Eric Rosenfield – An Analysis of the Concept of Time

Presented by the Wanderling

An Analysis of the Concept of Time in the Confessions, Book 11 by Augustine of Hippo

by Eric Rosenfield

In 1917, Albert Einstein completed work on the General Theory of Relativity, one of the rules of which states that time is fundamentally bound to matter and gravity, and that without matter there would be no time. Oddly, this concept was presaged almost 1,300 years before that when Bishop Augustine of Hippo (later St. Augustine) put forth the idea that when God created the Heavens and the Earth, he created time itself as well. Before Augustine, no one that we know of had tried to consider "time" as being something changeable, something that could start and stop; after all, we always perceive time as moving forward, and contemplating temporality as being finite or malleable seems unnatural, and the implications headache-rousing. Plato and Aristotle both regarded time as being infinite. Yet it was Augustine's application of the methods of the principles of Grecian philosophy and reason to the Christian concept of God that forced him to arrive at his conclusions.

In the first sentence of Book 11 of the Confessions, the book that deals with time, Augustine presents to us the commonly held Christian belief that God is eternal. Then, like a good philosopher, Augustine begins applying reason to this idea. If God is eternal then he does not take action at individual moments in time, because he does not exist in individual moments in time. He is literally outside time, and only his agents – the angels, who exist in time – can carry out his will on Earth. Yet if God is outside of time, then how could he have made the Heavens and the Earth in the beginning, as claimed in Genesis (since "the beginning" is inherently a point in time). For instance, John 1:1 holds that in the beginning there was the Word and the Word was made form, or as Augustine relates "Thou didst speak and they were made, and by thy Word thou didst make them all". Yet what was that Word that created the Universe? Surely, the words of an eternal being do not sound and die out like the words of us mortal folk - "If then, in words that sound and fade away thou didst say that Heaven and Earth should be made, and thus madest Heaven and Earth, then there was already some kind of corporeal creature before Heaven and Earth by whose motions in time that voice might have had its occurrence in time. But there was nothing corporeal before the Heaven and the Earth." In other words, if God is eternal than his words could only have a length in time if they were made to be "heard" by something that experiences time – because God doesn't. Therefore, because there was nothing before God created the Heavens and the Earth, then the Word did not start and stop as human words do, but instead exists eternally, as does God Himself. Indeed, because the Heavens and the Earth must've been created outside the Heavens and the Earth (for obvious reasons), the very creation of Creation is outside of anything that could experience time, and therefore "the Beginning" of the Bible is not actually a beginning at all, but an immutable eternal, the eternal Word, the eternal Truth, the eternal God, and so according to Augustine, "He is the Beginning, and speaketh to us" (emphasis mine, notice the tense).

Therefore, the question that some ask Augustine, "what was God doing before He created the Heavens and the Earth" is completely inapplicable. To an eternal being the word "before" holds no meaning – there literally was no before God created the Heavens and the Earth, or as Augustine puts it "for there was no 'then' when there was no time" - "There was no time, therefore, when thou hadst not made anything, because thou hadst made time itself".

There are some obvious problems with this interpretation of Genesis as an interpretation of Genesis. If God created the universe outside of time, and God is eternal in the way that Augustine describes, then why is the creation of the universe in the Bible divided up into days, an explicitly temporal measurement? Why would creation need to be divided up at all, why would the eternal act of creation not simply breath life into the whole shebang at once, and even more importantly, why would an eternal God need to rest? Augustine sort of implies an answer for this when he says, in a different context, "[God's] years are but a day, and [God's] day is not recurrent, but always today." But saying that God's day is always today doesn't really explain why the Bible says that it took Him "6 days" to make everything. Augustine never actually tackles this head-on, and one can't help but suspect that's because his answers might have been heretical (especially considering the constant overtures to God's help and statements that all this work is done to merely discover the Truth of God to be found interrupting the proper narrative throughout Book 11, which seems to imply that Augustine was worried about a possible heresy charge).

