John’s world can be extremely difficult, but it can be managed.
Alan, you make the mistake of being too optimistic about John’s loss of his perception of time. The most sensible characterization of John’s condition is a disability, and it can be managed.
First of all, let’s be clear, John retains a lot of his memories just like a normal person but has lost the time-stamps, which were assigned to memories and impressions to keep them in order. John’s new memories are also not time-stamped. All of John’s memories, before and after the accident are a bowl of orderless mess. Without the perception of time, John can only make sense of a string of events by deliberately putting them in causal (or some other kind of logical) order, kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. You said that establishing logical order is impossible. There is no reason to think that since we do not require perception of time to establish any logical order; the understanding of humans’ perception of time will suffice. In other words, as long as John knows/understands how linear time works, he can establish logical orders. The difference between him and us is that he doesn’t have any experience of that chronological order when a string of events take place. The other difference between John and us is that John has millions and billions of puzzle pieces all at once to piece together to rebuild the chronological narrative of his life. Imagine a room of individual files that need to be filed into cabinets. Our filing room has a robot that files for us and it does it efficiently; John’s robot is broken and he has to do all the filing himself now, and he doesn’t have the metadata about those files like the robot does. Before John can accomplish this incredibly difficult task, he wouldn’t even know how he lost his perception of time. The faculty that once delivered the requested piece of memory to your consciousness is no longer functioning properly; John cannot easily retrieve the cause of his injury; John cannot easily retrieve anything. This is problematic before anything else. He may not be able to conduct himself normally in daily life, which requires him to remember things in chronological order every second.
You also suggested that John would have no way to distinguish his past and present and would therefore be paralyzed by constantly shifting experiences, be they old or new. I have no idea how this could be true. The role of whatever faculty that produces time-stamps is not vital in the discrimination of the past and present. In fact, I think it’s completely expendable. When you recall an experience from the past, an impression, do you relive it? Sometimes you can immerse yourself in a piece of memory and come to abruptly when somebody gives you a shout. Other times you know very well with certitude that you are remembering something instead of living it. After deep immersion, if you try to recall how it felt to recall that memory and compare it with the content of the memory itself, you’d easily distinguish between them. Is this because we time-stamp experiences? When you don’t recall when something happened but you recall this piece of memory, can you not tell the difference between remembering it and living it? Of course you can! Time is not vital in distinguishing memories from first hand experiences. The role of time-stamping comes after the occurrence of experience. John can tell the difference between recalling something and living something. So I imagine that he can behave relatively normally, unless you engage in a conversation with him for longer than a few sentences. After a few sentences, I imagine it is possible for John to get confused about the order of those sentences. He’d remember who said what, but not when someone said it. He might try to piece the conversation together using rational means, not unlike autistic children making sense of social cues by rational rules, but once the number of sentences and amount of information start piling up, they could render more than one possible reconstruction. Imagine having Alzheimer’s; only instead of being unable to remember things, your memories are all jumbled up and orderless, and you have to figure out what happened when all the time. This is John’s life.
Now onto your dream/reality distinction problem. In my view, like the discrimination of the past and present, the discrimination of dream and reality doesn’t require the perception of time, although I see that this isn’t your argument. To be sure, your argument is that John may fail to consciously establish the “right” chronological order of a string of events, and if this string of events contain some events which take place in a dream or day dream, then John would have no way of distinguishing the content of the dream from reality. I think the claim that John may fail is, without a doubt, correct. He may fail so spectacularly that he goes viral again. However, it doesn’t follow from this that John would always or even often confuse dreams with reality. Would John fail at all? Yes. Would he fail often? That’s a question without an answer unless we get more details on John’s life. But, to get a rough bigger picture quickly, let’s remember that John’s only impairment is his perception of time. He still has common sense and rational thought, which shut out a lot of ridiculous narratives; if John is particularly smart or well-trained in certain areas of expertise, he may be able to assess proper probability of some things and whatnot to establish an excellent time line, maybe even quickly.
In my mind, John’s world is extremely difficult and he could live a very miserable life, failing to navigate through daily tasks or he may use his sharp mind to compensate and behave like a normal person even though the underlying workings of his memories is nothing like other people’s.
Could he becomes some sort of a superhero? Well, perhaps John over-compensates with his massive intellect and turns into someone like Sherlock Holmes or yours truly, but I think time-traveling and time-manipulation are strictly off the table.
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