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Monday, March 25, 2013

Time and Eternity

Alice C. Linsley

Joan Violet Robinson said, "Time is a device to prevent everything from happening at once." To this, someone has cleverly added, "Space is a device to prevent everything from happening in Cambridge."

The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889 – 1975) said, “History is just one damn thing after another.” He wrote a 12 volume analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations.

Karl Marx (1818–1883)wrote, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” He also said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) wrote, "…the dialectical principle constitutes the life and soul of scientific progress.”

Herbert Spencer wrote, “…the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears and the social state into which that race has slowly grown… Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” He also said, "The wise man must remember that while he is a descendant of the past, he is a parent of the future." He coined the phrase "survival of the fittest."

We began our study of Metaphysics with the question of eternity. You were asked to explain the difference between eternity and time and recognized that the property of eternity is timelessness. Eternity pertains to that which is outside of time and space. It is not bounded, and as such has been considered an attribute of the Unmoved Mover, or the First Cause, or the Uncreated Creator.

Aristotle's Unmoved Mover is a primary cause of all the motion in the universe. The entity moves other things, but is not itself moved by any prior action. In Book 12 of his Metaphysics, Aristotle describes the Unmoved Mover as perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplating only the perfect contemplation: itself contemplating. He equates this concept with the Active Intellect.

Many ancients believed that there was an original substance at the beginning of time. They recognized that time, space, matter and motion are interconnected. There were a range of views, sometimes conflicting, on the questions of elements and their interactions, primal substances from which life emerges, and causes. The ancient Afro-Asiatics regarded blood and water as the substance of life and these became importance symbols in their philosophical theology.

Afro-Asiatic metaphysics is reflected in the book of Genesis and throughout the whole Bible. In this view God created everything from nothing (creatio ex nihilo). At the beginning of time chaotic waters covered everything until God’s Word (logos in Greek) moved like a breath or spirit (ruach in Hebrew) over the vast deep and established a fundamental binary order in the world. There is no sense in the Biblical accounts of creation of this earth or cosmos being the product of a previous world that exploded. In other words, unlike the early Greek-speaking metaphysicists, the Afro-Asiatics do not appear to have regarded the creation of the world as the product of a cycle of events, but as the direct and special creation of God. This is not to say that they took a linear approach to time, as we shall see.

In his book The Myth of the Eternal Return, the Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade writes that the myth of cyclical time was “discernibly present in the earliest pre-Socratic speculations. Anaximander knows that all things are born and return to the apeiron. Empodocles conceives of the alternative supremacy of the two opposing principles philia [love] and neikos [strife] as explaining the eternal creations and destructions of the cosmos…The eternal conflagration is, as we have seen, also accepted by Heraclitus. As to the eternal return – the periodic resumption, by all beings, of their former lives – this is one of the few dogmas of which we know with some certainty that they formed a part of the primitive Pythagoreanism.”

In the mid-20th century the question of infinity was taken up but pioneers in the Logic. Most who contributed to this conversation were mathematicians. The English mathematician, John Wallis, was the first to use the notation for such a number. The German Georg Cantor formalized ideas related to infinity and infinite sets. In his theory, there are infinite sets of different sizes called cardinalities. For example, the set of integers is countably infinite, while the infinite set of real numbers is uncountable. Students often equate eternity and infinity, but these are different concepts. They have in common the idea of extension, with infinity referring to space and numbers, while eternity is unbounded and timeless.

In this second part of our study of Metaphysics we take up the subject of time and consider various theories of history. Philosophy concerns itself with the nature of time and history. It asks these questions:

  • Where should philosophers look to understand the nature of time? What is history? Is a linear account of events the only way to speak of events in time?

  • In thinking about time and history should we look at the lives of individuals or the whole human species? Should we consider nations or ethnicities?

  • Can we discern patterns or cycles of progress and decline, or is there no overall change in the condition and circumstances of humanity?

