In defense of eternity

Presentism seems to be popular among some Christian philosophers, William Lane Craig being the most prominent.  Allow me to defend the “block” view of time that the past and future really exist.

Objection to the idea that the past doesn’t exist

There are purely philosophical considerations that are, I believe, decisive on their own.  If the past is not real, there is no ontological ground upon which statements about the past can be true or false.  Piety toward ancestors would be meaningless.  No one could be responsible for past actions, but only present memories or expectations.  A totally forgotten crime really never happened.

Objection to the idea of a “flow” of time

The idea of a “flow” of time is ill-defined, because there is nothing with respect to which time could be said to flow.

Objection to abandoning the doctrine of God’s eternity

Abandoning a four-dimensional view of time means rejecting the doctrine of classical theology that God is atemporal.  If God exists in time, His knowledge must include A-series type propositions and thus must be time-dependent, which throws other classical divine attributes into question.  It also rules out the Boethian solution to the problem of divine foreknowledge and free will.  If God only sees the present but knows the future, determinism must be true.  Being a compatibilist, this doesn’t bother me much, but I expect it would bother many of you.

Objection to an ontologically preferred slicing of spacetime

Finally, there is the problem of positing a privileged foliation of spacetime.  The issue is not just that presentism must assume the existence of an absolute reference frame of which the laws of physics are ignorant, although that in itself is a strong mark against it.  The problem is rejecting the great philosophical insight of special relativity, that the whole idea of an absolute standard of simultaneity across all space was never part of our core intuition of the essence of time; it was always unneeded metaphysical baggage.

The core intuition of time is connected to causality:  the past influences the present (i.e. we remember it), and the present influences the future.  Relativity preserves this, in that for any two events all frames will agree on whether or not one event is in the other’s past light cone.  If two events cannot influence each other, common sense should tell us that they share no temporal relationship, and indeed they don’t.  Different frames will disagree about which of two spacelike-separated events happen first, but our real sense of time is time along a single timelike worldline (indeed most of the time philosophers think of time they’re imagining its passage along a single consciousness).  The reason we accepted the idea of absolute time is because we thought we needed it to make any sense of the dimension of time, but it turns out this isn’t true.  Recognizing this is a philosophical advance as well as a scientific one.

Extracting ontology from scientific theories is hazardous, but refusing to try–dismissing science as merely empirical as if anyone would devote time to it if we didn’t think we were pursuing the truth about things–is crazy.  Why not take light cone structure to reveal the truth about temporal relations between events, as it seems to?  There would be some weird consequences.  Strictly speaking, what happens on Alpha Centauri (4 lt yr away) the day after the light that just reached us was emitted is not yet in our past.  However, there is something close to a common rest frame between us, so a common solar system-Alpha Centauri time slicing of spacetime can be a useful construct.  Another example is that no even that occurs inside a black hole billions of years old is ever in our past (assuming we never fall into said black hole).  These ideas may take some getting used to, but I don’t see why they must be wrong.

Substances existing in time

One worthwhile objection is that, if a person thinks four-dimensionally, he will be led to the conclusion that his current body–himself as he is right now–is actually only a piece–an infinitesimal piece–of his 4D block body, just as his left half is only a piece of his body and not a whole.  However, we experience ourselves at each given time as being complete.  “Me now” is a very different thing than “my left half”.  The former has beliefs, responsibilities, etc, while the latter does not.  Indeed, this intratemporal completeness must indicate something profound, but I think it tells us something about substances (using this word, as usual, in the Aristotelian way) and how they relate to time rather than something about time per se.  It does seem that a true substance always has an overall state, and this state is a function of proper time along its worldline but not spatial location within the substance (or else it wouldn’t be an overall state).  This is presumably what makes absolute time theories credible–my body does have a frame (and I wouldn’t remain a substance for long if different parts of me were moving at relativistic speeds with respect to each other) and this is important for its persistence as a unitary entity.

12 Responses

  1. Protestants like Plantinga and Craig have done some good apologetic work, but they are often too beholden to modern philosophy. I prefer Feser and D.B. Hart.

  2. One concern I have regarding the simultaneity issue, is soteriological in nature. If one person dies before another, then that person can indirectly (by intercession) affect events relating to the rest of the other person’s life, but not vice versa. And it would be obviously problematic to say that a dead person could only intercede for those within the light cine of their own death. So mustn’t there be some measure by which things can be said to occur before or after one another absolutely, even if separated by great distances?

