Thinking without time (pt. 1)

The first objection that Michael Martin raises to an immortal soul living in a heavenly afterlife is:

It is difficult enough to imagine even in a rough way what disembodied existence would be like in time and space. How would a soul move from place to place? How would it recognize other souls? What would disembodied souls do all day long since presumably there would be no need to sleep? The problem becomes insuperable when it is combined with idea that Heaven is outside of space and time. All of our mental concepts–for instance, thinking, willing, desiring–are temporal notions that take time to perform and take place at some particular time. Nontemporal thinking and desiring are inconceivable. Yet on this variant, souls think and desire nontemporally.

Notice that while Martin does not immediately discount the idea of a separated soul in space, he sees it as immediately incoherent for a soul to exist outside of time. Joseph Ratzinger (of all people) makes a related point in his Eschatology, where he denies that the person at death can be entirely drawn up into an eternal existence. Heidegger develops this point at much greater length (though apart from a consideration of an afterlife) by arguing that being cannot show itself to Dasein except as restricted to a temporal horizon.

We get a powerful support for this view from the way we articulate our thoughts. There doesn’t seem to be any complete thought without a finite verb, and every such verb must bring a time signification along with it. Heaven, it seems, is either an eternity spent saying “oooo… God!” or “ahhhh… Angels” or the attainment of articulate truth without predication, in which case its hard to know what we mean. The first possibility might be worth following up on (the idea that pure vision is the perfection of thought), but even then we visualize the process as ongoing and so in some way temporal.

But while we have no experience of a truth without time reference, we do have an experience of knowledge without predication, and knowledge without belief. If we take what rose means as an object, it is an object we can say we know, but not one we say we believe. But it would be more to the point to notice that the simple aspect of a present tense verb does not need to indicate limitation to a present moment in time, but can indicate an awareness we have of transcending the limitation to any one moment in time. Go back to the word means in I know what rose means. The word “means” is not a present tense to the exclusion of other times. The verb more indicates a state that persists or endures as opposed to indicating something that is limited to a present time. Latin and Greek use the past imperfect to indicate the same thing. So it looks like a closer look at verbs allows us to distinguish a temporal reference that indicates limitation to some time from one that indicates a transcendence of that limitation.

In fact, the same thing seems to follow from our ability to speak of time at all. We can visualize time as a line, that is, as static. Even if we need a temporal reference in every sentence, we still see the time we need as “beneath us” as though we stand above the past, present, and future like a mystic eye that can place events in any one of these locations. We have a particularly striking instance of this in the doctrine of determinism. Whether determinism is true or not, our very ability to conceive of its possibility requires that it be meaningful for use to see any moment as a nexus containing all actual and possible events.

And so we might give a coherent account of the soul’s knowledge in separation by preserving time to far as mind transcends time, and not so far as it is limited to it, which we can distinguish through a consideration of how verbs can speak of limitation or transcendence of time.



  1. January 18, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    Human intellection involves a component without time because human intellects are in part immaterial.

  2. Friar said,

    January 23, 2012 at 11:38 pm

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