Peter Forrest – The Napoleon Delusion Argument

The Napoleon Delusion Argument – Peter Forrest (University of New England)


The Napoleon Delusion Argument against the Growing Block invites us to consider Napoleon , still real according to the Growing Block , thinking thoughts about what is going on ‘now’ in 1815. Poor deluded man we think! David Lewis points out that growing-block theorists have no grounds for rejecting the thesis that we are as deluded as Napoleon it is now, say, 2115 and we are all dead, but mistakenly think it is now 2014. That this absurd conclusion follows is a serious objection to the Growing Block.

In this paper, I expound a version of the Growing Block and offer what I take to be the only possible solution, namely that to be a conscious Self, such as Napoleon once was, requires the absence of future conscious states. This leads to a theory of the ephemeral character of the unity of consciousness, which may well be edifying. At the risk of being accused of Narcissism I shall also explain why I now reject an earlier solution I proposed.

Full paper here.

Because the papers are works in progress, they have been password protected. To register for the conference, and get the password, please contact Graeme A Forbes at


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  1. Graeme A Forbes

    For some reason Kristie Miller’s comment ended up on the thread to ‘How Does an Online Conference Work’. I’ve copied and pasted it here:

    Peter Forrest: The Napoleon Problem and the Deliquescent Unity of Consciousness.

    I wanted to start off by getting completely straight on the argument found in Peter’s paper (and indeed, replies to questions from Peter are interspersed in what follows).

    The argument (roughly) as I understand it:

    1. The unity of consciousness is not the result of mental states being states of the one thing: the self.
    2. Instead, the self is a fiction: it is a fiction, or illusion, generated by/constituted by the existence of a unity of a mental state at a time.
    3. The unity of consciousness derives from the unity of that of which there is consciousness—the unity of consciousness depends on the absence of future events/states.
    4. The unity of consciousness depends on the absence of future events/states because (a) there must be a natural division in the stream of consciousness into intervals, such that these natural divisions correspond to unities (otherwise there is no real unity). But (b) consciousness is not quantized so (c) the only way that there could be such natural intervals is that there is an important future boundary (the non-existence of future events/states) which carves out an interval of consciousness as being a natural division.
    5. So only present conscious states are unities, and these extend back (from the edge of the block) a small interval (the specious present).
    6. There exist past streams of consciousness and conscious states, but since these are not bounded by an absence of future events, they are not unified and therefore lack the illusion of self/agency.
    7. Since only selves/agency can have thoughts, in the past while there are conscious states, there are no selves having any thoughts, and thus they are not wondering whether they are now.

    Is this roughly the right characterisation of the master argument?

    P.F. Yes that is correct

    Assuming that it is, here are a few questions
    (a) What hangs on the fact that the self is a fiction? Could we say that the self comes into existence when the relevant unity exists (perhaps it just is that unity) and then the self no longer exists when the relevant unity no longer exists? So there really is a self, it’s just that being a self consist in there being the relevant unity. Or is this just a redescription of the view, with a different semantics for what it would take for “there exists a self” to come out as true, so that instead of being error theorists we are realists of a different stripe?
    P.F. My chief reason for not suggesting this is that I want to defend the fixity of the past, but I guess I could allow that there are entities that depend in part on absences and so can cease to exist.

    (b) Could you say a bit more about what it would be for consciousness to be quantized? The idea is that there would need to be ‘natural’ divisions in the consciousness stream from which we get the unity. I’m not sure what (at the level of brain processes etc.) would be required to count as having such resources. For instance, suppose there is a continuous stream of consciousness, and continuous processing, but there are also various meta-processes that “pull together” the first order processes by way of some kind of temporal binding. That too might be continuous. That would appear to give rise to bound chunks of mental state (albeit ones that are overlapping). Would that count as (a) quantization or (b) not count as quantization and not be enough to get you unity?
    P.F. Provided the bound chunks fail to overlap that would be enough, I think. But what do you think?
    I’m wondering if you think that there is any empirical tractability of this issue. I don’t know this literature on binding at all well, and I know that psychologists and neuroscientists have a big task in trying to figure out how we do bind together into a coherent whole the massive flood of inputs we get. But suppose they had some story (I take it they do have proto stories about this). Do you think that, of necessity, any such story must involve quantization of some kind, and so either they find quantization of consciousness or something like the growing block story must be true OR, is there some chance that there is some way of explaining the binding even in continuous terms (but you think this is unlikely). That is, how much of this do you think is open to empirical investigation, and what would we need to find to decide things either way?
    P.F. I think the phenomenology sets up a presumption against quantisation , but this could be overcome by an empirical result. I would be looking at(some of?) those with Tourettes , who can go the wrong way through revolving doors. asking if they experience time differently, with very short specious presents. If so is there some clue in the brain activity.

    My overall thought on this is that it’s interesting that the primary argument in favour of the GB theory is, for Peter, now subject to empirical investigation. At least, the argument could be shown to fail if it turns out that consciousness is quantised (though I take it that most B-theorists will argue that the failure of quantisation is not good grounds to prefer the GB theory – they will need to appeal to some other account of unity that doesn’t appeal to non-existence as a natural bound between conscious states).

