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Thinking in Opposites
An investigation of the nature of man
as revealed by the nature of thinking

by Paul Roubiczek

Part III:

Chapter 11


Paul Roubiczek

Section 1


The fact that those interconnected opposites which we are going to take as our examples—space and time, necessity and freedom, the One and the Many—belong, not to the reality which we apprehend, but to the working of our minds which apprehend it, has been proved by Kant so conclusively that there is no need to enter into this discussion again. It remains to be shown why we consider them as interconnected opposites. Kant's investigation, moreover, refers mainly to external reality, and so we also have to connect them with our distinction between the two realities. (See Chapter 2, note at end of Section 1.) We shall always investigate first how they appear to us in external reality and then proceed to internal reality, starting with the two concepts which Kant, too, considered as fundamental to all our knowledge—with 'space' and 'time'.

subsection (a)

Space and time in external reality

We have said that 'space' represents the fundamental concept by which we grasp external reality. This can be seen when we remember those concepts which can be derived directly from it, such as 'stone', 'tree', 'matter', because they refer only to space and not to time. It is true that, to understand external reality, we have to concentrate on events and to transform even objects into events; but we have show that this is done with the help of constructive concepts transferred from internal reality. (See Chapter 3, Section 2, paragraphs 8-10 and Chapter 3, Section 3, paragraph 2.) For 'time' is the basic concept of this reality.

Nevertheless, both space and time are needed when we want to know external reality; though it appears to us first in the form of space, we could not apprehend it without the conception of time. In fact it is only abstractions and not real objects which we can think of as purely spatial. The concept 'tree' may be timeless, but no real tree is, nor any stone, though it may withstand unchanged a very long span of time. Above all, however, there could be no knowledge of external reality at all without memory; we would live in a completely shapeless and impenetrable chaos if we were unable, after a lapse of time, to recognize the same objects again—if the sun, for instance, were something entirely new at every hour and every day. It is memory which introduces constancy as well as 'the repeatable' into external reality, thus enabling us to acquire reliable knowledge; therefore, although space represents the basic concept of this reality as it appears to us, we have to relate it to time in order to apprehend it. Space and time, while referring to the two different realities are nevertheless indissolubly interconnected, and thus both are needed for the grasping of external reality. They can never be disconnected; to test this, we need only try to leave out one of them and then think of events or of measuring space or time. (See Chapter 10, Section 2, paragraph 6.)

Their opposition becomes obvious when we try to define them. As they belong to those basic concepts which cannot be further explained, this attempt cannot altogether succeed, but we can make sure that we use the pure concepts. To do this, we have to consider them as opposites and to exclude one of them as completely as possible; we cannot but describe pure space as absolutely timeless, and pure time as absolutely spaceless. This shows that, without being aware of it, we really consider them as opposites, and our further investigation will show how fruitful it is to do so. At the same time, this attempt proves once more their indissoluble interconnection, for the very endeavor to concentrate entirely on one of these concepts automatically drags in the other.

The only way of overcoming their opposition is to look at them as infinite, for infinity is space and eternity in time can no longer be distinguished and thus they become identical. But this only confirms that we have to use them as opposites, for external reality simply disappears when we attempt this unification. We must remain in the realm of the finite and the temporal if we want to grasp this reality—that is, we cannot achieve their unity.

The idea of infinity in space and time throws more light on several particular points.

(1) It confirms Kant's teaching about these two concepts, for, though we have to remain in the sphere of the finite, we are bound to think of space and time as being infinite. This proves that they belong to the laws of thinking, for infinity cannot be found within the realm of our limited experience. Kant deduces from this that we must not base any metaphysical conclusions upon the nature of these concepts, because all laws of thinking acquire meaning only when they are applied. We shall show in a moment that they remain purely formal, which confirms this conclusion too. Their different appearance in internal reality does not affect this, for it leads on into the realm of value and not into that of external fact.

