The Qualia of “Now”: Key to a Fundamental Equation of Consciousness?

John Sanfey

TSC. Skovde 2001



The objectives of this paper are to prove that a fundamental equation governing how matter and mind are related is possible, and to establish the principles that determine the shape of that equation.

Humphrey pointed out recently that a major obstacle in the way of such an equation is that we have no idea how to equalise the dimensions of either side[Humphrey 2000]. In other words, like must equal like, but matter and subjective mind seem so entirely different that we don’t know how to begin to equate them. However if it could be shown that every describable aspect of the material world must always reflect the dimensions of subjective consciousness, and if the manner of that reflection were quantifiable it would then become possible to develop fundamental laws defining how mind and matter were related. Here I argue that ‘now’ is that special feature of reality, unique to consciousness but reflected nevertheless in every description of every aspect of physical reality. In effect ‘now-ness’ is a property conserved in the transformation from the experience to the description of empirical reality. Since that transformation is symmetrical it is consequently possible to develop fundamental laws governing the relationship between mind and matter.

‘Now’ is certainly unique to consciousness. It is absent from physics and absent too by implication from any physical description of consciousness. Spatially and temporally extended, it violates causality by requiring the past to be active in the present. Despite being absent from physics, we can be certain that whatever reality is, it is experienced only in the ‘now’. Indeed there are only three absolute certainties, firstly that experience is occurring, secondly that it is changing, and thirdly that everything else is uncertain.

‘Now’ can only be sensibly defined in terms of consciousness, being that part of space-time occupied by consciousness. The problem of explaining ‘now’ scientifically is identical to the problem of explaining subjective consciousness itself.


“There is no ‘Now’ in Physics:”

That there is no ‘now’ in physics was a view made forcefully by Einstein with regard to relativity theory. He was referring to the lack of simultaneous now across space. However the problem of duration gives a much deeper sense in which there is no now in physics. There is no now at any point in space-time, nor indeed are there points either.

Tables 1, 2 and 3 examine this question in relation to consciousness.


Table 1 The Problem of Duration:


  1. (i)                 

Space-time is a continuum, i.e. everything is moving continuously in space or time


  1. (ii)                

No concept of ‘now’ is brief enough to exclude change completely. ‘Now’ must always contain change


  1. (iii)              

But change is defined as the difference between two moments in time


  1. (iv)              

Therefore now always contains two moments, one of which must be in the past of the other


  1. (v)               

But ‘now’ should not contain past moments since by definition, now = the present.


  1. (vi)              

The past cannot be eliminated from ‘now’ however because ‘now’ must contain change i.e. two moments one of which is to the past of the other


  1. (vii)            

Therefore ‘now’ is infinitely divisible and is purely abstract


The history of the evolution of scientific thought is punctuated by stepwise solutions to problems caused by the continuity of change. Zeno’s paradoxes such as Achilles and the tortoise baffled the ancient Greeks until the discovery of infinite series equations. These equations, although infinite, give a finite sum. Later, the discovery of calculus initiated the science of mechanics, the study of change. The success of this heuristic strategy depended on allowing infinitely short durations and distances to approximate to zero. It works extremely well and is infinitely accurate. However, we have become so familiar with calculus and with approximations of it’s kind that we tend to forget the reason that such approximation is necessary at all. The deep underlying paradox has not gone away and indeed should be recognised for what it is, namely the fundamental problem at the root of the mind/matter question. Let us examine what happens when the ‘now paradox’ of table 1 is applied to the observation of matter?

Consider two observable physical states, state A and state B such that A causes B.

Table 2


  1. (i)     

All properties indicating the presence of matter in the universe are experienced phenomenally in some process of change.


  1. (ii)    

This change is causally determined such that state A changes to, and causes state B


  1. (iii)  

Change is continuous, so state B never actually exists as B alone, but is constantly changing from A to B.


  1. (iv)  

Matter must always exist as a mixture of state A and state B, despite being allowed to approximate to a single point


  1. (v)   

But A and B can never co-exist because the cause of something must be in its past


  1. (vi)  

Therefore matter as experienced, is in a state so infinitely brief that it is just as abstract as the ‘now’ in physics


There is an a priori conflict between the principle of causality and the empirical or experiential certainty of existence.

