The Origin of Time

Introduction: This essay, completed in May 2023, was written against the background of a discussion about consciousness taking place at the Essentia Foundation [1] and elsewhere.
It was preceded by two epiphanies and a few months of intense philosophical revision:
The first epiphany, about the 20th century music notation crisis, happened in 1982 (see The Notation of Time, and a filmed interview by János Darvas).
The second epiphany happened in 2016 while watching a TED talk [2] in which Donald Hoffman described his Interface Theory of Perception.
Hoffman's desktop interface analogy came as a shock because, although I had long believed that "time is a brain strategy for reducing complexity", I had never before seen how the idea could be pushed further.
The discovery, in November 2022, of Bernado Kastrup's equivalent dashboard hypothesis [3] and philosophy of Analytic Idealism [4] led me to suspend work on other projects, and start work on this one.
So, between November 2022 and May 2023, I embarked on a period of intense philosophical revision, re-reading books in my library, watching YouTube videos and making extensive notes. YouTube videos are a great place for revision and to get quickly to relevant ideas, but making notes is extremely important. As many wise people have noticed: If you are not writing, you are not thinking. Interestingly, this insight relates to the current subject matter: Cogitating happens internally and is transient, writing is in the external world, and is permanent. Thinking, in order to clarify and develop ideas, involves both.


Consciousness is not fundamental. It depends on subjective, perceived time that is relative to each individual. The beginning of each individual's perceived time depends on their memory.
So consciousness cannot be described in terms of physical time or mathematics: Physical time is defined relative to inanimate, unconscious objects, and is currently thought to have an origin near the Big Bang. Mathematics is defined by axioms, that have no necessary relation to the perceived world.
This thesis is supported by an analysis of the differences between (perceived) linguistic, musical and mathematical symbols.


Time, space, matter and energy are the framework for perception. Consciousness depends on the experience of time, and the experience of time depends on memory. Time begins, for each individual, with the beginning of memory during pre-natal development. Each individual has their own time frame, whose origin is conventionally given as their birthday. Individual time frames are related by relating them all to a single birthday, the birth of Christ. There is no single temporal ether, so no single beginning of time.
In physics, durations are measured using standard physical units, derived from events that are observed to be repeatable in the external world. But the origin of the temporal frame of reference for any observation is ultimately related to the observer's birthday, not to the date of some hypothetical Big Bang.
Both historic and pre-historic events can only be described using current human observations and mathematics, both of which have their limitations.


Subjective memory has to develop while the brain is developing, sometime between conception and early childhood. I'm not a neuroscientist, but here is how I currently think this happens:

A human egg cell has neither a nervous system, nor a brain, nor developed sense organs, so it can have no subjective sense of experienced time. When the cell is fertilized, the nervous system and sense organs begin to develop. From an external observer's point of view, the fertilization is already a temporal event, but the egg cell is not aware of that. The egg cell is a senseless object, like a pebble, for which the fertilization is an event that just happens.

The embryo develops in a way that is consistent with the external world, regardless of any current theories we external observers may have. It is overwhelmingly likely that, as with a plant growing in a forest, the organism does not require or incorporate all the information contained in its surroundings (external world). On the contrary, the organism would be overwhelmed by information if it had to do that. Its first sensations, movements and maybe sounds, probably appear early on, before the brain and senses are fully developed. Movements and sounds are closely related to time and space. Inertia is related to mass and energy. This may mean that the experienced time, space, mass and energy framework has already split out of the composite external world, or that it develops concurrently with the primitive sensations. The developing brain may also develop some kind of primordial memory at this point, even though such memories are not destined to remain conscious. From the outside, we can, however, say that there is a sense in which the organism begins to experience time, space, mass (matter) and energy.

The baby's brain is still developing when it is born. At this point it suddenly has to cope with many new, subjective sensations: the feeling of internal muscles contracting in order to breathe and cry; new sounds, including that of its own voice; the sight of external objects and movement; new sensations of touch, taste and temperature. The subjective framework for physical sensation: time, space, matter and energy has to be completed very soon, if it isn't complete already. But any memories that exist are still not destined to remain conscious. Thankfully, none of us remember the trauma of being born.

While they can't remember being born, babies and young children obviously enjoy feelings of weightlessness, but are less than happy with the new sensations of temperature and taste, especially when these deviate widely from their previous experience. Subconscious memories are obviously present at this point. Its all part of adapting to the external world.

According to Wikipedia's entries on "Language Development" and "Childhood Amnesia", babies have already begun to repeat words that they have heard by the time they are 1 year old, but adults are unable to recall memories of events that occurred before about the age of 2. Language, in the sense of connecting remembered words together to articulate complex thoughts, begins at about the age of 3. Both verbal and non-verbal communication skills continue to develop after that, though the process seems to slow down. Its much easier to learn a language as an infant, or to learn to play the piano as a child, than to do either as an adult.


