Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Fallacy of Misplaced Temporality in Western Philosophy, Natural Science, and Theistic Religion

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Fallacy of Misplaced Temporality in Western Philosophy, Natural Science, and Theistic Religion

Article excerpt


On the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome, Michelangelo (1475-1564) painted his famous The Creation of Adam. This is his interpretation of the scene of the Creator, Lord God, giving life to Adam. Focusing on the hands of Adam and God, however, we may note that God's index finger is fixed and firm (a mode or identification of constancy) about to touch Adam's fingers that are bending and unsteady--reaching to the heavens (a mode or identification of change) so that they almost touch God's index finger. As if moving away on purpose from the literal depiction of the scene described in the Bible, (1) Michelangelo suggests both figures reach to the other in different ways. But, can Adam (emblematic of all creation) ever receive God's transcending and immutable touch? Is there a rational relation between God's transcending immutability and the dynamic character of the physical universe? This is one of the most challenging and important questions in the dialogue between Western philosophy (and, derivatively, natural science) and theistic religion. Without a solution to the underlying problem of constancy and change as diametrically opposed aspects of true time, the relation of God to our physical universe remains irrational.

To be sure, the notions of change and constancy alternatingly have had something of a pivotal position within the logical geography of ancient Greek philosophical thinking about the nature of time and reality. This pivotal position not only speaks for the different modes or identifications of change and constancy in ancient Greek philosophy, but the two great Greek themes of change and constancy are so basic that they emerge throughout philosophy. Earlier concerns about change and constancy took on their full form as two sharply differing accounts of time within the boundaries of a Heraclitean metaphysic of becoming and a Parmenidean metaphysic of being. In a key sense, Heraclitus' metaphysics was the exact reverse of Parmenides' metaphysics. In the Heraclitean metaphysic of becoming, Heraclitus held that change (or motion, a type of change) was the only reality. On the other hand, in the Parmenidean metaphysic of being, Parmenides held that the whole of reality consisted of a single unchanging (or unmoving) substance. (2)

For the metaphysical heirs of Heraclitus and Parmenides philosophy could never be the same, since most major philosophers felt that one had to take into account such antagonistic views of time. Plato, for example, first brought together in a systematic way the ancient distinction between constancy (principally a Parmenidean influence) and change (principally a Heraclitean influence) and defined the work of philosophy ever since. And, in modern times, Alfred North Whitehead generally characterized the whole of Western philosophical tradition as nothing but a series of footnotes to Plato. (3) Thus, the bifurcation of time was to leave its mark upon the whole body of ancient Greek philosophy, and through Plato, (4) upon the whole of Western philosophy. (5)

Accordingly, the whole of Western philosophy and (derivatively) natural science have been haunted by a contradictory conception of time: time has been thought of and articulated as essentially transitory, while at the same time (and in the same sense) assumed to stand still (apart from the world of temporal items and happenings). In the extreme, this bifurcation of time (and/or corresponding bifurcation of knowledge) has led some to commit the fallacy of misplaced temporality, which privileges one aspect of time (the static or dynamic) over another. In its most damaging form, the fallacy dismisses essential aspects of true time by quietly disposing of constancy (labeling it as timeless) and/or quietly disposing of change (labeling it as lower/subjective or unreal).

This problem arises in force when the context is shifted from philosophy to theistic religion. (6) A case in point is the Judeo-Christian tradition that sees God as active within the historical process which, in consequence, represents not only a causal but also a purposive order, but locates God outside of time (7)--entirely external to the perishable (or lower) realm (8) of change and process. …

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