Against Illusions of Duration

  • Sean Enda Power


Are there illusions of duration? Certainly, many experiences of an event’s duration differ from its measure in clock duration, the measure of that event in seconds, minutes, hours, and so forth. However, I argue that an illusory duration requires more than difference from a real duration; it requires difference from a duration that is relevant to experience. It is plausible to hold that there are many kinds of real duration and reason to question the relevance of all of them. In particular, the interpretation of experienced duration as illusory is typical because it is compared to clock time; the experience of duration goes wrong by being different from a clock measurement of duration. However, I argue that clock duration is not obviously relevant to evaluating the experience of duration.

In response, one might hold that it is plausible to evaluate experience by clock duration because clocks more closely match reality than experiences do; on the scale of experience, clock time is no different to real duration. It is not that experienced duration is an illusion because it is merely different from clock duration; it is an illusion because it is different from real duration and we know this because of its difference from clock duration. It is like illusions of size: some object seems to be a size it is not and we know this by comparing it to an object we can otherwise accurately measure by meters.

However, unlike size illusions, it is not clear what the ‘real duration’ is against which we should evaluate apparent duration. What is meant by ‘real duration’ involves either (a) an appeal to the duration of substantial absolute time or (b) some kind of duration in things, for example, duration which is the measure of change in some kind of process. (a) is an irrelevant duration; few positions hold that we experience absolute time. As for (b), if real duration is a measure of change, then, for experienced duration to match clock duration, they must both agree on the relevant change. If there is a difference in what is treated as the real duration, then neither experience nor clocks can be treated as evaluable in terms of the other.

Finally, we may have an illusory duration because there are cases of variation between experiences of the same duration. Yet, even here, we may be misled; we may not be directly comparing experiences. We compare the experienced durations through first measuring each in terms of clock duration. If there is a variability in the relationship between clock standard and some relevant standard for experience, then one expects anything accurately meeting one standard to differ from anything accurately meeting the other. The error is holding there is a stable relationship between the standards. This error is not a matter of our experience of duration, and so is not an illusion of duration.



This paper developed out of two talks: the first was for a session at the 2015 Towards A Science of Consciousness conference (in Turku), to which I was invited by Valtteri Arstila; the second at a session at the 2016 Pacific meeting of the American Philosophical Association, to which I was invited by Adrian Bardon. I am grateful to Valtteri and Adrian for their invitations, as well as their feedback and interesting discussions. I am also grateful to the thoughtful and thorough comments from Natalja Deng following the 2016 workshop. Thanks also to the audience at each conference for their helpful responses to the talks.


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sean Enda Power
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity College CorkCorkIreland

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