But then, what's really strange about Augustine's interpretation of the eternal nature of the Beginning is that, when taken entirely apart from the Bible, it resonates not only with Relativity (Augustine saying that for the Word to happen in time there must have been something that experiences time being roughly analogous to Einstein saying that matter and time are linked, and without one you would not have the other) but also with modern Big Bang Theory. Briefly, according to Big Bang Theory, because matter and time are so inextricably bound, when all the matter in the universe was compressed into a single point it formed what's called a "quantum singularity" in which, the math shows, the curvature of time and space became infinite. This means the Big Bang singularity exists at all times at once, in all places at once much like Augustine's God - the singularity that created the universe is all around us, all the time, forever.[1] Of course, it's not a perfect correlation, since whether a quantum singularity wants to offer us salvation through its divine grace, like Augustine's God, is another question entirely.

Moving forward in Book 11, Augustine then asks "what exactly is time?", and says, somewhat comically, "If no one asks me, I know what it is." We know that time, he states, has three parts – the past, the present and the future. And yet, we also know that the past and future don't actually exist, since we can in no way interact with them except when they are the present. That is to say, if the past and the future exist in the physical way that the present does, we have no way of knowing it, because we only experience the present. And yet, if the past and future don't exist, then what exactly are we measuring when we measure time? Obviously, time itself exists, since it can be measured, and yet if we say something is a hundred years ago, what exactly is that hundred years ago when it is past and therefore doesn't exist at all? And since the present must become past in order to be time (otherwise, it would be eternity), then if "time present -- if it be time -- comes into existence only because it passes into time past, how can we say that even this is, since the cause of its being is that it will cease to be? Thus, can we not truly say that time is only as it tends toward nonbeing?" He then tries to further examine what exactly is meant by the term "present", since the present cannot be broken down and examined – is the present a second, a nanosecond, less than a nanosecond? In truth the present has no length at all, it can only be measured as it passes from future into past – two states that do not actually exist – and therefore, can it be said that the present actually exists at all?

After all of these eye-crossing questions about the nature of time, it is hardly surprising when Augustine says "And I confess to thee, O Lord, that I am still ignorant as to what time is." And yet, maybe time does exist somewhere: "Those who tell of things past could not speak of them as if they were true, if they did not see them in their minds ... My childhood, for instance, which is no longer, still exists in time past, which does not now exist. But when I call to mind its image and speak of it, I see it in the present because it is still in my memory." In other words, the past does exist, but in our memory, and further the future too exists in our expectations – we know that the sun will rise tomorrow because because it has risen every day in our memory. (Augustine also speculates that those who claim to see the future may be experiencing the future as the rest of us experience the past, but wisely offers the caveat that he doesn't know if they truly see the future at all.) Therefore, time is not something that exists in the physical world, like a rock or a chair, but something that purely exists inside the mind. Which leads to Augustine's most shattering revelation: "It appears to me that time is nothing other than extendedness; but extendedness of what I do not know. This is a marvel to me. The extendedness may be of the mind itself."

Time may be an extendedness of the mind itself. After Augustine states this, he goes back, summarizes most of what he has said already and then praises God and Jesus for a while. It is disappointing that he does not take the implied consequences of time being simply a function of the mind further. In an Augustinian view, if time is merely a function of the mind, and all time extends from the eternal Word, then perhaps all consciousness is simply a splinter of the concept of time that exists in the mind of God – each of our individual consciousnesses a fragment of the eternal. In a modern physics view, if time is a function of consciousness, then perhaps time and consciousness are inextricably linked in the same way that we know time, gravity and matter are – in other words, perhaps consciousness is a thing itself – like gravity, like time – and, moreover, if this is so, then perhaps the eternal quantum singularity that created the universe is not only infinite in space and time, but also infinite in consciousness, and just as all space and time stems from it, all consciousness too flows from it, like water from a river. It is likely that I'm stretching Augustine's theories of time here quite a lot, and my goal is not to form the basis of some new religious cult or new age fad belief, but simply to show that the exploration of the ideas discussed in Book 11 have far reaching implications which we, who don't actually understand time all that much better than Augustine did, have yet to completely examine. By trying to understand the nature of time itself for the first time, Augustine sent us on a path that we have yet to reach the terminus of, and the answers to the questions Augustine posed all those centuries ago may yet prove to reveal the very nature of reality itself.

