In my narrative I have these aliens that don't experience time, they don't remember and don't predict events, which makes them completely reactionary. This is supposed to make them alien and difficult to understand. They are in a sense a physical metaphor that not everyone experiences the world in the same way. However the challenge I face when creating these aliens is how it would affect other aspects of their lives. They are not supposed to be a civilization but rather a native species of life-forms. They are not human-like either but since they are carbon based they have the same needs.

So the question is: how does no perception of time affect a species?

My initial assumption is that they respond in programed ways. They only look for food when hungry, they defend themselves automatically, they wonder around when they have energy to spare etc... Not much else comes to mind but do tell me what you think.

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    $\begingroup$ How can they know where to look for food if they don't remember anything? $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Jan 11, 2020 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ If they get hungry they must notice time passes. Before they were not hungry, now they are $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Jan 11, 2020 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ Here on Earth we have countless life forms which do not have a concept of time, and that's not even cheating by mentioning that very few species, maybe only one, have any concept of anything. Do sponges have a concept of time? Coelenterates? Bacteria? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 11, 2020 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Ryan_L: That was the general idea of my comment... It may be the case the querent does have a question in their mind, they just failed to express it. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 11, 2020 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Cats definitely have a concept of time, especially time to be given a treat or for their slave to wake up to refill the food bowl. If those things do not happen on time the cat will issue reminders. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11, 2020 at 22:37

5 Answers 5


I think you have several options for your exceptional Zen creatures.

One is that they are most similar to terrestrial vegetables or bacteria - which can only mechanically react to their environment. They are restricted to this because they have no memory. They turn towards the light that feeds them — plants — because of evolved mechanical properties that made their ancestors more survivable. Their jaws close and trap food because the presence of something in their mouths — as with a Venus fly trap — triggers a chemical release that circulates through their bodies systems, causing ‘muscles’ to contract.

Or your creatures are like jellyfish, flowing with the breeze or current, with filter feeder tentacles swanning about snaring the nutrients that they require.

Or, your creatures have a central nervous system that collates sensory stimulus from its perception components, into a motor neuron impulses triggering muscles and contract and relax. Its a lot like having a doctor tap your patella and seeing your leg kick. No learning, not sense of time, involved, just reaction. Similarly, scalding heat will cause the muscles to pull back — the pain sensors send a powerful signal and the spinal cord tells the arm to move as its transmits the pain towards the brain.

Without an awareness of time, your creatures exist in a perpetual now, and have no capacity to compare one experience to any other experience. Without memory, they can’t learn. 100% of their actions would need to be either random events or knee jerk responses.

Its difficult to conceive how any creatures besides bacteria, vegetables, and jellyfish could survive and reproduce with this kind of constraint. But, they seem to okay, having survived and competed against all kinds of creatures that do have a sense of time integrated into their consciousness and can remember things and, more or less, learn — animals and insects.

  • $\begingroup$ Creatures that would be too lame to write a story about having 'met' them, +1 $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 0:21

Perhaps they discovered the true nature of time: and exist independantly

All biological process have a 'concept' of time - ie. even a stimulus and response within an individual, or evolution of an organism from one to a more adapted one.

So for your question how indeed could an organism exist truly without a 'concept' of time? We need to look at the underlying physics to see what time is to answer this.

Time is indeed a concept that seems easy to grasp. Past present future. Could one exist without the need for it, or for indeed a simple classical aspect like causality? How can an organism exist even without perceiving simple cause and effect (without the obvious alternate answer is it does not perceive at all)?

We need to have a look at the Quantum realm - Einstein, Feynman and Wheeler concluded that time at a 'quantum' level (ie. the scale of the very-small) is 'symmetric'. ie. It could flow in both directions. In particular this relates to electrons photons and particles that can interact with a historical particle, or is a 'reversed' particle flowing backwards in time. Feynman developed the infamous Feynman diagrams that demonstrate this concept - the 'time' axis flows both ways, and the diagrams for interactions could be 'rotated' for particles to travel in the 'time' axis, but also in the reverse of this axis. And interestingly, interactions could occur with no time - ie. perpendicular to a time axis meaning it exists both forever and in an instant.

This indicates time is not nearly as easy to comprehend as we used to think it was. Even Special and General Relativity bends our 'concept' of time - ie. time being different for observers travelling relative to each other or being closer to mass - our primitive standard 'concept' of time being simply a consistent past present and future is starting to look shaky indeed. Indeed, photons travel at light speed, and experience truly 'no time'. Even that classical truth is difficult for us to grasp, and it is demonstrably true.

So perhaps your aliens are smart, and have researched what time actually is: and they have made true discoveries that do not align with our primitive understanding of what time is, being the consistent march of regular intervals from past to present to future. Perhaps they 'evolved' beyond the limitations of time, and now exist on an axis of quantum existence that is perpendicular to the Feyman 'time' axis, or at least warps or bends it so much it no longer relates to our primitive inexorable march.

But how do they relate to each other? The answer is they already did, and did so in an instant, and will do so again. How do they perceive the world? Again, they already did, are doing it, and will do it forever, in an instant. Time is independent of them, like the humble photon that truly does not experience or perceive time, so do these creatures. They perceive the universe in an instant, and forever, and spatially everywhere.

How do we detect them, and interact with them? The same we catch and detect light, with detectors and materials that absorb them, collapse their wave function, to which we can see evidence of them, in 'our' time.