  3. @ArkansasReactionary: There’s actually a pretty simple solution for this, if one accepts that God is eternal and atemporal. It’s the same as the solution to the problem of how you can pray for the victims of a plane crash to have survived the crash, for example – either they have survived, and your prayers are superfluous, or they have not, and, barring an unlikely repeat of what happened with Lazarus, your prayers are futile. The trick is to think atemporally: every prayer that will ever be uttered by every person, dead or alive, is received by God in the same “instant”, the “instant” of eternity, as every action ever performed by God, thus allowing those actions to be influenced by the prayers.

  4. Ah yes, the idea that we can influence past events through our prayers, as long as we don’t know how the events turned out. I have some problems with this notion, but even granting it, the saints in Heaven would know of the answer to whether or not a past event they would pray for had gone one way or another. So I don’t see how that solves the issue, since saints are not strictly speaking eternal.

  5. Since nobody objects to the idea of praying for the assistance of someone facing a struggle right now, there should be no objection to praying for a particular outcome at a spacelike-separated event as well as one in the future. I also think praying for something in one’s past light cone can be justified as John K. lays out.

    By the way, in the onto-relativistic view, it would be problematic for a being to be embedded in time but not in space. There’s no reason an aspacial being couldn’t have its own internal clock, but there’s no natural way to synchronize it with anything in the corporeal universe. I don’t regard this as an objection to the B-theory of time. Incorporeal beings experiencing time like us really is odd (a bit like our idea of ghosts being localized in space), but implicit A-theory thinking keeps us from realizing it.

    Do the saints between their death and resurrection exist in space? Thomas Aquinas actually thought they did, arguing that a soul needs to remain tagged to its body in order to maintain individuation, but this led him into difficulties and I’ve expressed skepticism. It does mean, though, that for a Thomist the rest frame of a disembodied saint is something that makes sense.

  6. I’m curious to know what problems you might have with the notion, ArkansasReactionary. To be honest, I haven’t really given this particular matter much thought, so seeing the other side may be insightful, I suppose.

    As for Bonald’s explanation of St Thomas’ position, from what I understand of Thomism, this is incorrect. St Thomas does hold that, upon death, the body remains tagged to the soul, but also that the soul leaves the body, and that the person is the disembodied soul, not the body that is tagged to it. So his account ultimately does not have any bearing on whether souls exist in space between death and resurrection. (It is further easily demonstrable that holding the rest frame of a disembodied soul to be determined by that of its body is ludicrous. If a martyr had been hung, drawn and quartered, which quarter would determine the rest frame?)

    However, as the soul is the form of the body, a disembodied soul is the a form without matter – the same kind of thing an angel is. It would be supremely odd to say that angels are not in space, which would imply that the angel was not *really* in Jesus’ tomb, etc. If we can establish that form without matter can be located in space, it is entirely possible for disembodied souls to thus be located somewhere in space, and thus to be embedded in time as we know it.

  7. Actually, the idea of an angel being in a particular place is weird to me.

  8. I’m not sure why I didn’t think of this before, but we should let St Thomas speak for himself:

    Article 1. Whether an angel is in a place?

    Objection 1. It would seem that an angel is not in a place. For Boethius says (De Hebdom.): “The common opinion of the learned is that things incorporeal are not in a place.” And again, Aristotle observes (Phys. iv, text 48,57) that “it is not everything existing which is in a place, but only a movable body.” But an angel is not a body, as was shown above (Article 50). Therefore an angel is not in a place.

    Objection 2. Further, place is a “quantity having position.” But everything which is in a place has some position. Now to have a position cannot benefit an angel, since his substance is devoid of quantity, the proper difference of which is to have a position. Therefore an angel is not in a place.

    Objection 3. Further, to be in a place is to be measured and to be contained by such place, as is evident from the Philosopher (Phys. iv, text 14,119). But an angel can neither be measured nor contained by a place, because the container is more formal than the contained; as air with regard to water (Phys. iv, text 35,49). Therefore an angel is not in a place.

    On the contrary, It is said in the Collect [Prayer at Compline, Dominican Breviary]: “Let Thy holy angels who dwell herein, keep us in peace.”