  • If history is progressing toward some end, what is the driving force or the material engine moving the progress?

Most views of history fall into the following categories: Cyclical, Static, Linear Progress, or Linear Decline.


There are different cyclical theories of history. The atomistic view holds that this world came into existence through the destruction or explosion of a previously existent world and that all matter is of one substance and was at one time condensed. In this view there is an eternal cycle of worlds giving birth to new worlds. This view is represented in the classical Greek philosopher, Democritus. In this view there are a limited number of souls and these souls are recycled (metempsychosis).

Spiral symbol cyclical time found on Proto-Saharan rock carvings

The mythical-religious view is concerned with ceremonial enactments that place the priest or shaman and his community in the eternal present (anamnesis). This often meant marking out sacred space within a circle or at the top of a mountain. It might also involve sacred time which was usually high noon, a time when there were no shadows. Among the ancient Habiru (Hebrew), the sacred center of space and time was the mountain top at high noon. Mircea Eliade explored the mythical-religious aspects of ancient peoples and their religious practices. He showed that archaic religious ceremonies were performed as reenactments of divine action (energeia), cosmological archetypes, or celestial patterns. In this view, human actions and rituals mirror what the universe tells us about God’s actions.

The political view holds that kingdoms and nations rise and fall depending on economic fortune and geographic location. The nations who have wealth must work to preserve it, but not at the expense of the average worker. Revolutions occur when wealth is not well distributed among the social classes, or when only a few control the means of production. Marx's dialectical materialism is cyclical, which is why he said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."

The religious view, especially evident in Hinduism and Buddhism holds that time and matter cannot be escaped except by the most virtuous souls. All are caught in the cycle of reincarnation. Plato believed that there are a finite number of souls and at birth the human receives one of these eternal souls (metempsychosis), rather the way vital organs are harvested and transplanted from the dead.

Criticism of cyclical view: There is no way to prove the existence of previous worlds. More research is needed to establish the degree to which human history is determined or influenced by conscious or unconscious archetypes. A study of ancient civilizations suggests that kingdoms that achieve prominence and then decline are changed, so that we cannot speak of recovering former prominence or even of being the same society.


A static view of history maintains that nothing really changes as time moves because human nature is unchanging or immutable. A static view of history is represented by the statement, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Plato viewed all things as reflections of Forms (Ideas). Nothing changes since the Forms are changeless. What we perceive as “change” is the Form in flux; so rain changing to snow or hail is not change, but flux, since both are reflections of the Form water, the essence of which is H2O and unchanging.

Criticism of static view: Human ingenuity has led to the invention of new things, things unimagined by archaic peoples. There is hope that human nature can be changed through religious conversion and transformation, or through education and social conditioning, or through biotechnology. Plato’s view speaks more about the function of Mind than Matter.

Linear Progress

Things improve with the passing of time. Modern technology is proof of human progress. Given more time, humans will evolve into a higher species and will invent even greater things. A variation on this idea is liberal ideology that through co-operation the nations of the world can achieve unity. The hope for human progress led to the establishment of the National Council of Churches and the United Nations.

Many Americans in the 1940s were hopeful that humans were becoming more humane and societies more just. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but instead it was the prelude to World War II. The atrocities committed by Hitler and Stalin, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor were sobering reminders that evil is not easily dismissed, that sin is not obsolete.

The 1950s was a time of optimisim in American. The economy was booming and new devices such as dishwashers, televisions and modern homes suggested that the future would be more comfortable, but with prosperity came other problems.

Criticism of linear view: Modern technology has led to more powerful weapons and more effective propaganda. These have been used to exterminate millions of people in ethnic and religious wars in spite of international co-operation.

Linear Decline

Things are gradually getting worse. Life used to be better or humans were once more noble. Rousseau held a romantic notion that in the state of nature humans are good but we have become corrupted by the influences of civilization.