(2) Modern physics more and more excludes infinity. But this does not enable us to eliminate it; as soon as we consider the universe as limited, we have to think of it, as modern astronomy shows, as one among many, or we have to apply the opposites in such a way that they lead to mathematical formulae and not to understanding, which leaves our normal thinking unaffected. (See Chapter 5, Section 2, paragraphs 19-22.) That scientific results remain without influence upon these opposites can also be seen from the transformation of time into a fourth dimension; we have mentioned that thus, too, we transcend the realm of what can be understood and imagined without altering our experience of space and time. (See Chapter 5, Section 2, paragraph 23.) The progress of physics only shows that the sphere of our knowledge of external reality does not embrace even the whole of this reality; we can discover that there is something absolute behind it, we can tear single shreds of knowledge out of this absolute background, but we cannot possibly grasp and understand it. (See Chapter 7, Section 3, paragraph 38.) The renewed discussion of the nature of space and time in physics proves that we have to look for truth elsewhere, thus confirming the necessity for our inclusion of internal reality.

(3) The idea of infinity can help us to distinguish between constructive concepts and interconnected opposites. While the latter have always to be thought of as being infinite, (This may sound surprising when we think of the One and the Many, but it is true even there. This will be explained latter. See Chapter 11, Section 3, subsection (a) paragraphs 5-6.) the constructive concepts—such as form and content, or cause and effect—either cannot be thought of as infinite or become completely senseless if they are. To see an infinite God in a pantheistic way as a general kind of content or in a logical way as First Cause destroys any clear conception of God; constructive concepts cannot help us in approaching ultimate questions. Nor can any form be infinite, and though we may agree that effects of the same cause can go on infinitely producing further effects, the single effect, to be understood, must not be taken as something infinite or eternal.

The difference between the constructive concepts and the interconnected opposites is also seen in the fact that we usually have to apply both of them in combination, and this, in its turn, confirms once more that we can never exclude either space or time. For if we identify one of these concepts with one of these opposites, the other concept inevitably brings in the other opposite.

We can consider something spatial as form, but then the content will inevitably appear as something temporal. We can start, for instance, from the object and look at it as a form whose content has to be found; in this case we shall discover that this form has been produced by the movements of the atoms and molecules inside the objects or the movements and influence of other objects; the content will be represented by the forces which cause these movements and which can only be recognized by such temporal events. But we can also consider these temporal happenings as the form and set out to find their content, and then the content will be spatial, namely, the producing of a certain object or some other transformation of matter. In both these cases the causes are temporal and the effects spatial. Yet if we see the cause in terms of space such as the distance between objects and their size, the temporal becomes the effect, for we thus explain the force of gravity and the resulting movements. Even when considering a state of rest, we have to talk of latent energy.

In spite of their being indispensable, however, both space and time remain purely formal in external reality. We cannot grasp them directly nor prove their external existence; we grasp space with the help of objects and space as such can be imagined only as absence of objects, as emptiness; similarly, time is bound up with events and time as such can be imagined again only as absence of events. But this becomes entirely different when we look at internal reality.

Paul Roubiczek Paul Roubiczek Paul Roubiczek

subsection (b)

Space and time in internal reality

We have seen that, though internal reality is not confined to man, we can best start from man in an effort to grasp it, and that we first find within ourselves a constant flux of thinking, feeling and willing, all of which are activities proceeding in time. We cannot turn our attention to man without immediately becoming aware that time is the fundamental concept by which we grasp internal reality. No human action could ever be thought of without time, and even the most passive succumbing to a strong impression or overwhelming emotion represents an action of our mind. We may succeed in suppressing our willing and consciousness; but so long as we are alive we remain unable to eliminate time.

This close relationship between internal reality and time is also made obvious by the fact that, though we live as bodies in space and time, yet time appears more real to us than space. The consideration of space depends, to a large extent, on our intention. There is no definite centre of space; the attempts to make the earth the centre of the universe were clearly based on a confusion of external and internal reality. Nor is there any necessity, if we are confronted with space alone and not with additional obstacles, to proceed in one direction only; we can go to and fro, in opposite direction if we like, repeat what we have done or alter it; according to the theory of relativity it is merely a matter of convenience to say that the earth moves round the sun rather than that the sun moves round the earth. But the course of time moves in one direction only and we can neither alter it nor make it regress; time past is irretrievably past. The growth and ageing of man, moreover, makes this direction of time so real to us that it is far more difficult to believe that time is a mere form of thinking than to accept space as such a form. Great maturity is needed to acknowledge that absolute eternity must be something different from our conception of time and thus, too, from the idea of endless or infinite time. (Cf. also the very clear discussion of time in St. Augustine's Confessions, Book X.) It is no accident that, in most European languages, infinity in space is expressed by a concept negating the finite, while eternity is expressed by an independent positive concept.

