Doctrine of God (part 6)

March 29, 2010     Time: 00:32:39


I. B. 3. a. (2) (d) Evaluation of the arguments and a proposal.

1. Attributes of God
Lecture 6


We have been talking about God’s eternity and his relationship to time. In the last session we looked at arguments for divine timelessness, and I said really about the only good argument there is the argument from incompleteness of temporal life. That does provide a motivation for a doctrine of divine timelessness, if there weren’t counter arguments on the other side. But I did present two arguments that I think are countervailing, namely, the argument based upon God’s real relation to a temporal world and then the argument based on God’s knowledge of tensed facts. Both of these would seem to require that God be in time.

By way of evaluating these arguments, I said it really is going to depend on what theory of time you adopt. Do you think that tense, that is, that feature of reality that has to do with what is “now” or “present” as opposed to “past” and “future,” is an objective feature of reality or do you think that is just an illusion of human consciousness? Do you think temporal becoming is real, that things really do come into being and go out of being, or do you think that temporal becoming is just an illusion of human consciousness – that things in the past, present, and future are all equally real and that there is really no temporal becoming? My argument was that if you adopt the view that says tense and temporal becoming are an objective feature of the world, independent of human experience, then that gives you good grounds for thinking that God must know tensed facts and therefore must be temporally located. Also in virtue of his changing relationships with a world that is dynamic and undergoing becoming, God would be temporal as well. So it seems that, given the so-called A-Theory of time, we have good grounds for thinking that God is in fact temporal.

That leads to a problem. Since time had a beginning and God didn’t have a beginning, how are we to understand God’s relationship to time? The proposal that I suggested was that we think of God as being timeless without creation and temporal from the moment of creation on. That is to say, God existing alone without the world, creating nothing, is timeless. But with the decision to create a temporal world, God condescends to abandon timelessness to enter into time in virtue of his real relationship with the temporal world. Therefore, God is in time from the moment of creation onward.


Question: After creation you say God is temporal. To me that would imply the present and the past exist, but you would have to say the future does not yet exist.

Answer: There are different views on that. Some people would say what you said – that the past and the present both exist, so that the people back there in the year 2000 are just as real as we are. Or the people in 2000 B.C. are just as real as we are. But there aren’t any people in the future – they are unreal. That is one view. But I do not think that this is a good view. I think that runs into the same problems that a pure B-Theory has. My preferred view would be to say that only what exists presently is real. The things in the past have ceased to exist, things in the future haven’t yet existed, so the only thing that actually exists is that which exists presently. That is a pure A-Theory of time. Very often this view of time is called “presentism.” Presentism is the view that the only temporal items that exist are things that exist presently.

Question: Would you define “real?” You keep using the word “real,” but what do you mean? Do you mean real “now?”1

Answer: I don’t mean real “now.” That would be to say that anything real is present. But obviously, even B-Theorists agree that the past isn’t present; that would be a contradiction. What I mean by “real” is that the thing actually exists independently of our knowledge of it, our experience of it, independently of our minds. Certain things do not exist in a mind-independent way – ideas, for example. You might say that the idea of Bugs Bunny exists – people have that idea. But that idea isn’t mind-independent. If there weren’t any minds, it wouldn’t be there. Is the past like that? Do dinosaurs and things in the past actually exist? I want to say, no, they actually existed (past tense), they once were real, but they now are no longer real.

Question: Are we saying that history is not “real” because we were not there?

Answer: I am not contrasting “real” with “illusory.” Certainly the past is real in the sense that it was not an illusion. But the things in the past do not exist anymore. They once existed, but they do not exist anymore. They have ceased to be. On the so-called B-Theory of time, however, that is not the case. On a B-Theory of time, the things that existed at earlier times are just as real as the things that exist in 2008 or 3008. On this view, there just isn’t any becoming; things don’t come into existence; they don’t go out of existence. Things just exist at the various points in time at which they are located. By contrast, on presentism, only the present exists. When I say these other things earlier and later than the present aren’t real, what I mean is that they do not exist. The things that exist exist presently, and these other things do not exist. That is what it means to say they are “not real.”

