Coming Back to What Started It All, Dwight Holbrook

Author Information: Dwight Holbrook, Adam Mickiewicz University,

Holbrook, Dwight. “Coming Back to What Started It All.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 7 (2015): 63-68.

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Image credit: Travis Miller, via flickr

In this response to Jesse Butler’s helpful explanations and broad discussion of subtle issues in his latest turn in our exchange of views—his paper this time around entitled, “Phenomenal Knowledge, Dualism, and Dreams” (2015)—for the most part it will be my purpose at this stage to bring this broad canvas of points of harmony and difference back to the issue that touched off this debate between Butler and myself. [1]

Prior to doing that, I do want to touch on what I believe represents more or less our extent of harmony.

(1) I do concede there is a terrain of objectless knowledge and do acknowledge that phenomenal knowledge can be an objectless kind of knowledge but—and here is my proviso—only to the extent that qualia and “the qualitative character of conscious experience” [his words, Butler 2015, 12] derive from self and not from the world—a distinction I doggedly persist in making.

(2) I do acknowledge that phenomenal knowledge can be “an objective feature of the world” [Butler 2015, 12], but again with a proviso—given a definition of “world” that makes no ontological distinction between what comes from us and what comes to us.

And (3), admittedly with Butler’s recent suggestion that the NOW is both external and phenomenally restricted as well (2015b, 24), there appears a narrowing of differences even here as well. Which brings us back to the focus of this present discussion, the issue that touched off this debate.

I presume Butler will agree that the quintessence of difference between our views (though admittedly he expresses peripheral concerns as well in his initial response) arose out of a footnote in my article “Is Present Time a Precondition for the Existence of the Material and Public World” (Holbrook 2015, 139, n. 3). In that footnote I state the position that one’s “knowing” of the NOW, or present time, is a knowing by acquaintance and, in making this claim, I adopt Butler’s model, with reservations only about the applicability (in my context) of his use of the term “phenomenal”. Butler’s model, in his words, runs as follows:

[I]t [Butler’s model] explicitly refrains from characterizing the kind of knowledge in question in terms of the knowing subject obtaining an epistemic relation with a distinguishable known object. In the case of phenomenal knowledge, the knower and the known are one and the same … [brackets mine] (Butler 2011, 137).

So the question I should like primarily to focus on is whether one’s knowing of the NOW, the NOW we are awake to every moment of our daily lives, fits Butler’s model where the knower and the known are one and the same and, in other words, where there is absent an epistemic relation between the knowing subject and a distinguishable known object.

Is There Propositional Content?

Let’s start first of all with the criterion of propositional content, content about which one can be either right or wrong in assessing. To fit Butler’s model, such content must be absent (Butler 2015, 12). Is that true as well in the case of one’s knowing of the NOW? Can one, in essence, detect what one thinks is present time and be wrong about it? Or for that matter, can nowlessness be confused with what is now? As for the first question, there are of course people suffering from mental dysfunctions, hallucinating or taking a situation from the past to be presently occurring. But such aberrations can be excluded here because our inquiry concerns something that is purported to be recognizable in the external world, namely the now, given someone with a lucid mind. Can she be wrong about being awake in the present? Could she be right or wrong about that? I think we can agree there is no mistake possible in this instance and therefore no question of right or wrong.

As for that second question—Can nowlessness be mistaken for what is now?—I take it a mistake of that kind is not possible either. I don’t even know what nowlessness is. Perhaps at death one may know. Perhaps if one were God. But on the human level, it seems impossible to make a mistake of this kind, and so again the issue of propositional right or wrong does not enter in. But what about in the case of dreams? Am I not exhibiting a propositional mistake by believing, at the time of my dream, that events occurring in my dream are occurring now? Or, on the other hand, are we to consider that dreams do in fact possess a real now, “real” in the meaning of this NOW that comes with my experience of being awake?

Good questions, about much of which Butler devotes considerable commentary in his most recent response (2015, 12, 15-16). In fact, this second pair of questions posed immediately above are interconnected. As regards the first, one can argue that in the case of dreams there is a mistaken belief about present time, just as there’s a mistaken belief about everything that’s occurring in the nocturnal fantasy. The position I will take in response is that, first of all, in applying the same word “belief” to what a person dreams and what a person is awake to one already prejudges the question. What one knows (“belief” in that sense) in either case falls not in the same category unless one assumes that waking bears the same credential of knowledge as dreaming.

