Book XI of the confessions deals with the nature of time. St. Augustine begins his inquiry of time by questioning its connection to God. Augustine seeks to answer the question: If God is eternal, how can he live exist in a time bound universe? Augustine solved this problem by stating that God does not exist in time. He argues that God created time when he created the world, and that only humans can conceive of time. Thus, according to Augustine, God lives in a different world were time does not exist. This solves the first half of the problem; the second half, however, deals with how time functions in the universe we live in.
To understand Augustines argument we need to depart from the beliefs we have about time. Augustine talks about time as though it were a concept that can be measured and sensed. Thus when he talks about time he is talking about something that exists. Thus, for example, we will say we see a green chair until we no longer see the chair. Just as we can use our five senses, Augustine feels that humans believe we can measure time. Yet rationalizing how we can measure time is not so easy. He goes on to argue that we do not measure time as easily as we can see a green chair. Augustine believes that time intervals do not exist. Rather, that we understand time through memory (past), attention (present), and expectation (future). This is his answer to how we can understand time, although he is not too convinced about it.
In sections 26 and 27 Augustine is playing the skeptical, and is posing arguments that show that understanding time is not so easy. He does his best to try to solve problems yet he poses problems and offers no conclusive solutions. In these two sections Augustine discusses a peculiar aspect of time, how (and whether) we can measure time. Previously Augustine had already discussed that he cannot say that past and future are, because they have already passed or have not yet become. Thus, how can he understand time, if for example we say, it took a long time, if the past has already passed and the future has not yet happened then how can he talk about a long time in actuality? The only actual thing that exists is the present but it is small and tends to go toward non-existence. Further, the movement of things is not time. Thus time is independent of the events that can be observed by the senses. To a further extent, he is also asking what time is and what is its nature. Augustine will argue that time can be measured but it cannot be understood in terms of present, past, or future. Thus, he asks, how do we actually understand time it if we do not do so in either present, past, or future. To discuss how Augustine handles this I will explicate the passage in my own words and, where relevant, develop the philosophical issues being addressed.
In the first paragraph of section 26 Augustine asks whether he can measure time. He answers himself that he can, but he is not sure what exactly it is he measures. At this point Augustine is asking that he knows he has a concept of time. However, he does not know what it is. Thus he seeks to know the nature of time. Thus the objective is set, to know the nature and definition of time; more roughly said he wants to know what is time.
Augustine then begins to try to solve this problem by presenting an analogy. He argues that he measures the movement of bodies through time. He then goes on to ask whether by measuring the movement of bodies through time he is actually measuring time. In other words: Can I measure the movement of a body, how long the movement lasted, unless I measured the time in which it moved. Thus Augustine is trying to see if he can measure time by means of observing a changing event, in this case two objects moving. The philosophical importance that he presents here is that we cannot understand reality outside of the scope of time; everything is changing, thus we need time to understand our world. Furthermore, we intuitively acknowledge we can measure time, thus if we cannot then what is it that we acknowledge that we are measuring?
Augustine goes on to ask what if you could measure time by observing the movement of a body. If you can, by what means can you do so. Thus Augustine is observing that you do not measure time when you observe different objects moving. Rather you only observe the things moving and understand this trough time. Thus there is no intrinsic connection between the world we observe through the senses and time. Thus, time passes even if things stop moving. This is hinting to what he will ultimately argue, that time exists in the mind of humans, that it is an extension of the mind itself. Then he asks whether he can measure long periods of time by shorter ones? He is trying to understand the concept of time by looking at if from a perspective of knowing time. However, since he does not know what time is he has to return to the beginning premise of asking what time is.
Furthermore, he asks whether he understand time by measuring lines in poems. However, he comes to the conclusion that there is no connection between reality and time. They are independent of each other. For example, you can pronounce words fast or slow, and this would therefore not give you a proper understanding of the equivalent of events in regard to time.Thus to try to understand time in concept of observing objects does not seem like a good answer. Noting this, Augustine then asks whether time could just be an extension of the mind. That is, whether it is something that the mind understands and that does not exist in the real world. At this point Augustine proposes that time is understood through the minds of humans, not through observation of objects.
