Temporal Illusions

28 September 2009


Another World, a woodcut print by M. C. Escher

Another World, a woodcut print by M. C. Escher

Everyone is familiar with optical illusions. A mirage of water on the horizon on a hot day, or the appearance of a stick being bent when it is put into water, or Fata Morgana, are examples of optical illusions that are so familiar that we learn to disregard them. There are also optical illusions that can be generated by a carefully crafted illustration, as in the works of M. C. Escher. Specialists of optical illusions make many interesting distinctions within the category, but we will not recount these here.

M. C. Escher, Fish and Waves

M. C. Escher, Fish and Waves

There is a sense in which optical illusions are also spatial illusions (mostly), while some of the optical illusions that involve movement could be said to illustrate temporal illusions. In movement, both space and time are involved so that properly optical illusions that involve motion are spatio-temporal illusions. But a spatio-temporal illusion suggests the possibility of purely temporal illusions. The very idea of a temporal illusion is unfamiliar, but it is a worthwhile conception and once we become familiar with the idea it can be useful to explain experiences for which we have no adequate language.

Once we think in terms of temporal illusions it is not difficult to think of experiences that involve temporal illusions. The most obvious example of a temporal illusion is when time feels as though it passes more slowly when one is waiting for something. There is an old saying to illustrate this: a watched pot never boils. The opposite observation is that time flies when you’re having fun. Psychologists have identified what they call “flow states” in which a person becomes so involved in their work that they cease to notice the passage of time. This is an instance of a temporal illusion.

For my part, I have noticed that when I drive down an unfamiliar road, and then am forced to backtrack along the same route, that the outbound drive always feels as though it takes significantly longer than the return drive. I have always assumed that this is because in the initial drive everything is unfamiliar and one never knows what to expect, while driving back out the same way one remembers at least some of the route. In other words, in a new experience one has a flood of new sensations that populate one’s subjective time consciousness at a higher level of density than familiar experiences. If this explanation has any bearing, it is merely a mechanism, but it does nothing to explain the feeling of time passing more slowly on the first leg of the drive as compared to the second leg of the drive.

The most abstract illusions pose the greatest difficulty for us. Those optical illusions that involve a Gestalt effect such as the Kanizsa triangle, in which one perceives a white triangle that is not an explicit part of the drawing, pose theoretical problems that are not posed by simple optical illusions such as a mirage. (I can imagine a quasi-Platonic explanation for the Kanizsa triangle that would appeal to the receptacle of a triangle that is embodied in such drawings — the receptacle plays a significant role in Plato’s Timaeus.)

A Kanizsa triangle.

A Kanizsa triangle.

The most abstract illusions of all are those that occur without reference to our senses, nor even to space or time. These are the illusions of our minds, of our conceptual scheme. This may sound a little beyond the concerns of most of us, but abstract illusions are actually quite common. We call them paradoxes. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote that paradoxes are the optical illusions of the eye of the soul. I haven’t had time to follow up on this and flesh it out, but the obvious extrapolation would be that purely conceptual illusions like paradoxes are the theoretical basis of all illusions, and if we could formulate a complete theory of illusions we would find that sensory and experiential illusions could be explained by their basis in abstract illusions. Maybe. That remains to be seen.

Kant is remembered as an especially difficult philosopher to read, but we note that Kant elaborated the idea of purely conceptual illusions in the Critique of Pure Reason. In some translations such illusions are called transcendental illusory appearance. This is actually quite a good formulation to encapsulate the idea. Kant was driven to formulate transcendental illusory experience to account for the famous antinomies of pure reason that are central to the argument of the Critique. Kant argued that traditional metaphysics up to his time was bogus because when pure reason attempts to apply itself to matters upon which it is not competent — like the ultimate structure or origin of the world — it falls into paradoxes from which it cannot extricate itself.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a pioneer of abstract illusions.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a pioneer of abstract illusions.

Kant clearly not only saw the danger of abstract illusions, but mapped them out as well as he could with the intellectual resources available to him. After Kant, major conceptual upheavals like the development of non-Euclidean geometry and relativistic physics based in part on non-Euclidean geometry (Einstein used Reimann’s elliptic geometry as the setting for general relativity), as well as Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers, called into question some of the specifics of Kant’s exposition, but the basic idea remains sound. However, contemporary re-statements of the Kantian position such as P. F. Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense and several phenomenological attempts to rehabilitate Kant’s philosophy of mathematics don’t have much to say about transcendental illusory appearance. This seems to me like a potentially very fertile field for philosophical research.

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