God and Time I: Metaphysics

I've been asked to write about the relationship between God and Time.  I believe that God is not a part of Time, that he is eternal and unchanging, and that therefore he knows (what we consider to be) past, the present, and the future equally.  I believe that there are good reasons to believe this coming from 3 different fields of study: 1) metaphysics, 2) physics, and 3) biblical theology.

(Of course, it is also true that the Son of God

came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered [παθόντα, which can also mean "was passively acted upon"] and was buried.  On the third day...

In other words, he united himself to a human being who was, like us, part of the flow of time.  In this sense, God is in Time, but to allow this to be truly and properly a life-giving paradox, we need to assert that it was the Eternal and Immortal who suffered and died for us.  The more we anthropomorphize the divine nature, the less significant is the Incarnation.)

In order to address this question, we need to know two things: what is Time and who is God?  To some extent we can begin to explore the metaphysics of Time without discussing who God is, although eventually we must place every created thing in the context of the One who created it.

So let's start with Time.  There are two main views on this, which are rather boringly called the A-theory and the B-theory (although there are variants I won't consider).  This is, as far as I can tell, due to a 1908 article by the philosopher John McTaggart arguing for the Unreality of Time.  McTaggart was basically a Hegelian mystic and yet, despite the later backlash against Hegel in the subsequent era of Logical Positivism, this paper has became one of the foundational articles for contemporary Analytic Philosophy!

(Recently I've been reading the records of the Oxford Socratic Club, a club for debate between Christians and Atheists/Agnostics, of which St. Lewis was President, whose Digest has recently become available from Lulu thanks to St. Joel Heck.  The talks were given around the time of WWII, which was a particularly interesting time for Philosophy since it was during the overlap period when both Idealism and Logical Positivism were taken seriously.)

Anyway, the A-theory (a.k.a presentism) claims that time flows from the past to the future, in such a way that neither the past and future really exist, but only the present moment is real.  However, the past was real and the future will be real, since time is really flowing from past to future.

The B-theory (a.k.a. eternalism) claims that all times (past, present, and future) exist equally, and that the word "present" is like the word "here", an index to refer to the location of the speaker within the timestream.  Thus, there is no objective fact about which time is really "present", any more than there is an objective fact about whether "here" is located in the USA or Australia.

One of my commenters explained the difference in this way:

The first is called the A-theory, or tensed time. Only the present is real; the past and future do not exist. The second is called the B-theory, tenseless time, the block view of timespace, or Minkowski or Minkowskian spacetime. All of time—past, present, and future—is complete and actual in this view. In some unperceived way, all of time is occurring now.

I mostly agree with this statement (although I'm not sure what "complete" means) but take issue with the last sentence.  The B-theorist would not say that all of time is literally now anymore than we would say that all places are here.  The past indeed exists, but does not exist "in the present" because for an A-theorist that means "at the same time as the speaker is located."

Really what that last sentence does is explain the B-theory view in terms of the A-theory view.  According to the A-theory view, only the Present moment is real.  Saying "all times exist now" is really shorthand for "The B-theorist ascribes to the Past and Future the same type of reality which the A-theorist only ascribes to the Present."

Can we return the compliment and describe the A-theory in terms of the B-theory?  Actually we cannot.  If all you have are B-theory ideas, there is no way to make the A-theory clear.  If an A theorist says that the past does not yet exist, the B-theorist will translate "does not yet exist" to "exists at a moment t_1 previous to the current moment t_2", and if he says that the future is going to exist, she translates this to mean just that the future is in the future!

In this sense the A-theory contains a vicious circle in it, as pointed out by McTaggart (although I don't agree with his conclusion that time is therefore "unreal").  When we say that a physical object is changing or flowing, this means that it changes with respect to time, that if we plotted it out on a graph, there would be a physical parameter x such that the time derivative is nonzero: dx / dt \ne 0.  When we say that time itself is flowing, either we mean dt / dt = 1 (time goes at one second per second) which is a trivial calculus tautology which says nothing, or we mean that it is flowing with respect to some other meta-time coordinate.  But that's absurd, if we can only explain time with respect to a deeper time.  (And if that deeper time "really flows" we will need a 3rd timestream to parametrize that, and so on.)

It's like those time travel stories where somebody goes back and changes the past.  But if you think about it, that's a crazy contradiction.  Time just is the way we parametrize change.  The moments of time cannot themselves change or flow in the same way that things change or flow, since there is no other timestream to parametrize their change.  (Well, maybe in science fiction there is, but in the real world there's no reason to postulate this.)