Three centuries ago Berkeley famously pointed out that the material world could be an illusion of one’s own mind. We can never know for certain whether matter exists independently of mind. All we can say is that there are patterns within subjective and inter-subjective experience that seem invariant under subjective transformations. We call the cause of this invariance ‘matter’ and since it is invariant to the whims of subjective mind we think if it as having an existence independent of mind. However it is equally logical to regard matter as a sub-category of mind-stuff as idealists do. It is purely a question of personal taste as Berkeley implied. The debate can never be resolved and is of no relevance here, since the objective of this paper is to define the relationship between mind and matter, when matter is defined as invariance within subjective and inter-subjective experience. Whatever intrinsic, unknowable stuff causes that invariance does not affect this fundamental relationship.

Kant called the intrinsic, unknowable properties the noumenal properties of a thing, the thing-in-itself. He made the distinction between them and the observable phenomenal properties. However, the argument in Table 2 demonstrates that even these observable properties disappear completely into abstraction until consciousness is factored in. No facet of the material world is known to exist for certain without the inclusion of consciousness. This fact has enormously important consequences. It means that no aspect of objective reality can ever exclude knowledge in the mind of the observer. This is spelt out in Table 3.

Every observable feature of reality is a difference between two states A and B. It is an important feature of relativity theory that no causally related events can occur simultaneously. Consequently states A and B cannot co-exist. One of them must be to the past of the other.

Note that this argument also applies within quantum theory. The Schrodinger equation is deterministic and evolves within an external time framework. Indeed it is this external time framework that makes it hard to reconcile quantum with relativity theory in which time is not picked out as a special co-ordinate. Furthermore, when a measurement is made of a quantum system the argument is the same as any other space-time, empirical phenomenon.



Table 3



Everything that can be experienced, is experienced as a difference between two states in space-time such that state A changes to, and causes state B



The actual state A has ceased to exist when B exists



Even in an infinitely brief concept of conscious now, to experience matter requires that some lingering knowledge of A carries forward to actively constitute the conscious moment with B, which is forbidden by causality



The lingering knowledge of A is a representation (call it ) of something that in terms of causality, no longer exists.



Phenomenal reality is a fusion between knowledge of the past and the causally determined present.


This argument holds for the infinitely brief durations of physics. When applied to the much longer ‘now’ of consciousness, it becomes obvious that the vast bulk of the content of consciousness, an infinitely large proportion in fact, is representational i.e. is a reconstruction of the past. The conscious now has been estimated at between 20 milliseconds and 1 or even 10 seconds.

Every aspect of empirical reality is , and is irreducible. It is irreducible because change is continuous and every attempted reduction leaves another ‘smaller’ , which can be further reduced, and so on ad infinitum. When we describe reality, we approximate the duration/distance within to zero and becomes point A or point B. We allow the approximation that state B was caused by an earlier, separate state A. Let us call this description A®B. However, is experienced whole, with no division between and B. This is the basis of empirical reality. Indeed within , the observer and the observed are also not separate but are a single phenomenon. Since must be considered as some function of all other possible representations of A. ( ), it seems to follow that the observer must be considered as the unconscious field of knowledge within a system represented by , in which all the other possible representations of A exist. This field is an essential part of the phenomenon of subjective consciousness. The experience of being conscious is the experience of being this active but unconscious knowledge in which the causally determined manifold lights up as meaning. The degree to which something is in conscious attention, is the degree to which it has access to the whole of unconscious knowledge.

The three elements of the observer (the unconscious field of knowledge), and B are an inseparable trinity within the basis of the empirical phenomenon . In is only in our thinking about the world that they become separate as A®B. So there is a distinct difference between the world we experience directly as immediate qualitative experience, and the world we think of as objectively real. Humphrey reminded us that Reid had pointed this out two hundred years ago when he made the distinction between feeling and perception, the former being the immediate, qualitative experience of something. Perception on the other hand involves conceptualisation (Humphrey 2000).

It is not my intention in this paper to comprehensively discuss previous work in this field, except to briefly acknowledge it when appropriate. In this regard Chalmer’s view that the intrinsic, unknowable properties of matter might themselves be experiential seems to arise from a recognition of the problem caused by the conflict between causality and the experienced or empirical reality of existence, though he did not use these terms. [Chalmers 1996]

The differences are summarised in Table 4.


