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Living in the Mutable: Of Time and Eternity

August 14, AD2017

clock, time

Pope St. John Paul II begins the encyclical Fides et Ratio with the admonition “Know Yourself”. Most apparently, we are material creatures and as such are mutable. We change. Change is time. In contrast, God is immutable, eternally so. He does not change. This essay is a meditation on time, on our nature as material beings.

One of the difficulties in our understanding of time is that we misconstrue it as external to us. We think of it as a milieu in which we exist, much like a trout lives in a stream of passing water. Rather, time is a quality. It is the condition of our mutability. Another difficulty arises. We think of time as quantity, when it is fundamentally a quality. A third difficulty is that time qualifies our every experience, so we can say little more of eternity then that it is nothing of which we have any direct knowledge.

Time is Not External to Us

Time is the condition of mutability. Because of the limited nature of our being, we are subject to change and are changing. Change is time. It is we, ourselves, who are changing and thereby, experiencing existence as time.

In contrast, God Is. He is immutable and therefore, his existence is in no sense temporal. The difficulty we have in understanding God as immutable, i.e. eternal, arises from the fact that without changing, we would have no experience at all. We would be dead. Our experience of existence is the experience of becoming. It is experiencing time. Consequently, we have difficulty in comprehending how not becoming can be perfection. Yet, becoming implies an unachieved perfection, a goal. Becoming and achieving goals is our natural existence. However, these goals are limited, just as our human nature limits our existence to an existence of mutability.

In order to be, we must become. This is indicative of an inherent imperfection in our being. It is an imperfection, a limitation, of being human. Only through the plan of God to raise us to a state of supernatural grace can our goal be not to change, to live in the grace of God in heaven. We begin sharing in the supernatural grace of God at Baptism but achieve an immutable share in his divine life through perseverance to death. Grace is of the supernatural order and is not within our experience in this life (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2005). Our experience is that of mutability, i.e. of time.

Quantifying Time

Although time is a quality, we constantly and conscientiously think of it as a quantity. Why do we think of time as a quantity? The direct answer is in the cliché, “Call me anything, but don’t call me late to dinner.” We want to coordinate one motion with another.

How do we quantify time, the quality of being subject to change? Change most apparent to us is local motion. We quantify time by comparing one local motion to another.

The lab instructor asked the student for the flow rate of his chromatographic column. In reply, the student said, “Drip, drip, drip.” His answer was correct. It quantified volume as a drip and his cadence as time. The problem with his quantification of time is that it is impossible to use his unique cadence as a common standard, even within a single laboratory class. For the sake of utility, the choice of a standard of motion must be commonly acceptable and available. The current standard is based on an atomic cycle. A prior standard was based on the diurnal cycle of the earth.

The quantification of time is a human mental concept. It is the mental comparison of a motion, or series of motions of interest, expressed as a number of cycles of a motion chosen as a standard.

A serious problem arises when we think of time fundamentally as a quantity, external to the motions or changes which are of interest to us, as well as those which we experience. It is as if change occurred within the milieu of externally existing quantitative time. This was the error of Zeno, who proved that motion was an illusion based on the fact that time is a divisible quantity. He denied the reality of motion. He claimed that motion would require a contradiction, namely an infinite sum of finite increments. The reality of change was obscured by his failure to recognize that quantitative time is not a reality, but a human idea, the mental comparison of one motion to another.

Our Sole Experience

Our sole experience is mutability. Mutability qualifies all that we experience. Yet, we do not exist ‘in time’. Time is the quality of a being, whose ontological status is becoming. We err in thinking that time is a milieu within which we exist, a milieu which is passing by. We become hopelessly confused when we think of time as a quantified milieu, rather than as an ontological state.

We cannot conceive of immutability because we are mutable. To us, because of our limited experience and understanding, the immutability of God is simply the negation of the mutability which we experience.