Question: How do Kant’s ideas come into this? Are you saying that in the B-Theory it is as though all times exist simultaneously and its just a matter of human perception. . . .

Answer: We have to be careful here! It is not the case on the B-Theory that all times exist simultaneously. That would be to say that they all exist at the same time, which they obviously do not. These are different times. But they all exist equally. They are all equally real. They all exist – whereas on the A-Theory they are not all equally real. Kant was an 18th century German philosopher who believed that time and space are the products of human consciousness. He was a total anti-realist about time and space. He didn’t even think that the present was real! He thought that time and space are categories or forms that the human mind imposes on reality. This is a wild view, and I do not know anyone that really believes this today, anyone who thinks that the Jurassic Age never really existed but was a product of human consciousness. That was Kant’s view; he was a subjectivist in that sense – he thought that the human mind structures reality to make it seem as if things are in time and space.2

Question: Would anyone adhere to the B-Theory of time today?

Answer: The B-Theory of time is very popular today, especially among physicists and philosophers of science. The reason is that the way General Relativity and Special Relativity are typically discussed in science is in terms of a tenseless, four-dimensional geometry. The three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time form a kind of four-dimensional geometrical object called spacetime. Therefore, many physicists and philosophers of science – I think uncritically – assume that this construct of spacetime, this four-dimensional, geometrical object, actually exists. They read this spacetime notion as being a literal description of reality. The B-Theory is very popular today because of that.

Question: (inaudible)

Answer: That’s a good question. The only people who take time travel seriously, as a real possibility, are the B-Theorists. Why? Because the future actually exists and the past actually exists. So you can go there! But on the A-Theory, there isn’t any such thing as the past or the future. So you almost inevitably find that the proponents or the enthusiasts for time travel are B-Theorists. That doesn’t mean that if you are a B-Theorist you have to believe in the possibility of time travel, but it does seem that the B-Theory is a necessary condition of time travel’s being possible, and it certainly is the case that all of the time travel enthusiasts today are B-Theorists.

Question: How are we to reconcile relativity to the A-Theory of time?

Answer: This is a really good question! In fact, there are three physical interpretations of the equations of relativity theory. There was Einstein’s original interpretation, then there was Hermann Minkowski’s four-dimensional, spacetime interpretation, and then there was the Dutch physicist H. A. Lorentz’s interpretation. These three physical interpretations of the mathematical core of relativity theory are empirically equivalent. That is to say, they all explain the physical experiments. But they differ very radically in their understanding of the nature of reality. The four-dimensional spacetime interpretation is actually due to Hermann Minkowski, who proposed this in 1908. Einstein’s original formulation of special relativity in 1905 was actually using the traditional concepts of time and space. Time is separate from space – it is not united into one geometrical object called spacetime. Similarly, Lorentz’s theory doesn’t presuppose a geometrical interpretation. What happened was that Minkowski’s view came to be this sort of “orthodox” interpretation of relativity theory, and Einstein himself, as soon as he heard it, abandoned his original interpretation and adopted Minkowski’s because it is so much easier to work with. It provides a very easy framework for understanding relativity theory and the relation of things in space and time. But what the original Einstein interpretation or Lorentz’s interpretation would say about Minkowski’s four-dimensional geometry is that this is just a diagram. It is not a picture of the way reality really is. In the same way, you can construct a continuum that is formed of temperature and pressure, and you can have something that could plot a thing’s shape in this temperature-pressure continuum. You can do that with spacetime as well. But nobody would take seriously that there is such a thing as temperature-pressure. It is just a diagrammatic device for understanding two physical realities that are in nature quite distinct.3

Question: How would you reconcile the empirical evidence that you can stand there and I could run across the room and for you it would be 1 second and for me less than 1 second? We started at the same point in time, but you are now at a different point in time along that continuum than I would be.