We can put it another way.  The A-theorist maintains that the past and future do not exist.  But if this is true, it is impossible to distinguish it from a radical presentism in which one maintains that only the present moment will ever exist.  Suppose that right now (e.g. 9:18 pm March 2, 2015) is the only instant that will ever exist.  The past is just a delusion of our memory, and the future is a just delusion of anticipation.  None of it is real.  Clearly an absurd form of skepticism.  But really, the A-theory implies this.  For it says that the future exists only in the future and that the past exists only in the past and that both of these are forms of nonexistence.  So the future does not really exist, and neither does the past.  No amount of protesting about the fact that the future is going to exist or the past having existed implies anything about it actually ever existing, unless you secretly smuggle in the B-theory view that these modalities refer to ways of existing.

One might worry, though, that the B-theory is radically foreign to our own experiences.  Whatever we say philosophically, isn't it obvious if we inspect our own conscious experiences that it feels as if time is ever flowing and changing?  Each moment is so slight that we hardly grasp it before the next is upon us.

I admit that this worry has some psychological tug on me, but in the end I don't think it implies the A-theory.  After all, it also feels as if my own experiences are more real than the experiences of others, and that here (wherever I am) is more real than there (wherever I am not) but these things I am happy to discount as illusions, without incorporating them into my metaphysics.  Furthermore, my brain cannot really detect a single instant: it takes a second or two for me to consciously process my sensory data.  Thus what I experience as now is always really a moment that has a finite amount of thickness in time.  If only the a single instant existed at once, that sliver would actually be too small for any conscious experiences to fit inside of it.  But if more than one instant can exist, it is simplest to say that they all exist, but that my self simply does not experience them all together in one lump.

Thus I conclude that only the B view makes logical sense.  Some might say that this means Time is an illusion; but I would instead say I am asserting that all of Time is real.

Now if God is omniscient, then he experiences everything as it actually is.  But we have seen that the idea that time "flows" and "changes" makes no sense.  If the B-theory is correct, then God must experience it as being correct, that is he must himself be eternal and unchanging.

But this is also what we would conclude if we instead started with the nature of God as understood by classical theism.  Here, you will recall, God is conceived of as the fundamental being whose existence is explains everything else.  As I argued before, the fundamental reality, however we conceive of it, must be eternal:

If the fundamental entities are necessary, then it stands to reason that they are also eternal, since something that exists necessarily cannot come into being, or cease to be, or indeed change in any way.  They must just exist timelessly.  Besides which, if they explain what happens at all moments of time, it doesn't seem plausible that they should only exist for certain moments of time.  For similar reasons, one can argue that the fundamental entities can't be limited to just one region of space.  Their influence must be present everywhere.

For God to be in Time, would mean that there is a part of God which changes and develops and changes, even if it is only the part that observes "what time is it right now".  But that would mean that God is actually divided into pieces, some of which (the past versions of God) help to explain others (the future versions of God).  This is inconsistent with the unity and eternity which befits the divine nature, which is fully real and cannot pass away like shifting shadows.

This is why proponents of Classical Theism have generally maintained that Time, rather than being some Metaphysical Ultimate, is actually part of created reality.  It exists contingently as part of the physical world, because God created it.  This view was developed by Philo, St. Augustine and others, but in the next post two posts we shall see that it is also supported by modern physics: especially Einstein's theories of Relativity.  Then in the third last post posts I will argue that the view that God is eternal and unchanging is also to be found in the Bible.

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Fundamental Reality: Index

Here is an index for my now complete series on the metaphysical question of what is the most fundamental aspect of reality, giving my own take on the Cosmological Argument, the Argument from Consciousness, and the Argument from Ethics.

I. Prologue, or Why Even Bother?

II. Causes and Explanations
III. Chains, Parsimony, and Magic
IV. Necessity, Eternity, and Power
V. Some Candidates, and a Math Test
VI. Comparison of the Finalists

VII. Does God Need a Brain?
VIII. The Hard Problem of Consciousness
IX. Stories and Atoms

X. Theories of Ethics
XI. What's Right is Right
XII. The Good, and the Not

XIII. Surprised by Something
XIV. Conclusion

[This post has been backdated to appear next to the series itself]

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Fundamental Reality XIV: Conclusion

Putting everything together, I have argued—using plausibility arguments, not strictly deductive proofs—that it is reasonable to believe in a metaphysically ultimate being, and that given the reality of Ethics or Consciousness, it is probable that it is more like a mind than like a set of equations.  More specifically, my arguments pointed to just one eternal God, existing necessarily, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and good, who is the source of all other things, yet is distinct from them, and who appreciates mathematical beauty, conscious life, and ethical behavior.