Throughout the whole passage Augustine asks whether he can measure time. Thus he is looking at time from the perspective that humans can measure time. He is now asking whether time exists independently of humans, he is looking at time from a framework of being a human. Augustine asks what he is talking about when he says that 1 period of time is longer than another one. Again this question is asked, what is time? Further, he asks what is the nature of time and whether he can actually speak of it as though it were something that existed. What is it I am measuring when I say that one period of time is longer than another one? Augustine knows that he is measuring time yet he knows he is not measuring the future, because that does not exist yet. Nor the present because it has no extent, which is it has parts that are both in the past and in the future as it is a period of time, nor the past because that no longer exists. Thus Augustine asks whether he is measuring something that is becoming non-existent, that is that he measures something that disappears. Whether he is measuring time that is in the process of changing but has not passed yet?
In book 27 Augustine presents a skeptical argument; he does his best to argue that we cannot understand how we measure time. First he imagines that he hears a noise. He argues that before it began it could not be measured because it did not exist, and that after it passed you cannot measure it either because it no longer exists. Thus it could only be measured while it existed because then it existed and it could be measured. But at this point time was transient toward non-existence. How then, Augustine asks, can you measure something that is changing toward non-existence? He is skeptical you can. But he grants that it is possible. And goes on to ask what if we tried to measure another sound. To measure the sound you must listen to it while it lasts. However, Augustine asks how we will be able to measure it when it comes to an end if it will no longer exist.
Augustines arguments in sections 26 and 27 prove to be cumbersome and difficult to follow. Regardless he is right in seeing that time cannot be understood as easily as we would like it to be. We cannot rationalize time in the way we rationalize the existence of a physical object. However regardless of all this he argues that we can measure time. Thus in the sections we read he does not give us the answer but merely hints at it when he says he is starting to believe that time is an extension of the mind itself. Thus how do we measure time? Augustine ultimately argues that since the past is not and the future is not, then the only thing we can measure is the present. Only the present can have some being. However, Augustine argues that it is with our minds that we measure time. He already stated that we cannot attribute past and future to God, nor to the movement of objects, thus this last resource is what Augustine believes is our reality.
The philosophical importance of this is to acknowledge that we cannot think of time as though it were a metaphysical concept. That is, an aspect of the nature of reality, (by reality meaning the outside world we live in). Rather, it is a concept that is in our minds. Time exists neither in the present, nor future, nor past. It is only a fleeing moment with no extension that does not exist in future and past. Thus Augustine is making the claim that time is something that is imbedded into humans, not something that exists in the world. Thus this fact makes it important to know that our nature is not the same as that of the universe. We see and understand things differently than does the rest of the universe, including God, who sees everything in the present. Having this knowledge is valuable in itself, I believe, Augustine would argue.
I feel that Augustines arguments are good but that he is mistaken in the way he speaks. He says the past and future are non-existent and uses these arguments as premises for the rest of his argument. This is true, however I feel he uses these concepts out of context. He asks, for example, how we can measure sound if when it comes to an end it will no longer exist. I think this is not a relevant question. The fact of the matter is that when it is present, you can measure it. Even if the present tends toward non-existence you still had a moment in the present when you could measure time. Just because time ceases to exist does not mean that at a moment you were able to measure it by the fact of memory. You remember you heard a sound and continue to hear it. It is no longer present; it is gone, however you remember it. Thus I can see how he feels that time that passes cannot be measured but I think he is stuck in the terminology and only when he goes beyond this and rationalizes everything does he come up with the solution that time is in the mind, which I agree with, although there is no way to prove this is so.
Biffle, Chrisopher. Landscape of Wisdom: A Guided Tour of Western Philosophy. Mayfield, California. 1999.