OHPT: Thoughts on Divine Eternity (Chapter 7)

Goodness. This article was a roller coaster. Some great philosophy, some good theology, and some strange science denialism. I shouldn’t be surprised when I come across science denial in this book (the assumptions and methods of science and theology being so different from one another), but it still surprises and saddens me nonetheless. But let’s dive in.

Dr. William Lane Craig is a rock star of Christian apologetics. I would venture a guess that he is one of the most recognized authors in this book, but I’m not exactly immersed in philosophical theology to say for sure. In any event, Craig is a Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology (a school I used to want to attend!) and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University. His research has focused on arguments for God’s existence and God’s foreknowledge. I think I read his The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom…. but maybe it was just on my bookshelf for a really long time and I just got familiar with the spine. Craig is a very clear, critical, and precise thinker (being an analytic philosopher can do that for you), so I was excited that he tackled this question. It is a notoriously difficult one:

What is God’s relationship to Time?

Now, the way I phrased the question is slightly problematic, since “relationship” assumes that God is not simple. Nonetheless, I’m keeping it. Since Christianity generally describes God as “eternal,” Craig is interested in examining what “eternal” means.

Reading Hegel. Hegel never ends. Hegel is eternal. Hegel will be here and incomprehensible even when all this ends in a big ball of fire and cockroaches the size of toddlers. THANKFULLY, SO WILL THE BEACH.

Divine eternity can either mean God is temporal but has no beginning or end (she would then “have an immemorial and everlasting temporal duration”) (145); or God could be eternal by “existing timelessly […] having neither temporal location nor temporal extension” (145). Craig presents a series of arguments for and against God’s temporality, ultimately concluding that the best arguments are for God being temporal in some way.

Craig goes through a variety of arguments for God’s timelessness: Argument from Simplicity or Immutability, Argument from Divine Knowledge of Future Contingents, Argument from Special Relativity, and the Argument from the Incompleteness of Temporal Life. Then he goes through some arguments for divine temporality: Argument from the Impossibility of Atemporal Personhood, Argument from Divine Action in the World, and the Argument from Divine Knowledge of Tensed Facts. It is a fabulous walk through some of the best arguments for how God relates to time, and ties into some of the issues that have been raised in the first six chapters. Ultimately, Craig says the best arguments are for God’s temporality, but don’t you still want to hear about the part that made my hackles rise?! THEOLOGIAN REJECTING SCIENCE IN ORDER TO PROP UP A THEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT. Not. A. Fan.

Let’s dive in.

One of the arguments for God’s timelessness is, as I mentioned, the Argument from Special Relativity. Craig actually says — and forgive me for the steam coming out of my ears — that the Special Theory of Relativity (STR), Einstein’s discovery that there is no absolute time, no absolute inertial frame of reference, is wrong. He says that one of the “philosophical underpinnings” of STR is verificationism — the claim that only statements which can be empirically verified are meaningful or worth considering. In other words, the validity of STR rests on the idea that only what is verifiable is true. Or meaningfully true.

Craig doesn’t accept STR because he says verificationism is insupportable. Perhaps verificationism is not tenable in epistemology or philosophy in general — I will grant him that here. But verification is a basic tenant of science, from which STR springs. By definition, science only deals with what can be verified, tested, etc., and it only makes pronouncements on what can be verified, tested, etc. As an academic, Craig cannot and should not, if he respects science as an independent field attempting to uncover truths about the world, reject one of the basic assumptions of the field. Science is doing something other than theology. We do not strengthen science by trying to make it more like theology.

Basically, if Craig wants to “borrow” from science — which he should, if he is trying to explain how God relates to the physical world — he has to respect the basic tenants of science. Clearly, theology rejects verificationism. And that’s fine. But to insist science reject it, as well, is a grave overreach. It asks science to be unscientific. It’s wholly motivated reasoning — Craig wants and needs verificationism to be false (even in science) in order to make any meaningful claims about God or theology.

Also, why do so many philosophers feel qualified to make sweeping pronouncements about science, rejecting widely accepted theories? It baffles me. Motivated reasoning is pernicious, misleading, and so, so human. So is hubris.

But onto some other meaty bits.

One of the arguments for God’s Divine Temporality claims that “timelessness” and “personhood” are incompatible. The argument relies on “personhood” as involving capacities such as “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, decideing, intending, and acting intentionally” (153). Craig summarizes the argument for the incompatibility of timelessness and personhood, one put forth by Robert Coburn, thus:

(1) Necessarily, if God is timeless, she does not have the properties x, y, z.
(2) Necessarily, if God does not have the properties x, y, z then God is not personal.
(3) Necessarily, God is personal.
(4) Therefore, necessarily, God is not timeless.