As found in the above, Augustine relates that time has three parts --- the past, the present and the future. And yet, according to how Augustine lays out time for us we also know that the past and future don't actually exist because we can in no way interact with them except when they are the present. That is to say, if the past and the future exist in the physical way that the present does, we have no way of knowing it, because we only experience the present. And yet, if the past and future don't exist, then what exactly are we measuring when we measure time? Obviously, time itself or something like it exists, since it can be measured, and yet if we say something is a hundred years ago, what exactly is that hundred years ago when it is past and therefore doesn't exist? And since the present must become past in order to be time (otherwise, it would be eternity), then if time present --- if it be time --- comes into existence only because it passes into time past, how can we say that even this is, since the cause of its being is that it will cease to be?

"And yet, according to how Augustine lays out time for us, we also know that the past and future don't actually exist, since we can in no way interact with them except when they are the present."

Quite the loophole, the above, from even the farther above. How so a loophole? Would it not be so if you were to go back into the past or into the future, that either past or future you were in would then become your present, of which then you would be able to interact therein?

"The Bootstrap Paradox as it is so called, is a time-travel paradox wherein an object or information can exist without ever seeming to have been created. The object or piece of information in the future is taken back in time where, through the normal passage of time from the past to the future, it is retrieved to become the very object or piece of information that was brought back in the beginning."



"There had to be in existence two of me at the same time, albeit occupying separate spaces. One of me quite possibly knowing my mother died, the other still having a mother alive."

The above sentence, based on a real life happenstance, is found in the text toward the bottom of The Spiritual Elder and the Santa Fe Chief. The seed of what is behind that happenstance and how it was able to come into play to such a point that it could, would and did actually transpire, was initially set into motion primarily through the downstream outflow of the following:

"(U)nknown to me, my mother was no longer at home, having become totally unable to care for herself, so much so my dad placed her into a full care sanatorium-like hospital in Santa Barbara, California on an around the clock basis. Before my dad had a chance to respond to the couple, the couple, knowing full well that my mother was in a sanatorium, without my father's grace, took me to India, simply sending him a note saying that in the end I had changed my mind about going. While I was gone my mother died. I missed the funeral and by the time I got back my family had disintegrated, my two brothers and myself all going separate ways, my dad disappearing into the countryside heavy into alcohol."

SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI: The Last American Darshan

Traveling with the foster couple during the declining health of my mother but before her death put me as a young boy arriving at the ashram of the venerated Indian holy man the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi in Tiruvannamalai south India sometime in early January 1944 and staying to sometime after April of 1944. By all indications, as brought forth in the Raft Drift story as found in the sinking of the British motor vessel M.V. Tulagi I was most likely back in the states by June of 1944.

The M.V. Tulagi was attacked and sunk in the Indian Ocean by the German submarine U-532 March 27, 1944. Survivors, after 58 days adrift in the open sea, ended with only seven of the 15 crewmembers left alive that were able to make it into two lifeboats out of the original 54 crewmembers, landing on Bijoutier, a tiny island of the Alphonse Group belonging to the Outer Islands of the Seychelles.

Long after the sinking, but still well within the 58 day time period of the drift, I was returning to the United States onboard a ship in the Indian Ocean when some of the onboard passengers reported seeing a lifeboat sometime toward the end of May, 1944. If it was one of the rafts from the Tulagi, and I am almost sure it would have to have been because of it's description, it would put me back in the states sometime in June, 1944.(see)

The June, 1944 date is fairly solid assumption in that I was on my way to California from Pennsylvania via Chicago as a passenger on the all first class Santa Fe Chief being pulled by a powerful Baldwin built 4-8-4 Northern bearing the Santa Fe ID #3774. Outside Williams, Arizona, on the night of July 3, 1944, the train derailed in a high speed crash, killing the fireman and three passengers, while injuring 113 passengers and 13 train employees.

The wreck left whoever I was traveling with being either too hospitalized or too injured to oversee me. Because of same my uncle, who lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the closest relative to my location was contacted. While waiting for him to show up, which took a day or two longer than expected, he called a close-by tribal spiritual elder he knew to fill in for him until he was able to get to Williams. It is fair to say the spiritual elder sitting around inside of a train station all day long between the occasional train wasn't exactly what I would call his particular forte'. At the end of the second day, the spiritual elder seemed to have had enough and decided he needed more open space around him. Just after sundown of the second full day basically after just hanging around inside a stuffy train station or sitting on shipping boxes and crates in the shade along the wall of the loading dock, without any real discussion between us, we started walking eastward along the railroad tracks for some distance before turning south into the desert, the two of us ending up camping overnight along the Rio Felix in New Mexico.

