Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A Short Argument against Divine Timelessness

First, the position I want to argue against is essential divine timelessness - the idea that, of necessity, God cannot change in any respect or stand in any temporal relations.

Second, here is my argument:
  1. God is able to exercise providence.
  2. God's exercising providence entails the making of choices on God's part.
  3. A choice is an essentially temporal event.
  1. God is not essentially timeless.
Third, some comments:
  • (1) is accepted by (nearly) all theists. What theist wants to deny that God is able to exercise providence, that is, to decide whether to create, what kind of world to create, whether and when to intervene in that world, and so forth?
  • (2) is accepted by (nearly) all theists. For example, when Calvinists speak of 'election' and divine 'decrees' they are speaking about God's choices. When Jews speak of themselves as the 'chosen' people, that means chosen by God. Examples could be multiplied, but you get the point.
  • (3) seems to be a conceptual truth. To make a choice one must, first, have a range of two or more available options (I can do either A or B or ...) and, second, narrow down that range to one (say, A). These two stages of choice give us a 'before' and 'after', a real change or transition from one to the other. Hence, choices are essentially temporal events.
If this is right, then while the proponent of essential divine timelessness can say that God eternally 'wills' A, he cannot literally and consistently hold that God 'chooses' A. This conflicts with divine freedom. An essentially timeless God can no more exercise providence or 'elect' someone unto salvation than a rock can 'choose' to stay where it's at.


At 11/06/2007 9:59 PM, Blogger Ian said...

Hi Alan, I think the defender of divine timelessness (such as myself) can and should reject 3. Far from being a conceptual truth, 3 seems to me, well, obviously false! To have a choice one must indeed have a narrowing of options which is posterior to a prior consideration of a range of choices. But it's quite simply a mistake to think that because one must be prior to the other that it must also be temporally prior. Here all we need is a relation of dependence (this relation may simply be causation if, as I believe, causation need not be between non-simultaneous events). But there seems no reason to think that, in addition to the dependence relation between the two episodes, there must also be an additional temporal relation as well. What would that even add to the intrinsic nature of what's going on that we don't already get from the appropriate dependency? God's decision is explained by his consideration of the range of options - the mere fact that it is a decision doesn't seem to give us any reason to think that anything temporal needs to be added to this.

At 11/06/2007 10:46 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hello Ian,

Good to hear from you. Given that we come from opposite sides of the tracks regarding the metaphysics of time, I'm not surprised that you find fault with my argument. I am, however, surprised that you find (3) "obviously" false. That seems over-stated to me. Even if you're right that the sort of priority/posteriority that is involved in choosing need not be temporal, I submit that the temporal interpretation is easily the most natural interpretation, as attested by our own experience.

You suggest that some non-temporal type of "dependency" could work. Frankly, I don't see how. I see only two possibilities here: logical dependency and causal dependency.

I hope that we can agree that mere "logical" dependency isn't going to cut it. No purely logical move can take one from "Either A or B" to "A", where "A" is a contingent truth.

You suggest instead a kind of non-successive causal dependency. I think this leads to an incoherence, for God's being in the undecided "Either A or B" state of mind is incompatible with his being in the decided "A" state of mind. Since these two states of mind are incompatible, they cannot both apply to God "at once". Hence, it seems to me, these two states of mind must be consecutive.

Well, come to think of it, you could resolve the incompatibility by ascribing the "Either A or B" state and the "A" state to different "parts" of God's psyche, kind of like a split personality. That strikes me as a rather bizarre and desperate measure to preserve divine timelessness.

Anyway, I like to close by posing you a question: What do you find attractive about divine timelessness? What arguments for that position do you find particularly compelling?

At 11/07/2007 7:23 AM, Blogger Wonders for Oyarsa said...

Hi Alan,

A few questions about divine timelessness. Perhaps I am exposing my own ignorance here, but is speaking of divine timelessness the same as speaking of the eternal nature of God? These seem to me different - one is a negation "God is not x" and the other is speaking of something larger "God is beyond x".

I have a feeling we are running into the issues I outlined in my essay The Condemnation of Philosophy - where we are speaking of things by negation, and by consequence making the picture in our minds smaller. We don't know enough about the divine experience to know that choice and eternity are mutually exclusive.

Insofar as we are speaking from the Christian perspective, and are looking at the Biblical model, God is not spoken of primarily as being timeless. His agency interacts with ours in a way that seems contingent on sequences of events. There is likely far more to the picture than this, but to adopt any theory of divine "timelessness" that wholly opposes this picture seems to me to be a mistake. But I don't think that means denying the eternal nature of God.

