Dualisms and Deism The Significance of the Concept of Absolute Time

Whenever one speaks of Newton's accomplishments, the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope is often quoted:

Nature and nature's law lay hid in night.

God said: "Let Newton be," and all was light.110

The rendering of Pope's words at this point is more justified as an expression of contemporary scientific optimism than as evidence of the illuminating insights of Newton for our questions regarding time. It is reflective of the enthusiasm for the simplicity, coherence, and functionality of the mechanical system. Newton succeeded in uniting earthly and heavenly mathematics. For two events, it seemed that one could make an objective decision regarding whether they are absolutely simultaneous and occur at the same location. Nature was embedded in the uniform flow of absolute time and not vice versa; time was therefore not understood as a dimension of nature. The proof of the universality of gravitation allowed nature to appear as a homogeneous whole. The vertical dualism of heaven and earth and the polarization of time and eternity thus lost their footing.

With regard to time, one should note that Newton indeed distinguishes between absolute and relative time; however, the concept of space dominates his later discussion. Time is treated analogously to space and not vice versa. God's standing as the guarantor of absolute space appears to exceed God's significance as the basis of absolute time. Evidently, the image of a God whose principal predicates are power, ultimate cause, and providence is well-suited to absolute concepts.

Newtonian science has been oriented toward the ideal of uniformity and symmetry and is basically more space-oriented than time-oriented. Both the study of hymns and the account of biblical findings (chapters 1 and 2) showed, in contrast, that Christian theology is more time-oriented than space-oriented.111 An increasing interest in space was clearly manifested only in the most recent hymns, which suggests the conclusion that the interest in space grew when the traditional time-eternity model declined.112 This change seems to go hand in hand with a shift of emphasis from the notion of the impending Last Judgment to the call to realize the reign of God here and now.

Space-oriented classical science and time-oriented classical Christianity—it is entirely possible that this opposing relationship, which has hardly been considered until now, has contributed to the conflict-laden aspects of the history of the dialogue between science and theology; and it is just as possible that a greater time orientation of science and a more conscious space orientation of theology during the twentieth century have favorably influenced the preconditions for this dialogue.

Leibniz's relationally oriented concept of time does not mean that Leibniz had a more relational concept of God than Newton did. Instead, the re verse is true. While Newton's concept of divine power is expressly linked to a relation—God is always the Lord over servants113—in Leibniz, God is "determined by internal reasons";114 God's wisdom is absolute. The taming of omnipotence by divine wisdom does indeed help Leibniz to get beyond Clarke's problem of the relationship of space/time and omnipresence/eternity with its aporia of the identification of God with absolute space and absolute time. But within his system, he is unsuccessful in conclusively conceiving of God's preservational activity, for the wisdom that is being expressed in the preestablished harmony not only makes a continuous preservation activity unnecessary, but it also renders any divine intervention at all problematic. Leibniz is in danger of contrasting a self-functioning world mechanism with an otherworldly God, while Clarke runs the risk of integrating an omnipotent God into a closed system.

In both Clarke and Leibniz, God is necessary for understanding space and time, as well as for comprehending the world. Both apportion to God the position of logical guarantor for the rationality of the world mechanism. Proof of this necessary God is thus also derived from the world's coherence, which brings God into a relationship of dependency with far-reaching consequences, although this certainly had not been intended. What still appears to be a valid mental construction on the horizon of the dawning eighteenth century is soon transformed into a pile of rubble: The God who is the necessary foundation of everything becomes a God who is constantly retreating and for whom smaller and smaller gaps remain within what is not yet explicable by the laws of nature. The modern theological discussion of the "more than necessary" God should be understood as a counterpart to this development. It claims that God cannot be proven to be the sufficient ground of being on the basis of the world's coherence; God always comes from Godself.115

The thoughts expressed here leave no doubt that, in Newton/Clarke and Leibniz, theology and physics have mutually influenced each other. I believe a decision cannot be made as to whether one can assign greater influence to theology or physics in specific cases. It remains to be emphasized that the distinctions worked out in the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence developed into a dualism not only between time and space and between absolute and relative, but also between space/time and matter and, finally, between God and the world. In my view, the theistic concept of a God who is absolute and static in divine majesty contributed to this process.116 How would it have been if Newton had included—if not an elaborated doctrine of the Trinity—then at least a Christology? If it can be reasonably assumed that Newton did not intend a development toward a "God of the gaps," would the result have been different if he had included Christology? What, for example, could the Incarnation mean for absolute space and absolute time? How would the sentence in the General Scholium, "God suffers nothing from the motion of bodies; bodies find no resistance from the omnipresence of God,"117 read if the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ had also been considered? These are certainly speculative questions that cannot be answered at this point. They open a path to an insight that is important for our further study, however: One can speak dynamically and relationally of time and eternity only if one also starts from a dynamic and relational concept of God. The theistic concept of God proves to be unsuitable here.

