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Illusions of Time and Action

Perceptual experience is mediated. It takes roughly half a second to become aware of events such as a bird flying into our field of vision, the sound of a train, and so on. Yet we experience events around us as occurring without delay.

A substantial perceptual time delay is OK if what happens around us is predictable. But what about when fast unpredictable events happen? You don’t have half a second if you step out into a city street and encounter a car. You must jump out of the way through amygdalic reflex actions. Afterward, you sense the effects of adrenaline and ponder the near accident.

Another example of where reflexive systems take over is the Olympic runner who starts running before consciously hearing the gun. The runner must do so or lose—there is no time to wait half a second to become consciously aware of the sound. Much the same goes on when a professional batter hits a baseball or (as mentioned in chapters “Consciousness Rediscovered” and “Consciousness as a Modern Mystery”) when a professional tennis player returns a serve—the actions depend on nonconscious systems for action.

These nonconscious systems for action help us also in everyday life. If you suddenly throw me a tennis ball from across a desk, I won’t have time to catch it without nonconscious reflexive visually guided action systems. If many actions are initiated nonconsciously, how do we know that not all of them are? How do we know that free will is not an illusion?

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