At 11/07/2007 9:18 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hello Wonders (if I may),

I don't know of any theists who would deny that God has an "eternal nature". But the word "eternal" can be ambiguous. For example, some people think of "eternal life" as a timeless state, whereas others take it to be a temporal, albeit unending state.

A better term, I think, is to speak of God's "essence", which includes all of the attributes and properties that God necessarily possesses. Thus, most theists would say that God is essentially (necessarily) loving, omnipotent, and omniscient. But most theists would deny that God is essentially (necessarily) a creator, or at any rate, a creator of this world. In other words, God could have refrained from creating (this world), but (lucky for us) didn't.

So it appears that some things about God are essential or necessary, whereas other things about God are non-essential or contingent. People on both sides of the divine timelessness issue usually agree on that much.

I agree with you that divine timelessness doesn't follow from a straightforward reading of the Bible. Quite the contrary in fact.

At 11/07/2007 8:44 PM, Blogger Ian said...

Hi Alan, it would of course be an overstatement to say that 3 is obviously false in the sense that anyone thinking about it would be struck that it is obviously false. I probably wasn't clear enough - I meant just that it was it was obviously false to me, not necessarily that it was obviously false simpliciter (that would indeed be an overstatement). I do agree that when we normally think of priority we naturally tend to think of temporal priority (though, of course, I don't think that's very good evidence for anything other than that we are temporal and tend to be around lots of temporal things).

As far as logical dependency goes, by the logical dependency relation did you have in mind something like the logical entailment relation (that is, p is logically dependent on q iff q entails p)? If so, then I agree with you about logical dependency working here. But there are other kinds of logical relations that might work here too. Deductive logic, after all, isn't the only kind of logic there is. The content of a given state might in some sense logically depend on that of another even if neither entails the other. That is, the content of the first might supply reasons for the second without having to be strong as to entail it.

But whether or not that helps any, my preferred dependency relation would have to be something like causation (or its atemporal equivalent). I agree that the state prior to the decision and the state posterior to it would be incompatible if they were both on the same causal/explanatory level - that is, they were both had causally/explanatorily "at once", that is, neither is prior to the other. But to be prior in the relevant sense it is not necessary to be temporally prior. The only reason it might seem otherwise is that our own causally prior states tend to also be temporally prior to the causally posterior ones - its because we are temporal, finite creatures who must act in a timely fashion where temporal and causal priority largely go hand in hand that we are set up so. But that doesn't mean there could be a being where the causally prior is there in the absent of the temporally prior. So long as one state is prior to another in the relevant sense, they really aren't incompatible at all - the one, after all, explains the existence of the other or gives rise to it.

As for why I find divine timelessness attractive, there are a lot of reasons, most of which I don't have time to defend here. For instance, I think God created time and that, I think, requires that he be timeless. I also think that relativity theory is most plausibly interpreted as requiring the relativity of simultaneity (and I think relativity is approximately true) and since God has an objective point of view that strongly encourages the view that he is timeless (I don't find this one as persuasive, but it still offers some support even if it isn't a lot). Another reason that I find divine timelessness compelling is that I think the existence of time is contingent, that anything temporal must necessarily be so, but that God is also a necessary being - ergo, it is impossible that God be temporal. I also, of course, find divine timelessness fairly natural and much more plausible given that I am an eternalist. And even more so given that I think tense is not an irreducible feature of reality. Even though you disagree obviously with these last two reasons, I'm sure you can see how B-theory eternalism certainly pushes you strongly in this direction. There are other reasons, of course, but that's a fair sampling of it. That, and I don't think there's any arguments against it that are convincing enough for me, of course!

At 11/08/2007 8:06 AM, Blogger Paul Manata said...

Ian makes good points. I'd also deny the seemingly creaturely understanding of 'choice' as used in the argument and applied to God. Alan is reasoning from his experience of choosing. To me it seems odd to say that at one time God had two options, A or B, thought about for a time, and then chose, say, A. If God is omniscient, he always knew he'd "choose A." Where's the argument for why God would reason this way? Reason discursively, not immediately? We use the word "choice" but is that univocal with what God does when he "chooses" to instantiate one possible world over another?

At 11/08/2007 10:35 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hello Ian,

You say that "to be prior in the relevant sense it is not necessary to be temporally prior" but you merely assert this. You never show that this is the case. Instead you change the topic and go epistemological on me, talking about human finitude and such.

Sure, we're finite and limited in all sorts of ways, but why should that count as a defeater for my argument? Any argument that anyone can give for anything whatsoever is going to have to appeal to premises that "seem" true from the arguer's finite and temporal perspective. What you've given is an all-purpose consideration supporting human fallibility, not a defeater specific to my argument.

