Time-Blind John (Part Four)


Your student raises an excellent and important point. We have indeed missed it. Maybe we should give him or her the brown tie.

To defer to Kant, experiences are manifolds, and many things “hold” the many facets together to form an experience. Indeed, Kant himself thought that time, along with some other things, holds an experience together. Dissection of the eyes yields nothing more than cryptic, unintelligible signals. It probably won’t even occur to us that those signals are signals until we have any understanding of the interpretative faculty. If this brilliant youngster is right, then we are looking at a whole new outlook of John’s world.

Let me expand my view, absorbing your student’s suggestion. If it is true that experiences get shattered, as it were, into probably unintelligible pieces, layers and fragments due to the lack of time, then John’s world would be even more difficult than I set out to believe. In addition to making rational effort to consciously reconstruct a time line, he has to make extra rational effort to reconstruct each moment of an experience. Imagine the array of errors that could occur at every single junction of the formation of an experience! John’s cognition is defective. John’s world would be extremely frustrating all the time.

I think you have made our disagreement a little clearer, and I agree with your characterization of the core of our disagreement, i.e. whether John can discern the past from present. ”[When John ‘remembers’ something,] how would he know that he is not experiencing that experience right now?” This is the question that I have to answer in full in order to convince you.

I like your own answer to this question. If I understood you correctly, the perception of time gives you this feeling of the present, which is the key to discerning the past from present. If this is true, answer me this: how do you tell the past from its past? We, as non-time-blind people, use rational faculties to help us construct time lines all the time. Don’t these scenarios sound familiar? “Wait, I couldn’t have left the house without my key, I needed it to lock up. So, I must have picked up the keys first!” “Joe must’ve got to the after Lisa because it rained after Lisa got here and Joe’s soaking wet from the rain.” In fact, the police and historians do this stuff all the time. They all specialize in constructing time lines without relying on personal experiences or the “anchor”.

I think that the past and present can exist outside of or externally to a person’s cognition. Reconstruction of time is totally possible and feasible without our cognitive abilities and habits. If you look back 1000 years, before you were born, you can, to a certain extent, depending on your prowess as a historian, reconstruct a time line of events. This kind of reconstruction is prone to errors of many sorts, but the very existence of the practice of recording history that is beyond one’s own time shows that we do not have to rely on our personal experience of time to become able to construct time lines. So to tentatively answer your question. How does John know? It’s the same as how historians tell events that happened 2000 years ago from events that took place 1000 years ago.

Let me spend some time defending my latest claim, i.e. we do not have to rely on our personal experience of time to become able to construct time lines. Now, as a historian, if you somehow were born without the concept of linearly progressive time, and you are unable to grasp the concept of linearly progressive time, then you cannot do your job. You wouldn’t even be able to tell a story or extract the plot of a story. However, if you are then somehow taught how time works even though you have no personal experience, you should be able to tell a story or extract the plot of one. You do not need your personal experience of time to do so. If this isn’t obvious to you, then consider the fact that your phone can mechanically construct time lines for various purposes, but it certainly does not have any personal experience of time.

John already knows the rules of linearly progressive time by memory because John was born with 20/20 “time-sight”. The account of how time works (for a normal human being anyways), should be intact. John should be able to explain how time works. If he’s never thought about it, he should be able to synthesize that knowledge quickly. A blind biologist can still fully understand and explain how sight works. Similarly, the loss of “time-sight” should not damage John’s rational understanding of “time-sight”.

I have shown that John doesn’t need any experience of time to become able to construct time lines. Therefore, any impairment that stems from the loss of his personal experience of time doesn’t necessarily paralyze John as long as he has a substitutive system to compensate. Now I want to explore this substitutive system and the bare minimum requirement of this system for John to live a relatively normal life. I will start by saying this: you can construct chronological orders purely mechanically. Duh, your phone does it; even old school stop watches do it.

Let’s toy with an example. To work in a library, you need to shelve books sometimes. Books are generally sorted by the Dewey decimal system. Let’s agree that, to be a qualified librarian, you do not need to experience the books by the Dewey decimal system. What do you need to be a qualified librarian? Presumably you need to at the very least a, shelve books appropriately; b, be able to retrieve a book promptly. Let’s be generous and hire an only Okay candidate. She should a, shelve books appropriately almost all the time; b, be able to retrieve a book promptly most of the time. To get John from where he is now to this librarian’s status can take nothing but teaching him a purely mechanical procedure. Let me design a poor but sufficiently clever procedure. When anything happens, write it all down in full detail. Keep a journal of your life and sort the entries by numbers. John is now an only Okay candidate at the Great Library of Timeless Memories.

If you are still worried about the question that you posed, i.e. how exactly does John know. Well, he knows through rational means such as causality and an understanding of linearly progressive time, but he makes mistakes sometimes, in which case he doesn’t know or has the wrong idea of what happened. Indeed, you may feel strongly that John is lacking something crucial in his cognition. Well, he definitely is missing a (probably big) part of normal human cognition, but it doesn’t imply that John is unable to tell the past from present, not to mention the future.

John needs to constantly analyze every single event, however small, in order to keep up with the rest of us. A good, clever mechanical procedure acts like an enhancer for his rational abilities. The cleverer, more convenient and more capable this procedure gets, the better John is at mimicking us.

John, or any regular person for that matter, may not have the quick intellect to analyze everything. Imagine my log idea. You’d have to log the event of you logging things as well. This creates an infinite regress, and John needs an infinite amount of time just to finish logging everything. Stuff is always happening simultaneously. What if you spell something wrong? You’d have to correct it and log it and log the fact that you corrected it. There is not nearly enough time to log everything and do everything at the same time. This is just to show a glimpse of the kind of issues that the clever substitutive system, and ultimately John, has to deal with. This is why I’m still convinced that John’s life can be anything from mildly frustrating to dismally depressing, but if he finds a substitutive system that grants him plenty of time to go about his affairs, then he’d behave roughly like the rest of us on the outside.

*picks up the mic*

*drops it again*


This dialogue is still ongoing. Stay tuned!

One Reply to “Time-Blind John (Part Four)”

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