The opening quote at the top of this section is from the source so cited. Although the paragraph is taken out of context having been extrapolated from a much longer text, it cuts to the quick quite clearly about my mother, the foster couple, me going to India, etc. It also brings to light the fact that while I was gone my mother died and I missed the funeral. It happened that way because of me having left for India late in the year 1943 and not returning to the states until June of 1944, meaning by inference according to the quote, that it was during that six month time frame that my mother died. Taken to the extreme then, by inference it would also mean that my mother was alive at least right up to my departure and possibly sometime shortly after. So too, most likely right up to my departure I was in the U.S. on U.S. soil because as I have stated elsewhere I went to Santa Barbara with both of my real parents sometime in 1943. The question is, if I was with my parents or even the foster couple how is it during the same 1943 period I was able to hole up for the night along the Rio Felix in New Mexico with the spiritual elder waiting for my uncle to show up? There had to be in existence two of me at the same time, albeit occupying separate spaces. One of me quite possibly knowing my mother died, the other still having a mother alive. Truth be told however, when I was traveling with the spiritual elder I had no clue it was not, not 1944. It was only years later that I discovered the incident along the Rio Felix involving the German POWs was 1943. Again:

"There had to be in existence two of me at the same time, albeit occupying separate spaces. One of me quite possibly knowing my mother died, the other still having a mother alive."(see)


Twenty years later, in 1964, thanks to the friendly Selective Service, or the draft as it is so affectionately known, found me as a fully ingrained member of the United States Army. During that time there was a similar or like event that harkened back to the year 1944 as well, albeit some weeks or months prior to the train wreck. Re the following from the source so cited:

"Everything in my life from before entering Laos to Chiang Mai to my eventual return to Rangoon and beyond, time-wise, led up to, overlaid and bracketed my stay at the monastery as outlined in Doing Hard Time In A Zen Monastery. Within that bracketed period of time at the monastery I came in contact with (the) woman at the farm house, ending up in Tiruvannamalai circa 1944 and the Ramana ashram. It was embedded inside that same period of time in Tiruvannamalai that the three hours sitting before the Maharshi in the ashram transpired. Added together, the whole of the whole episode that unfolded, at least outside of the monastery walls it would seem, and how time is typically constituted consensually by those in the Samsara world, was enveloped in the broader sense by the calendar year 1964."(source)


"Once through the main portal the time associated within the walls of the monastery and the land beyond flowed like the surface of a Mobius Strip, non-orientable."

When I was first putting forth the events as so cited in The Code Maker, The Zen Maker, which deals with the mysterious hermitage said to exist somewhere beyond time in a remote area of the Himalayas known under a variety of names such as Gyanganj, Shambhala or Shangri-la, in that I was personally coming from the Siddhis side of things, I never placed what I was writing, at least as I saw it then, into a time travel frame of reference. Many readers saw it differently. For them, discounting Siddhis and moving the events into a time travel schemata seemed to make what I presented somewhat more understandable. In an effort on my part to make all of it more understandable I wrote the page Analogies In Time and Space listed below as well as suggesting reading additional material falling into the same realm, also linked below.






Footnote [1]

The Pope once asked Stephen Hawking not to try to inquire about what happened before the big bang, and Hawking agreed, not because he wanted to comply with the Pope's wishes, but because it is fundamentally impossible to find out something that happened before the literal beginning of time, since, as Augustine points out, "there was no 'then' when there was no time". A good example of Augustine's rational and how he came up with what he did can be found in what has been termed by the Buddha as a "category mistake. Please see AVYAAKATA: The Buddha's Ten Indeterminate Questions.





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Although I don't get into it in the main text above, nor as well in the Liverpool Letter, there is some rather substantial information regarding the life raft itself the woman reported seeing that I have, except in another footnote somewhere, really not delved into.

