Q524 Time and Timelessness

Q: If we consider humans as finite beings, what evidence do we have that eternity’ has any meaning? (Quora)

A (Martin): It is difficult to fathom what time, and timelessness, are. When confronted with such a conundrum, St. Augustine retorted: ‘If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know’ — such are the limitations of our understanding of reality (physical and non-physical), even though physics and mathematics come to our aid in this and also with the phenomenon of space (space-time). What is more, philosophy and metaphysics have a better grasp of the non-physical dimensions of reality than science, aided and abetted as they are by (universal) intuition. For metaphysics, time does not exist outside of our minds, and it is the same, by implication, with the concept of the ‘present’, even though the latter is what gives a semblance of reality to reality tout court (all that is and ever has been) – almost incomprehensible to the ordinary mind. The concept of space is in the same category. In Advaita Vedanta space (Akasha) is postulated as the subtlest of the five physical elements, which gives rise to the other four and is characterized by pervasiveness. Three types of space are considered: physical, mental, and intellectual or spiritual.

Determinism or Free-will

Is every action predetermined or is there free will?

The notion of ‘free will’ is of Jewish-Christian origin, and is the other side of the coin which refers to that other nostrum – ‘(the problem of) evil’, which complicates things even more. God, being the summum bonum, is not responsible for evil; therefore that responsibility falls entirely on (fallen) man.

There is no notion in Plato (and generally among the ancient Greeks) of the concept of ‘free will’, in the sense of a faculty of the soul which determines a particular course of action – choice, in other words. Rather, it is an inclination or appetite (desire) which motivates action and is either for the highest and noblest aspiration in man, or for his lower preferences (they correspond to Being and Becoming respectively). When the inclination is towards the Good, Plato calls it Eros. This account of ‘good will’ was preserved in St. Augustine (dilectio or caritas).

A similar view can be found in Br.Upanishad 4.4.5: “Man is fashioned by desire; according to his desire is his discernment; according to his discernment he does his work.” Also: “For just as men here below pursue the aim after which each aspires, as it were done at command, whether it be a kingdom, or an estate, and live only for that, (so in their aspiration for heavenly rewards they are the slaves of their desires” – Chand.Upanishad 8.1.5). Paul Deussen, in ‘The Philosophy of the Upanishads’, from which I just quoted, concludes: “The standpoint of the Upanishads, therefore, is a rigid determinism”.

That judgment, however, should be applied only to the empirical viewpoint of the everyday world, not to the higher one, where Atma (-Brahman), the only reality, reigns with absolute freedom, if one can say that. ‘That Thou art’.