So I'd like to encourage you to engage with my argument more directly. I've given some positive reasons for thinking that premise 3 is true. If you can, I'd like you to give me some positive reasons for thinking it's false - rebutting defeaters, not undercutting defeaters.

At 11/08/2007 10:40 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...


Thanks for answering my question about your motivations for divine timelessness. It helps to have a better sense of where you're coming from in our discussions.

While we certainly don't agree about the respective merits of the arguments for and against divine timelessness, I do agree with you that divine timelessness is much easier to blend with a B-theory of time.

At 11/08/2007 10:54 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Paul,

The discussion of "choice" in my argument is not nearly as anthropomorphic as you suppose. All I'm arguing is that choice involves two distinct states - an undecided state (before), and a decided state (after). Nothing in that requires that God "[think] about it for a time" or mull it over discursively. For an infinitely intelligent being not limited by a finite processing speed, making a decision doesn't require a span of time, but it does, I think, require an instant of time. The very making of a choice requires a transition from one state to a different state. Let that transition be instantaneous. Still, a transition or change from one state to another just is a before-after sequence and so defines an instant of time.

At 11/08/2007 8:51 PM, Blogger Ian said...

Hi Alan, I'm not sure you understood why I mentioned finitude. I only mentioned as something which, in conjunction with the fact that we are temporal, makes us tend to think of temporal priority when we think of priority. By finite I just had in mind things like the fact we aren't omniscient and aren't omnipotent (I included this "finiteness" in my description only because I think another sort of being might not as plausibly confuse senses of priority like we do - that's all). But I think most people would agree with that, whether they agree with my position on divine timelessness or not. After all, priority when its logical isn't temporal but that doesn't stop students, when I use the word "prior" thinking of it in temporal terms. This is just to say that there are various kinds of priority, they come apart, and temporal priority is just one of them (and that we tend to confuse them).

Since that's so (here I'll just rephrase what I was saying in my last comment and make more of it explicit), we need an argument to show that one kind of priority must necessarily also be attended by another sort. And as I claimed, the priority of one state over another is what makes otherwise incompatible states possible in a single individual. This is how it is with us. The question is whether that priority is merely causal or whether it must also be temporal. I see no reason that it must also be temporal since causal priority seems be doing all the work here in sorting out states from one another into rational structures of reasons and choices. Once that's in place, adding temporal priority into it seems superfluous. So we need a good argument to show what's missing and why we can't have it with causal priority. That sure seems to engage with your argument to me - maybe it wasn't clear enough in my last comment (which wouldn't surprise me since I tend to write these things when I'm tired and not very careful anyways ;) ).

At 11/08/2007 10:25 PM, Blogger Paul Manata said...

Hi Alan,

Thanks for the reply.

I forgot that you were an open theist, I think that may color the assumptions in your argument. As such, I don't think your argument that forceful since I don't hold some of your presuppositions. For example, I note that you call God "infinitely intelligent" as opposed to omniscient. Anyway, you said:

"All I'm arguing is that choice involves two distinct states - an undecided state (before), and a decided state (after)."

I guess we'd have to debate that assumption. You see, I do not think God has an "undecided state." In fact, I don't know what it means for an eternally all-knowing being (on my assumption) to be undecided about something. That just seems outright false. Again, given my assumptions.

For example, remember having a best friend. You always did everything with him. You two were inseparable. When it came time to pick teams for the pick up football game, you just knew you'd pick him. You weren't undecided. It was set. It was your plan before the time to choose teams even began. In this instance, when all the kids were lined up and you hadn't instantiated your plan/choice yet, would you say that you passed from a state of undecidedness to one of decidedness? It's not as if you were undecided since you knew who you'd pick. Or, ask me if I'd save my son or your son if I could only save one in a burning building? I know who I'd chose. That I still had options, and did "choose" my son over yours, doesn't mean that I was undecided about this before the instance was instantiated.

Maybe those are weak analogies, I don't know. All break down at points. I'm just trying to emphasize that your arguments makes philosophical and theological assumptions I (and many others) are not willing to grant. I still think you're reasoning from your experience of making choices to the infinite, timeless :-), God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

At 11/09/2007 12:33 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hello Paul,

Actually, open theism has nothing to do with my argument against divine timelessness. When I speak of God as "infinitely intelligent" that should not be understood as "opposed" to omniscience. To be as clear as possible let me say that I believe that God is essentially omniscient in the sense that he necessarily knows all and only truths. We may disagree on the content of God's omniscience, but we are in 100% agreement on the fact of divine omniscience.

