Wisdom’s Paradox

17 Timeless Wisdom

Adam M. Willows

In this chapter, I will discuss the nature of time. I would like to begin by making three claims that I will rely on in my argument but do not intend to defend at length.[1] The first, I assume, will receive general agreement: that rational thought is required for at least some kinds of wisdom.[2] I might claim it is always required, but that is not what I am doing here. Nor do I claim that it is the only thing needed for wisdom. Think of rationality as a match to wisdom’s fire; you do not need a match to start a fire, and it is not enough on its own, but there are particular ways of lighting a fire that do not work if you leave out the match.

My second claim is that you cannot be rational if you do not have free will. I am deliberately leaving the definition of “free will” a little loose here, simply because I think my argument holds for either compatibilists or libertarians. To sketch out that argument: rationality (and intentionality) are essentially deliberative; deliberation requires choice, and choice requires free will. From 1 and 2, I conclude that free will is required for the exercise of at least some kinds of wisdom.

Lastly, claim 3. If any of my three claims raises eyebrows I think it will be this one, because it is certainly the focus of active debate. It is that consciousness is irreducible. By this, I mean that it is not possible to provide a complete or satisfactory account of consciousness by providing a complete account of its constituent parts, or any particular conjunction of events, because it is more than the sum of those things. Consciousness may or may not arise, or be emergent, from those parts or events; that is a different question. Regardless, it is not itself reducible to those parts. It may be that consciousness is a biological phenomenon caused by lots of “building blocks” like different brain states, etc., but it is not itself made up of those “building blocks”—it is a unified state.

I will begin the main part of my discussion with a few examples of how we talk about time. Here is one set: “I did that last week”; “Today is my wedding day”; “She is starting school next year.” And here is another: “I was born in 1973”; “The meal did not come until an hour after we ordered”; “The commemoration will be held on the 500th anniversary of the battle.”  There are two fundamentally different ways of organizing temporal relations operating in these examples. The first set is organized according to the past, present, and future. It describes one fixed point in time and a particular property/relation that point has—either past, present, or future. In the philosophy of time, this set, the past/present/future set, is called an “A-series.” The second set is organized according to whether something is earlier or later than some other point in time. This kind of ordering of time is called a “B-series.”

Notably, A-series relations are always changing. Today is not always my wedding day. At the moment, 2019 is next year. Soon it will be this year; in 2020, it will be last year. On the other hand, B-series temporal relations are fixed. I am always born in 1973; no matter when you are, the ordering of the meal precedes its arrival by one hour. In sum, A-series relations are about past, present, and future; B-series are about “earlier” or “later.” There is an ongoing debate about whether one or both of these are actually part of time, or only part of our experience of time. One group, the “A-theorists,” argues that both series are part of time, independently of us, and our ordering of events into earlier or later depends on the existence of past, present, and future. The “B-theorists” argue that only B-series relations are objective; past, present, and future are features of our perception of time, not of time itself. The argument is an argument over the question, “does time pass?” A-theorists say yes; B-theorists say no. What I want to do here is to look at one of the consequences of the A-theorists’ position.

A-theorists are committed to the proposition that past, present, and future are real features of time: there must, then, be something different about them. Why is the present different from the past and the future? In my view, it is not sufficient to say something similar to “the past has already happened and the future has not happened yet,” because that amounts to saying “the past is the past.” Since we are talking about how to distinguish temporal relations, it is important to make that distinction without reference to the temporal relations themselves if our distinction is not to be circular. The answer typically given is that the present is the locus of causality; I refer to this as efficient causation. Most A-theorists are presentists, so to speak, meaning that they hold that only the present exists. The future is brought into being by the present and hence does not exist. The past is gone and does not exist either. This is a pretty typical view shared by, among others, St. Augustine: “If past and future events exist, I want to know where they are.”[3] A few subscribe to a “growing world” theory whereby the past continues to exist but in a causally inert fashion, meaning that reality accumulates as events move from future to past.[4]

In either case, the present is special. It is also difficult to explain, a fact noticed by Augustine over 1,600 years ago. In his discussion of time, Augustine asks how long, exactly, is the present? It seems as though it cannot be any length of time because any given length of time seems to allow for division. The present cannot be a day long, because the beginning of the day is in the past while the end is still in the future; equally, the present cannot be an hour long, or half an hour, and so on, down to the nanosecond. Augustine concludes:

If we can think of some bit of time that can be divided into even the smallest instantaneous moments, that alone is what we call the present. And this time flies so quickly from future into past that it is an interval with no duration.[5]

It would appear that there are two options, both of which Augustine mentions. Either we say that the present is the smallest possible unit of time (what actually is being undetermined); or, the present is durationless, a point of nothingness between past and future. Augustine’s response is to say that the present does not exist at all, and indeed that the past and the future do not exist either.