1: This account generally applies to all organisms that have developed physical nervous systems and sense organs, so I believe that all such organisms have a sense of time, and are therefore conscious. (15.05.2023 To be clear: I believe that all conscious organisms embed their perceived qualia in a framework of space, time, mass and energy. Bats perceive qualia that are fundamentally different from a human's, but bats still use the same framework. [9] )

2: Time begins separately for each individual. Each of us humans has a subjective temporal frame of reference that begins rather vaguely with our first memories. Birthdays can, however, be observed by humans in the baby's external world, so all birthdays can be conventionally related to each other by relating them all to one particular birthday, the birth of Christ. That date is also used as a reference point when dating both historic and prehistoric events.

3: Each individual has its own, closely connected, temporal and spatial frames of reference. Subjectively, the temporal frame begins, rather vaguely, with the first memories; the spatial frame is related to the individual's perceived, material body.

4: This account of pre-natal development makes use of the time sensed by an external human observer who was born in the same way some years before the observation. Going back a few million years to a time when humans didn't exist, objects just were and events just happened as far as human observers are concerned. That world is not nothing, because humans would then have had nothing to evolve out of, but it is always hypothetical. The only way we can describe it, is to use current human observations and mathematics. In particular, the Big Bang hypothesis, and the mathematics used to describe it, may well change in future, to better describe current observations.

5: During the 20th century, matter dissolved into abstract, vibrating fields that can only be described using current observations and mathematics. If we are to end up with a coherent, non-dualistic Theory of Everything, we now need to dissolve mind in the same way.
Note (March 2023): I'm aware of Michael Levin's impressive work in this area [5].

6: Donald Hoffman's Interface Theory of Perception connects the internal world of the brain to the external world using an interface consisting of the passive human senses. I'd like to stress that we can also be active agents, able to change the external world in ways that are unrelated to our basic survival. We can create new objects and cause events to happen. We can communicate with other individuals located in our external world by gesticulating, touching, speaking, writing etc. The internal and external worlds evolve together. The amount of information in the universe generally increases in this way but, as with the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, it seems that information can also be destroyed. Is the law of conservation of information wrong  — even in physics?

7: There's good reason to expect that the universe, including both our internal and external worlds, contains even more than just the information we can retrieve using our brains and physically instantiated sense organs. We have evolved to survive, not to know everything, so there must be blind spots. One of these may be the knowledge of how memories are stored and retrieved. Survival only requires memories to be quickly retrievable. In the computer analogy: Where and how information is stored is irrelevant for the processor. It could even be stored in the cloud in order to save local storage space.
The big question for neuroscientists is: How are all our memories stored and retrieved?
A wild idea (March 2023): Does this have anything to do with Dark Matter?

8: The universe appears to be the way it is, because that's the way we are. We see the world through an interface that filters out unnecessary information, but the anthropic principle still makes sense. Is this the reason for Eugene Wigner's Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences [6]?

9: The idea that "time is a brain strategy for reducing complexity" relates closely to Bernado Kastrup's observation, in his Analytic Idealism Course ([4]), that the brain would dissolve into a hot entropic soup if it had to contain all the information from the outside world. For me, the idea was purely time-related: The brain would never be able to cope if unlimited amounts of information were allowed to be processed at the same time.

The 20th century music notation crisis

The two main lessons I learned while analysing the 1970 collapse of the avant-garde were that the temporal ether does not exist, and that one has to learn how to play any written music properly, be it Machaut, Bach, Mozart, Mahler or Stockhausen. In other words: written music symbols are like the words of ordinary language, not like the symbols of mathematics.

The story, which also relates to other branches of 20th century philosophy, goes like this:

Chaos broke out in many disciplines at the beginning of the 20th century. In music, composers had lost control because performers were no longer taking the written symbols seriously. Many composers of written music, Stravinsky for example, reacted pragmatically with neoclassicism. This was a way to go back to basics by dropping the arbitrarily complex tuplets that had been invented in the 19th century, and insisting on a straightforward interpretation of the remaining symbols.

In fact, the problem lay deeper than that: It was the whole idea that experienced time could be described as "mechanical time plus expressivity". This paradigm goes back to the Cartesian mind and matter dualism, and had become common sense, at least since the classical period in the mid 18th century. It was still dominant after 1945, when a new generation of composers came on the scene.

Instead of questioning received wisdom about standard music notation, the post-war generation perpetuated the 19th century idea that tempo is fundamental and that experienced time is divisible. Performance practice traditions continued to be ignored.

Tempo was a particularly difficult problem, being equivalent, in the paradigm, to a temporal ether. The notation only made sense in the presence of tempo, but composers were trying to make tempi imperceptible: Obvious tempi had been seriously overworked by the previous generation. Because, as they thought, standard music notation described time precisely, avant-garde composers also tried to invent alternative, "less precise" notations.

