Saturday, March 3, 2018

On the Timelessness of God

With his theory of Relativity, Einstein threw a monkey-wrench into our understanding of time.  We always used to assume that there are three distinct divisions of time: past, present, and future.  The present is the only thing that has existence, because what is in the past is gone, and what is in the future has not yet come to be.  Time is viewed as a progression of existence.  Indeed, if you look at the Google definition of time (definition:time) you will see that it agrees with this intuitive understanding: the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.  But there are other definitions.  Merriam-Webster defines it as measured by change: a nonspatial continuum that is measured in terms of events which succeed one another from past through present to future.  In fact, without the notion of a changing state of affairs, the concept of time is essentially meaningless, since there is no way to distinguish one moment in time from another.  But Relativity theory confuses this intuitive notion of past, present, and future, because it removes our ability to say that event A precedes event B in time.  Therefore, there is no "present", and no way to definitively categorize all events as belonging either past, present, or future.

This has a significant impact on the way theists think about God, and they do not all agree with one another.  God could be timeless*, or he could exist in time, much the way we think of our own existence.  If the former is the case, it implies that God is unchanging and impersonal.  In a timeless existence, there is no change, there are no events, there is only one single non-changing state of affairs.  God himself is unchanging.  This corresponds to a Thomistic view of God.  On the other hand, if God exists in time, he can think (which implies a changing state of mind) and make decisions, and he can create things that didn't exist before.  This is a personal view of God, and it is shared by the majority of Christians.

The timeless, impersonal view of God can still be consistent with our own reality.  It implies that with respect to the existence of the universe, our past, present, and future are all part of God's creation, which all simply exist as an unchanging state of affairs from the perspective of God.  In other words, all of space and time exists at once, and is laid out like the contents of a book for God to see.  (This corresponds to the B-theory of time.)  God never decides to create the universe - it is just part of God's single, unchanging state of affairs, including its beginning and its end.  But from our own perspective, we don't see the whole book.  From our own perspective, we are limited to seeing only one point in time, which is constantly shifting, producing the illusion of past, present, and future.  In fact, the illusory aspect of "the present" is validated by Relativity theory, which tells us that there is no absolute present.

The other view of God - the personal God - implies a God who acts and makes decisions.  This is in line with more intuitive view shared by most theists.  The fact that this view involves a changing state of affairs means that this God must exist in time, although God's perspective of time doesn't necessarily correspond to our own perspective of time.  Nevertheless, it implies a sequence of events.  God decides to create the universe, and he does so, producing something that wasn't there before, from his own perspective, and continues to exist only as long as God maintains his act of creation.  (And this corresponds to A-theory of time.)  WL Craig holds this notion of a personal God that exists in "ontological time".

Both theories create some problems for theists.  For the timeless, impersonal God, the notion of free will is really incoherent.  Everything is laid out for God to see.  There is no guessing as to which souls will be saved, and no need to go through the drama of life in order to find out.  It's all just part of the one and only state of affairs, and that doesn't change.  So why bother with the drama of life?  And what do those souls have to look forward to?  The ultimate boredom of unchanging eternal existence.  For the personal God that exists in time, there is the issue that God must have waited for an eternity (an infinite time) before deciding to create the universe, which has only existed for a brief limited time.  Why wouldn't he make an eternal universe?  Is he limited as to how many souls he can allow to exist with him?  There is also the problem of physical reality that points to the incoherence of the A-theory.  Relativity says that there is no absolute present.  Craig recognizes this issue, but gets around it by claiming that God is the absolute perspective for what constitutes the present, but that doesn't resolve the incoherency.  God or no God, there is no absolute present.

And then we have theists who are simply confused about the logical problems of time for theism.  Joe Hinman wants to have it both ways.  Hinman never discusses A-theory or B-theory.  He never mentions the issue of Relativity, leaving us to wonder whether he is aware of these things at all.  But he seems to think that God exists both in time and not in time.  For a God that exists in time, eternity is time that has no end (or no beginning).  But Joe calls that "non time".
He sees the problem i[n] Craig's thinking but turns around and makes the very same mistake. He's treating non time like it's time as though it's a very long time ...  - Hinman
Let's be clear.  An eternity is not non-time.  It is time without end.  Eternity allows a changing state of affairs.  Non-time doesn't.  And still, Joe agrees with Craig that god exists in time (as well as outside of it).
The thinking decision argument still allows us to argue for a personal God ... So God is beyond time. God is both in time and beyond it. - Hinman
But as I explained about the relationship between time and change, that doesn't make any sense at all.  For God, there is either a changing state of affairs, or there isn't.  Even God can't have it both ways.  But there you have it.