Dispensational writers such as Hal Linsay and Tim LaHaye (Left Behind) believe that great tribulation is coming and great wickedness, but God will intervene when things get bad enough. Dispensationalists have even constructed a schedule of final world events using selected passages from the Bible. In this view, Noah’s flood was worldwide and represents one of many of God’s course corrections to human history.

Criticism of Linear Decline: While there is no doubt that civilizations decline, there is no evidence that humans are more evil today than they were in ancient times. The idea that history is spiraling toward a final universal destruction fits into this category, but when we add the element of a glorious new kingdom rising from the ashes, this theory can be moved to the cyclical category.

Hegel’s Dialectic

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831) argued that history is a constant process of dialectic clashes (between “thesis” and “antithesis”) that result in a conjunction of the two (“synthesis”) to form something new. Hegel believed that this dialectic process was directed by God, though his idea of God was not that of Christians or Jews. The end of this process was to bring humanity to a civilized state.

Hegel built on the pre-Scocratic idea of conflict between opposites. (Remember the conflict between Love and Strife?) His dialectic has as its cause the energy of negativity. He believed that the natural impulse of people and civilizations is to develop by "successive gradations" toward freedom and toward higher logic. Thus understood," Hegel writes, "the dialectical principle constitutes the life and soul of scientific progress."

Hegel with his students in Berlin
Sketch by Franz Kugler

Hegel wrote, "Absolute knowledge... must not remain in its immediacy as an inner feeling or as a vague faith in an indefinite abstract being-in general, but must proceed to comprehend the Absolute in the mythical term 'God.' To know God is not above comprehension, but is above reason which is the knowledge of things finite and relative."

Hegel believed that the dialectical character of reality speaks of reaching beyond doubt to a vision of reconciliation of oppositions. He felt that his approach to understanding history makes for a more positive vision of the future.

Criticism of Hegel’s dialectic: The clashes of history are often multifaceted, involving factors that Hegel’s theory does not take into consideration. This view reflects 19th century optimism about human progress, an optimism that was greatly diminished by the events of WWI and WWII.

Marx’s Class Struggle

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) adapted Hegel’s dialectic to his political class struggle. For Marx, the continual struggle was between those who controlled the means of production and wealth and those who struggled daily to earn a living. Only as the workers of the world rose up and overthrew the oppressive capitalists could there be a new order: Communism. Marx believed that this dialectic process is a material mechanism that moves events in history.

Marx's view of progress, called "dialectical materialism" proposes that every economic order grows to a state of maximum efficiency, and at the same time develops internal contradictions and weaknesses that contribute to its decay. Through conscious acts those oppressed by the system can make history by rising up and establishing a new economic order.

Marx’s view of the world is materialistic. is He is not concerned about life after death, the soul, or questions concerning time,eternity and infinity. He sought a reform of western society through revolution, or the uprising of the working class. In his view, the welfare of the working class depends upon the perpetual overthrow of social, religious, political and economic structures that make protect the rich and oppress the poor. The Communist state is responsible for collection of wealth and resources and their distribution.

Criticism of Marx’s Dialectic: The experiment of Communism failed and the countries that comprised the former Soviet Union are rebuilding along capitalistic lines. Capitalism remains the best means of accumulating wealth and achieving a higher standard of living. Capitalism as an economic system is morally neutral. However, because humans are prone to greed, capitalism works best when restrained by just laws that prevent oppression of workers. Marx's view of human nature is to pessimistic. Adam Smith has a more realistic view in recognizing that humans want to amass wealth but also can feel sympathy for those who are without basic needs and often share from their abundance. 

Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Thomas Samuel Kuhn (1922 – June 17, 1996) wrote a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962) that introduced an influential theory about how science progresses. Kuhn presented the idea that science does not progress gradually, but instead makes huge sudden leaps through periodic revolutions which he called “paradigm shifts.” According to Kuhn, science maintains stable growth until an individual who stands outside the discipline introduces a revolutionary new vision or solution. John Newton and Albert Einstein are examples of how discoveries and revolutions come about as a consequence of anomalies.

