On the World as a Stage: II. The Conception of Time

The subtitle of this post should perhaps be “Kierkegaard’s Conception of Time As I Understand it”, but Kierkegaard scholars might strongly disagree with me. I’ve been meaning to write this ever since I read “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments”, as part of an overall review of the book, but that review is long overdue. A recent discussion with an atheist friend of mine on religious belief reminded me of this conception of time and how it influences our conception of God.

My friend presented what I would call “cause and effect” argument against belief: People in ancient times believed in God or the supernatural because there were natural phenomena that they didn’t understand and couldn’t attribute to natural causes. With the advance of science and technology, all the natural phenomena either have been or can be attributed to natural causes, therefore, there is no basis for belief in God.

I was reminded of a news story I had read a while back: when the kids in an elementary school were asked where the eggs came from, some answered, “From the supermarket”. Who needs the chicken when you have the supermarket?

In philosophical terms, the existence of a secondary cause doesn’t remove the possibility, even the necessity, of the first cause. The difference is that the former is replaceable whereas the latter is not. If you close the supermarket, the eggs could still come from the local farmer’s market. Even if you destroy an instance of nature, the laws governing nature still exists.

Where there is Law, there is Intelligence. To paraphrase Plato, if there is intelligence in man, there must be Intelligence in the universe which is vastly superior to man, who struggles to comprehend it. Conversely, I guess one can argue that there is no such thing as intelligence or the human mind, because we can observe the natural causes of all human thoughts and actions. Imagine one could take a 3D video of the human brain and ask someone on the street: “Do you see any evidence of intelligence in this?”
But I digress…

Causality and Time

The question of interest is this: How do we perceive “external” cause? One might define God as the Cause that doesn’t exist in nature, but independent of nature, and yet controls the course of nature, which brings us to Kierkegaard’s conception of time. God is independent of time, and yet operates in time. How is that possible?

Edison and Motion Picture Projector

The best illustration I can think of is the old motion picture projector. The events in time are discrete instead of continuous, like a series of frames in a film passing through the projector. We have the impression of continuity and thereby cause and effect, because the frames pass before our eyes in rapidity with shutters in between. In reality, there are no cause and effect at all, that is, the previous event in time doesn’t lead to the next, it’s all under the control of the projector. One moment you see a train running at high-speed, the next moment it disappears into thin air. “All things are possible with God”.

This conception of time also provides a “rational” explanation for the efficacy of prayer. Our prayer can and does change the course of nature, because the Projector changes the subsequent frames in the film, so to speak, upon our request. Not that we change His mind by prayer, but that through prayer we catch a glimpse of Him at work.

The Discreteness of Time

“The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali

Based on my limited understanding of Quantum Mechanics, I think it corroborates Kierkegaard’s conception of time and, more importantly, freedom. Because time and space are discrete and not continuous, it is impossible to determine both the position and momentum of a particle, or predict the spin of the particle. On a social scale, at any given moment in time, a human being is free to act and make choices independent of the past, or any natural causes for that matter. This freedom, according to Kant, is independent of the cause and effect of the laws of nature, and it is a law in itself, of itself and by itself, i.e., the law of the Spirit. I suspect Kant would have welcomed Quantum Mechanics with open arms, as he seemed to have some difficulty reconciling his conception of freedom with the deterministic Newtonian physics.

Eternity and Temporality

Wheel of Fortune
Lady Fortune and the Wheel of Fortune

The relation between Eternity and Temporality is perhaps best represented by the sphere, or the Wheel of Fortune in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, where Providence/Eternity is the immutable center, and Fortune/Temporality the wheel spinning around.

How does the wheel of fortune fit in with Kierkegaard’s conception of time? In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard wrote to the effect that disciples of Jesus’ time have no advantage over those of later generations in terms of their relation to faith and eternity. In other words, the distance between Eternity and the different time points in history is constant, i.e., length of the radius of the wheel of fortune. No matter how far one travels down history, i.e., the perimeter of the wheel, he remains at the same distance to Eternity. To the individual, Faith is as challenging and eternally significant as it was two thousand years ago.