Answer: That issue is neutral between these three interpretations. All three of these interpretations predict those same results. If you are interested in how this works out, take a look at my book Time and Eternity, where this is discussed. But what we are talking about here is the difference between the A-Theory and the B-Theory of time. Two of the interpretations of relativity theory, the original Einstein interpretation and Lorentz’s interpretation, are consistent with the A-Theory. It is only Minkowski’s view that requires the B-Theory approach. These are all empirically equivalent, so there is nothing in relativity theory that says you have to be a B-Theorist and think that time is tenseless and that becoming is an illusion.

Question: If we were able to take something and move it through time, what theological implications might that have?

Answer: You need to be careful in the way you word that question. We move things through time all the time! All you have to do is just stand still, and you move through time. This object endures from a moment ago to the present. So things in that sense endure through time all the time. But what you are talking about is if we were able to go back in time or leap into the future in a way that would not involve enduring through time. What would be the theological implications of that? I am not really sure. Are you thinking of something specifically?

Followup: (inaudible) Would people abandon their faith because of it?

Answer: I don’t see the relevance of time travel to the belief in God. Let me say this with respect to tampering with history via time travel. The literature on time travel is very, very similar to the literature on divine foreknowledge of the future. This is because they involve parallel problems. For example, if Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal, then when the time comes, does Judas have the freedom not to betray Christ? Yes, he has that freedom. Judas doesn’t have to do it; he is not fated to betray Jesus just because Jesus predicted it. Judas could have done otherwise. But in that case Judas had the ability to do something which is such that, if he had done it, then either Jesus’ prediction was wrong or else Jesus would not have made that prediction.4 Since Jesus is the Son of God, he can’t be wrong. So what that means is that Judas has the ability to do something which is such that, if he were to do it, then the past would have been different. Jesus would never have made this prediction. So up until the time of his betrayal, Judas had the ability to do something such that, if he were to do it, something that happened in the past would not have happened. That is exactly like time travel. The time traveler has the ability to pull the levers on his machine to do certain things such that, if he were to do them, then he can go back into the past and the past would have been different. We know he won’t do that because the past has already occurred. We know that he won’t do those things; but he could do those things. If he were to do them, then the past would have been different. Divine foreknowledge is very parallel to the idea of time travel.

There are actually great theological lessons to be learned from reading the time travel literature in terms of understanding God’s providence over human history. God knows what we will do, and so he is able to predict these things in advance, but in such a way as not to abrogate our freedom. Similarly, if there were time travel, then God knows what the time traveler will do, and so he won’t make any sort of mistake. It is not as though the time traveler could somehow fool God and go back in time and change things, so that God was wrong. Given divine foreknowledge, he knows exactly what the time traveler will do; he’ll know that the time traveler did go back in time and, say, help the Egyptians build the pyramids, and he knows that the pyramids aren’t going to disappear because the time traveler will change his mind and decide not to go back. God knows all this; it is all under his providential direction.

Question: What about life-extension science? If we were able to extend life 50 years or 100 years, I believe a lot of people will begin to fall away from the faith because they will begin to think that God is not really in control. It could turn out that people begin to think they are God.

Answer: That may be. That is a different issue than what we are talking about. There you are just talking about advancements in medicine and biology that would enable us to forestall the death of cells and live longer. I agree with you entirely that there is no reason to think that this isn’t due to God-given potentialities in human minds.

Question: If God is temporal, what can we say about his transcendence? Is God subject to aging?

