A blog about systems and statements
Life-slice theory
Life-slice theory

Life-slice theory

After recently being exposed to Kant’s Copernican revolution in my philosophy class, I was utterly taken aback. I’ve always had a sense that people can be wrong about things, but I was not expecting it when Kant gave a rock-solid argument that we fundamentally misunderstand the nature of reality. And I’m not talking about some half-baked Platonic Theory of Forms. Kant’s work in metaphysics was so groundbreaking to me it triggered a tsunami of philosophical reconsideration, which lead me to conceive the following theory of mind.

Kant’s revolution

Kant’s Transcendental Exposition is a notoriously complicated piece of philosophy. In it, he discusses his views on space and time. I am no scholar of his, so I won’t go into depth with an explanation. Here is a summary to highlight his work’s impact.

Let’s start with space. The common understanding of space is that it exists as a feature of the universe or “the world out there”. Objects are distinct from and relative to each other by virtue of space. Kant flips this notion on its head and argues that space is instead a feature of our minds, not of the world. He gives no less than five arguments for this conclusion, but I’ll only highlight two here because I think they are more than convincing enough.

Close your eyes and imagine nothingness. No objects, no colours, no sounds, no things at all… You will find that you can imagine the lack of objects, but you cannot imagine the lack of space. No matter how hard you try, it is always there in your mind. Another weird feature of space is that it is infinite both inside and out: Imagine a tennis ball in empty space flying straight at a googolplex times the speed of light. You’ll find that the ball never hits a boundary. And if you imagine it does, you can always imagine it going beyond that boundary, infinitely. Similarly, imagine an incredibly small cube of empty space and then slice it in half repeatedly. You will see that there is no conceptual end to its slicing. These properties of space that we all conceptually share: its omnipresence, and its infinitude both in and out, should be remarked quite strange since we have no evidence that the world actually behaves like this. We do not know whether the universe has an end, nor do we know whether there is anything smaller than a quark. But since our minds do, the notion of space must be a priori. That is, a feature of our minds, not of the external world.

Kant says that this is intuitive, since it is false that a baby discovers space first, and then objects inside it. She has the notion of space built into her mind from birth. Evolutionarily this makes sense too. Space is a very useful tool for our minds to aid in survival. I mean, it would be pretty hard to live if you had no concept of where food is.

Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman actually ran evolution simulations and found that survival and truth do not have a necessary correlation. His theory of mind called interface theory of perception (ITP) shows that species evolve to interface with their environment efficiently, and this goal is not aligned with perceiving the universe as it truly is. Just like knowing exactly how your computer’s CPU works does not help you send an email (trust me).

In fact, being too concerned with truth must be detrimental to survival. The most intelligent known species (us) has not evolved to see the true nature of reality and looking at our biology it doesn’t seem like that will be happening any time soon either. So because of evolution, the world we see is not the world that is.

The arguments for time being exclusive to our minds are very similar. Since we cannot imagine an object without it existing in time, and we see time as infinite both in and out, and there is no physical evidence that time is in fact any of these things, time too must be a feature of our minds, and not of the external world.

These are pretty intense conclusions, and the good arguments they’re backed up by only make it more intense. Kant’s writing got me thinking about how we experience things. If concepts as fundamental as time and space are not real, then what else might also only be a figment of our imagination? Kant had a small post-hoc discussion on the nature of the self, where he essentially said that because we cannot see the world as it truly is, neither can we ourselves. I think there is a bit more that can be said about this topic.

Time-slice theory

So as a thing in this universe, how does one experience it? Well, certainly as space and time. To us, the external world seems to behave physically in space and over time. In concept, one could plot out our experience of the world as a continuous mathematical function. Given a point in time t, there exists a function f(t) that produces a perceived physical state p.

Life in a nutshell. (Suppose for sake of visualisation that p is one-dimensional)

Except, I don’t think this is completely accurate. We do not experience every single moment the world has to offer, because our brains have a clockspeed. The reason we can speak, act, and decide is because of neurons firing in very specific ways in our brains. And this firing happens at an average rate you can call our clockspeed. This has been proven by researchers who discovered that events shorter than a certain amount of time are completely unperceivable by the human mind, despite it occurring within sensory scope. Depending on who you ask this is between 1 and 100 milliseconds. So, a better rendition of f(t) is a discrete function, where f is only defined for some instants, split by varying intervals.

This notion of perception is famously backed up by David Hume, who argued that we can only perceive events and not that which happens between events. That is to say we live in the dots of perception (above), and everything else is unknown to us. For Hume, this means that the notion of causality is meaningless. If we can only perceive events and not the causes between them, then best we can do is make observations, not truly explain how an event causes another. Considering the illustration above one would be quick to recognise a pattern, however since we do not know the function f’ nor the data between the dots, we cannot say for certain how the dots are interlinked (and what if anything makes them non-random). Perhaps another Kant-like revolution, Hume’s problem of causation struck me about just as hard. It is extraordinary that something as fundamental as causation eludes our understanding.