  2. Emily Thomas

    I really enjoyed this, especially the discussion of past-future symmetry. However, as a non-expert, I found parts of the discussion in Section 4 a little hard to follow e.g. it might useful to spell out why should we expect neurological evidence for quantization?

  3. Peter Forrest

    Good question, Emily. Suppose, for definiteness, that the specious present is one minute long. Then if consciousness is quantized I would expect there to be something in the brain that happened every minute. Is that naive?

    1. Emily Thomas

      Ah okay thank you, I see what you’re getting it!

  4. Graeme A Forbes

    I have a couple of comments about section 1. Given the intended audience, you could afford to flesh out some of the contrasts you set up:
    Who do you have in mind as Tensers?

    The argument that the Growing-Block can be set up without appeal to Tense is interesting.
    Eric Olson (2009) ‘The Passage of Time’, in The Routledge Companion to Metaphysics (p.444) argues that dynamic views are true if and only if a tensed theory is true.
    The argument that the Growing-Block view can be set up without appeal to primitive tense, then, is of independent interest, and it would be nice to have it spelt out more.

    There are a few different versions of the Growing-Block view on offer. Correia and Rosenkranz, and Button defend a view that you might think doesn’t count as dynamic, by your lights. I defend a view not disimilar to your own earlier view, in which causation plays a significant role. Diekemper defends a view that has a past/future asymmetry, but doesn’t think that the past is intrinsically the same as the present. Setting yourself up in contrast to those variations would be quite useful to the reader, who may not be coming to the book with much background knowledge of the various views which go under the name ‘Growing Block’.

  5. Graeme A Forbes

    Does the problem arise if we don’t ask about inner assertions, but merely ask about beliefs? One can have a belief (it seems more like a state than like a process) at a time that one is not asserting it to oneself.
    One (plausibly) contines to have beliefs when unconscious. So can one generate the problem without needing to bring consciousness in at all?

  6. Peter Forrest


    My comments about belief, inner assertion etc were intended only to put to one side an irrelevant privation. Caesar’s unconscious thoughts exist, but are not really Caesar’s. The positin I am trying to articulate is tha
    t the individuation of consciousness into discrete minds is privative and so only on the edge.
    By a tenser I mean someone who posits irreducible tense modalities like David Sanson . I thought you agreed with me that we can talk tenselessly provided the truth changes. I’ll look at Eric Olson’s argument.

  7. Natalja

    Thanks! I have a question about the final remarks. You say that for God time ‘doesn’t pass, it just grows’. But I thought that time’s passage was constituted by the block’s growth? I take it the idea is that God’s specious present, unlike ours, has no past boundary, only the present one (or one close to the present, like for the rest of us). This suggests that you think our sense of time passing essentially depends on the fact that our specious present has a past boundary, so that things appear to fade away. Things don’t appear to fade away for God, though new things appear to come into existence. But then how things appear to God in this respect seems to be exactly how things are, according to the growing block view. Our sense of time passing, seeing as it depends on its seeming to us that things fade away, is mis-representing things. But wouldn’t a growing block theorist want to point to experience as support for the view?
    Perhaps you think that though our sense of time passing essentially depends on, i.e. is given rise to, by the past-boundedness of our specious presents, it doesn’t represent things as fading away, but rather as staying in existence? This would mean that, if these things can come apart in God’s phenomenology too, we haven’t yet said anything about how things seem to God with respect to passage (what is represented by God’s experience as of passage), only how that experience of God’s comes about (namely through a past-unbounded specious present)?

  8. Peter Forrest

    Thanks Natalja

    On Growing Block we humans are not misrepresenting time so much as suffering from a direct perception of time that is misleading. when supplemented by memory, history, etc we represent it correctly. Compare the misleading direct tactile perception that needs supplementing by vision etc to get a correct representation.


    1. Natalja

      Interesting. Does that mean you don’t appeal to experience as support for the GB view? Because experience, and in particular our experience as of time’s passing, supports presentism instead? Thanks again.

  9. Peter Forrest


    I found my copy of the Routledge Companion and had a look at Eric Olson’s argument. Charitably it can be interpreted as inapplicable to the Growing Block, according to which time grows rather than passes.Otherwise he begs the question by describing the Taiping Rebellion as past in 2020, present in 1852 and future in 1640 (p.441). I would say the Taiping Rebellion exists (or if you like occurs) in 1852, and that this is not just true but true at any time from 1852 to the present. So it was not true in 1640. It WILL be true in 2020. So I have to give an account of the ‘future’ . I take it as a prediction but I could easily adopt Rachel’s and yours account of the future.


    1. Graeme A Forbes

      I didn’t realise that time didn’t pass according to you. I thought that the Growing-Block was the view that the passage of time is the coming into existence of events.

      I would be surprised, to say the least, if Eric had not had the Growing-Block in mind when he wrote that, since he was supervisiong my PhD on it at the time…

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