Answer: God would not be subject to aging. To say that he is temporal does not mean he is subject to the laws of nature, so that he would grow weary or weaker or impotent or senile or anything like that. It would mean that the entire process of human history is under his direction and control. It would mean that he is actually involved in it as it unfolds. He is actually doing it. One nice illustration of the difference of the A-Theory and the B-Theory would be the difference between a live play versus a movie film as it lies in the can with a frame of action on every instance of the film. Nothing is really happening on the film. It is really all just frozen there in the can. The A-Theory is more like seeing a play actually being performed on the stage; it is actually happening. There you can imagine the director is actually involved in seeing it happen, rather than like the person who is responsible for having the film in the can. Both of them would involve providence, but the A-Theory would be a much more active and on-going process.5 I think of God’s transcendence as being, first of all, that he set up the whole thing, that it was his decision to create time and space and to enter into them. He didn’t have to. And that having done so, he now controls the course of human history to reach its eventual end and goal.

Question: (inaudible – something about being trapped or bound in time) At the end of this age, when God creates a new heaven and new Earth, how does he get outside of time to re-create these new things?

Answer: He would not need to get outside of time, but he could create new laws of nature and new laws of physics, so that clocks would run differently and so forth. But clearly the new heavens and the new Earth will be temporal because we will have resurrection bodies. A resurrection body that isn’t temporal would be frozen, like an ice statue or a mannequin in a store window. It wouldn’t do anything. That is contrary to the very nature of a dynamic, active resurrection body. There will clearly be time. That is why I take literally what the Bible says, “He has given us everlasting life.” It will go on forever into eternity, into the future. But this language of being trapped or bound – it seems to me this is very emotionally laden language. In one sense, an individual who is timeless is trapped or bound because he can’t do anything. He is frozen in immobility, and the minute he does anything he becomes temporal. So I think the language of “bound” is emotionally loaded. I would see God’s temporal status as being God’s sovereign choice. He could have chosen to remain atemporal by not creating anything temporal, and he would have been perfect and fulfilled in the intra-Trinitarian relationships. But he willed to condescend to create a world of temporal creatures like ourselves and to be in relationship with those creatures. That was his sovereign decision. In one sense, in creation God condescends to take on our mode of existence to have a relationship with us. Then in the incarnation, he condescends even further to take on, not simply our mode of existence, but our very human nature – our very humanity – for our sake and our salvation. I see this as fitting with the character of this self-giving God who humbles himself in that way for the sake of the creatures he loves.

Question: Is the A-Theory more of a theory that is associated with free will and the B-Theory with predestination or even a deistic clock-maker theory?

Answer: Some people have tried to make that association. Some people have said that on the B-Theory everything is determined because it is already there. The future, everything you are going to do, is already there, it already exists. They have said that on the B-Theory there really isn’t any freedom. But on the A-Theory, those things are unreal, they have yet to be created. You get to make those decisions. I don’t buy that argument though. Here I want to come to the B-Theorist’s defense. The B-Theory is compatible with free will because a decision that is, say, made in 3008 is not causally determined by events prior to it in, say, the year 3000. It can be causally indeterminate with respect to those events. Imagine the event is the decay of a subatomic particle that is completely indeterminate causally. Just because it exists doesn’t mean that it has causal antecedents that determine it. This is consistent with saying that there are free-will decisions, causally undetermined events. But they are just scattered throughout this four-dimensional, spacetime continuum. Although a lot of people have tried to make the association between the B-Theory and determinism, or fatalism, I am not convinced that that really goes through. That wouldn’t be a reason I would give for rejecting the B-theory.

Question: In order for the B-Theory to incorporate free will, would each individual point on the time line would have to branch off?

Answer: You can make a different diagram of the future that would involve branching where there would be free decisions at these various nodes. But, on the B-Theory, there is only one path through time that is the real world. The other ones are just causally potential paths that the universe could have taken, and so they are not real. Those are just possibilities that are causally possible. Those other branches are in no way real; the only thing that is real is the actual branch or the actual path through the branching structure that is made, and that is this four-dimensional continuum.6


1 5:19

2 10:54

3 16:14

4 21:10

5 26:01

6 Total Running Time: 32:39