Saturday, November 14, 2015

Time . . . Goes by . . . So Slowly

After recounting the story of his own spiritual journey, Augustine turns the last part of his Confessions to admissions of seemingly simple things that he doesn’t in fact understand. He talks about memory, for instance, something we take for granted but don’t (still) truly understand. Old knowledge is stored in memory, of course. But new knowledge depends on memory as well. After all, we have to remember a problem long enough to know when we’ve solved it. Similarly, when we search for an unknown, we have to have some idea of what we’re searching for, and that idea must have come to us from the past and lie safely within our memory. But what do we actually remember if the thing we search for is unknown. How can we know the unknowable? How can we know God? How can we search for God? If we can’t understand Him, how do we know what we’re looking for?

Since memory links the past and the present, Augustine’s examination of memory leads naturally to an examination of time. What is time? His wonderful and intriguing answer: If no one asks me, I know, but if someone asks me, I don’t know. The future doesn’t exist yet, so how can we know it? We can’t know something that doesn’t exist, right? On the other hand, the past doesn’t exist any more, and we seem to know something about it. But what exactly do we know when we seem to remember a year passing? Time appears to move from a future, which doesn’t exist yet, through a pointlike present – which, having no dimension, doesn’t exist – and into a past, which no longer exists. What is this never-existing thing that we know so well? Maybe time exists only in a mind. We have expectation, consideration, and remembrance, and the objects of these we place in different times. It sounds quite a bit like Kant twelve-hundred years too early.

But God has (or is) a mind; so does He expect and consider and remember as we do? Augustine argues that He doesn’t. When God knows “the future,” He doesn’t look ahead as we imagine He must do. The eternal God is unchanging, the good bishop points out. All changing things are mutable and thus can cease to exist, so God must not change. God’s will doesn’t change; his righteousness doesn’t change. But not even his knowledge changes. We know that God knows everything, but if that knowledge doesn’t change, He must not know things temporally as we do. My knowledge of the sentence I’m typing right now changes as I type it: I first know what I want to convey and expect my fingers to move and letters to appear on the screen, and then I experience these things happening as one by one the characters (especially those typos I just erased) become the results of past events that I remember. But God considers every keystroke and every character in one unchanging present glance.

Augustine says it’s difficult for us humans to imagine God seeing all of time in a single present. But I’ve actually not had so much trouble with that concept. I’ve often thought about moving objects tracing streaks through time and imagined that I understand how God can see the whole of that movement at a glance. Maybe I’ve just seen more long-exposure photographs than Augustine. Or maybe I learned this when I made and enjoyed flip-book animations in the margins of a book or on a pad of paper. (When I was a child, of course. I would never do that now that I’m all grown up.) I can fan the pages and look at all the pictures at once if I want. By embracing every frame in a single gesture, I can see the motion as a simultaneity. And it appears as a motion, even though I’m not experiencing it unfolding in time.

I also think sometimes about things I’ve done and wonder at the silent mystery of a past action performed out of free will that now stands frozen in memory, unable to be anything other than what it is. Why do we have so much trouble wondering how we can have free will as God’s knowledge of the future makes that future fixed, when we all have memories of free actions even as those memories set that very past in stone?

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