It is true that growth and decay belong to external reality, but the close relationship between time and internal reality can be seen there too, for the more time has to be considered the less do sciences become exact. This applies not only to biology and psychology, but even to astronomy; the history of the stars is almost as bewildering as the history of man. Science is only exact when we can reduce time to an abstract and repeatable measure, as in all the other branches of physics; but the necessity of paying attention to time as such and thus to its definite direction makes it impossible to exclude internal reality completely.

Infinity and eternity, on the other hand, show once more the greater reality of time for us. Neither can be grasped as such, but we can get some clearer idea of them by advancing in the opposite direction towards the infinitesimally small. But here the difference between space and time reappears. The constellations of the cosmos and the atom are probably very similar; yet to discover this we have to translate our observations into the most complete abstractons, using geometrical design and mathematical formulae. Eternity, too, can only be experienced with the help of the smallest unit, the moment, as a flash of insight, but we experience eternity only if the moment becomes completely real to us, if it is lived to the full, so that this shortest span of time which, in theory, barely seems to exist, confutes all theories by its overwhelming content. (Cf. Dostoevsky, The Idiot, in which this experience is described in many ways. There we find also an explanation of Mohammed's vision which led him through all the heavens before the water from his jug, which he had overturned when falling, had had time to flow out.)

Nevertheless, we could not possibly grasp internal reality without the help of space. We can neither divorce the existence of any inner process from that of our bodies, nor understand our feelings without objects, nor our willing without aims. We have had to stress again and again that internal reality needs an external form to find an intelligible expression, and this form is either spatial or dependent on space. No language would have developed in a world without objects and other men. Even the most extreme inner experience, that of the mystic, needs at least emptiness as a symbol for what otherwise could not be expressed at all.

These formal considerations of the concepts of space and time, however, do little justice to their real significance in internal reality, for here they do not remain purely formal, but have a definite meaning for us.

Time, as the fundamental concept of internal reality, makes this particularly clear. We have just mentioned that it appears so real to us that it is difficult to realize that even time belongs to the laws of thinking. How little formal it is can be seen when we compare the measuring of time with our actual experience.

We measure time by seconds and hours, days and years, and though there are some difficulties in fixing these purely formal measures which do not occur in space—especially in fixing the length of the year—they work in practice like the others. Thanks to day and night, to growth and seasons, even these measures are something very real to us; but so are distances. Yet our actual experience of time is different. If we experience, for instance, something very interesting or important, or live through some kind of excitement, time passes quickly and we hardly notice the passing of hours, or even of days and weeks; but if we are bored, time seems to creep utterly slowly, a few minutes may appear like hours and no day ever seems to end. This impression, however, changes into its complete opposite when we look back, for those periods in which we have experienced nothing of interest or importance shrink or even simply disappear in our memory, while a few days or weeks which were of great importance to us or full of events may appear longer than many a year. The length of time can no longer be measured by equal formal units, but depends entirely on what we have done with it.

This surprising difference between the present experience of time and our looking back on it helps to make clear what time means to us. We can and do measure the length of our lives by years, but this does not account for the fact that time, nevertheless, is not a simple possession, but represents a part of our lives which had to be conquered. The years alone do not tell the whole story, for if we lose the opportunity of making use of time, long periods of our lives may be completely lost, while the time which we were able to fill with a real content makes our lives fuller and richer.Time, though obviously part of our lives, can yet disappear or be added to them. This transforms it into a constant urge, closely related to conscience, for both its slow movement while we waste time and its later disappearance makes us painfully aware that we should treat it differently. Boredom can hardly be borne with equanimity. The popular phrase 'to kill time' is very apt, for if we are unable to make the right use of it, we have at least to kill it to get rid of its constant urge. Time is felt to be an enemy, and so we embark upon some senseless industry or activity so as not to be constantly reminded of its passing.