The Leap of Faith

To draw one last analogy from quantum physics, the leap of faith is not unlike the quantum leap. In quantum leap, the electron is lifted to a higher energy level by absorbing photons, in the leap of faith, the individual is raised to a different level of existence by the Light of the world.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard describes the life of a Knight of Faith. He seems no different from any other ordinary folk living in the temporal world, i.e., traveling along the perimeter of the sphere, yet at each moment, the Knight also takes the leap of faith towards Eternity. Because his leap of faith is in the direction of the Center, along the radius which is orthogonal to the perimeter, his movement is imperceptible in the temporal world, he leaps and lands at the exact same spot in time, yet inwardly, he has traveled to eternity and back. Come to think of it, the 1997 American science fiction movie “Contact” conveys a similar idea, except that the Knight of Faith doesn’t need a machine and a wormhole to contact another world, he has infinity in himself.

[P.S. In hindsight, I probably should have titled this post “Kierkegaard and Quantum Physics”, as this post seems to be a rather long-winded way of saying quantum physics has nothing on Kierkegaard, but it would be doubly presumptuous of me, knowing next to nothing about either subject.]


3 thoughts on “On the World as a Stage: II. The Conception of Time

  1. I have a few questions. First, in the “Interlude” portion of _Philosophical Fragments_, Johannes Climacus says that “coming into existence” is unknowable; it can only be grasped by a “leap.” Would you say then that causality is unknowable? If so, then can we discuss God as a “cause?” But Kierkegaard did consider God to be the Creator of the world (not so much in a “6 days” sense, but just as real).
    Second, have you done much with St. Thomas’ five proofs in the _Summa_? Your discussion of intermediate causes and first cause reminded me of Thomas, perhaps more than Kierkegaard, so I was wondering.

    Johannes Climacus does describe God as “eternal,” beyond time, so that everything is “now” to God. Your friend seems to equate God with the temporal world of cause and effect, so that if God is not a “cause” in the same sense that I am causing these words to be typed, then God is not connected to the world at all. That certainly doesn’t agree with Thomas or Kierkegaard. I’ve often felt that most atheists don’t believe in a God that I or most believers I know would believe in; their conception of God is too small and concrete. Do you think something like that is happening in the conversation you relate?

    Kierkegaard said that we pray not so much to change God’s mind but so that God can change ours. For example, in his discourse, “The One who Prays Aright Strives with God and Conquers—-In That God Conquers.” I’m not sure how that fits in with his extremely personal view of God that he puts forth in the Fragments or in that same essay (p. 387 of the Hong translation of _Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses_). I do think that Kierkegaard makes this assertion not out of some Platonic concern for God’s unchangeableness, but to foster a sense of humility before God. (Kierkegaard wrote an essay on God’s unchangeableness too, but it’s been decades since I read it and I don’t remember anything.) Kierkegaard makes several interesting claims in the essay “The One Who Prays Aright”: that we are obliged to think of God as a person, that we ought to pray yet we don’t change God’s mind, and that there is no such thing as a real atheist.
    Well, that’s all I got for now. TTFN

    1. Speaking of Kierkegaard scholars, here comes my favorite one. 🙂
      1. Would you say then that causality is unknowable? If so, then can we discuss God as a “cause?”
      Causality is unknowable, and so is God. So to say God is a cause is nothing more than a tautology.
      Unless you believe as a Christian that you have the mind of Christ, as St. Paul wrote.
      2. Second, have you done much with St. Thomas’ five proofs in the _Summa_?
      No, I haven’t read anything by St. Thomas Aquinas yet. I have a natural aversion to Aristotelians :), though I do plan to read Aquinas in the near future. It seems to me that the ability to distinguish between intermediate and first cause is common sense, and doesn’t require much philosophical insights.
      3. their conception of God is too small and concrete. Do you think something like that is happening in the conversation you relate?
      I find it hard to have a civil and rational discussion about religious belief. In the US religion and politics are so closely intertwined, because religion has been used as a means to political supremacy, imo.
      4. Kierkegaard said that we pray not so much to change God’s mind but so that God can change ours
      Yes, I agree. Prayer changes us because it lifts us up from the temporal and enables to catch a glimpse of the eternal.

    2. Re: how unchangeableness fits in with a personal view of God

      God is unchangeable, but He might appear to change from the pov of the individual, as for instance when He answers their prayers. To use another analogy from physics, it’s the notion of “relativity”. A person on a moving train might think that the platform is moving, because he is using himself and the train as a reference point. Similarly, because we are constantly in the process of becoming, when we use ourselves or the temporal world as reference point, we see God, the eternal and immutable, as changing. So God is extremely personal in that He responds to the intimate needs of the individual, but he remains the same nevertheless.

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