Back to the topic, we can further extrapolate the function of life by making it represent all living things capable of perception. Suppose that given a time t the function g produces a time-slice of life. That is, life in the sense of the French c’est la vie, or the Greek psuche. And you would then be a minuscule part of that life-slice.

So here’s my theory. You (the person reading this) are the aggregation of all the sub-slices for which you have existed. That is, the “sum” of all your life-events. Not very interesting yet, but here’s the kicker: you (the thing capable of perception and experience) are each of these sub-slices, and not all of them. At every discrete slice, you exist as an entity with memories, feelings and thoughts, but only for that very instant. You may feel as though you are a single thing moving through time, but I argue that really you are each moment, not all of them. So the term “you” is misleading. There is a difference between you as a person and you as a perceiver (subject of experience). A person is the sum of slices, while a perceiver exists in each life-slice. Thus, you (the perceiver) are a mere instant, while you (the person you associate with) is a group of these instants.

It may sound far-fetched to think of yourself as an instant, not an object in time, but really it makes more sense. Since we know from both Hume and Kant that we cannot perceive what happens between events, it follows that we cannot know for certain we exist through events. All you can know is the current event occurring (the current life-slice), as well as some memories and cognitions that tell you about your perceived past and place in the world (e.g. what you’re doing, who you’re with, the notion of space and causality, and so on).

You do not know anything about the future. You are never in the future, nor in the past for that matter. You are always in the present, and realistically the present is all you ever know. Perhaps this is what Camus meant with his “incredible immediacy of the present”. Much in the style of existentialism, Camus argued that meaning is to be found in the here-and-now, not in some afterlife or a greater good beyond your internal world. The idea that the present far outweighs the past and future has been around since Confucius‘s time.

Alright, but even if you are an instant, this doesn’t explain how you are able to perceive the world. There are many different avenues by which you could have awareness. Some theories are interactionalist, like Cartesian dualism (you are a body and an immaterial soul) and panpsychism (consciousness is a property of the universe and since you are part of it, you are conscious), and some are non-interactionalist like epiphenomenalism (your consciousness is read-only, and your body acts from pure brain chemistry). Time-slice theory does not make a claim as to how exactly consciousness exists or interacts with the body, but only one property of its existence — its temporal duration (an instant). Time-slice theory is compatible with most other theories of mind, so I’m satisfied in positing this theory as a non-theory-of-everything in the philosophy of mind.


One of my philosophy lecturers last year called the “good” parts of theories their dividends. That is, the value they produce. E.g. a dividend of egoism is that we all get to act in our best interest; a dividend of deontology is that moral rules are clear-cut and exceptionless; and a dividend of capitalism is… well, dividends! I find it funny that a philosopher resorts to capitalism for his terminology, and not vice-versa.

Anyway, one remarkable dividend of time-slice theory is a happy solution to the teleportation problem. The problem essentially says that star-trek-like teleportation is fundamentally different from normal transportation in that the subject’s consciousness does not survive the journey. The argument goes that since what truly happens during teleportation is a full deconstruction and (atom-for-atom) reconstruction of the subject, the subject’s flow of consciousness does not live through the transportation. Thus, the person stepping into the teleportation device is different from the one stepping out, even though they share the exact same memories, feelings, perceptions and so on.

This is a scary thought because it means the main characters of Star Trek die like a thousand times on screen without anyone even knowing or caring. Okay, more realistically it has some difficult implications for yourself too. The idea is people would think you are the same through a break of consciousness (e.g. by teleportation) even though you ceased to exist in the process. And after the break of consciousness whatever it is that takes up your body’s control is not you, but has all your memories and experiences. Therefore it could very well have happened to you already. You could be someone’s substitute soul. You’re not really conscious while you sleep, so as far as you know you could have started existing this very morning when you woke up. And as far as you know you may be replaced when you fall asleep tonight.

So now you can see why it’s a philosophical problem. And I must admit that while outlining the problem above I realise how misleading the “happy” characterisation of my solution to it is. Time-slice theory essentially says that this process of having your soul replaced happens every instant you are conscious. Since you are each of the slices, you remain you for all intents and purposes throughout any break of consciousness.

It also means you have no reason to fear death. In fact, since you exist only as instants, you have already died countless times since your body’s birth and you will die countless times more before your body’s death. Let me just say if there’s a god out there, he sure likes complicating things.

Maak 'n opvolg-bydrae

Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Verpligte velde word met * aangedui