162. Saint Augustine and Time. Part Four
What is time?
St Augustine pondered over this question. Why did he ponder over this question? Because, he pondered over another question first. How have the prophets been able to predict future events?
A modern man, even if he was a thinking man, like David Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, would simply deny that prophets could do such a thing (Hume did not believe in anything supernatural). However, Augustine believed in it.
If prophets could tell future then it exists somewhere, but future cannot exist since it has not been made yet. Now, I hope you realize Augustine’s difficulty. Let me quote his words from his book (1):
‘As a boy I learnt that there were three divisions of time, past, present, and future. But there might be people who would maintain that there are not three divisions of time but only one, the present, because the other two do not exist. Another view might be that past and future do exist, but time emerges from some secret refuge when it passes from future to the present, and goes back into hiding when it moves from present to the past. Otherwise how prophets see the future, if there is not yet a future to be seen? It is impossible to see what does not exist.
In the same way people who describe the past could not describe it correctly unless they saw it in their minds, and if the past did not exist it would be impossible for them to see it at all. Therefore both the past and the future do exist!’
Is St Augustine contradicting himself? No, he is simply thinking loud and exploring various theories. He is trying to think which of the two is true, three divisions of time or only the present, and secondly he is trying to figure out how could prophets see future?
He observes very succinctly, “How can two, the past and future, be, when the past no longer is and the future is not yet?”
At one point he even questions whether present exists. He writes: “ How can we say that even present is, when the reason it is is that it is not to be? In other words, we cannot rightly say that time is, except by reason of its impending state of not being”
He observes the other attributes of time: it is never still, that it derives its strength only from a great number of movements constantly following one another into the past; once it becomes past it ceases to be. The present has no duration (see footnote 1)
He arrives at a very important conclusion, that the past and future wherever they are and whatever they are, it is only by being present they are.
This is a subtle point, that we do not see past and future as such, both have to be converted to the present.
He floats a theory ( I do not know whether that was his final conclusion about prophecies ) about how future may be foretold. Sometimes future events give a sign of things to come. For instance, one can tell that the sun is about to rise by witnessing the break of day. Nowadays, this theory will not carry any weight. Weather forecasters do it every day. What we are discussing, are future events that cannot be predicted by any scientific means.
He cannot solve this mystery. He surrenders. He writes:
“For it is utterly impossible that things which do not exist should be revealed. The means by which You do this is far beyond our understanding. I have not the strength to comprehend this mystery, and by my own power I never shall.”
He asks God for help (see footnote 2)
“My mind is burning to solve this intricate puzzle. O Lord my God, good Father………..I long to find the answer. Through Christ I beseech You……..Let Your mercy give me light”
He disagrees with some men who says that time is nothing but the movement of heavenly bodies (one rotation of sun makes a day and a night). He argues that everything moves in time, it is not that their
movement constitutes time.
Finally he states his solution. Remember, he had made an important point which I have already mentioned; that the past and future wherever they are and whatever they are, it is only by being present they are. We do not see past and future as such, both have to be converted to the present.
He carries this point to its logical conclusion. Where is the place where past and future exist, as present? The answer is; in the mind. Past is memory, present is attention, and the future is expectation.
British Philosopher Bertrand Russell did not agree with his analysis, because it made time something mental (2)
He still did not solve the riddle that how prophets had been able to predict future.
(1) ‘Confessions’ by St Augustine
(2) A history of Western philosophy by Bertrand Russell
Footnote 1. Smallest unit of time is a Planck time; 10-43 seconds. It is the time for the light to take to travel a Planck length.
Footnote 2. This mote also begged God to help him to understand how future can be foretold, by giving him such an experience. I quote from blog 142; “this mote prayed to God, even today, a way to access the future, at least for once, so that I can then say that I have myself seen some future event. For me, at least, then it won’t be hearsay”.