In the comments on Kevin’s post Divine Eternity and Libertarian Free Will, several commenters have raised the problem of how an atemporal God can know what time it is. There are several directions someone can go with this question, and I wanted to comment on it in a little more detail than seemed right in a comment thread. The main problem is as follows.
1. God is omniscient, i.e. God knows every true proposition.
2. God is atemporal, i.e. God does not experience events in temporal succession but instead experiences every temporal event timelessly.
3. The A-theory of time is correct, i.e. there is a fact beyond the facts about what happens before and after other events, namely the fact about which of those events is taking place now.
4. By 1 and 3, God knows what time it is.
5. If God knows what time it is, then God is in time.
6. By 4 and 5, God is in time.
7. By 2 and 6, we have a contradiction. So something above must be denied.
I don’t know of anyone who rejects omniscience to avoid this argument. Most people attracted to divine atemporality are doing so because they think it helps explain how God can know what is future to us. Most people who want to deny omniscience have probably already rejected 2.
It’s easy to avoid the argument by thinking of God as temporal. If God experiences events in temporal succession the way we do, then God can know what time it is because God experiences time as it passes. Since this argument is generally presented as an argument against the timeless conception of God, and I want to explore what atemporalists can say about this problem, I’m not going to pursue that option.
What seems to me to be the best view is just to deny that there’s anything special about tense. If you listed all the facts about what takes place in the world across all time, and you placed them in order indicating which are earlier and which are later, the A-theory of time says that there’s something more to be said. We still don’t know which time is now. There’s something special about now. You could know the whole temporal order from start to finish and which things take place when without knowing what time along the whole timeline is the present.
The B-theory says that such a claim is nonsense. There is no such further fact. Once you list all the facts about what takes place and what order they take place in, you’ve listed all the facts. If you ask what time it is now, then all you’re asking is what time it is at the time you’re asking. You’re using the word ‘now’ in the same way we use ‘here’. When we ask if we’re in the U.S. or Canada, you get one answer if you’re south of the line and a different if you’re just north of the line. Similarly, you get different answers if you ask what time it is, depending on when you ask it. It’s not as if there’s some further fact about when now is beyond the fact about when it is along the timeline that you ask the question, just as there’s no further fact about where here is beyond where you are spatially when you ask the question.
I happen to think the B-theory is correct, and I think it’s the best way to avoid the contradiction, but I don’t want to rule out a third way of avoiding the argument without examining it more closely. Several philosophers have tried to argue that you can maintain an A-theory of time while retaining God’s omniscience and atemporality without leading to the contradiction. The two I know the most about are from William Lane Craig and Brian Lefow.
Craig’s view is easier to grasp in terms of how it solves this problem. He doesn’t think of God as just atemporal. He says God exists in a parallel time dimension that has no duration, a point-dimension. It’s an eternal present. But he also thinks God is in time, so God isn’t really timeless. God is both eternal in experiencing the eternal present and temporal in experiencing succession the way we do. When speaking uncarefully, Craig says God was atemporal and then suddenly he created time and became temporal because he knew he’d have to sacrifice omniscience if he didn’t. He remains in the point-dimension called eternity while also experiencing succession in the timeline he created. This view is logically incoherent as stated, however. When he speaks more carefully, Craig doesn’t use the temporal language of God entering time suddently at the beginning of time, as if the eternal point-dimension is before time. I’ve critiqued Craig’s view in some detail in my review of God and Time: Four Views, ed. Greg Ganssle, published in Faith and Philosophy a year or two ago, but most of my problems with the view don’t relate to this issue. I do think Craig retains an A-theory and omniscience while thinking of God as in some sense timeless, but he doesn’t really think of God as timeless the way most people who use that term to descrinbe their views do. They mean not experiencing succession. He doesn’t think God is like that. So I think Craig has just denied premise 2.
The other way to avoid this argument while retaining omniscience, divine atemporality, and an A-theory of time is Brian Leftow’s. His conception of eternity includes all temporal events in eternity with God rather than having God in time with temporal events, so in that sense his view is the inverse of Craig’s. This helps him explain how God knows the order of events despite all the events’ being simultaneous with God’s eternal present, because there’s an ordering of the events in some other-than-temporal way in the timeline as it occurs in eternity. But that doesn’t help him answer the question at hand, because we’re worried about how God knows what time it is, an A-fact that is only knowable by someone in time who experiences duration and succession. There is no fact in eternity about what time it is now. Everything about time is in eternity with God except the A-facts. God just has access to the B-facts about which things are earlier or later than others (or simultaneous).
Leftow says several things about this problem, and it’s not entirely clear to me which one is his preferred view, but the general thrust of his response is to deny that the kind of omniscience traditional theism requires does not require God knowing this sort of thing. In particular, there are other kinds of knowledge that we can have that God can’t have (e.g. what it is like for a bat to be a bat, which requires being a bat), and traditional views of omniscience don’t consider those to be failures of omniscience. This is parallel to God’s inability to eat, walk, breathe, or sin, none of which threatens omnipotence on standard conceptions of omnipotence. If Leftow can get away with this (and I’m not sure I see a reason why he can’t), then I think he may have succeeded in defendng the omniscience, divine atemporality, and the A-theory of time from inconsistency. So while I myself hold to a B-theory, I don’t think it’s as clear as some do that you need to take that way out to avoid the contradiction claimed by the argument above.