Table 4.

Change is Experienced as AB Phenomenon

.….And Thought of as A®B

AB is indivisible (as )
A & B separated by rules explaining the change
‘Now’ is AB combined (specious)
‘Now’ is A, then B (each sharp)

Object and self are indivisible

Object and self are categorised as separate

The experience of experiencing,

The experience of observing and labelling


Analytic: Symbolic, Descriptive, Hypothetical

Not Reproducible



The position so far is represented graphically in Figure 1.


The principles developed so far give rise naturally to some basic working definitions:

  1.           ‘Now’ is any area of intersection between knowledge of the past and the causally determined manifold.

  2.           Life is in evidence whenever knowledge of the past within a system and the causally determined manifold intersect. That system is alive whenever it is the cause of the interaction

  3.           Consciousness exists whenever all the knowledge of a system is available to intersect at various points of a causally determined manifold


The definition of ‘life’ distinguishes between machines such as a computer or a thermostat and living things. The former are evidence of life but not themselves alive, because they have not caused the interaction between knowledge of the past and the causally determined manifold.


The Conservation of ‘Now-ness’

Next let me define what I mean by ‘now-ness’. Now-ness is the dimensions of subjective experience. It’s meaning embraces the experience of being inside an expanse of time and space and of focussing an inner world on details within that expanse in a subjective process of attention (a qualia). Within the ‘now’ there is both temporal and spatial non-locality, temporal in the sense that movement is allowed within the now, and spatial since things can exist ‘out there’ while being experienced ‘over here’ in the same now.

The paradigm basis of modern scientific thought is that = . In other words we define the truth of a statement about the material world as the extent to which it agrees with invariance in subjective and particularly, inter-subjective experience. Recall the approximation underpinning calculus made necessary by the continuity of change whereby infinitesimally small durations equate to zero. The arguments in tables 1, 2 and 3 show that this fundamental compromise is required whenever we think of any aspect of reality as something independent of the immediate qualitative experience. It is required in every description or conception of objective reality including the very images and words in our minds. It is inherent in the very notion of objectivity. As soon as we conceptualise something as an entity we have introduced an approximation.

Every aspect of objective reality is some such that is a representation of a past that in causal terms, no longer exists. Whenever we approximate B (or A) to we do so at the expense of introducing an ontologically absurd conceptual framework that replaces the role of the conscious observer. The dimensions of this conceptual framework must equal those of the subjective ‘now’, which is unique to consciousness. If they were not equal then our descriptions of reality would not be empirically testable. The conservation of ‘now-ness’ is a fundamental law of nature and can be stated as follows:

  1.         Every aspect of observable reality is some difference between two causally related states, state A and state B. Since only in conscious experience do A (as ) and co-exist, it follows that any description of reality excluding the subjective observer and obeying physical laws must include some conceptual device that replaces and reflects the role of consciousness


Another way of stating this law is to say that because the independent existence of matter is not known with absolute certainty but is inferred from invariance in subjective and inter-subjective experience, and because this experience defines the ‘now’ as something unique to conscious experience, it follows that every description of empirical reality must be embedded in a conceptual framework that reflects the conscious ‘now’. In effect the property of ‘now-ness’ is conserved in the transformation from subjectivity to objectivity despite its absence from physics. ‘Now-ness’ is in principle, a quantifiable property that exists in every description of matter despite being the defining property of consciousness. Before considering the experiential ‘now’ let us take a look at its equivalent, the ‘conceptual framework’ in which descriptions of reality are embedded.

In Table 5 I have listed some examples of ‘structures’ that exist in physical theories, which are imbued with determinist properties but which are not ontologically real. Elsewhere, I used the term Principle of Ontologically Absurd Space (POAS) to develop the idea that the conceptual framework takes the form of imbuing empty space itself with determinist properties [Sanfey 1999, 2000]

Table 5.

Examples of Conceptual Frameworks (CF)

Fields Vs. Backward Causation

“It is the idea that the field is real that allows us to pretend that the future does not influence the present” [Sarfatti 1999].

