Lydia McGrew on Divine Timelessness (Part 2 of 3)

By | July 1, 2014


This post is the second in a three-part commentary on philosopher Lydia McGrew’s essay on divine timelessness published in the latest volume of The Christendom Review.

In part 1 of this series, I critique three of her arguments in favor of divine timelessness: arguments based on divine transcendence, immutability, and perfection. In part 3, I will examine her arguments against two competing views: divine sempiternality and William Lane Craig’s hybrid view according to which God is timeless in the absence of creation and temporal since creation.

In this part, I will consider her rebuttals of arguments against divine timelessness. It should be noted that McGrew’s treatment does not purport to be exhaustive. She restricts her focus to two main classes of arguments: (1) those which contend that a timeless God cannot truly relate to a temporal creation, and (2) those which argue against the B-theory of time, which divine timelessness is very plausibly thought to entail. It should also be noted that her concern in this section of her essay is defensive. She is not aiming to provide refutations of the objections she considers, but only to raise enough questions and poke enough holes in the objections so that a proponent of divine timelessness need no longer feel threatened by them.

How can a timeless God relate to creation?

Here McGrew focuses on issues of causality. More particularly, she is concerned to rebut the charge that causation is essentially temporal, such that for A to cause B both A and B must be temporal. If that is so, then a timeless God can’t create, much less interact with creation, while remaining timeless.

In my view, this is a serious objection and significantly harder to rebut than McGrew realizes. At any rate, her strategy is to muddy the waters enough so that the objection loses its cogency. The first point she makes is that it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to answer many types of “how can” questions: “How can my will to raise my arm cause my arm to rise? … How, precisely, does one electron repel another?” And, we might add, how can a timeless God cause temporal effects and respond to temporal events? In each case, McGrew suggests, a plausible answer is that “they just do.” And, indeed, it must be granted that at some point all causal stories bottom out in this way.

But, as McGrew realizes, this doesn’t go far enough, for it can be argued that causation is essentially temporal and moreover that causes invariably precede or are at least simultaneous with their effects. The will causing the arm to rise and one electron’s repelling another are cases in point. It’s hard to think of clear exceptions. Of course, if God is timeless, then this would be an exception, but that’s the point at issue.

For my part, I can accept the possibility of Creator-to-creation ontological dependence relations involving a timeless God. Strictly speaking, for reasons I give below, I wouldn’t call these “causal” relations. What we have here is an account on which God eternally wills that there be a creation of a specified sort and, in virtue of that willing, there is a creation of the specified sort. The creation, on this view, would not only ontologically depend on God, but would also timelessly exist, just as the static block universe of the B-theorist timelessly exists. (On a B-theory of time, there are temporal relations within the block universe, but the block universe itself, considered as a whole, is timeless. Even if one block universe can be embedded within another as a time within a hypertime, the outermost block universe must be timeless.)

What I can’t see is how a timeless God could decide to create one sort of world as opposed to another (or perhaps no world at all). I touched on this briefly in the previous post, but to elaborate a bit the reason is that deciding is an inherently temporal act. It essentially involves contemplation of two or more options and a preferencing of one over the others.  We have here a “before” state of contemplating-but-not-having-yet-decided, and an “after” state of having-decided. Because these two states are incompatible—one cannot conjointly be in both a decided and a not-yet-decided state with respect to the same decision situation—the transition from one to the other cannot be a merely “logical” sequence. It must be a real change in the agent. For God to make any decision at all is thus for Him to change. Since this is incompatible with divine timelessness, proponents of that view should eschew talk of God’s “choosing” or “deciding.” Instead, they should say “God eternally wills thus” and leave it at that. But this is hard to accept. A God who makes no choices is a radically non-providential God, more like a Cosmic Force than a Personal Agent.

Equally hard to make sense of is the possibility of creation-to-Creator causation with a timeless God and a temporal creation. I brought up this issue part 1, where I argued that divine responsiveness to free creatures (I used the example of Hezekiah’s prayer) sets up a situation in which we have an explanatory sequence moving from creatures to God. The key point is that whenever creatures make free decisions (where “free” entails the absence of causal determinism) how God responds to His creatures may depend on what they freely decide. In such cases God must, in effect, “wait and see” what they do, because if they do one thing, God will respond in one way and if they do something else, God will respond differently. Hence, God needs additional information from His creatures “before” He can responsively act. (If creatures were determined, of course, God could know what there were going to go without having to consult them. That’s why I limit this objection to God’s responding to free creatures.) Here we have a “before” state of God’s being not-yet-informed as to what His creatures do and an “after” state of God’s being so informed. Since these two states are mutually incompatible, they cannot be realized conjointly, but only in succession. The transition between them is thus a real change in God.

In any case, let’s return to McGrew. She mentions the well-known attempt of Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann to define a relation of “Eternal-Temporal simultaneity” that can be used to characterize the interactions of a timeless God with a temporal creation. But she concurs with the assessments of William Lane Craig and Paul Helm that this attempt fails to shed any real light on the question. As she puts it, it involves “unnecessary further obscurity without any real elucidation to show for the effort.”

Instead, McGrew endorses Helm’s strategy, which, as she puts it, holds that God “eternally and timelessly wills and causes all of His effects.” As I’ve argued above, this is correct. If God is timeless, then there cannot be a moment in God at which He has not-yet-decided anything. Hence, His will must be eternally settled. Further, there cannot  be a moment in God at which He is not-yet-informed about creaturely actions. Rather, all of His effects must be eternally settled, independently of creaturely input. As a theistic determinist, Helm is quite okay will all of this. He believes that God is the ultimate sufficient cause of all that ever happens. I have no idea whether McGrew is a theistic determinist, though I suspect not. In any case, that’s the bullet one has to bite for this strategy to work (unless one adopts a certain quirky open future model I noted in part 1—a model that, to my knowledge, no one endorses.)