Of course there are a lot of mysteries left in this view.  Even though God is supposed to be the explanation of all other things, we cannot predict, from this information alone, exactly which laws of physics God would select, nor whether he would intervene in the Universe thus created in other ways.  Not sharing the divine knowledge about what is best, we have to make additional stipulations about the world he has created, adding to the complexity of any specific Theistic worldview.

But then again, Naturalism by itself cannot tell us either (apart from experiment) which specific laws of nature to expect.  All views contain a certain amount of irreducible mystery.  The difference is that Naturalism hides or denies the mysteries, and pretends to solve problems that it cannot possibly really solve, while Theism puts them up-front and center and does the best it can to fit them into a consistent picture of the world.

It does not matter so much whether you are convinced that my conclusions have to be right.  Maybe there were several places in the argument where I selected one of two paths, but you think it was a toss-up, or that the other way was somewhat more plausible.  That's part of the hazards of armchair reasoning.  Personally I am primarily concerned with the arguments for Theism as a prelude to Christianity, which is founded on the Resurrection of Christ and the testimony of God's Spirit, not philosophical discourse.  But plausibility arguments still have their place.  If you are thirsting after goodness and beauty and meaning, and if you learn that there could well be a fountain capable of slaking that thirst, shouldn't this increase your incentive to search for it?

A purely intellectual philosophy can only get you so far.  Actual religion involves opening yourself up to the divine being, over a continued period of time, allowing God to get hold of you.  Any approach must be by his initiative rather than yours, but your attitude can determine whether or not you are receptive to his advances.  Without this, philosophy is sterile.  If it advances only to savoir, conceptual knowledge, it might as well have remained atheistic.  All of these philosophical arguments are only there to help you make further steps, to connaître or knowledge by acquaintance.  Arguing for the existence of the Good is one thing; tasting the reality of the Holy is another.

When that happens, the purely intellectual arguments—and the doubts which are a necessary corollary of any honest attempt to evaluate them—can be kicked aside like a ladder that has served its purpose, and replaced with something far better.

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Fundamental Reality XIII: Surprised by Something

Having described briefly the bearing of both Ethics and Consciousness on the nature of the fundamental reality, let's ask whether the source of these things would really be the same thing as a god, to whom one could have a religious and/or personal relationship.  There are various half-way houses for people who see defects in the conventional materialistic narrative, but aren't willing to go “all the way”.

I've had people tell me that they believe there is “Something” out there, but not God.  This is about as vague of a worldview as can be conceived, but I assume from context that they are not merely asserting that there exists at least one object (such as a rock or a tree)—no, their “Something” is more transcendental than that, and is intended to fill a quasi-religious niche.  Whether through mystical experience, philosophical argument, or just wishful thinking, they feel that there is something numinous or spiritual about existence, but organized religion turns them off and they feel it must be something quite different from conventional religious concepts of God.

My Ph.D. advisor, Ted Jacobson, who considers himself an atheist, nevertheless tells me he thinks there is some type of “cosmic consciousness” in which we participate.  I guess the Universe is observing itself through us, or something like that.  But I feel that this view is getting dangerously close to Theism.

One of the recurring themes in this exploration is this: even if the existence of God cannot be proven conclusively by pure Reason, there are plenty of things which nonreligious people are motivated to believe in, which turn out on inspection to be dangerously close to Theism.  Universal laws, objective ethics, cosmic consciousness: all of them smell in certain respects like a certain Somebody.

And if the Something really is a Somebody, then even when you are most alone, your life is a dialogue rather than a monologue.  One day, that seemingly impersonal brightness that hovers over existence, may suddenly manifest as a voice speaking to you, that knows your name.

Of course you cannot force God to reveal himself to you.  Any approach must be on his side.  In retrospect, it is clear to those chosen by God that nothing they did beforehand caused them to deserve or merit the experience of God.  It is gratis, an undeserved gift, which comes in spite of human resistance and even deliberate ignorance.

And yet that does not mean that preparation is unimportant.  The freedom of God is not an excuse for human laziness.  Even at the level of human experience, you cannot force somebody to fall in love with you, nor force yourself to fall in love with somebody else.  But you can be the sort of person to whom it happens more easily—fortune favors the prepared.  "Ask, and you will receive.  Seek, and you will find.  Knock, and the door will be opened to you."  It matters if you have a heart which is receptive to truth, and beauty, and ethical goodness.  Those who practice certain disciplines are more likely to find God, or rather more likely to be found by him.  These disciplines can include:

  1. philosophy not as an intellectual game, but as a genuine search for truth that makes a difference to how you live your life,
  2. an attitude of attentive waiting, not forcing yourself to have spiritual experiences, yet being open to them when they occur, and choosing to remember and ponder them,
  3. diligently choosing to expose yourself to various religious communities and texts, in order to see whether any of them know something you don't, searching for serious truth and holiness rather than conformity to your personal prejudices,
  4. prayer: speaking to God and asking him to reveal himself to you, if he exists, in a way of his own choosing, and also to help you with whatever problems concern you,
  5. and most importantly, genuinely trying as best you can to be an ethical person who is open to serving, loving, and welcoming other people (note: if you feel you have succeeded, then your standards are probably much too low).