According to Kuhn, scientific revolutions result from epistemological shifts as scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within the scientific community.

Criticism of Kuhn: Stephen Toulmin (1970) argued against Kuhn’s theory, pointing out that not all breakthroughs in science are sudden anomalous visions. Some breakthroughs are more common and less dramatic than Kuhn proposes. The discovery of the structure of DNA came through prolonged steady investigation and the double-helical structure was not unexpected, yet it provided a mechanism for the duplication of genetic information that has enormous consequences for medical and biological research. In other words, steady scientific research can lead to quiet scientific revolutions without there being a dramatic paradigm shift.

Philosophy through time

We began our study of Metaphysics with a discussion about the "philosophical project" and how it moves forward. We concluded that the philosophical projects advances because humans are innately curious and ask questions about the world in which we live. Curiosity and questions are the basis for the natural sciences, mathematics and exploration.

Curiosity and skepticism go hand-in-hand. The curious often learn not to rush in without careful consideration. The archaic family seeking shelter would have been glad to find a cave, but did not enter it without first exploring to determine whether it was safe. It is likely that the cave was already inhabited by a bear or a lion. The exercise of skepticism is necessary for human survival.

On the most fundamental level, it is human curiosity that moves the philosophical project forward. There is also an element of truth in the Hegel's view that "…the dialectical principle constitutes the life and soul of scientific progress.” The dialectic is an ideological tug-o-war which strengthens muscles until one side wins. Galileo's observations caused him to reject the earlier view that the earth was the center of the solar system. The Western Church was forced to struggle with the new understanding and eventually accepted Galileo's view, changing his status from heretic to in 2008.

Curiosity and skepticism, when cultivated by a logically reasoning mind, can produce innovative thinking and recasting of former ideas. Another factor that stimulates creativity in the philosophical project is the tension between seemingly opposite ideas. The tug-o-war between Plato and Aristotle on the chief Good, or between essentialism and evolution on the question of change, drives the project. When the tension is lost, the project begins to lack vitality and can reach a dead end. Jacques Derrida claimed that this happened in Western philosophy with the abandonment of Plato's focus on the larger metaphysical questions. The dominance of Aristotelian thought, as a vestige of medieval Scholasticism contributed to this, as did modern materialism. (See Magee, pages 29-30).

Kuhn's understanding of paradigm shifts also has bearing on the development of philosophy through time. The great philosophers represent epistemological breakthroughs. Such is the case with Ludwig Wittgenstein who argued that family resemblance is not based on essence, but on function. We recognize all varieties of chairs because they have a common function, not a common essence. Some have arms, others do not. Some have backs, others do not. Some have legs, others do not. All have a flat surface upon which we may sit. This is not their essence, but their function.

The Biblical View

In the Bible we read that there will be a new heaven and earth (a new cosmos) and that Christ will rule over His eternal kingdom. St. Paul writes that the whole of the creation eagerly awaits and groans in anticipation of this day of the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19-22). This cosmos will give way to an eternal kingdom over which Christ will rule forever. This is suggestive of a cyclical view or recapitulation; what the Early Church Fathers understood as the restoration of Paradise (recapitulation).

There is also the view that things were once better (Paradise) and turned bad with sin and death. In this view, which is an incomplete story, we have linear decline. However, the resurrection and second coming of Jesus Christ, completes the story. From linear decline comes linear progress. Imagine a vertical line pointing down and then turning upward.

Did Abraham's ancestors hold a linear view of time?

It is often repeated that the Jews were the first introduce the idea of linear history, which may be true, but Abraham and his ancestors were not Jews. Abraham's ancestors were Nilo-Saharans who held a cyclical view. This is evident in the deep analysis of the story cycles and couplets of Genesis.

