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Stephen Hawking and St. Augustine

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking points out that in the structure of contemporary physics, time doesn’t exist apart from or prior to the existence of the universe, so God wouldn’t have had any time in which to create the universe. So, how did we get here? According to Hawking, the universe just came into being all by itself. There was no God creating it.

It’s interesting to note that St Augustine, who also thought deeply about the nature of time, came to something very like the same conclusion about time and creation. Of course, St. Augustine believed there was a God — “almighty God, the all-creating and all-sustaining, the architect of heaven and earth. ” Or, to quote him directly, deum omnipotentem et omnicreantem et omnitenentem, caeli et terrae artificem.  (Writers in St Augustine’s day didn’t impose capital letters on God, the lower case deum [god] was good enough for Augustine.)

St. Augustine

Saint Augustine

While reading Augustine’s passages on time you get the distinct impression that this extremely sophisticated man is being driven crazy trying to figure out exactly what the nature of time is. (Indeed, he looks pretty sullen in that portrait to the right.) The past, as he notes, doesn’t exist, the future hasn’t even come into being, and the present is continuously vanishing into the non-existent past while advancing on the not yet existent future.

In Book Eleven of the Confessions, Augustine wrestles with the problem of time and has what amounts to  a dialog with his God, saying “For thou madest that very tine itself and periods could not pass by before thou madest the whole temporal procession. But if there was no time before heaven and hearth, how, then, can it be asked, “What wast thou doing then?” For there was no “then” when there was not time.”

And, as he says more pointedly in Chapter XIV of Book Eleven, “There was no time, therefore, when thou hadst not made anything, because thou hadst made time itself.”  The Latin is Nullo ergo tempore non feceras aliquid, quia ipsum tempus tu feceras.  And if we avoid the intimate forms, which are so unusual in English, we can translate that as Therefore, there was no time before you made anything, because you made time itself. In other words, God creates time and everything else. And for Augustine, there’s no paradox here at all. Augustine’s God is not bound within by the rules that fence us mortals.

Isaac Newton’s conception of time was much like St. Augustine’s.  Newton saw time as distinct from all things. “Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equable without relation to anything external, ” he said. Most of us live in Newton’s universe, not Einstein’s.  We instinctively envision space undistorted by gravitational forces and we imagine time passing whether or not there’s anything with which measure it.  Einstein himself, though he was able to envision time and space as inseparable and was able to discover relativism where earlier generations had been certain of absolutes, found himself baffled by the discoveries of a younger generation of physicists.  He wasn’t able to accept the fundamental uncertainties and probabilities of the universe as described by quantum mechanics.  Einstein said many times, and with slight variations, “God doesn’t play dice with the world.”  The critics at Critical Pages sure don’t know.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.