Craig says that there is a difference between having the capacity for a property and exhibiting a property. So while remembering, anticipating, reflecting, etc. all necessarily occur in time, the capacity for those properties is not necessarily temporal. So God can have capacity for these qualities essential to personhood without exhibiting them in time.

This makes sense to me, and is mostly satisfying. I think the real question lies deeper than this, however. What reason do we have to assume God is a person? This is a big assumption, one that Craig never addresses. So far I haven’t seen any of the OHPT theologians address this assumption directly, but they are all making it. There are a lot of non-God qualities that go into being a person, if we are using, you know, actual people as the beginning of our induction process. We build up our idea of “person” from observations of actual persons. But why do we need to assume that God, a being fully separate from our world and beyond our ability to know/imagine in full, is a person? This assumption must rest on the authority of scripture, which is not certain or settled. That seems to me to be the biggest problem in the personhood argument for temporality — if God doesn’t need to be considered a person, then she doesn’t need to be temporal (on this argument).

But perhaps the most interesting and philosophically thick argument of God’s temporality is the argument of divine konwledge of tensed facts. Remember when I didn’t quite understand the difference between de re knowledge and de se knowledge and thus just slid past it? Craig is here to make sure I can’t be intellectually lazy for too long. Dammit. BUT I STILL REFUSE TO GO INTO IT HERE. The (truncated) argument goes like this:

(5) A temporal world exists.
(6) God is omniscient.
(7) If a temporal world exists, then if God is omniscient, God knows tensed facts.
(8) If God is timeless, she does not know tensed facts.
(9) Therefore, God is not timeless.

This argument rests on the assumption in (7), that tense “is an objective feature of the world” (162). In other words, words like “yesterday” mean something by themselves — they don’t just “contain”, though omitted, the specific “yesterday” referred to in the sentence. Philosophers who think tense is an objective feature of the world say the sentences “Yesterday I ate soup” and “April 5th I ate soup” are different, though compatible. When spoken today, April 6, they contain the same truth value.

My concern with this argument is the idea that tense truly is an objective feature of the world. My inclination is to say that a sentence containing a relative time reference (“yesterday”, “today”, “tomorrow”, “five minutes ago”) obliquely contain the specific date and time, and that content is what makes that sentence true or false. But what this belief of mine requires, I think, is the assumption that we do not all necessarily share the same present. In order for relative terms to contain truth value that a maximally cognitive being such as God would need to know in order to be maximally excellent cognitively, every conscious being has to share the exact same present.

And of course, everyone participating in the exact same present requires the falsity of special relativity. Which Craig has already rejected. But if we accept special relativity, then we agree that we don’t share the same present moment absolutely. For earthly time, the effects are small enough that we don’t notice them. But scale out from earth (and who’s to say the only self-conscious beings in the universe are found on our planet?) and time is different enough between two beings that “five minutes ago” or even “100 years ago” will not point to the same set of circumstances. Thus, if tense is not an objective feature of the world, then God wouldn’t need to be temporal to know all truths and be maximally excellent cognitively.

Craig acknowledges this in the conclusion, that those who want to retain God’s timelessness can reject arguments for her temporality can do so by “embracing the tenseless theory of time” (163). I just had to point that out because I was proud of me for getting there before he said so outright. GO ME!

Craig ends the article by saying that in order to adequately characterize God’s relationship with time, we have to “grapple” with “one of the most profound and controverted issues of metaphysics: is time tensed or tenseless?” (163). Craig doesn’t present an in-depth argument of his own, either for tense/tenseless time or God’s temporality/timelessness, but he does conclude that the best arguments (tensed vs. tenseless debate notwithstanding) are for God being temporal. But because Craig has rejected the best way we have found so far to understand time (the scientific approach which gave us relativity), it seems he has prevented even the possibility of understanding time, at least in a way that relates to the physical world. It seems as if Craig has blown up the bridge, said we can’t rebuild it, and then said it’s imperative we cross the river by building a bridge.

This article showed me both the wide range of arguments around God’s relationship to time, but also the complexity and agitated relationship between theology and science. Theologians are apt to reject science when it doesn’t fit their desired perception and image of the world and of God. I don’t have a lot of insight here, other than to say I am surprised to see it coming up in Craig’s thinking. Disappointing.

* * *

Favorite quote, against the argument that timelessness, lacking the experience of temporal passage, is a perfection:

There is some evidence that consciousness of time’s flow can actually be an enriching experience, as in music appreciation. Timelessness may not be the most perfect mode of existence of a perfect person.

Craig 152

Emphasis mine. Music is a perfect, beautiful example of how enriching and wonderful it can be to experience successive moments and their relation to one another. Heart emoji.

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