Expressed somewhat differently: Newton's God has two determining features—divine absoluteness and divine preservational activity, including occasional correcting intervention in cosmic events that are generally determined by the laws of nature. Giving God's absolute power supreme importance, however, deprives the preservational work of its legitimacy; it must always accept the reproach of implying that God is an inferior clockmaker. Nothing essential would have changed in this regard, however, if Newton, like Leibniz, had elevated wisdom to the position of a superordinate concept, since this construction also does not bypass deism. Thus, the reason for the dead end of deism should be sought less in the concept of absolute or relative time than in the absoluteness of the theistic concept of God, which effectively suppresses the idea of true relationality.

As might be expected, further development did not go in the direction of relationality of time and eternity.118 On the contrary, the philosopher who took up both Newton's and Leibniz's thoughts and who was also familiar with Reflexions sur I'espace et le temps by the mathematician Leonhard Euler did much to increase the separation of time from its relation to the idea of eternity.119 In Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), one finds, on the one hand, the same absoluteness in the concept of time as in Newton, with the crucial difference that in Kant, absoluteness turns "inward": Time is the subjective condition of all human ideas, "a necessary presentation that underlies all intuitions."120 For the sake of preserving God's transcendence, absoluteness befits time itself as a medium of God's effectiveness less than it befits the finite subject.121 On the other hand, the Kantian concept of time, particularly in its early stage, is also reminiscent of the type of ideality that one finds in Leibniz.122 Finally, however, Kant rejects the notion of a relative time in the sense of an ordering of things, for time is, first of all, not a condition of things in themselves; it is neither substance, nor attribute, nor relation, but instead, it is a form for intuition [Anschauungsform] to order the material of sensory perceptions. As such a form, it must "altogether lie ready for the sensations a priori in the mind."123 Within the framework of his transcendental aesthetics, Kant comes to the following conclusions with regard to time:

(a) Time is not something that is self-subsistent or that attaches to things as an objective determination, and that hence would remain if one abstracted from all subjective conditions of our intuition of it. For if time were self-subsistent, then it would be something that without there being an actual object, would yet be actual. But if, on the second alternative, time were a determination or order attaching to things themselves, then it could not precede the objects as their condition. . . .

(b) Time is nothing but the form of inner senses i.e., the intuiting we do of ourselves and our inner state. For time cannot be a determination of outer appearances . . . but rather determines the relation of presentations in our inner state. And, precisely because this inner intuition gives us no shape, do we try to make up for this deficiency by means of analogies. We present time sequence by a line continuing ad infinitum, a line in which the manifold constitutes a series of only one dimension. And from the properties of that line we infer all the properties of time . . .

c) Time is the formal a priori condition of all appearances ... [I]t is the direct condition of inner appearances (of our souls) and precisely thereby also indirectly, a condition of the outer appearances.124

Thus, the unity of time is ensured by the unity of the self, which leads "to the contradictory 'idea' of a finiteness that posits itself as absolute."125

The lines of thought of Newton and Leibniz can also be recognized in Kant's double description that "time is empirically real i.e., objectively valid in regard to all objects that might ever be given to our senses," and of "the transcendental ideality of time. According to this view, if we abstract from the subjective conditions of sensible intuition, then time is nothing, and cannot be included among objects in themselves . . . either as subsisting [as such an object] or as inhering [in one]."126

Kant's concentration on the role of the self for the unity of time, as well as his description in terms of reality and ideality, is oriented more toward the static and the constant than it is toward a description of change and dynamics. Time remains the invariable and the permanent.127 In this sense, Newton's absolute, reversible concept of time has prevailed. Seeking to discover how dynamics and time asymetry are to be conceived, I will now turn to twentieth-century physics.

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