But that assumption prompts one to ask why it is the state of being awake can tell us something about dreaming but not the other way around. Dreaming fails to shed light on waking. And there are such consequent questions as why it is scientists do their research when awake if being asleep and in a so–called “now” state of a dream can bring about the same results as well. And so my take on the first question above is that there is no propositional mistake in dreams because it is all illusion, including the belief that something is so and so. There is no correct dream, or correct “now” in a dream, as opposed to an incorrect one.

I need say little more about the second question above, the question of dreams possessing a real now, as most of it’s been anticipated—namely, that the NOW is such as to be a real part of what I’m awake to in the same way that trees and houses are a real part of what I’m awake to. Trees and houses don’t come from my mind, no matter how much mental processing goes into their recognition. Likewise the NOW. It comes from outside territory, outside the mind and hence outside dream territory as well. Does this open the door to dualism? Let’s hold off on that question for the moment.

Okay so what we’ve tried to establish here is that the NOW—the NOW that comes to us from the same world that trees are located in—does not fall into the venue of propositional content. No right or wrong about present time. It’s just there when one opens one’s eyes. What’s next? What’s the next criterion to consider?

Is There a Distinguishable Known Object”?

One of the difficulties with physicalism is that increasingly there is found to be more and more difficulty in defining “physical object”. Some so-called “objects”, for example, don’t have extension (the Cartesian res extensa)—such as observer-influenced particles or “mindful” particles as they’ve been called, probabilities, non-local states. Physicist Wheeler’s comment is relevant here when he speaks of retroactive causation, the photon as having already adapted its past—its putative existence—in relation to a decision in the present.

We see here, more dramatically than in any example one can easily give, the difficulties of speaking of what goes on in the old-fashioned language of determinism. What a difficulty for Einstein! What a difficulty for the view that all that is and was exists “out there,” independent of the choices made by the community of the observers in the here and now (Wheeler 1982, 16-17)!

Might one add, what a difficulty for physicalism? (see also Seager 2014 for what, in my opinion, is a balanced assessment of physicalism.).

Let’s here, however, not move too far afield from our core task of determining whether the NOW can be said to fit Butler’s existential model of knower/known fusion. By way of backing an answer in the affirmative, it would seem that even with the meaning of “object” a little hazy, in any case it becomes problematic how the NOW can be construed as “a distinguishable known object”, and this is so on several accounts. For one thing, present time has no distinguishing features to speak of, and yet we do claim it to be something “known” even so. After all, I am speaking about it in this discussion, purportedly knowing something about it. On the other hand, even without configurations as a macroscopic thing-like object, it can be distinguishable at least in comparison to “the not-NOW”, a term I’ve neologized to refer to those time zones outside the present—the past, the future—as well as to the terrain of the imagined—hallucinations and dreams—where the source in the latter cases is primarily our own mental confabulations. So what are we to make of this distinguishability by distinction? Does this much distinctiveness qualify as objecthood and hence disqualify the NOW from Butler’s model?

Not when we consider that the knowing that we have of this NOW is not in the format of a distinguishable particular object we have in our visual field but rather refers to the visual field as such, its immediacy that embraces both knower and known in a common concurrency of time and momentariness. To borrow a quote from Strawson, “As for ‘knowing’: it suggests a distinction between the knowing subject and the thing constituted as object of knowledge by the act of knowing that I also reject as inapplicable to acquaintance-knowledge; perhaps one might better say ‘the knowing is the being’” (Strawson 2006, 254). “The knowing is the being” is precisely how I would define this embrace of knower and known in a common concurrency of time and momentariness, and why it is I contend that it passes Butler’s second test for a knowledge that fits his model whereby knower and known are one and the same, with no distinguishable object that thwarts this amalgam and splits it into a duality.

And so this leaves us with our final roadblock, as I see it. Allowing that the NOW passes the test of eluding identity as a distinguishable known object, there remains the seeming contradiction of my applying Butler’s existential model of knower/known fusion to a NOW that by my account is not phenomenal but in nature, a nature that by his account (as I understand it) conforms to a physicalist-oriented metaphysics. And so the question: Can that be done without incurring dualism, which would spell doom to the whole attempt?