This urge can also, of course, be silenced by impressions or experiences forced upon us, and these may represent a full and right use of time. In this case, the urge does not lead to action, but it will, like responsibility, always reappear afterwards and make itself felt again as a stimulus demanding activity. Yet the urge is not silenced by the mere killing of time, for periods in which we have been senselessly busy disappear just as much as those of boredom, and this knowledge will never quite leave us while we are busy or killing time. It is not sufficient to make use of time; we have to make the right use of it. As this is not easy, however, indulging in senseless industry represents a strong temptation. It helps us at least to forget the passing of time; the feeling that we miss our opportunities drives us on and on, so as to enable us to avoid any moment of reflection in which we could no longer escape this underlying feeling and our ever-present knowledge of this waste. Satisfaction, however, can only be achieved when we conquer time in a way which gives it the right content.

The close relationship between time and conscience can also be seen when we remember that time appears to us as past, present and future. We have seen that it is essential for our making real of internal reality to experience the present, and that this is made possible by anticipating the future. This, however, presupposes that the present sinks back smoothly into the past, so that the past becomes the safe basis upon which to build our further lives, for so long as we are burdened with experiences or deeds which we cannot thus transform, we are unable to advance further; in this case the past constantly blocks the view towards the future. It is exactly this which happens when we make the wrong use of time, especially if we feel guilty; then the present does not sink into the past, but remains a constant burden which we have to carry with us through time. Our attention is directed towards past experiences which refuse to become 'the past', instead of being based upon the past and directed towards the future. Such burdens can only be discarded when we find the way to accept responsibility or to atone for them—that is, the natural course of time can only be reestablished by following conscience.

The meaning of space is not quite so obvious, but, nevertheless, it is there. The merely formal conception of space has no centre, but we cannot help considering ourselves as the centre of our own world; even the greatest modesty will not abolish the need for relating the whole world to ourselves, for we have to transform ourselves into the centre of perception. It matters very much to us, moreover, whether we can establish some such central position, or whether we have to agree that 'the starry heaven above' annihilates our importance. Space appears to us as a very strong challenge; we cannot simply accept our infinitesimal smallness as final; we have to make up for it in one way or other.

This challenge can perhaps best be understood when we remember the temptation to which it leads and to which men throughout the ages have succumbed all too easily. Space, then, is experienced as an urge to become the master of space, to conquer and acquire it directly, for the simplest reaction against the overwhelming size even of the earth is the attempt to increase one's own size by conquering space, by subjugating people and by thus adding their strength and lands to one's own stature. The ideal of the great hero who, like Alexander or Napoleon, sets out to conquer the earth has always proved to be one of the most powerful and attractive ideals. Yet this does not show its true meaning, but only the existence and force of the challenge of space and the necessity of paying attention to it. For this way of answering it is quite obviously futile; even if a man conquered the whole earth, he would still remain infinitesimally small when compared with the universe. This urge, therefore, drives man onwards until he destroys himself; as no success whatever can really answer the underlying challenge, he is driven from deed to deed, always seeking the greater one which finally proves his greatness, until he meets the task which he can master no longer. Very much of this urge is also at work in modern technical development, one of whose most important aims is the overcoming of space by greater and greater speed.

We cannot possibly hope to become equal to space in spatial terms; this means only that we mix up external and internal reality and try to meet an inner challenge in an external way. The only hope of meeting it lies in finding one's right place in the universe, and this can only be done by fulfilling man's true task and destiny. We are unable to increase our size or power so as to become conspicuous entities in the infinity of space, but we can, to a higher or lower degree, achieve harmony with the universe. Just as the centre of a sphere or the focus of an orbit stands in a clear relationship to all points of the circumference and as its idea embraces them all, while other points remain unrelated, so we must find out what can put us in the central position which establishes a clear relationship to the whole of existence. We can neither hope to become the whole sphere ourselves, nor to create a universe of our own; we can only embrace it by being clearly related to it. Again, however, this metaphor must not be misunderstood in an external way; it is only the making real of internal reality which can enable us to establish the right relationship between the two realities and put us in the centre. Thus, however, 'the starry heaven above' really points to 'the moral law within'; we have to rely on values when we want to answer the challenge of space.