We tend to read Genesis as a linear sequence, but upon closer examination we find a very different structure. It is one that Abraham and his ancestors would have recognized and they were not Jews. They were Nilotic peoples who tended toward binary tensions expressed in parallel accounts. The parallel stories highlight similarities such as the moral lapses of Noah and Lot while drunk. Noah's misbehavior led him to blame ("curse") his grandson. Lot's drunk state led to incest with his daughters.

Sometimes the parallel stories contrast the character of two figures, as in the accounts of Abraham and Isaac attempting to pass off their wives as their sisters. Sarah was Abraham's half-sister whereas Rebecca was Isaac's patrilineal cousin. In other words, Abraham did not lie and Isaac did.

Other parallel accounts include the two creation stories. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 are parallel accounts from different traditions. The second story about the garden, the serpent, and the tree of life is older than the first story about the six days of creation.

Likewise, there are two flood accounts. In one we read that Noah was to save one pair of animals, a male and female, and in the other we read that he was to save seven pairs of "clean" animals.

This parallelism is not limited to the book of Genesis. It is found in the Psalms and throughout the Old Testament. Adam and Enoch are paralleled in Hebrew in Psalm 8:4. The story of Korah opposing Moses' authority has a parallel in the story of Sheba who opposed David's authority. In the end, both Korah and Sheba lost their lives.

The blood on the door posts in Egypt has a parallel in the story of the passover of Rahab and her family by the scarlet cord hung from the window.

The birth of twin boys to Rebekah has a match in the story of Tamar's twin sons.

The story of Sarah's miraculous conception of Isaac is paralleled by Hannah's conception of Samuel. In the New Testament, we find a parallel between Elizabeth's miraculous conception of John the Baptist and Mary's conception of the Son of God, to whom John would bear witness.

There are also parallel stories about cousin wives. Nahor, Abraham's older brother, married his cousin wife Milcah before ascending to the throne of his father, Terah. This happened before Abraham made his journey to the land of Canaan. However we are not told about Nahor's wife and children until after Sarah's burial.

Likewise, Abraham married his cousin wife before Sarah died, but Keturah is not mentioned until after Sarah's burial. This has lead people to assume that Abraham married Keturah after Sarah died. Instead we have parallel cousin-wife stories.

Abraham and all the Horite rulers listed in the Genesis "begats" had two wives. This was their custom. The first wife was a half-sister, as was Sarah to Abraham. The second wife was a patrilineal cousin or niece, as was Keturah to Abraham. This pattern describes Moses' wives also. His first wife was his Kushite half-sister and his second wife was his Midianite patrilineal cousin, Zipporah.

History is not told in a linear way in the Bible. Some events described took place around the same time. Between other events there are great gaps of time. This is not to say that Abraham's ancestors lacked a device for narrating events in a linear fashion. This was done through recounting the lists of rulers found in the Genesis “begats.” These are authentic king lists that establish that Noah lived before Nimrod and Nimrod before Abraham, etc. We can imagine a Nilotic story teller elaborating on the character of various rulers as is evident in Genesis 4:23, where we are told that Lamech bragged to his two wives. Another elaboration is found in Genesis 10:8-12 concerning the Kushite kingdom-builder Nimrod who was said to be a “mighty hunter.”

This is not to say that Abraham's ancestors lacked a device for narrating events in a linear fashion. This was done through recounting the lists of rulers found in the Genesis "begats." These are authentic king lists that establish that Noah lived before Nimrod and Nimrod before Abraham, etc. We can imagine a Nilotic story teller elaborating on the character of various rulers as is evident in Genesis 4:23, where we are told that Lamech bragged to his two wives. Another elaboration is found in Genesis 10:8-12 concerning the Kushite kingdom-builder Nimrod.

Related reading:  Early Metaphysics: Primal Substance and Cause; Theories of Change and ConstancyThe Experience and Perception of Time; Levi-Strauss and Jacques Derrida on Binary Oppositions; The Story of Ontology

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