  • $\begingroup$ @ruakh accepted - and edited to remove it accordingly (with apologies). $\endgroup$
    – flox
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 10:30

A Turbulent World of Chaos

There are many living organisms conceivable without a concept of time. Plants, jellyfish, single-celled organisms...automatic life forms that operate on pure reaction and instinct, with no ability to plan.

The hard part is, these organisms generally cannot learn, and certainly aren't intelligent - which makes them rather boring as an alien race. How could humans relate to or communicate with them?

What we want here is a species that is capable of complex learning - at the very least, remembering who its allies and enemies are, and extrapolating from things it is familiar with to things it is unfamiliar with - but cannot plan, since planning, by its very nature, implies an understanding of time. What kind of world would learning be useful, but planning would not be?

One possible answer is a world that is so turbulent and chaotic that planning for the future would be completely useless - anything set up in one moment would be gone in the next. Perhaps this species evolved in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant, a world of powerful winds and ceaseless storms. The creature was a predator that would have to learn to either attack or flee from every organism it happened to encounter, but it could not do things like build a home, collect tools, or travel towards a destination, since the landscape was constantly changing none of these things would have any meaning to it.

With thousands of other species also being blown around, it would be very useful to learn patterns. What could be eaten, what was dangerous, what had defenses and how to get around these defenses. It could even learn the concept of alliances - not in the sense of a "long-term partnership", but in the sense of "it is a good thing to remain with a member of this species, because it is a food source or protects from enemies".

Such a creature could understand the idea of "humans are good" or even "this human is good and this one is bad" but would be unable to comprehend "this was bad but now it is good". Its opinion of someone could be sophisticated, but would be completely constant - it would be happy when its friend was present and would forget they existed when they were not.


So basicly you are creating a Turing Mashine-life form. Interesting. I see two chances here:

They might be incomprehencable workers of some kind of meta intelligence that's intelligence is observable to humans (like most ants who are as dumb as it gets but put human architecture, logistics and what not to shame). The individuals neither learn nor plan but a group of them just might. You could even have them communicate with somthing pheromonish that influences their reactions (state of the Turing Mashine). If they don't remember, the air does. This way, through the pheromon mix in the air they can know when the time for a certain activity comes, are able to mate after they solved a difficult problem thus spread favorable genes and so on.

On the other hand when you do not remember things you would want your body to remember them for you, right? They could be highly susceptable to environmental influences and their (physiology and) neural system could slightly change over time. They would form more or less random patterns that lead to reactions to any given situation. Successful or otherwise favorable patterns get reinforced (only minor changes occure) while injuries, hunger, etc. result in considerable, possibly random changes to the patterns. This is basicly the AI-scientist's wet dream. An AI that can be trained on life data while operating on it life. There are some systems that try to achieve this life training but non that would be mighty enought to run an organism. Maybe you can take some basic mashine learning pattern and "what if?" it up to a cool dream. [Edit: This kind of learning or at least something similar exists in humans. Amnesiacs that are unable to gain any new memories are proven to be able to learn new skills even thought they don't know they ever trained them. "Have you ever seen this maze?" "No" "Than how do you explain that you just solved it with zero mistakes? By the way, your first try last weak took four times as long."]

The first model aims for a unrelatable dumb individual, that reacts to basic impulses. They might form insect-like states that outsmart even mankind or just chill out in their cave/swamp/desert/primeval forst like any other animal does. In any way, tickeling the right nerves will make them behave in a certain way though it might be a too complex system to study so one can't trigger reactions on purpose but ony mess with them in extreme and unpredictable ways. The second idea could produce an surprising intelligent life form that might even be able to learn language or anything else that can be achieved by classical conditioning and a healthy rapid mutation here and there. Yes, not being able to remember anything might result in a strong tendency towards clasical conditioning. These individuals might behave similar to calamary. When hold captive, they prove to be smart and quick to learn but hard to communicate with and easily bored. Unlike with dogs, horses and so on, we don't chare a natural environment with them, we don't know how their mind (or even body) works and we can train them if they want but it won't work like with our usual pets. [Edit: In case you wander how mastering a language is possible without memory: In language theory there are several types of languages with more or less strict formal requirements. These languages need no memory to process but the state of the "automate". Unfortunately natural languages here on earth don't follow these formal requirements. Their language must be strictly structured and when teaching them human languages one should reduce complexity at least by allways using the same word order. Turing Mashines are able to process every (even natural) language but it would be super inconvenient and takes (at least potentially literally) forever.]


Given the universe as we are able to perceive it, I postulate that it is impossible to develop sapience without first understanding causality (that is, understanding that certain things cause other things to happen). And time is irrevocably correlated with causality. Could there be organisms that exist without a perception of time? Sure, as others mentioned, some of them already exist here on earth. However these creatures cannot be described as "sapient" - at best, they operate at a level of strict biological programming, following instructions hardcoded into their DNA. Such creatures would be impossible to meaningfully interact with (at a level that we consider meaningful, at least).

This gives you the answer you're looking for. Biological evolution would give you a concept of time before (or at best, simultaneously) with sapience. Artificial evolution wouldn't. What you need for your story is a race of cyborgs, machines whose sapience is hardcoded into them. These beings do not need to understand causality or time because they do not possess true sapience - yet it is possible to have meaningful interactions with them, limited only by the robustness of their code.

Now, if you want to ask why would someone create artificial intelligence without giving it a concept of causality and time - both core concepts for a being, biological or otherwise, to achieve continuity of existence - then that's a different question. Thought experiment, perhaps? Maybe they had the same questions as you, wanted to experiment with it, and the idea worked great?


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