That space points to the moral world also becomes clear when we pay attention to the two forms in which space appears to us—as single objects or bodies and as infinity. The concentration on the single body means, in internal reality, self-centredness and egoism, and in this way we can never hope to find the right relation to the universe, for we then remain unrelated entities within space and cannot possibly stand up to its challenge. The concentration on infinity, on the other hand, threatens us with the predominance of the infinite within us, with vague feelings and impossible longings, with aimless intentions and misleading ideals,and in this way we lose ourselves without any hope of finding ourselves again. (This applies even to mysticism. See M. Buber, I and Thou, pp. 86-7.) The only possibility of doing justice to both these forms of space is to establish the right relationship between the different bodies within infinity and this clearly points to love. It is by love that the distance between the bodies which seems to isolate us is transformed into a relationship and connection, and only in love do we lose ourselves in such a way that we ourselves are enhanced as well. To this we shall return when discussing the opposition between the One and the Many.

Both the temptations—the killing of time and the conquest of space—show, moreover, the importance of the opposition between space and time. Nothing in time as such points to the right use of it, nor does space open up the realm of value; it is true that we shall recognize, while doing something or after we have done it, whether we have succeeded in satisfying these urges, but we cannot find our way with the help of time alone or space alone. However, the attempt to find satisfaction in mere industry presupposes that we forget the challenge of space; when the urge to make use of time is constantly confronted with this challenge, we remain aware of the fact that only something of importance and significance which establishes a relationship to the universe can satisfy this urge. On the other hand, to believe that we can become equal to the vastness of space implies that we forget or deny the reality of death; but when the challenge of space is constantly confronted with the passing of time, we cannot forget that we are unable to preserve ourselves as spatial beings and that only something absolute which is not destroyed by death can meet this challenge. Therefore, if we use space and time as opposites, we gradually learn how to avoid these temptations. The ideals of the industrous man and the great conqueror will disappear as meaningless and what emerges will be the man who tries to discover and to fulfil what it means to be a man.

There are other temptations to which time and space can also lead, and these perhaps confirm the importance of their opposition even more clearly. Achievements which give content to time are lasting achievements—those which add something to our lives; they must last in time and guarantee duration. Time, therefore, can also direct our attention to objects, to material possessions, which seem to erect a barrier against the constant flux; as they can be passed on to children and grandchildren, they even seem to secure a kind of immortality. But no possession can ever mean anything when confronted with the challenge of space. The conquest of space, on the other hand, is usually connected with the striving for fame, which seems to imply a conquest of time and the securing of immortality. But when we think of real time as experienced in our lives, fame will be recognized as a shadowy reward, for who could predict the future with certainty, and what does fame avail the dead? Nor can it possibly give a content to our lives which could satisfy the urge of time.

Thus the opposition between space and time always forces upon us, in one way or other, the recognition of the world of values and of morality. This can also be seen when we start directly from these. We have emphasized that the dangers here lie mainly in considering the values as external facts and in reducing morality to a set of fixed rules. But how could values be external facts when we cannot discover them in space? And how could merely formal rules ever satisfy us when we know that we must give a content to the flux of time? When thinking of the challenge of space we can no longer be tempted to confine ourselves to some merely human conventions, but are forced to remain aware that we have to experience a meeting with the absolute. Nor can we be tempted, when thinking of the urge of time, to reduce the absolute to something which can be grasped once for all. Our experience of the absolute, even if it satisfies the urge of space, will be seen in its limitations when we remember time; on the other hand, the rules for actions, though they may satisfy the urge of time, will be seen as means—and not as ends—when we remember the challenge of space. Faced with the opposition between space and time and thus with infinity and eternity, morality is bound to become that constant renewing of our striving and experience which we found necessary.

The interconnected opposites therefore represent the basis of the absolute values which we expected to find. This is confirmed when we confront space and time with them. We can proceed to this because there is no need, in this case, to enter into a discussion about the constructive concepts. As space and time represent completely real elements in internal reality, they cannot possibly be mixed up with purely formal concepts.

subsection (c)


In external reality, we are led to discover space and time by the same process which we have described as striving for truth. Wherever we succeed in breaking through the surface, whether advancing towards pure matter or pure energy, we are finally confronted by the concepts of space and time and unable to advance further. The prospect of excluding one of the two, which seems to promise further progress, is misleading. We can discover either the position or the speed of the electron, but to get to know it, we obviously would have to refer to both.

We have said, however, that truth cannot be found in external reality, because it has to convey a meaning important for our lives. Space and time, if rightly understood, make sure that we do not commit the mistake of looking for truth in the wrong direction, for their external aspects are not all we know of them. There are their internal aspects as well, and as it is these which convey meaning, we are referred to internal reality.