Furthermore, I agree with you that God doesn't "have" an undecided state. I think he "was" in such a state, but not for any span of time. And I do not think he is, even partially, in such a state now.

I like your illustration of picking teammates, though I don't think it illustrates the point you think it does. Distinguish between the mental action of choosing and the physical action of carrying out a choice previously made. If I'm already committed to picking my friend (should he still be available to be picked) then my picking him is really an instance of the latter, not the former.

As I understand your view, God's choices have, so to speak, "always already" been made. What I want to say is that if that's right, then they aren't, strictly speaking, choices. What you should say is that God eternally "wills" thus-and-so, and not that God has "chosen" thus-and-so.

At 11/09/2007 12:55 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hello Ian, in your latest reply you say

The question is whether that priority is merely causal or whether it must also be temporal. I see no reason that it must also be temporal since causal priority seems be doing all the work here.

Fairly stated, but I thought I gave a pretty descent argument above to support my position. In case it wasn't clear, let me lay it out for you:

1. A choice necessarily involves a transition from an undecided state to a decided state.
2. These two states are mutually incompatible (one can't be both decided and undecided about the same things simultaneously).
3. Hence, either these two states obtain in succession (temporal sequence) or they pertain to two different parts of the choser that stand in an asymmetric dependency relation.
4. The latter is highly implausible .
5. Therefore, the two states obtain in temporal succession.

In defense of (4) a couple points can be made:
(a) It is incompatible with the tradition doctrine of divine simplicity.
(b) It destroys the psychological unity of the choser.

You may be happy to dispense with (a). Many theists are. But (b) I think is not so easy to deal with.

At 11/09/2007 8:04 AM, Blogger Paul Manata said...

Hi Alan,

Thanks for the reply.

I do not think God "was in" an undecided state. This pushes my point back. I don't see how an always omniscient being ever "was in" an undecided state. That seems incoherent to me.

You said, " As I understand your view, God's choices have, so to speak, "always already" been made. What I want to say is that if that's right, then they aren't, strictly speaking, choices. What you should say is that God eternally "wills" thus-and-so, and not that God has "chosen" thus-and-so."

Yes, given how you're defining choice, that is what I'd say. In another sense, God instantiated one possible world - the one where you're smart and I'm not - instead of another one - the opposite of the above. There were multiply possible worlds God could have instantiated if he had desired to do so. But, he always knew that he'd instantiate the one with a smart Alan and a dumb Paul. There were other options, he wasn't undecided about which one to do, but he "chose" this one rather than others. Anyway, in the Reformed tradition, God knows everything about creation because he knows his decree. So, will or decree or ordination does come into play here as the more appropriate biblical terminology, so I say!

I actually think people would pre-philosophically agree with my use of choice. Say there is a mushroom dish and a steak dish out at a buffet. I DO NOT eat mushrooms. When I went to the buffet, one could say, "Here are your choices." There were many options, I chose steak. I knew I would. It was still a choice. I wasn't *forced* to pick steak.

So, I disagree with your conception of what a choice entails (even for humans!), and thus I don't find the argument compelling. I think it makes my real choosing of steak over mushrooms not a choice. The hostess would not say, "Here are the choices you've already made."

Or, take my son/your son in the building. I don't ever think I was in an undecided state about that. Since there would be two possible alternatives in the building, I would have a choice. I would be making a choice between two alternatives. Possibly there would be much discussion on the talk show circuits about my choice - was it fair, right, etc.

At 11/09/2007 4:06 PM, Blogger Ian said...

Hi Alan, I thought what I was doing was precisely denying that 3 is true if "succession" is understood only as temporal succession. That's what I think needs argument. Priority or succession - not necessarily temporal succession - seems to be enough to me to allow having these incompatible states. I don't see why we need to lay a temporal layer on top of it. 3 just doesn't seem to me to be true because it isn't exhaustive. I'm wondering why those are the only options.

I'd also be open to what Paul says (though in a less Calvinist vein) - if "choice" refers to what goes on when we voluntarily do something temporally, then it doesn't seem all that bad that God doesn't choose in that sense so long as he wills that something be the case based on reasons he has. That seems to be enough for providence all by itself. But I'd be more inclined to defend the idea that God still chooses what to do.

At 11/10/2007 9:58 AM, Blogger Paul Manata said...