Platonic truth embedded in the fabric of space-time

Central to the Hameroff-Penrose (Orch OR) theory is the idea that a particular choice of answer to a quantum computation is guided by ‘platonic truth’ ‘embedded in the very fabric of space-time’ [Hameroff, Penrose 1996]

Geometric Tensors

These are conceptual structures that determine the movement of objects in fields including space-time. They are not intended to be ontologically real.

Implicate Order

Bohm and Hiley’s implicate order has been described as ‘that order which is invisible to physical laws’ [Jibu, Yasue 1995]


The best example to examine now-ness in descriptions of matter is the continuing debate between those physicists who conceptualise the action of forces in terms of fields and those such as Wheeler and Feynman who happily construct theories including influences from the future. It is not a question that can ever be resolved empirically. In many ways it boils down to personal taste rather like the debate between idealism and realism. The choice is arbitrary. Indeed it is the arbitrariness that is most significant. The fact is that whenever matter is described it is always necessary to attribute determinist properties either across space as in the case of fields for example, or across time in the case of backward causation, because that is the only way for the description to match what is experienced empirically. We can only reduce empirical or experiential reality ( ) at the expense of replacing the experiential component of with an ontologically absurd conceptual framework. That framework has two distinct components, that of temporal non-locality and of spatial non-locality, equivalent to two distinct classes of dimensions in consciousness, what I call attention and intention derived from the Y and X axes in Figure 1 respectively. They are represented graphically in Figure 2.


I define attention as the distribution of determinist properties across space, and intention as the projection through time at various points in space. In consciousness, attention is represented by the spatial configuration of and B within the field of and is proportional to the strength of the field, in other words is proportional to the amount of knowledge actively engaged with the causal manifold. In objective descriptions of matter it is a limiting condition such that, at the limit of duration of time imposed by causal determinism, determinist properties exist across space.

Intention in consciousness on the other hand, is the projected reference of meaning across different points in time. It is the degree to which the knowledge that is applied to the causal manifold can actually predict the future. In terms of objectivity it is ‘action’, a physics term describing the changing pattern of energy over time. It has the dimensions of energy x time, or (M=mass, L=distance, T=time).

The law of conservation of ‘now-ness’ dictates that the product of attention and intention defined here as now-ness, should be conserved in objective accounts of matter in which there is no conscious observer. Now-ness = DIntention.DAttention = constant. In other words reducing intention in consciousness or its equivalent in a description of matter causes an increase in attention or its equivalent and vice versa. This relationship will require more precise definitions of course before a formal equation can be developed. For now however, a qualitative description of such an equation is outlined in Figure 3.


The purpose of this paper was to demonstrate that a fundamental equation of mind & matter is possible and to establish some principles determining the shape of that equation. I have argued that all descriptions of every aspect of the material world must conserve the unique framework of subjective experience, and that this framework is quantifiable in principle. Consequently an equation can be worked out once we can equalise the dimensions.

The task of equalising the dimensions remains to be completed. Not least among the issues is the underlying nature of space and time. One of the problems at the heart of the conflict between quantum theory and relativity theory is that in the former, space and time are distinctly different things whereas in the latter they are interchangeable parts of a continuum. [Barbour 1999]. McClellan has argued that reality at a fundamental level is an interface between two irreconcilable dynamics, one which is flat, Euclidian, space-like and radiant epitomised by light in special relativity, and another which is closing, spherical and time-like, epitomised by energy in general relativity [McClellan 2000]. My work leads to a similar conclusion but with the added twist that since objective reality requires ‘correction’ to take account of the dimensions of subjective experience. It is attention that is space-like, radiant and flat, whereas intention is closing and curving as it brings knowledge together across time.

The approach I have presented here is far from complete. Indeed if valid, it represents the beginning of a new area of research within consciousness studies, that might one day lead to a formal solution to the mind-matter problem.



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

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Humphrey N. ‘How to Solve the Mind-Body Problem’ Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7, No.4, 2000, pp5-20

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

McClellan J. 2000 ‘ Architecture and Evolution: From Stonehenge to Space Stations: ‘Reframing Consciousness III’. CAIIA-Star Conference proceedings. Newport, Wales.

Sanfey J. 1999. ‘Footsteps in Knowledge: a Third Person Phenomenology of Consciousness.’ Poster presentation at ‘Quantum Approaches to Consciousness’ conference. Flagstaff. Arizona

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