It is only through revelation that we know that God has destined us for a bump up in ontological status, which is a share in his immutable nature through sanctifying grace, fulfilled in heaven. On earth, we exist in a present and a now that has no quantity. It is always the present. It is we who change along with all other material things. We are not observers, immersed in a milieu of passing time. In contrast, God is immutable in being and essence. His existence is unchanging subsistence.

In his recent three part series on time, Jimmy Akin quotes St. John Paul II: “In this sense God is eternal: a ‘Now’, a ‘Present’, subsisting and unchanging. This mode of being is essentially distinguished from that of creatures, which are ‘contingent’ beings.”

As contingent beings our now and present subsist as change. Immutability/mutability is a topic in ontology. Mutability refers to our being and essence, not to a property external to our being and essence, or worse still, to something external and quantified, which thing we call time.

Conclusion

We fail to understand time (i.e. mutability) if we explain it as a quantitative milieu within which we are observers and to which God is an outside observer whose span of observation is the entire quantity of time as a whole. Although the human, mental activity of quantitatively comparing motions to a standard of motion, is an indispensable utility for coordinating human activity, quantitative time is merely that, a human thought, a human activity, and not an ontological reality.

Time as a quantity is a human thought. Time, in the context of being and essence, is a quality, that of mutability.

Mutability and immutability are not related quantitatively. They are not less and more of being. Rather, they differ in kind of being, as created and uncreated. In spite of connotation and our love of quantification, employing the nomenclature of ‘time and eternity’ does not render the relationship of mutability and immutability one of quantity.

Time, as the comparison of one motion to another, is notional quantification. In contrast, the common view is that time is ontologically quantified. The common view is apparent in Trent Horn’s argument that past time must be finite (Answering Atheism, p. 226-227) and in Jimmy Akin’s counting moments of time as 12:01am, 12:02am, etc. It is also apparent in Zeno of Elia’s argument that motion is an illusion. Their arguments are based on the quantitative analysis of that which is essentially qualitative. I would have to concur with the arguments of these three gentlemen, if time, i.e. mutability, were ontologically quantified, rather than notionally quantifiable.

Examples: “Two kittens” has meaning because it refers to those which are ontologically quantified. In contrast, “I’ll be there in two seconds” has meaning because of our mental ability to compare one motion with another, quantitatively. In other words, the human mental comparison of motions, as time, is notional quantification. Ontological time, which is the condition of mutability, is not quantified. It is a quality.

Our current experience of reality is of a non-quantified, but qualitatively mutable, now. We will have no satisfactory understanding of eternity until we experience immutability in the grace of God in heaven. Kevin Aldrich recently quoted Pope Benedict XII’s definition of heaven, perhaps the most beautiful and lucid expression of immutability, an inkling of understanding in our mutable condition.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Bob Drury is retired. He has been fascinated with the reasonableness of the Faith since his junior year in high school in the mid-20th century for which the religion text was entitled, "Faith and Reason". That fascination has continued throughout his education in philosophy, math and science. In his essays he hopes to share that fascination with others. Read more at his website, They Have No Wine.

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  • Guy McClung

    Bob-Well said, thank you. “Time is the condition of mutability” – it is that in which we are free to change, and free to exercise our own free will to determine how we choose to live eternity. In eternity, when time is no more, we will be locked in-locked in by the free choices we make “in time.” now. Guy McClung, Texas

  • Mark McCann

    Fascinating essay, Bob. How would you answer the one who says that in heaven all we’ll do is sit around, play the harp and be bored (since we will be done with change, so to speak)? I like how you break down the ideas and then go through them one by one, while keeping to your main point. I still hope I get to run around and play and eat and write and experience new things in heaven…we’ll see what God has in store…in time we will! (){:o)

    • I really enjoyed your final pun. All we can say is ‘in time we will’, even though in time we won’t. Anyway, I would say that in heaven we will be ‘in act’ rather than the much inferior state of being ‘in action’. I am in awe of the definition of heaven by Pope Benedict XII (1336) quoted by Kevin Aldrich in his latest post to CatholicStand.