Following the A-theorists, however, the present does exist. But whichever of Augustine’s options we choose (smallest possible unit of time or no duration), the present does not last a very long time at all. To return to my earlier claims, if the A-theorists are right, then whatever the present is, it is far too brief for rational thought to occur; indeed, it seems far too brief for thought or action of any kind.[6] Perhaps this transience is not concerning; after all, each present causes the next in a chain of causation so that eventually we get movement and thinking, even if by the end of an action the cause that initiated the action no longer exists. To recall my third claim that consciousness is irreducible, this is not the kind of thing that consists of a group of constituent parts. If the A-theorist is right, then consciousness cannot exist because none of the states that produce it exist at the same time. At best, a growing world theorist might be able to claim that consciousness exists but is causally inert; it cannot do anything. But I take it that consciousness is required for all other things that we identify with a self, such as intentions, choice, and deliberation. Without consciousness, there is no choosing because there is no agent to choose; there is just a series of happenings.[7] There is no free will. And—recall my other claims—without free will there is no reasoning and at least some kinds of wisdom are not possible. Augustine does not make this precise point, but he does discuss the impact of time on the self:

I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storm of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you.[8]

In my view, then, if you are going talk about wisdom—at least, the fullness of wisdom—I think you have to be a B-theorist. Time does not, in and of itself, pass. Although we experience time passing, this is to do with our perception, rather than with the nature of time. By way of encouragement, I thought I would mention one or two areas of work in theology and anthropology that suggest that this view is, at least, worth taking seriously. First, work in anthropology and biology has shown that the language we speak appears to have a significant effect on the way we experience and conceptualize time. For example, Mandarin speakers tend to conceptualize time vertically, and English speakers think of time horizontally.[9] It also appears that external and internal factors like particular events or emotions can impact the way we experience duration.[10] I described the debate between the A- and B-theorists as a question about the passing of time. It is no coincidence that another way the debate is sometimes presented is as a disagreement between tensed and tenseless theories of time.[11] From my limited understanding of the scientific research, it is at least possible that the way our languages employ tense changes the way we experience tense. In other words, some of these things are an indication, perhaps, that this experience is subjective: a feature of human perception, not constitutive of time itself.

Theologians ought, I think, to at least be comfortable with the idea that time is not necessarily as we experience it, simply because tradition and scripture alike suggest that God’s experience of time is not the same as our own. During theologian Niels Gregersen’s keynote speech at the Human Distinctiveness – Wisdom’s Deep Evolution conference, we heard that wisdom is about being comfortable with the now of time and overcoming the flight of time. Gregersen also noted that only wisdom makes us superior to time and thus makes us free. I would agree with this assessment and provide one additional thought: only by being free from time (at least, the passage of time) can we be wise.[12]

Now I want to close this thought experiment by talking about why this might matter practically. In 2017, some members of our research team attended a symposium closely related to this project – Humility, Wisdom, and Grace in Deep Time. I suggest that when we engage in projects talking about “deep time,” the way we think about time matters. At the very least, this ought to encourage a perspective shift by making the reality of our evolutionary ancestors more apparent. Remember, A-theorists think that the past no longer exists or, at the very least, is causally inert. It is not “real” like the present. But the B-theorist disagrees. What we perceive as past is precisely as real as what we perceive as the present. It is just as true that the australopithicene Lucy fell out of a tree (or whatever killed her) as it is that I am presenting this chapter. We can see one of those and not the other, but that is our problem, not Lucy’s, and she does not deserve to be condemned to metaphysical irrelevance because of it. In conclusion, any theology, Christology, anthropology, or eschatology that ignores or has no place for our evolutionary ancestors is just as flawed as one that ignores or has no place for modern humans. I am not saying that our evolutionary ancestors necessarily have to have the same status as modern humans; but they have to have some status. As long as we have no account of that status our thought about humanity and creation is incomplete.

ADAM M. WILLOWS is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds working on the St. Andrews Theology and Science project. He works in philosophical theology, especially in ethics, philosophy of religion and metaphysics. His work emphasizes the potential for philosophical, theological and scientific traditions to interact, often to mutual benefit. He was also a Postdoctoral Research Associate on the Human Distinctiveness project at the University of Notre Dame.


[1] This chapter’s text was presented at the Evolution of Wisdom Conference, Notre Dame London Global Gateway in July 2017, and it represents an exploration of ideas in progress, rather than my complete or finished thought on the topic.
[2] By “rational thought,” I mean the ability to make logical inferences and draw conclusions that compel belief/assent.
[3] Augustine, Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), XI. xiii.
[4] See Ned Markosian, “Time,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, January 24, 2014.
[5] Augustine, Confessions, XI, xv.
[6] I am here following the argument of Robin Le Poidevin, “Time and Freedom,” in A Companion to the Philosophy of Time, edited by Adrian Bardon and Heather Dyke (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 535–48.
[7] For a more complete discussion of this subject, see John Searle, Rationality in Action (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
[8] Augustine, Confessions, XI, xxix.
[9] Orly Fuhrman et al., “How Linguistic and Cultural Forces Shape Conceptions of Time: English and Mandarin Time in 3D,” Cognitive Science 35.7 (September 2011): 1305–28.
[10] Heather Dyke and James MacLaurin, “Evolutionary Explanations of Temporal Experience,” in A Companion to the Philosophy of Time, edited by Adrian Bardon and Heather Dyke (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 521–34.
[11] A-theorists hold that time is tensed: past, present, and future exist independently of us. B-theorists hold that time is tenseless: past, present, and future are not part of time itself.
[12] It is interesting to note that in the Confessions, Augustine’s motivation for discussing time is his attempt to better understand the origins of creation. The passage immediately preceding the main section is about wisdom, which Augustine says is the Beginning (XI, ix).



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Timeless Wisdom by Adam M. Willows is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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