From the outside, it may appear that religious believers trick themselves into having religious experiences by a sort of self-hypnosis: that the preparation is what causes us to believe.  Presumably that is true for some.  Yet many of us on the inside know that the most earnest preparation can lead to seeming dryness and absence, and then at other times God breaks in on us in a completely unexpected, surprising, and perhaps even unwelcome way.

Perhaps Ted will have an unpleasant surprise at some point in the future, as St. Lewis did. The following excerpt is from Lewis' autobiography, Surprised by Joy.  We pick him up after he has already been led out of a materialistic form of Atheism into philosophical Idealism (a position similar to Pantheism) which he arrived at partly by means of Owen Barfield's “Argument from Reason” (which I do not myself accept as valid, by the way).  St. Lewis describes his conversion to Theism (not to Christianity, that came later) as follows:

I was now teaching philosophy (I suspect very badly) as well as English.  And my watered Hegelianism wouldn't serve for tutorial purposes.  A tutor must make things clear.  Now the Absolute cannot be made clear.  Do you mean Nobody-knows-what, or do you mean a superhuman mind and therefore (we may as well admit) a Person?  After all, did Hegel and Bradley and all the rest of them ever do more than add mystifications to the simple, workable, theistic idealism of Berkeley?  I thought not.  And didn't Berkeley's “God” do all the same work as the Absolute, with the added advantage that we had at least some notion of what we meant by Him?  I thought He did.  So I was driven back into something like Berkeleyism, but Berkeley with a few top dressings of my own.  I distinguished this philosophical “God” very sharply (or so I said) from “the God of popular religion.”  There was, I thought, no possibility of being in a personal relation with Him.  For I thought He projected us as a dramatist projects his characters, and I could no more “meet” Him, than Hamlet could meet Shakespeare.  I didn't call him “God” either; I called him “Spirit”.  One fights for one's remaining comforts.

Then I read Chesterton's Everlasting Man [online] and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.  Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken.  You will remember that I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive “apart from his Christianity”.  Now I veritably believe, I thought—I didn't of course say; words would have revealed the nonsense—that Christianity itself was very sensible “apart from its Christianity.”  But I hardly remember, for I had not long finished The Everlasting Man when something far more alarming happened to me.  Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good.  “Rum thing”, he went on, “All that stuff of Frazer's about the Dying God.  Rum thing.  It almost looks as if it had really happened once.”  To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since showed any interest in Christianity).  If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the tough, were not—as I would still have put it—“safe,” where could I turn?  Was there then no escape?

The odd thing was that, before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears as a moment of wholly free choice.  In a sense.  I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus.  Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me.  I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out.  Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster.  I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corslet meant the incalculable.  The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desires or fears.  In a sense I was not moved by anything.  I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein.  I say, “I chose,” yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite.  On the other hand, I was aware of no motives.  You could argue that I was not really a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done.  Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is the most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, “I am what I do”.  Then came the repercussion on the imaginative level. I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt.  The melting was starting in my back—drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle.  I rather disliked the feeling.

The fox had been discharged from the Hegelian Wood and was now running in the open, “with all the woe in the world”, bedraggled and weary, hounds barely a field behind.  And nearly everyone was now (one way or another) in the pack: Plato, Dante, MacDonald, Herbert, Barfield, Tolkien, Dyson, Joy itself.  Everyone and everything had joined the other side.  Even my own pupil Griffiths—now Dom Bede Griffiths—though not himself yet a believer, did his share.  Once, when he and Barfield were lunching in my room, I happened to refer to philosophy as “a subject”.  “It wasn't a subject to Plato”, said Barfield, “it was a way.”  The quiet but fervent agreement of Griffiths, and the quick glance of understanding between these two, revealed to me my own frivolity.  Enough had been thought, and said, and felt, and imagined.  It was about time that something should be done.

