October 16, 2016

How to Answer Objections: A Case in Point

Dr. Craig,

I have been deeply troubled by a possible objection to the Kalam Cosmological argument which I believe is one of the strongest arguments for theism. In what sense can God be thought to exist as a timeless entity? Doesn't the notion of existence itself imply time. I'm not convinced that it is possible for something to "exist" without or outside time.

Should anyone on the other side bring up this objection, I think it would be very hard to refute. I would like to hear how you would answer this objection.



Although I have frequently addressed questions concerning God’s timelessness (see, e.g., QoW #364, 391), I think your question, Rahul, serves to highlight a couple of important points.

First, in dealing with a proffered objection, it’s always helpful to consider first the worst case scenario, namely, that the objection is correct, and then assess the damages. In many cases, they’re pretty slight or even non-existent. This objection is a case in point.

As I have argued elsewhere, the kalām cosmological argument does not entail that time had a beginning. What it requires is that metric time, that is to say, time composed of mind-independent sub-intervals, had a beginning. But it is perfectly compatible with the view that God exists literally before creation in a non-metric time in which intervals cannot be distinguished, as argued by philosophers of what I’ve called the Oxford school of thought on this topic, such as John Lucas, Richard Swinburne, and Alan Padgett. So the objection is inconsequential, since the kalām argument does not entail divine timelessness (even if that is my preferred view).

Second, one always needs to ask what warrant there is for the objection. Make the objector bear his fair share of the burden of proof. An objection has no force unless it has some warrant. In this case, you need to ask why we should think that it is impossible that something should exist timelessly. This is, after all, a very radical claim. Impossible? Why should we think that? I can’t think of any reason at all to think that timeless existence is impossible. Until the objector has some argument to give us, we needn’t be the least troubled by his groundless objection. You should make the objector shoulder his burden of proof.

Third, look for plausible counter-examples to the objector’s claim. Sometimes these may be mere thought-experiments, not something that actually exists. Remember, in a case like this all you have to do is think of something that possibly exists atemporally.

Anyone who thinks that atemporal existence is impossible suffers not only from a poverty of imagination but also from a lack of scientific understanding. Think about mathematical objects like numbers. Platonists typically think that such objects exist timelessly. It’s not as though the number 2 existed yesterday and will continue to endure through time tomorrow. Not only is this view of the temporal status of numbers plausible, but it is one held by many brilliant philosophers and mathematicians. So our objector must range himself against, not only all those who hold to such a view, but also against those who think that such a view is even coherent.

Moreover, the objector’s scepticism is unscientific. A great many physicists, not to mention philosophers, think that spacetime is real. This was Albert Einstein’s view, for example. On this view, time is merely an internal dimension ordering the spacetime continuum. The four-dimensional spacetime manifold does not itself exist in time. It is not embedded in a higher dimensional hyper-time. (That’s why it’s meaningless to ask why the Big Bang didn’t occur sooner.) The spacetime manifold itself therefore exists timelessly. Even if we are not ourselves spacetime realists, still the realist position is coherent.

Finally, fourth, we can try to rebut the objection by giving an argument for what it denies. Too often Christians, when faced with an objection, jump immediately to this sort of response, thereby shouldering unnecessarily a burden of proof that properly belongs to the objector. (We often see this happen in discussions of the problem of evil, where the believer is called upon to demonstrate the compatibility of God and suffering.) This fourth sort of response is an act of supererogation on the Christian believer’s part, not necessary to defeating the proffered objection.

Still, in this case, I think we do have good reason to think that God sans creation exists timelessly. On a relational view of time, time is parasitic upon change. In the utter absence of events time would not exist; all one would have is a timeless state. So think about a possible world in which God refrains from creating anything but exists changelessly alone. In such a world, there would be no time; ergo, God would exist timelessly. Therefore, it is possible for God to exist timelessly, Q.E.D. Our objector will now need to show that a relational view of time is impossible. Good luck!

In confronting objections, one needs to keep these four steps firmly in mind. In many cases, like this one, it turns out that the objection is not anywhere as formidable as one thought.