* For purposes of this article, I use the word 'timeless' to mean "without time", as in something that exists without the passage of time.  This is intended to be consistent with Joe's equating the word 'timeless' with "non time".  It should be understood that the more common usage of 'timeless' is equivalent to 'eternal'.  These two different senses of the word are not the same.  The former implies an unchanging state of affairs.  The latter implies something that persists through the passage of infinite time, and does entail an unchanging state of affairs.


  1. Well, there's no "present" for us, with our limited perspective but for an omniscient being that was aware of every possible relativistic frame there could be a real "present" ... Um, "present" in the integration of them all?

    All the possible pasts, present, and future frames exist in that one perspective? How's that for an "eternal present?"

    1. Well, that's one way of defining 'present', but it does not correspond to the definition we normally think of. The real issue is that with Relativity, there is no present. Mine is not the same as yours, or anyone else's. So even if God says that his inertial frame in space-time is the standard (which would imply that God has a unique position within the universe), it still doesn't resolve the problem. Because that particular 'present' still doesn't apply anywhere but that one inertial frame. It is not universal in any sense of the word.

  2. Joe Hinman (at his own blog) makes this comment:

    see he expects crowing and strutting if you are prancing around declaring you know all about something you just don't know it.It's only if you wave your ignorance about like a badge that you really know, like he does. I don't claim to be an expert om relativity so Ii don't crow and strut about relativity, I m not impressed by those who constantly issue forth conventional wisdom.


    I know it allllllllllllll

    To which I reply:
    Joe, I'm not strutting and crowing. All of these things were discussed by Craig, and you said you agree with Craig. But you depart with Craig on the issue of whether God exists in "non time". In fact, your own position is self-contradictory, because you are saying that God exists both in time, and without time. But that is the key point in determining whether God is personal or impersonal.

    1. It wouldn't seem such an issue for a bodiless omnipresent being?

      Time exists within the universe as a measure of change, as you said, so if God exists "everywhere" within the universe then God also exists in time, in every possible relativistic frame, as I said.

      But if his or her universal presence doesn't exhaust God, if some of God transcends the universe, then God would be existing "outside of time" (as we know it) too, right?

    2. The thing is, neither space (according to the phenomena of quantum entanglement) nor time (relativity) in the way we experience them seem to be such absolute things anyway. We don't really know what they are....

    3. Did you read Craig's article? It's not an issue of transcendence. It's a metaphysical issue of time. I'm not saying that our sense of time must correspond to God's (in fact I specifically pointed that out). But for God to be "personal", God must have presence in some kind of time. Craig calls it "ontological time". On that particular point, I agree with his logic.

  3. Joe Hinman (at his own blog) makes this comment:

    I get confused, some people talk about A as impersonal,timeless, beyond everything just mathematical. some talk like that's the B after take out the phenomenological which is also B, recognizes the illusory nature of all that is not mathematical.

    I reply:
    It helps if you start by understanding what they mean by personal and impersonal. A personal God is one who thinks and acts. An impersonal God is one who is completely static and unchanging, which implies that he does not think and does not take any action. If you read Aquinas on the topic of God's mind, you will see that in the Thomistic view, God does not think (in any manner that humans could relate to) or move (take action). God is completely unchanged and unmoved by any process or action. That is very different from the more commonly held view of theists like Craig, who say that God thinks and acts - in other words, the mind God is personal.

    What does that have to do with time? If there is no movement, there is no time. If there is movement, there must be time. So the impersonal god exists without time, and the personal god exists in time. This is not a matter of opinion. It is simply logic. But note that the time we are referring to here is God's time - not our own time. The two don't have to be the same.

    With regard to time in the physical universe, the A theory says that only the present exists. The past has passed out of existence, and the future has not yet come to exist. This is what Craig believes. The B theory says that everything exists at once. The present is just one place in the continuum. This is consistent with the idea that everything can be seen at once. God may have the ability to see it all, even if we don't. This is the idea that you have expressed in the past.

    But that is independent of God's own time. The reality of the physical universe might be A-theory or B-theory, or something else. Regardless of that, God could still be personal or impersonal, because he is outside the physical universe, and whatever time he may experience is not (or doesn't have to be) the same as the time we experience. We already know from relativity that the experience of time is relative to the observer. (And that's why Craig is wrong.)

    Which version of God you subscribe to is a matter of opinion. However if you say that you believe some element of both, you are not coherent. You can't logically have it both ways.

    Joe is indeed confused.