For of course there had long been an ethic (theoretically) attached to my Idealism.  I thought the business of us finite and half-unreal souls was to multiply the consciousness of Spirit by seeing the world from different positions while yet remaining qualitatively the same as Spirit; to be tied to a particular time and place and set of circumstances, yet there to will and think as Spirit itself does.  This was hard; for the very act whereby Spirit projected souls and a world gave those souls different and competitive interests, so that there was a continual temptation to selfishness.  But I thought each of us had it in his power to discount the emotional perspective produced by his own particular selfhood, just as we discount the optical perspective produced by our position in space.  To prefer my own happiness to my neighbor's was like thinking that the nearest telegraph post was really the largest.  The way to recover, and act upon, this universal and objective distinction was daily and hourly to remember our true nature, to reascend or return to that Spirit which, in so far as we really were at all, we sill were.  Yes; but now I felt I had better try to do it.  I faced at last (in MacDonald's words) “some thing to be neither more nor less nor other than done”.  An attempt at complete virtue must be made.

Really a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully.  Dangers lie in wait on every side.  You must not do, you must not even try to do, the will of the Father unless you are prepared to “know of the doctrine”.  All my acts, desires, and thoughts were to be brought into harmony with universal Spirit.  For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose.  And what I found there appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.  My name was legion.

Of course I could do nothing—I could not last one hour—without continual conscious recourse to what I called Spirit.  But the fine, philosophical distinction between this and what ordinary people call “prayer to God” breaks down as soon as you start doing it in earnest.  Idealism can be talked, and even felt; it cannot be lived.  It became patently absurd to go on thinking of “Spirit” as either ignorant of, or passive to, my approaches.  Even if my own philosophy were true, how could the initiative lie on my side?  My own analogy, as I now perceived, suggested the opposite: if Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare's doing.  Hamlet could initiate nothing.  Perhaps, even now, my Absolute Spirit still differed in some way from the God of religion.  The real issue was not there, or not yet, there.  The real terror was that if you seriously believed in even such a “God” or “Spirit” as I admitted, a wholly new situation developed.  As the dry bones shook and came together in that dreadful valley of Ezekiel's, so now a philosophical theorem, cerebrally entertained, began to stir and heave and throw off its grave-clothes, and stood upright and became a living presence.  I was to be allowed to play at philosophy no longer.  It might, as I say, still be true that my “Spirit” differed at some point from “the God of popular religion”.  My Adversary waived the point.  It sank into utter unimportance.  He would not argue about it.  He only said, “I am the Lord”; “I am that I am”; “I am”.

....You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.  That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me.  In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.

Next: Conclusion

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Several Random Things

Speaking of the Hard Problem of Consciousness, there's going to be a new Tom Stoppard play about the "Hard Problem".   I'm so excited!

Hilary, a young psychology researcher at a brainscience institute, is nursing a private sorrow and a troubling question at work, where psychology and biology meet. If there is nothing but matter, what is consciousness? This is ‘the hard problem’ which puts Hilary at odds with her colleagues who include her first mentor Spike, her boss Leo and the billionaire founder of the institute, Jerry. Is the day coming when the computer and the fMRI scanner will answer all the questions psychology can ask? Meanwhile Hilary needs a miracle, and she is prepared to pray for one.

Tom Stoppard is the master of geeky, postmodern-in-the-best-sense intellectual theatre.   For purposes of the preceeding sentence please ignore (but only for the duration of this paragraph) the existence of Stephen Sondheim, who also fits the above description...

This interview with a convert from Hinduism to Eastern Orthodoxy (and the accompanying article) is by far the most useful and informative thing I've ever read about the vexed question of the extent to which Yoga is compatible with the Chirstian faith.

From the same program, a discussion of whether ancient Christians distinguished between insanity and demon possession.

On a similar note, the testimony of a Catholic Christian with a schizophrenia-like condition and how it relates to his faith.

Heartwrenching: The Spy who Loved Me.  It's difficult to know what is real and what is not in a relationship, when the person in question has been trained in dissociation to the point where he may not even know who he is himself.

A video about a man with cerebral palsy who makes paintings using a typewriter.  (The 2014 article is in the present tense, but actually Paul Smith died in 2007.)

Be My Eyes, an iPhone app that allows sighted people to help blind people from afar.

Science Falsely So Called: Fundamentalism and Science.  The evolution of the characteristically modern movement in Christianity called Fundamentalism, named after a publication called "The Fundamentals".  (While I do not share the Fundamentalist approach to interpreting Scripture or Nature, it seems unnecessarily insulting to them to use the same term to describe fanatics in other religions, that like to blow people up.)

Wonder and the Ends of Inquiry.  The surprisingly ambivalent relationship between wonder and scientific inquiry.

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