While it is true the woman was far from clear regarding any survivors alive or dead or none at all in the letter she wrote to my dad, she did mention the raft itself --- slightly. Because of what she mentioned didn't really add up relative to anything I knew or was familiar with at the time I pretty much passed on it. The thing is, her description of what she said she saw and what I sluffed off, turned out to be closer to reality than not. She said what other passengers were claiming to be a life raft, to her, from the distance she saw it, it looked more like a bunch of barrels stuffed together in huge wooden orange crate than anything else. When I read the letter and tried to picture what she was talking about, the first thing that popped into my mind was a couple of model wooden trains I put together and painted from two kits when I was a kid.

One model was a train called the Dewitt Clinton and the other was the William Galloway, both early steam locomotives and both, to carry water, had little wooden barrels stacked into gondola cars behind the coal car. The rafts on the Tulagi, as pictured below and of which I only learned of many years after reading the woman's letter, were open 6 x 8 x 3 feet with forty-four gallon drums as flotation devices housed in open wooden frame. The rafts could be operated from either side and 10 persons could easily fit into each raft. If you compare the two graphics below you might get an idea why the wooden models from my childhood popped into my head.



There had to be in existence two of me at the same time, albeit occupying separate spaces. One of me quite possibly knowing my mother died, the other still having a mother alive, to wit:

As my mother's illness became more and more serious it became increasingly more difficult for my father to care for her as well as care for three young boys, so much so he decided to investigate the possibility of a full time care facility for her. One of the facilities was an around the clock full care sanatorium-like hospital in Santa Barbara, California. Although a good portion of the year 1943 is not totally clear down to the most minute detail I remember the Santa Barbara excursion well because the day my dad went to see the sanatorium not only did he take my mother along, but me as well --- with no brothers! So said, the trip had to have occurred before the end of the year 1943 because by Christmas of that year I was in India. The following, is found at the source so cited:

"My mother died when I was quite young. However, even before her death, because of her illness my father continued to have to work more and more hours to pay for mounting medical expenses. Through it all he found it extremely difficult to care for my two brothers and myself and work the hours he did. At first he dealt with it with regular day-to-day babysitting, then overnight and weekends with my grandparents and neighbors. Along the way a couple that just happened to be visiting our next door neighbors for Thanksgiving dinner, and of which we were invited to, offered to help by taking one of us kids fulltime. A few days later I was selected and basically fostered out, moving away from my brothers and family even before my mother passed away."


Hence, it is clear that at least up until Thanksgiving 1943 my mother, father, two brothers and myself were all alive and well living together under one roof in Redondo Beach, California, my whole family intact and in place, happily sharing a Thanksgiving meal with neighbors. Seven months later, on my way back from India, I was waiting for my uncle in a train station in Williams, Arizona, following the wreck of a train I was a passenger on. Having survived the wreck, in due time I was returned to California and temporarily placed under the guardianship of my grandmother, re the following from the source so cited:

"There I was, a young boy barely even closing down on six or seven years of age, not long returned from India, without a mother, having missed both her final days and her funeral as well."


IF, as it seems, my family was alive and well and intact up until Thanksgiving 1943 living in our family home in Redondo Beach, it would be then a straight line given that ten months earlier, in January of that year, my mother would be alive as part of that same family. It would also hold true then that I, as part of that integrated family unit, would be fully aware of her being an active part of that family. The train wreck occurred July 3, 1944 after which I was placed with my grandmother, albeit without, as I write, a mother, having missed both her final days and her funeral as well.

It was because of the train wreck I met the Native American spiritual elder in the first place and having done so only for the first time because of the wreck. No wreck, no meeting, no spiritual elder. It was also because of the spiritual elder that I was camping along the Rio Felix and met the three German prisoners of war. In January 1943 I was with my mother in Redondo Beach, she being very much alive by all that I have presented. I was with the POWs along the Rio Felix in New Mexico because while heading home from India, trekking across the desert with the spiritual elder I ended up along the river, the prisoners having escaped January 14, 1943. On the way home from India on the train I missed both my mother's final days and her funeral as well, meaning at the time she was no longer alive, even though while along the Rio Felix, taken there by the spiritual elder and having missed both her final days and her funeral as well, in January 1943, she was still alive.