Hi Ian,

I have no problem using the language of God "choosing." It's when we say that "choice" *essentially* or *necessarily* involves moving from an undecided state to a decided one. I don't think God had an undecided state. God alway knew what he would do. No waffeling there! Anyway, it seems to me that if you have various alternaites, and you pick one (or some, many, etc) and not others, and you do so for reasons, and you were not forced to do so, then you've made a choice. I don't see what's problematic about the idea that: "I am decided for option X over option Y, yet I still choose X over Y." It is this moving from one state to the other than Alan is using to get his "time" premise. If he can't show that a choice is *essentially* or *necessarily* moving from an undecided state to a decided one, then his premise can't do the work he needs it to do.

At 11/16/2007 2:38 AM, Blogger Enigman said...

Hi Alan... Whilst thinking about a recent post on Prosblogion, it's occurred to me that there might be a problem with even a temporally eternal God making choices; with a God with an infinite past choosing to Create.

Either Creation is unique (in which case God must have waited an infinity of time before doing it), or else there are infinitely many similar Creations in God's past. But in the latter case there is no way that God could have chosen to begin such a sequence. At any one of those Creations God could have chosen not to Create, but at each one God will already have Created infinitely many (so at no stage would God be able to choose not to be within such a sequence).

And in the former case, why would God want to wait an infinite amount of time to do something that was worth doing? To have to do that because of being enclosed by time seems like a pretty big limitation on God. And one can't even say that it's a logically necessary limitation, if God might exist beyond time; whence we might even start to lose our high prior probability of God... Personally I'm attracted to open theism, but it seems (e.g. from the comments above this one) to have its unattractive side too?

At 11/22/2007 11:34 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Enigman,

Sorry for the delayed reply. I've been busy sending out job applications the past two weeks.

Anyway, regarding your comment, while I reject divine timelessness, I don't think that commits me to the existence of an infinity of time before creation. Rather, I think that the moment of God's decision = the first moment of creation = the first moment of time.

In my view, a moment of time is a transition or boundary between two different states, not either the states themselves. Hence, no time elapses during God's 'undecided' state. It is God's decision, which effects a transition from 'undecided' (before) to 'decided' (after) that brings about the first moment of time. If that's right, then God wasn't "waiting around" before creation.

At 11/24/2007 6:29 AM, Blogger Shane said...


Would it make any difference if you challenged the conjunction of atemporality and EDF omniscience (which proponents of the former typically, if not invariably, assume)? In my mind, this further challenges the meaningfulness of any expression like "God freely chose X." But I'm far more of a novice than you gentlemen, and I may just be oblivious to something here. :-)

At 11/30/2007 7:31 AM, Blogger Enigman said...

Hi Alan, and thanks; I'm a huge novice in this area but (for what it's worth) your explanation satisfies me. (I can't conceive of such things, but I can conceive that they're possible.)

At 12/03/2007 5:22 AM, Blogger Enigman said...

Hi again (Dr. Who said two interesting things that I now recall, one was relatively recently, when there was this demon chained up near a black hole, and it said that it came from before time, and Dr. Who said that:) that made no sense, "before time." I wonder if there is a problem with having a timeless state before the start of time. And if it was not before it, would it coexist with it, so you'd have two gods, not one? (I'll be looking at Models of God this month, and maybe the answer's in there, though.) Anyway, the other was he said (years ago) that logic was just a way of being wrong with authority...

At 2/16/2008 12:53 PM, Blogger Billie Pritchett said...

Having read the argument and the replies, I would have to agree that premise 3 ought to be rejected. But before I address your argument against divine timelessness, I'll address your argument for a choice as requiring temporal succession. So here is your argument.

1. A choice necessarily involves a transition from an undecided state to a decided state.
2. These two states are mutually incompatible (one can't be both decided and undecided about the same things simultaneously).
3. Hence, either these two states obtain in succession (temporal sequence) or they pertain to two different parts of the choser that stand in an asymmetric dependency relation.
4. The latter is highly implausible .
5. Therefore, the two states obtain in temporal succession.

I would challenge the first premise. A choice could involve a new state with respect to an old state. This difference of states need not require temporal succession. Rather, if one exists/subsists/what have you outside of space and time, one's making a choice would be coterminous with all other of one's actions or events. So the third premise of your main argument is false, I would say, because you assume that a choice is a temporal event. But not for a being who would exist/subsist/whatever outside of space and time. All God's actions, even God's choices, would take place all at once.

Now, it is not clear how God's exercising providence would or could be causally efficacious for the spatiotemporal world, or how God could causally interact with this world. So one can put God's choice outside of space and time and have it be the case that since God exists outside of space and time, God's actions and events are simultaneous. But one loses the causal efficacy of the choice.


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