Augustine: About Time

So we’re going to jump over to Confessions today, and talk a little about time. In Book XI, Augustine’s discussing time: he responds to general questions like ‘What was God doing before He created the world?’ (XI, 10), which challenge the idea of God’s nature as unchanging. If there was a time when God hadn’t created the world, the argument goes, then why did He suddenly decide to create it? That would imply that God had a new thought, which means that He changes, which means that He’s not perfect. This is all Platonic stuff: the assumption is that all change is for the better or the worse (debatable), and so if God changes for the better, He wasn’t perfect to begin with, and if He changes for the worse, well, then He’s not perfect now. Change is a condition of imperfect creatures (still debatable): if God is incapable of change, what was He doing before creating the Earth? Augustine’s first response is “Preparing Hell for people who pry into mysteries”.

He goes on to point out that because God created time, we can’t really think of God as doing nothing and then one day waking up and deciding to create the universe. There was no such passage of time before God created time – so it’s not as if God changed from one day to the next, because time just didn’t exist. Augustine also points out that although God is before time, he does not preceed time in time, which is a little bit brain-melting, but there you go. Basically Augustine is just saying that God existed ‘before’ the beginning (although ‘before’ is an inappropriate word to apply to something that happened before the beginning of time). At the same time, Augustine argues, the same God is both before the beginning of time and after the end of time – this is the meaning of eternal, outside time.

Anyway, that’s just entertaining preamble. Here’s the great part: Augustine starts asking exactly what time is (XI, 14). We’re going to leave aside the indignant interjections of the physicists here, and just have some fun. Augustine’s theory is pretty dated, I reckon, but it is entertaining, so that’s something. Basically he starts off arguing that when you’re talking about time, past time doesn’t really exist any more, in the sense that it’s time that’s gone – and by the same token, the future is time that doesn’t exist yet, because it’s yet to come. We’ll come back to the problems here later – for now, we’ll just outline the theory.

So the past and the future don’t really exist right now, according to Augustine – what about the present? Well, alright, what is the present? We are presently in the 21st century, but we can’t really say that the whole 21st century is ‘present’ right now. We’re specifically in the year 2016 – but we can’t say the whole year is present. We go down and down – the minutes aren’t present all at once – are the seconds? Surely not – a second is a particular length of time, and that length cannot all be present at once. Augustine concludes that the present has no duration – that time slips from future to past so rapidly that the present, the moment of passage, is without length. That’s necessary, to him, because if a section of time has duration, then it’s a length of time, which is to say that it’s not a moment, or a pinpoint, a ‘present’ moment. It can’t all be present at the same time.

So past time doesn’t exist, future time doesn’t exist, and the present has no duration. Alright: where does that leave us with this whole time thing? Simple – it doesn’t actually exist. At best, the soul stretches itself into anticipation and remembering – that’s how Augustine deals with the fact that we feel like we can measure time passing. If you’re going to recite a poem, Augustine argues, you’ve got it all ready in your mind – you’re anticipating the events of time to come. As you’re saying the poem, it moves through the present to the past, becoming non-existant – and you can remember it, and you can remember how long each word took in relation to every other word, and that’s how you measure time. The present has no duration, after all, so you can’t measure it in the present – you can only measure it through memory.

By contemporary standards, this account isn’t particularly convincing, I think. Possibly the first assumption that I’d take issue with is the idea that when a moment has passed, it somehow no longer exists. I’d accept that it’s not longer the present, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist any more. To assume that a moment which is not our present does not exist seems to assume that time only exists as it is experienced from our subjective perspective. That’s a problem: if there was no living thing to perceive time, would time still exist? The logical extension of Augustine’s argument would be ‘No’: any moment that is not experienced by a living thing cannot be said to be ‘the present’, and therefore cannot be a ‘real’ moment – it is simply either ‘past’ or ‘future’, neither of which, according to Augustine, really exist. By contrast, I imagine modern physics would emphatically argue that a moment in time that is not experienced by a living thing still exists as a moment in time.

It’s a little bit like the question about the tree falling in a forest – if there was nobody there to hear it, would it still make a sound? The basic assumption underpinning scientific enquiry would lead us to argue ‘Yes’ – we assume that there’s an objective external reality that more or less behaves the same whether or not we’re looking at it.

There’s lots more Augustine-things I’m still thinking about, but Eichmann in Jerusalem has just arrived, so I’m going to start reading that and write about somebody else for a change. See you next week!


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