Thursday, November 4, 2010

Time Before Time

Probably the first philosopher to precisely analyze the concept of time, using the tools of modern mathematics and physics, was Zeno of Elea (circa 500 B.C.) - which also makes us realize how old "modern" mathematics and physics really are! Ever since, the most brilliant philosophers have pondered the nature of time. All the great ones - Aristotle, Leibniz, Newton, Kant, Husserl - have striven to define the word "time." Augustine, writing around 400 A.D., is no exception.

Augustine systematically explained the history of man from Adam and Eve to his present. One hang-up Romans had with Christianity was that it did not seem to fit properly into the history of the world as they viewed it. Also, Christians had failed to answer some basic questions about time and creation. For example, there was an issue about what God was doing before creation. Augustine argued that time did not exist before creation. Anthony Kenny characterizes Augustine’s response to the Roman questions: “Rejecting the answer ‘Preparing hell for people who ask inquisitive questions’, Augustine responds that before heaven and earth were created, there was no time. We cannot ask what God was doing then, because there was no ‘then’ when there was no time. Equally, we cannot ask why the world was not created sooner, for before the world, there was no sooner.” Augustine believed that time was really only in the mind. While a tough concept, he gave an answer that at least satisfied some intellectuals. He also explained the history of man, from a Christian perspective. He’s able to explain all the earlier civilizations, and their role in history, and explain how all of it was in concert with Christianity. He believed that God has been with mankind since creation and Adam and Eve and could show it. It was an interpretation of time and history that Roman scholars could understand at an intellectual level.

Against a backdrop of pagan mythologies, which told stories about the tragic fates of those who ask questions, Augustine relished the idea of intellectual exploration. Instead of polytheism's mythological warning against inquisitiveness, Augustine eager engaged in mental exploration, including speculations about the nature of time.