The Question of Which Metaphysics

It can’t—not unless we adopt a different metaphysics. And so it is this which actually becomes our final roadblock, a physicalist metaphysics. On the positive side, it is encouraging to note what Butler does not take issue with. He has not, to the best of my knowledge, expressed disagreement over the notion of a NOW in nature, or as he phrases it “the objective nature of the NOW” (Butler 2015, 18), but rather has focused the core of his complaint on my contention that this NOW in nature entails an existential fusion of knower and known whereby the two become one and the same. So, in other words, the issue is not over the “where” of present time.

We appear, therefore, to be on the same side about that: The NOW, being not a private or subjective phenomenon, dwells in the community, it being a concurrency of time that underwrites the social milieu, a concurrency without which knowledge exchange and social interaction would be impossible. This already provokes a preliminary question about one’s metaphysical leanings: Can even so much as an acceptance of this public NOW, at least as I’ve described it, conform with a physicalist outlook?

Let’s delve further into this framework of the public NOW and what it entails. First of all, its knowability. The problem is that its knowability is not epistemic, and to assume it is already closes the books on a non-dualistic external NOW. For the sake of argument, we can say the NOW does satisfy the test of objectivity on the basis of a general consensus about its existence, however variously the notion of present time gets defined. For the most part, however, it obviously fails verification by third-person means (the view from nowhere), which is the standard traditionally applied for objectivity. For one thing, the NOW is not about shared data or mathematical measurement. On the other hand, what does validate the NOW is first and foremost one’s first-person experience, being awake to the world now. Hence, to presume that first-person experience is subjective, that by definition immediate prejudges the case against an objective and public NOW. Like let’s say jazz, the NOW rests primarily on experience, not information. (Louis Armstrong’s adage when asked what is jazz: “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know.”—i.e, Where’s the third-person data?)

So let’s begin by considering that the knowing of the NOW is accessible by first-person experience, and when we speak of first-person experience as such we are speaking of something that is inherently non-dualistic, just as in the case of phenomenological experience. After all, where do you draw the line between the experiencer, the experiencing, and the experience? But there’s this second half of the schema of the NOW as well, and that is that the experience, in the case of the NOW—that oneness of experience—is not phenomenological but empirical. The NOW is not in the mind but in nature. So here enters the lingering question as to what kind of nature we’re talking about, and that is the question that brings this reply to its conclusion.

It is a nature that—as Butler has pointed out—is metaphysically non-dual (Butler 2015, 15) but not because, as I would suggest, the third-person view from no NOW ranks as the objective determiner of a metaphysics that should be deemed physicalist. Instead, nature’s non-duality, as I suggest, arises out of a different consideration and from a different orientation—namely, from a first-person approach, such person (from that perspective) being fused to the NOW she’s awake to.

This orientation, I contend, paints a more accurate metaphysics because it gives recognition to the fact that the NOW that we’re inseparable from starts the ball rolling by being inseparable from nature as well as ourselves, and by being furthermore the linchpin for any human interaction in the first place, including knowledge of nature and human interaction with nature. Shouldn’t that be the primal consideration that applies in a metaphysics about nature? And if so, the knowing of the NOW would seem to meet the requirements of Butler’s model of phenomenal knowledge, even though in the case of the NOW one’s knowing is not phenomenal but empirical.

So to recap, in the case of knowing the NOW there is no distinction, no duality. In the case of knowledge where a veritable object of knowledge applies and memory plays a role, there is a distinction, a distinction which I grant may entirely revolve around our distancing mechanisms and faculty of mind.


Butler, Jesse. “Introspective Knowledge of Experience and its Role in Consciousness Studies.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 18, no. 2 (2011): 128-145.

Butler, Jesse. “Phenomenal Knowledge, Dualism, and Dreams”. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 6 (2015): 12-18.

Butler, Jesse. “Knowledge, Objects and the Objective NOW”. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 2 (2015b): 21-25.

Holbrook, Dwight. “Is Present Time a Precondition for the Existence of the Material and Public World?” Social Epistemology 29, no. 1 (2015): 118-144.

Seager, William. “Why Physicalism?” Mind and Matter 12, no. 2 (2014): 143-174.

Strawson, Galen. “Panpsychism? A Reply to Commentators with a Celebration of Descartes.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 13, no. 10-11 (2006): 184-280.

Wheeler, John. “Bohr, Einstein, and the Strange Lesson of the Quantum.”In Mind in Nature, edited by R. Q. Elvee, 1-30. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982.

[1] A special thanks to Jesse Butler for continuing this exchange of views.

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