Divine timelessness and the B-theory of time

There is a fundamental division in the metaphysics of time between A-theories, which hold that the totality of reality is non-constant, and B-theories, which hold that it is constant. If we consider reality from an absolute or “God’s eye” perspective, on an A-theory reality would be dynamic. And since God’s knowledge of reality is necessarily perfect, God’s knowledge would have to change in order to track a changing reality. On a B-theory, in contrast, reality as viewed from a God’s eye perspective would be static. The B-theory is thus congruent with divine timelessness, but the A-theory is not. Hence, proponents of divine timelessness must be B-theorists (or deny the reality of time altogether).

McGrew accepts the above reasoning and is a B-theorist. Her concern in the second part of her rebuttal section is to respond to common criticisms of the B-theory. For if divine timelessness entails a B-theory of time, and if the B-theory can be shown to be false, then divine timelessness must be false. McGrew wants to defang this sort of objection by arguing that the B-theory has not been shown to be false.

One argument against the B-theory McGrew mentions is the “apparent irreducibility of tensed facts in motivating human action.” I won’t rehearse in detail the argument or McGrew’s response because I think she’s right that this isn’t a successful argument against the B-theory. The basic strategy for the B-theorist is to grant that our attitudes toward what we think of as the past, present, and future do play a role in motivating our actions and sentiments, but to insist that this is merely a subjective fact about us. We can understand this by seeing that all moments of our lives, on the B-theory, are equally real and are stretched out in sequence within the static temporal block universe in much the same way as frames of a movie film laid out on a table. Within successive “frames” of a person’s life they may have different tensed attitudes toward past, present, and future. But all of these attitudes are internal to the movie. They don’t imply that any of those frames are objectively past, present, or future.

McGrew next takes up Craig’s objection that on a B-theory “nothing ever really changes, nothing comes into existence or ceases to exist. Temporal becoming is an illusion.” [McGrew cites Craig, Time and Eternity, pp. 69, 142, 173, 197-199.] She concedes that this is “counterintuitive” and proceeds to argue that the B-theorist can make sense of temporal becoming. Again, I won’t rehearse the details of her response. The basic idea is that within the static temporal block a universe-wide frame can include an object or state of affairs while preceding or succeeding frames can lack that object or state of affairs.

In a sense, this is right. On a B-theory of time there is temporal becoming of a sort, but it is strictly relative and internal to the temporal block. When we step back from the block and consider things absolutely (i.e., from the proverbial God’s eye perspective), there is no becoming or change—the entire temporal block and everything internal to it remain statically and timelessly as they are. So in a sense Craig is right too. On a B-theory there is no real (i.e., absolute) becoming or change. Of course McGrew would insist that temporal becoming and change are real on a B-theory in virtue of the fact that there exists a temporal block  in which successive temporal frames have varying contents. But Craig’s not denying that.

The charge against the B-theorist can be pressed further, however. Why is the B-theorist’s so-called “temporal” block really a temporal block? Why is the asymmetric ordering of frames within the block really a matter of earlier than and later than? Why wouldn’t another non-temporal asymmetric relation serve just as well? My point in posing these questions is to suggest that the very temporality of the B-theorist’s so-called “temporal” block is problematic. Philosopher John McTaggart, the first person to introduce the A-theory/B-theory distinction, compared a B-series without an A-series to a fireplace poker that is hot on one end and cold on the other. There is an asymmetric ordering along the poker with respect to temperature, but we don’t call successive slices of the poker different “temporal” moments or think that they are ordered by relations of “earlier” and “later”. McTaggart’s point is that the poker is analogous to the B-theorist’s temporal block and thus it is gratuitous to describe such a block as “temporal” in the absence of an A-series that introduces an objective distinction between past, present, and future. Because McTaggart rejected the A-series (for independent reasons), he ultimately concluded that time is unreal. My question to McGrew is why isn’t McTaggart right about the B-series? Why isn’t the B-theory of time really a “no time” theory?

The last main objection against the B-theory that McGrew considers is the charge that it makes the static temporal block of creation co-eternal with God. I’ve argued above that this is indeed correct. From a timeless God’s perspective there is no “moment’ when God exists without creation and “then” another “moment” when God exists with creation. Both eternally exist together, though creation is of course ontologically dependent on God. McGrew seems to think that the universe being co-eternal with God would imply that it has no temporal beginning point. But this is a non sequitur. Setting aside the worries of my preceding paragraph, there’s no reason why the time series internal to the temporal block universe cannot be of finite duration and have a first temporal moment.

I want to close with one further objection against the B-theory that McGrew does not consider. I alluded to it above when I said that, strictly speaking, I wouldn’t describe the ontological dependence relations between a timeless God and temporal creatures as “causal” relations. I will now explain what I meant.

The root idea of causation is something like production or bringing about. For A to cause B is for A to bring about, or to contribute to the bringing about, of B. And for B to be “brought about” is for B to be produced, for B to come to exist. But, as we have seen, on a B-theory of time the ontological inventory of reality is static and unchanging. Considered from the God’s eye perspective, there is no becoming. Nothing is ever produced. Nothing happens. That’s why I’m inclined to say that, on a B-theory, there just isn’t any causation. Of course B-theorists like to talk as if there is causation, and they may give analyses of such talk along, say, Humean or counterfactual lines, but such talk is ultimately gratuitous for the same reason that, as McTaggart pointed out, talk of temporal relations is gratuitous in a strictly B-theoretical framework. To my mind, this is an excellent reason to reject the B-theory of time and, by extension, divine timelessness.

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