Augustinian Time: some things never change

Saint Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli, 1494

For my first post on time, I'm going to start with something which may seem like an odd place to start, the ideas expressed about time by Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions. This is not the most basic or fundamental way of thinking about time, but it does in many ways seem to lie behind a lot of our modern western conventional notions of time, and thus reflect many of our preconceptions about time.

The Confessions is essentially an autobiography, in which Augustine describes his misspent youth as what we would now see as a troubled teen from a good family who acts out in a variety of antisocial behaviours, the whole wine, women, and song routine. Some things never change, I suppose. In his Confessions he famously encapsulates his feelings at that time with the line “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”. Eventually he cleans up his act and converts to Christianity, becoming one of the Four Fathers of the Western Church who basically established much of the groundwork for the Western Church as we know it today. What is perhaps surprising about this autobiography is that it ends up with some reflections and commentary at the end which we might now recognise as an early attempt at cognitive science. In book 10 he expounds on a theory of memory, and in book 11 he turns his attention to time.

He starts off with the oft-quoted statement about the difficulty of discussing the subject, musing "What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know: but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I know not" (Conf. XI.xiv.239). Well, I know I often feel that way, so again some things never change. He then goes on to discuss the very familiar and conventional three-part way of looking at time, with a future that in the instant that is the present is converted into the past. As we'll see in future posts, this three-part, moving time way of looking at things isn't the only way -- indeed there is a great deal of variety. But for Augustine writing in a Roman, Christian context, this is pretty standard. The Latin verb system has three tenses, past, present, and future, and the Christian sense of history moves inexorably from Creation to Judgement Day.

But the particularly clever bit is what he does next. He collapses all three times to cognitive operations in the present moment:

"Clear now it is and plain, that neither things to come, nor things past, are. Nor do we properly say, there be three times, past, present, and to come; but perchance it might be properly said, there be three times: a present time of past things; a present time of present things; and a present time of future things. For indeed three such as these in our souls there be; and otherwhere do I not see them. The present time of past things is our memory; the present time of present things is our sight; the present time of future things our expectation." (Conf XI.xx.252)

Cognitive scientists still express this idea in pretty similar ways, as for instance does Bruno G. Bara in Cognitive Science: A Developmental Approach to the Simulation of the Mind when he states that "In general terms, time is a feature of certain functions: the past is a function of memory, the present of consciousness, the future of planning" (Bara 270). Sounds a lot like Augustine, doesn't it? Once again, some things never change. Bara expands on and further explains this notion:

"Considering men and women as living systems, we immediately discover that the sole dimension that is real for such systems is the present. Within this present inhabited by the system, other times are constructed. All mental activity in the system is carried on in the present – from perception to reflection to problem solving. If by chance the system requires data that are not immediately available, it can call upon memory stores, from sensory buffers to long term memory. These are structured in such a way as to permit the system to utilise a piece of information even when it is not immediately at hand. But whatever mental process the system is engaged in, from the attempt to recover notions stored decades earlier to planning an action to be carried out the following day, the time in which these functions are executed is always the present. It is the present that creates all the tenses of thought. We saw earlier that memory is properly speaking a construction of (past) memories occurring in the system’s present — I reconstruct my past in my present. The same is true of planning the future — I construct now what will happen tomorrow. The future is built by projecting the present. Finally, if a system becomes conscious of its present state it can create its own present. By activating memory processes, we can gain the sensation of returning to the past. By concentrating on our current state, we become conscious of the present. By utilising projection procedures, we can travel into the future. Nevertheless, everything always comes about thanks to the present functioning, here and now, of our cognitive processes — past, present and future are all constructed in the present." (Bara 270–271)

Time, at least as we conventionally understand it, is a function of our minds, and how we talk and think about time have an important connection. (And I won't, for the moment anyway, get into a broader discussion of our scientific understanding, or lack of understanding as it turns out, of the reality of time, and instead stick with time perception, cognition, and communication, that is how we experience time, how we think about time, and how we talk about time.) Anyway, I'll leave it that for now before I lose your attention, as I've no doubt gone on long enough about what is essentially a fairly straightforward point. In the end, some things never change.