Welcome to Philosopher Fridays! This week’s installment is also part of a mini-series on Literary Time Consciousness, so it will not only give you a glimpse at a philosopher who has contributed to my thought process in some way (whether I agree with him/her or not), but will also explore a way of thinking about how we experience time. For this post, I draw heavily from a paper I wrote for an undergraduate medieval philosophy class, and as such I owe much of my understanding to the professor who guided me.
BOETHIUS: Late Antique philosopher and theologian par excellence Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480-524/5) is famous for his contribution to music theory, his Christian martyrdom, and his influence on Chaucer, among a great many other noteworthy things. For a complete overview of his life, his entry in the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia is a wonderful source.
His most famous work by far (and the book that made me fall in love with philosophy in the first place) is The Consolation of Philosophy, written during the imprisonment leading up to his execution. In this work, Boethius is troubled by what seem to him in this dark hour to be theological questions and contradictions. He believed that people should be responsible for their actions, and be held accountable to each other and to a higher power. As creatures of reason, we should be able to figure out the difference between right and wrong, and be judged on our choices between the two. But this ability to choose our paths would mean that the future is undetermined, contrasting with his belief that God knows all and that there is a plan and order to all things. Which is it, he wonders; do we have free will and does it ultimately undermine God’s foreknowledge? Or are we on a predetermined path, our actions necessitated by fate and God’s foreknowledge?
The real problem, for Boethius, is that he needs for both of these positions to be true, even though they seem irreconcilable, if there is to be a point to living justly, honestly, and piously. Without an omniscient God, God would not be “God” per se, and there would be no entity unto which free will would hold us so accountable.
The answer comes to him in the form of Wisdom herself, Lady Philosophy, appearing in his darkest time to both challenge and soothe Boethius. I’d like to focus here on the way that her answer both relies upon our subjective teleology and subverts it at the same time.
Lady Wisdom begins her consolation with a discussion of causality. She speaks of Chance not as the random occurrence of phenomena without a cause, but instead as the unintended effects of causes unknown to humans. Chance is the name for causality beyond our reckoning, but in truth everything has a cause – even if we cannot see it because it lies outside of our linear narrative. She distinguishes between the objective nature of reality and our subjective experience of it. In this way, our human understanding of reality is inherently contingent upon there being an order of things in time.
According to Wisdom, if God is to be God, then he must be all-knowing, aware of every connecting cause and it’s subsequent web (not merely a chain, as would describe our narrow experience). God “sees all that has been, that is, and that is to come”.
Naturally, Boethius is not satisfied by this; God must know something first before it happens in order to be considered all knowing. In such a case, our course would be unalterable and fixed, and we could thus not be in charge of what we do, or where we go wrong. We’d merely be puppets acting out a play from start to finish, never being able to strive for something outside the scripted and blocking that God has already foreseen. We are bound by the necessity that since God has foreseen it, it must come to pass, and thus we have no free will at all. When God’s knowledge is constructed as foreknowledge, it necessitates the “fulfillment of all that He has surely foreknown”, and so it seems that we are not held accountable, and that “there is no freedom for the intentions or actions of men”.
Lady Wisdom assures Boethius that humans are capable of reason and can thus make choices themselves, but for him, this is no better, as it renders God blind to the future. At best, he reasons, God would be capable of contingent foreknowledge only, showing him only what may come to pass – either it will rain, or it will not. For Boethius, this is not knowledge, but an absurd absolute, and if this is the only knowledge God can have, then God is not God, and not qualified to judge the choices made by human. God would be know nothing but tautologies, for any further judgement would likely prove him wrong.
But Lady Philosophy is not troubled, for as she explains, Boethius’ fears come from a limited understanding of time as something which streams in successive progression. God is not limited by linear temporality as we are, and exists instead outside of time, in a way that we cannot. She tells him: “The cause of this obscurity is that the working of the human reason cannot approach the directness of divine foreknowledge”.
God’s knowledge is not truly foreknowledge at all. Philosophy explains that God exists not in a narrative chain of events, but rather in an eternal present, removed from the constraints that shackle mortal humans to their weaker comprehension of things as single units, one after another in order. God instead sees everything – the past, the future – at the same time, as if it is all happening at once. We think of the present as the “now,” an indefinable length of time that is ever fleeting. But God does not lose our seemingly ephemeral past, and thus experiences it as the present, at once knowing everything and preordaining nothing.
This is what allows for free will and God’s absolute knowledge to coincide. Changes in the will of the individual are not necessarily foreseen, but are known as if they had always been and continue to be. In this sense, God’s knowledge must be absolute, for he knows when will operates freely as it happens, and it all happens at once. By removing time from the equation, we remove the fallibility of God so described earlier in the discussion of free will. We also remove the inescapable necessity of foreknowledge. Without the “fore,” the knowledge “can not be held to be a cause and therefore free will is not shackled by foreknowledge”.
Boethius’ only mistake is that he leaves the “fore,” but it is understandable why he does that; he is human, and human as such can not comprehend knowledge of all eternity without conceiving of God existing “first”. But nonetheless he is now ready to accept that free will and God’s absolute knowledge can exist together without contradiction – in God’s eternal presence.
The God’s eye view is one of pure objectivity, beyond being itself. Every moment happens for God at the same time, so that when we make a decision, God knows it as it happens. While it is impossible for humans to really grasp what this would mean, literary explorations into time travel can give us a microcosmic glimpse.
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the paradox of the Time Turner is that although Harry and Hermione have the free will to make their own decisions at every point in the narrative, nothing really changes when they go back in time – the plot unfolds as if it had always been set that way. Even when they think they’re changing things, they’re not. There was no time when things did not happens as they knew them, even before they went back, for it was all happening at once. The only difference was that they knew how it all connected in a more than human way – where both subjective views of the timeline were utterly free, and yet connected into a moment of simultaneous presence wherein Harry and Hermione knew what was happening as it happened.
It is this notion of the eternal present which consoles Boethius, for as he says in The Consolation:
…if these things be looked at from the point of view of God’s insight, they come to pass of necessity under the condition of divine knowledge; if on the other hand, they are viewed by themselves, they do not lose the perfect freedom of their nature.
Another great example is “Blink“, from Season Three of the Russell T. Davies reboot of Doctor Who, written by Steven Moffat (who is truly excellent as an episode writer, but should never have been put in charge). While characters travel back in time and act of their own free will, there is yet one central narrative that remains numerically singular. I’d explain it further, but I think it’s best to defer to The Doctor himself.
Of course, Boethius’ God does not need to travel in time, but instead views it all at once in a way that we cannot. God sees all things as we might view a person walking slowly on the horizon against the rising sun, the two appearing to be moving at the same speed in a shared moment (loosely Book VI, though the reference refers not to time but to agency). It is thus that Boethius is consoled, reconciling his free will with an omnipotent God who sees all things as if they were not ephemeral, but eternally present.
Literary Time Consciousness will pick up again next Wednesday and next week’s Philosopher Fridays will continue the timey-wimey fun with another philosopher’s take on the matter of time, experience, and temporal narrative.