The Antimony Of Our Conception Of Time





A few examples may serve to make the point clear. The first of the

antinomies is also the most impressive. It brings before us the

insufficiency of our conceptions of time, and shows the impossibility of

transferring, from the world as it appears to us, to real Being any mode

of conceiving time which we possess. The difficulty is, whether we are to

think of our world as having had a beginning or not. The naive outlook

will at once assume without further ado a beginning of all things.

Everything must have had a beginning, though that may have been a very

long time ago. But on more careful reflection it is found impossible to

imagine this, and then the assumption that things had no beginning is made

with as little scruple. Let us suppose that the beginning of things was

six thousand, or, what is quite as easy, six thousand billion years ago.

We are at once led to ask what there was the year before or many years

before, and what there was before that again, and so on until we face the

infinite and beginningless. Thus we find that we have never really thought

of a beginning of things, and never could think of it, but that our

thinking always carries us into the infinite. Time, at any rate, we have

thought of as infinite. We may then amuse ourselves by trying to conceive

of endless time as empty, but we shall hardly be able to give any reason

for arriving at that idea. If time goes back to infinity, it seems

difficult to see why it should not always have been filled, instead of

only being so filled from some arbitrary point. And in any case the very

fact of the existence of time makes the problem of beginning or not

beginning insoluble. For such reasons Aristotle asserted that the world

had no beginning, and rejected the contrary idea as childish.



But the idea of no beginning is also childish or rather impossible, and in

reality inconceivable. For if it be assumed that the world and time have

never had a beginning, there stretches back from the time at which I now

find myself a past eternity. It must have passed completely as a whole,

for otherwise this particular point in time could never have been arrived

at. So that I must think of an infinity which nevertheless comes to an

end. I cannot do this. It would be like wooden iron.



The matter sounds simple but is nevertheless difficult in its

consequences. It confronts us at once with the fact, confirmed by the

theory of knowledge, that time as we know it is an absolutely necessary

and fundamental form of our conceptions and knowledge, but is likewise the

veil over what is concealed, and cannot be carried over in the same form

into the true nature of things. As the limits and contradictions in the

time-conception reveal themselves to us, there wakes in us the idea which

we accept as the analogue of time in true being, an idea of existence

under the form of "eternity," which, since we are tied down to temporal

concepts, cannot be expressed or even thought of with any content.(2)





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