In internal reality, space and time can lead to the experience of truth. If we satisfy the urge of time, we are freed from the fear that our lives may be too short and thus remain senseless; we learn that, in the last resort, no factual achievement matters, but that even a moment can bring a full experience of eternity. If we meet the challenge of space, we are freed from the fear that the infinity of space can crush us; we see that we are able to find a harmony with the universe which cannot be destroyed by distance. This disappearance of fear is due to a feeling of certainty; it makes us aware that we face something absolute which we can trust unconditionally. We feel that we have touched upon truth.

Nevertheless, space and time only represent a beginning. Although they can lead to the experience of truth, they do not show us how to find truth. Their opposition prevents us from succumbing to misleading temptations, but does not say what we really have to do; both point in general towards actions and experiences of a certain kind, towards making internal reality real and to the values, but we still have to find out how to discover the right actions and values. Space and time provide a very important test, especially a negative test, excluding errors and wrong endeavours, but the experiences which can stand the test have to be brought about in a different way. We obviously need some further interconnected opposites.

We thus recognize a very important quality of truth—the search for truth alone is not sufficient to find truth. Just as space and time point to action, so the search for truth, by leading from external to internal reality, points to our making internal reality real for us, which also implies action. Now activity is certainly a most valuable means of finding truth, for we experience and understand more fully what we try to do, and we discover what cannot be influenced by us. But to know what we should do we still need, as space and time show, those values which are based on the absolute value of goodness and thus help us to understand morality and responsibility. Truth leads even further; as it shows that we have to discover something which remains independent of ourselves, which stands over against us and can no longer be doubted, altered or transformed, it may not even need our actions, but reveal itself to us; we may meet it where we least expected it. Truth, that is, also points beyond goodness to beauty, which still needs understanding, but can force itself upon us most directly of all. We have seen that this, too, can be a way of satisfying the urge of space and time. In short, if we think that we can approach truth directly, we may, more probably than not, miss it; but we may experience it with the help of the other absolute values.

But truth remains indispensable. It does not allow us to forget that we have to arrive at something which appeals to our sense of truth by shining in its own light, and so we cannot remain satisfied with our own endeavours. We are made conscious of the fact that goodness as such cannot represent our last aim, especially not in the limited form in which alone we can make it real, but that it is a way of meeting the absolute. Nor shall we be tempted to look for a merely pleasurable experience of beauty; we shall understand the concept in its full significance. It is the experience of truth which, in any experience, confirms the meeting with the absolute; if we insist upon truth, therefore, we make sure that we are never cut off from the absolute.

We shall hardly be able to forget this when we remain aware of the challenge of space and the urge of time, especially when we remember that we find space and time in external as well as in internal reality. It is very important to pay attention to their double appearance. We have to find them in external reality, so as to see that this reality is finally built up upon something which we can experience and which thus points to internal reality. It is there that we can discover their meaning. Neverthless, they do not lead away from external reality, but point back to it, for their meaning for us remains closely bound up with their external appearance; we could feel fully neither the challenge of space nor the urge of time without facing the universe and the passing away of measurable time and of men. We have to be aware that space and time, quite apart from their meaning for us, confront us as external forms, for this makes clear that it is primary reality which matters in the end, and that this absolute reality also transcends internal reality. This, however, is exactly how truth should work. It has to lead us first from external to internal reality, but finally also to point back to external reality, for though we have to experience it ourselves, it must, at the same time, be independent of us, firmly rooted in the unchangeable nature of the universe. It must belong to primary reality and thus determine both external and internal reality.

In the sphere of absolute reality space and time become infinity and eternity. These we can experience in rare moments of grace but we can never fully know them; we have to accept something which is given to us. We have seen that the search for truth cannot succeed directly; as we are unable to achieve absolute knowledge, truth, too, must in the end be given to us and accepted. But even the mere concepts of space and time imply infinity and eternity; we must, therefore, never lose sight of them; and so we must never lose sight of truth which alone of the three values cannot be thought of without the absolute. We must not be satisfied by any of our endeavours unless the experience of truth is added to them.

Let us now consider the next step to which space, time and truth point—human action. To understand it, we have to consider those interconnected opposites without which no activity could be discussed—necessity and freedom.

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go to: Chapter 11, Section 2, "Necessity and Freedom"

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