    I answer that, It is befitting an angel to be in a place; yet an angel and a body are said to be in a place in quite a different sense. A body is said to be in a place in such a way that it is applied to such place according to the contact of dimensive quantity; but there is no such quantity in the angels, for theirs is a virtual one. Consequently an angel is said to be in a corporeal place by application of the angelic power in any manner whatever to any place.

    Accordingly there is no need for saying that an angel can be deemed commensurate with a place, or that he occupies a space in the continuous; for this is proper to a located body which is endowed with dimensive quantity. In similar fashion it is not necessary on this account for the angel to be contained by a place; because an incorporeal substance virtually contains the thing with which it comes into contact, and is not contained by it: for the soul is in the body as containing it, not as contained by it. In the same way an angel is said to be in a place which is corporeal, not as the thing contained, but as somehow containing it.

    And hereby we have the answers to the objections.

    So apparently attempting to out-Thomist St Thomas was a bad idea. If I understand him correctly, St Thomas is saying that angels have location, in the sense that they can exert formal influence on a (Airstotelian) substance, much like how our souls exert formal influence on our bodies, and thereby be located in that substance. In essence, the angel can “haunt” or “possess” substance, and there the angel will be. But the difference is that angels do so through exercise of angelic power, and it is entirely possible for an angel to choose to not exercise this power at any given time, thereby rendering himself aspacial. So in other words angels can flit in and out of space, greatly complicating their relationship with time.

    However, this implies that, contra my earlier assertion, form without matter cannot be located in space (and, upon reflection, the idea of form without matter located in space is pretty problematic). So perhaps the saints really are aspacial, and thus atemporal.

    But there is another consideration: how can the saints hear the simultaneous prayers of someone in Rome and someone in, say, Tokyo? Clearly they do not hear us the same way a being located in space does – that would just result in the saints hearing an inchoate jumble of everyone’s prayers. Saints are not angels, so any appeal to the saint’s power in sorting out the prayers is not going to work. It is possible that angels help them sort the prayers, but even then a popular saint like Our Lady would be too overwhelmed by the multitude of prayers to respond, if she were embedded in spacetime (or, at least, would have been, in a more pious age. I’m not so sure about this one). If they are, in fact, immaterial and incapable of interacting with spacetime, does God then imprint the information directly in their intellects? That seems rather roundabout, don’t you think? God hears our prayers to the saints, delivers to prayers to them, so they can present those prayers to him. Or do the angels deliver the prayers to them? Then we would have to analyse the spacetime interactions of entities that can flit in and out of space.

  9. Oh, by the way, I’m not sure what you mean by “A-theory” and “B-theory” of time, or “A-series propositions”. Are these technical terms used in general relativity, or what?

  10. Sorry. A and B theory are jargon in the philosophy of time. See, for example,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A-series_and_B-series

  11. Let me try to make my problem more clear:

    I understand that angels and saints are not subject by nature to change, and are this outside time (with instantaneous cognition, a spirit would only change due to external input). Think of this, angels and saints know the past and present, but not the future, so there is some point in their existence when they know what happened at one moment in our time, but not one minute later. And this would be true for every point in space. So there must be some sense in which a certain event on Earth can be said to be contemporaneous with an event on say, Mars, because angels and saints would become aware of them simultaneously.

    Regarding praying for past events, it’s agreed that one can only pray for events that one is ignorant of the result of, yet it seems intuitively incorrect to me to say that ignorance would enable one to pray for something.

    The only way I can see to solve this other than to assert some form of contemporaneousness, would be to say that at some point in their existence an angel or saint would know A and not B, yet at some other point they would know B and not A, which seems intuitively absurd.

    Perhaps a way to solve this would be to say that those events would contemporaneous to them, which would be contemporaneous to us were space itself to suddenly contract to be infinitesimally small.

    Also, I don’t see why we must assume that impossibility of us knowing X means that X is a potentiality to us in the same way that the future is. It’s not possible for me to know how many electrons are in my body, yet surely there is a correct answer to that, now?

    And here’s an interesting canonical question, if a couple were to marry on the condition that the light from Star Y going super nova reaches the Earth within the next year, and it did, would they be married?

  12. […] loss of death is an illusion does seem to follow from the block universe conception of time that I myself have defended.  Facing the prospect of being annihilated tomorrow and being reassured that one’s […]

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