Is God in time?
June 16, 2004 — 8:43

Author: David Efird  Category: Concept of God  Comments: 7

In his ‘Eternity’ (in Quinn and Taliaferro (eds.), A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 257-63), Brian Leftow canvasses some of the more prominent arguments for God being in time. Some of these are (quoting Leftow and retaining his labeling):
(b) God is alive. Lives are events. Events must occur in time. So God is in time.
(g) God acts. Actions are events. Again, events must occur in time.
(h) God is a cause. Either causal relations link only events, or they also link agents to events (“agent causality”). If the first, then as events occur only in time, God is in time. If the second, the agent’s action is dated at the time of the effect. So if God has any temporal effects as an agent cause, He is in time. (pp. 260-61)
Leftow notes that all of these arguments assume that:
(E) Events must occur in time.
He thinks that all of the arguments for this assumption are bad arguments. I think he is wrong about one of them.

Leftow observes that one argument for (E) is the following (again quoting Leftow and retaining his labeling):
(4) Necessarily, any event which occurs before or after another event occurs in time, and
(5) Necessarily, any event occurs before or after another event. (p. 262)
Leftow claims that (5) is false. He writes, ‘The mereological sum of all events is an event. So is the existing of all of spacetime. No event occurs before or after either’ (p. 262).
But it is simply not obvious that the mereological sum of all events is an event. On the contrary, there are good reasons for supposing this not to be the case: it seems that it is part of the nature of events that they be able to serve as causes, and to be a cause, an event must have a sort of unity.
Now some mereological sums do exhibit the sort of unity required of causes. Take for instance the mereological sum of events constituting the stock market crash of 1929. It seems reasonable to say that the stock market crash, which is a mereological sum of events, caused a number of things, many of which were horrifically bad. So, it seems, the stock market crash of 1929 is itself an event because it has the requisite sort of unity to serve as a cause.
But not all mereological sums of events are like this. Take the mereological sum of the event of England losing to France last Sunday in Euro 2004 and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. There seems to be no sort of unity there, and, it seems, the mereological sum of these two disparate events can’t serve as a cause. And so this mereological sum is not itself an event.
Now what is the mereological sum of all events like? Is it like the mereological sum of events constituting the stock market crash of 1929 or is it like the mereological sum of England losing to France and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon?
I suppose I tend to think that it lacks the sort of unity that the stock market crash of 1929 has. But I don’t think I have to argue my case. Rather, I think I have to be convinced that it does have the right sort of unity. That’s so because there’s a well known compositionality fallacy lurking here:
If a is F, b is F, and c is F, it does not follow that the mereological sum of a, b and c is F.
As one instance: let E1, . . ., En denote all the events. It does not follow that the mereological sum of E1, . . . En is an event.
Now I’m prepared to countenance the possibility that:
If E1, . . ., En denote all the events, the mereological sum of E1, . . . En is an event.
is a true instance of a false principle. But I need to be convinced that it is. What special considerations come into play here to make it true? I can’t think of any.
So, provisionally, I think that the argument from (4) and (5) to (E) is a good one. And so the arguments (b), (g) and (h) remain undefeated for God’s being in time.

  • Consider the mereological sum of all events in history. It’s safe to assume there are no events before or after it. You want to say that the mereological sum of all events isn’t causally interactive. I think the mereological sum of all events in history is causally interactive if God is atemporal. If God’s atemporal, then some of God’s attitudes toward creation history as a whole (e.g. that it’s good, that things all work out in the end, that justice is done, that the eschatological triumph at the end of history rights all wrongs, that the fall of humanity is a black mark on history, etc.) will be caused by the mereological sum of all events in history. So, even assuming that something needs to stand in a causal relation to be an event, this should count as an event if God is atemporal. Doesn’t the argument then beg the question against the atemporalist?

    June 16, 2004 — 10:12
  • christian

    This seems like a good point to me. One point worth mentioning is that a consequence of this defence is that people can have an awful lot of control over God’s states if they can make him feel one way or another. I don’t think this is bad though. Second, if God atemporally knows all that will happen, then it isn’t obvious that the sum of the events is causing something to happen in God. It is hard to see anyway, how one would change one’s feelings toward p after p occurred if one knew that p would occur all along. When talking about all p’s, it is even less obvious to me.

    June 16, 2004 — 17:36
  • It would seem rather strange to me for one to posit an atemporal creator God who exists as the exhaustive cause of this mereological sum of events while simultaneously asserting that the latter can be the cause of anything at all in the former.
    But maybe that is just saying the same thing as christian. I always find it awkward to try to use the language of cause and effect beyond the realm of experience anyway.

    June 16, 2004 — 18:56
  • It seems to me that the atemporal god tends to deceive his creations quite a bit. A lot of revelation (at least Christian revelation) demonstrates causal interaction b/t God and creation. This extends even to emotional states as Christian points out.
    What disturbs me about Helm is that his account for these types of occurences is so blatanly at odds with the spirit of the text, that it makes revelation look like an intentionally deceptive source of information. This is not to say that he doesn’t have an account, just that I find the account so outrageous I think it’s well worth abandoning the ‘eternal’ view to avoid the consequences.

    June 17, 2004 — 0:28
  • I don’t think Scripture presenting God as acting “in time” is deceptive, even if God were in fact atemporal.
    Get this. So I can’t experience anything, no matter how divinely inspired, without it being given to me as temporal. It is a fundamental aspect of human experience that cannot be escaped.
    If the Bible was written by men, for men, then there is nothing inaccurate about portraying God’s acts as temporal, even if he is objectively atemporal, because those acts could never be given to us in any way other than temporally.
    You could say that the text should still tell us the objective truth at some point, but the Bible is silent on many points, abstract or otherwise, that Christian theologians nevertheless cling to as truth.

    June 17, 2004 — 11:50
  • At least on a counterfactual theory of causation, there’s no problem here. If such events hadn’t happened, God wouldn’t have had that attitude. I’m not sure how other theories of causation would handle atemporal events.

    June 17, 2004 — 11:50
  • I think what I’m getting at is something along the lines of:
    (1) True Divine revelation would not deceive the reflective reader (that’s vague, i know, shoot me).
    (2) A reflective reading of Christian revelation depicts God acting temporally.
    (3) Therefore, either Christian revelation is not true Divine revelation or God is temporal (by 1, 2).
    Clearly (1) needs some serious polishing, but that’s more or less the spirit of what I’m advocating. (1) should still leave room for theological debates wherein we try to commensurate seemingly opposed passages of scripture, but I think the depiction of God as ‘acting temporally’ is more or less ‘across the board’ in Christian revelation. I agree that we can find philosophical consistency between revelation and the eternal God, but that’s not what I’m concerned about.

    June 17, 2004 — 21:34