog had one of those nifty collars from the dreamworks movie ‘Up’; if you were to ask that dog what it did yesterday, or to reflect on how long it has been around, or talk about “the passage of time”, then the dog would likely stare back intently, and blankly. It wouldn’t have the language, but it also wouldn’t have any abstract concept corresponding to the vocabulary in the discussion. Dogs might be able to predict that an attack might be coming in the near future, just as they can perhaps ‘dream’ in such a way as to ‘recall’ images or even events from the past. However, they aren’t able to recognize that the instincts which lead them to avoid the attack themselves reflect the fact that time ‘is now passing’ and that they, as an abstract subject, are passing through time. I think in order to perceive the experience of time passing one needs the power of abstracting from immediate experience – one needs to be perceiving that they perceive, and be able to reflect upon their perceptions. There’s a qualitative difference between the dog’s predicting some event in the near future (just as it might predict pain when it see’s an open palm coming down fast towards it, and braces itself – or getting excited at the prospective imminence of getting a treat), and the dog’s perception of the phenomenal passage of time.

      At least, that’s what I’m proposing in this post.

      • There seems to be a difference for sure, especially with dogs. But other animals, not so much. They sense when it is time to build nests to store food for later times, etc, etc. This all suggests some sort of understanding of time. It may be different from ours but it mammals. For instance, elephants remember meeting people, and often get excited when seeing someone for the first time in a while. It would be a fair assumption to think that the elephant is aware that it has been quite a while since he’s seen me last. Further, as Nagel pointed out, we’ll never know what it’s like to be one of those animals. So to claim that they cannot experience time in the same way or similar to the way we can is really a tough claim to support.

        I’m always skeptical with regards to the claims people make regarding animals because of our limited ability to understand them. We assume they are beneath us but in many ways they are so much better and efficient at living well.

        It’s interesting to think about nonetheless which is why I enjoyed your post.

      • I think we can produce three arguments here; 1) from theology/revelation 2) from syntactic language and 3) from cognitive science. The first isn’t likely to persuade you (I imagine) but I will merely note in passing that all arguments to think that christianity is true, or that something relevantly similar is true, are arguments to think that animals are not apperceptive, which is one of the two premises of my argument here. Second, the curious absence of true syntactic language among other animals suggests that animals cannot abstractly relate themselves as subjects to predicates. They literally wouldn’t understand the grammar of the question if we asked them to imagine themselves in some counterfactual situation. Third, cognitive scientists tell us that they can identify the sections of the brain which are active when we abstract and apperceive. With the controversial possible exception of the higher primates, we also know that the animal kingdom is lacking that section entirely. When those parts are physically damaged we see the results, results not unlike the man who sees the table without perceiving it. We can perhaps infer from that something like the plausible assumption that animals do not have the means to perceive of themselves that they are passing through time.

        Those are just some thoughts by way of response. Thank you for your interesting comments; I look forward to seeing more. One final note, as an animal lover myself I can sympathize with your concerns; if it helps anything, man’s being apperceptive might be taken to make man no more ‘valuable’ (even if unique) than an elephants trunk makes it valuable because it is unique.

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