Stockhausen's article ...wie die Zeit vergeht... (1957) and Boulez's Penser la Musique Aujourd'hui (1963) illustrate their generation's attempt to be both logical and scientific. But they ultimately failed, and the approach collapsed in 1970. Pragmatism ruled the day: All the major avant-garde composers gave up trying to create alternatives to the standard notation, leaving the underlying philosophical problems unsolved. Written music was left with two alternatives: neo-Romanticism and minimalism (a form of neo-classicism). Electronic music, produced directly in sound studios, and not needing a written score that had to be performed, was also a viable way forward.

Standard music notation actually assumes traditions of performance practice, and works by synchronizing vertically aligned symbols with other players and/or visual cues provided by a conductor. It also contains clues about phrasing, patterns of emphasis etc.

After the 1970 collapse, many composers continued to clutter their scores with meaningless symbols, and needed inordinate amounts of expensive rehearsal time in order to get what they wanted. Even if they did get what they wanted, audiences couldn't, even in principle, reconstruct the score from the audible result. Score and performance were disconnected. Composers could not expect relations that are visible in the score to become audible. Audiences could not know what, in the score, they were supposed to be listening for. In this situation, its impossible to develop higher level, composed musical grammars.

Another way to state the audience's problem is to say that they were unable to chunk the information correctly — which is where I cross paths with Hilary Lawson [7].

I agree with Lawson completely about the importance of "closure", but have always used the word "chunk" for this idea. (See, for example, Lawson's recent talk at the IAI [8].) Chunk is easier to use as a verb, and in music, "closures" are special kinds of chunk (like cadences) that occur at the ends of other chunks. Whatever one calls them, chunks are everywhere in both spatial and temporal music analysis. In space, we are talking about the way we chunk the visible information on the page in order to read efficiently. In time, its the way we chunk the audible vibrations in the air in order to recognize musical objects and events such as timbres, themes, cadences etc. Chunking (closure) is a fundamentally important idea: All objects and events, including written and spoken words and the fundamental particles of physics, are chunked information.

Interestingly, the "mechanical time plus expressivity" paradigm still survives in the world of mechanical recordings: Recordings (on unchanging, external physical media) can store all the mechanical (physical, clock) information necessary for reproducing a performance. Playback of a recording requires a standard, constant recording/playback speed. That standard speed is the required temporal "ether". Of course, it's only a convention that is related to our perceptions: Its not a fundamental property of the external world.

But mechanical data does not include "expressivity". That can only be found in resonances with the listener's experience. The situation is exactly equivalent to the experience of ordinary language, except that the meanings are more abstract. Musical experiences are related to subjective non-verbal experiences such as speech rhythms, crying, singing, dancing.

Mathematical, musical and linguistic symbols

The main difference between the words of ordinary language, music symbols and mathematical symbols is in the way they are defined. The meanings of words and music symbols have to be learned by experience (in time) of the external world, so there is no guarantee that two users will agree on exactly what they mean. There is even no guarantee that a word's or a music symbol's precise meaning will not change over time for a particular observer. Attempts to make ordinary language or music symbols precise are always going to fail.

Mathematical symbols, on the other hand, are defined explicitly, using axioms that are independent of the external world. Once defined, the symbols have precisely the same meaning for all time and for all observers. Given the axioms, the proofs of theorems are true, both externally (the theorem itself) and internally (the deductions inside the proof) because the exact meanings of the symbols never change anywhere, or at any time.

Sciences such as cosmology, archaeology, paleontology, neuroscience or physics, can therefore only make real progress using current observations and mathematics. Descriptions can, of course, be improved by creating a mathematics that better matches current observations, but our knowledge of the external world is fundamentally limited, so we will never be able to create a mathematics strong enough to grasp all its ultimate truths. We also know that even our mathematical systems will always have their limits.

Understanding music and the visual Arts means resonating with the non-verbal experiences of one or more other human beings. Listen, for example, to a performance of the Bach Chaconne, a Chopin Ballade or a Bruckner Symphony. Look at a Holbein, a Van Gogh, a Giacometti or a Rauschenberg. Here we are experiencing what it is like to be someone else [9]. And its comforting to know that we are not alone.

External links:

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[1] Essentia Foundation

[2] Donald Hoffman's TED talk:

[3] Bernado Kastrup's dashboard hypothesis:

[4] Bernado Kastrup's introduction to Analytic Idealism:

[5] Michael Levin:

[6] Eugene Wigner's Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences:
This paper and commentaries can be found in many places on the web. For example:

[7] Hilary Lawson's book Closure:

[8] Hilary Lawson's recent talk at the IAI:

[9] See Thomas Nagel's What is it like to be a bat?
This paper and commentaries can be found in many places on the web. For example:

ji www May 2023