How the Continuity of Experience Could Disprove Materialism

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There seem to be three distinct questions about continuity. (1) "Is experience continuous?" (2) "Is the physical world continuous?" And (3) "Are the physical events of the brain which give rise to experience continuous?" Finding answers to these questions that can be integrated without contradiction is a challenge in itself. But before we ask whether our answers contradict, we must respond to the questions. The most ambitious and unwieldy of these questions is without a doubt the second, regarding the continuity of the physical world. This question is the realm of philosophers alone, and it has been debated since the beginning of thought. Heraclitus thought the world was in a constant state of continuous change, while Parmenides thought time an illusion, laid out eternally and unchangingly. Today this debate has become known as that between the "conventional theory of time" and the "block theory of time." (1) New names for the two camps, however, have provided no new answers, and the debate seems interminable. If the question of whether time in the physical world flows at all cannot be answered, it is certainly impossible to determine whether it flows continuously. Philosophy must here bow out to some degree and let psychology have its turn at bat. Aristotle writes: "Whether, if soul (mind) did not exist, time would exist or not, is a question that may fairly be asked; for if there cannot be some one to count there cannot be anything that can be counted..." Aristotle is wise enough not to attempt to answer this question, but instead simply states that the answer depends on whether time exists countably in the absence of a perceiver. (2) Thus the ball is thrown very early in the game into the hands of psychologists and neurobiologists, and the question thus is transformed into the first of the three, regarding experience. William James advocated a model of experience with continual mental states, the "stream of consciousness." He writes: "Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; if flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described." He explains that even when gaps seem to appear in the moments when we are aware of our awareness, such as when a loud noise surprises us, even there exists some sort of mental state and thus a continuity of experience.

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