Explain Augustine’s temporal paradox

Last Updated: 20 Apr 2022
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Augustine’s temporal paradox can be explained by starting with our typical beliefs about time, to wit: the past does not exist, the future is yet to exist and only the present actually exists.  However the actual existence of the present has no duration because it immediately becomes the past or the future the moment we try to isolate it. In the words of St. Augustine, “The present hath no space”.  The temporal paradox refers to the existence only of the present which however does not have a “duration”.

Following this temporal paradox and Augustine treated time in ontological terms, i.e. in relation to the nature of being and existence.  We derive the notion of time by perceiving something that has passed, something that exists and something that will exist in the future.  Time is embodied and manifested through the duration of things that come into being to the present that passed away in an incessant continuum of past and future.  Consequently, material things move from none existence to existence to non existence (past, present and future).

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The perpetuation of the time continuum entails that “the mind expects, and attends, and remembers, so that what it expects passes by way of what it attends to into what it remembers.” (Augustine, 2002, p236) What the mind expects is the future, what is remembers is the past and what it attends to at the moment is the present, which is what exists.  Attending to the present does not refer to our location or inhabitance in this time continuum but one’s capturing of the immediate past in the memory. This is precisely because the present has no duration or no space and it is only through memory that we can attend to it.

For St. Augustine, even “time” is created by God and therefore he is beyond the continuum of the time series to which people and all other things are bound.  God is in a state of "Eternal Now”, where the present, past and future are at all once.  However, while St. Augustine’s idea of time is very revolutionary, it nevertheless has critical repercussions that run inconsistent which Christian principles which he originally wanted to justify and defend.

With the past and future all happening in the present for God, people therefore are already predestined to what will happen to them. People were not really given the gift of choice or freewill but are doomed to end up to how God have designed their world. What seemed to be a series of choices for people in this space of time is actually a finished or done design for God.  (Von Martelsand Schmidt, V, 2003, p79-102)

2-Imagine that Russell and Berkeley are sitting across from each other at table. Write a short dialogue (about 500 words) that captures each philosopher’s views with respect to the ontological status of the table. Be sure to bring out areas of agreement and disagreement

In order to appreciate Bishop Berkeley, one must first fully understand that ontology focuses on the nature of essence and meaning of being. Berkeley is a major proponent of subjective idealism in which ultimately argues that the world including all the material objects are not real but are mere collections of perceptions of human experience, which is what is real.  It highlights that significance of mind before matter and the preordained connection of mind and body.

Thinking is function that people constantly do, consciously, unconsciously or subconsciously in relating to their environment.  The mind is essential to be considered in understanding the nature of the universe because everything entailed the consciousness of the mind.  Thus, the universe is the product of the mind. (Bourgeois, 2003, 162-163)

Berkeley will not deny that the table being observed is definitely real but it needs to be subjected to one’s consciousness before we know it is real.  Moreover, the real essence of the table or that which makes a table what it is resides in the “idea” of the table which is in the mind of God.  It does not rest on the “physical table” which we perceived because our experiences of the table vary.  While we see the table is brown, solid and smooth, our experience of the brownness, solidness or smoothness of the table differs. There is a disparity between what at we perceive” and “what is real”.

Russell agrees with Berkeley’s idea that the act of perception is dependent on the mind but the mind is only the mental functioning of the brain hence, the perceptions therefore do not actually exist in the mind.  We only get to have a mental idea of what a table is through our perception of the physical table.  Perception is the prime source of knowledge (Engel, S., 2001, p 250-260).

Knowledge is mainly based on the acquisition, interpretation, selection and organization of information what we perceive.  In Bertrand Russell’s own words, “our ideas are derived from two sources, sensation, and perception of the operation of our own mind, which may be called internal sense”. (Russell, 2004, p556) Hence, we form our idea of table from the perception.

This approximation of what reality through our senses, despite differences in the intensity of what brownness, solidness and smoothness of the table is real knowledge we can establish by observation and generalization. Incidentally, this is the underlying philosophy of science. In the end, we gain our knowledge about the “table” not from an innate idea of a table but through an observation of the table.

We know that a table is brown, solid and smooth, irregardless of the intensity of these descriptions from different people. “Perception is the first step and degree towards knowledge and the inlet of all the materials in it”. (Russel, 2004, p556) And that is what is real regardless of the ideal table that we can conceive.


Augustine and Outler, A. (2002). The Confessions of St. Augustine. Translated by Albert Cook Outler. Courier Dover Publications

Bourgeois, W. (2003). Persons: What Philosophers Say about You. 2nd edition. Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press.

Engel, S. (2001). The Study of Philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield,

Russell, B. (2004). History of Western Philosophy. 2nd edition. Routledge

Von Martels, Z. R. W. M. and Schmidt, VM. Antiquity Renewed: Late Classical and Early Modern Themes. PREDESTINATION AND THE LOSS OF DRAMA FROM AUGUSTINE TO CALVIN by MB Pranger. Peeters Publishers


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