Time, Religion, and Science Fiction

RJS at Jesus Creed posted on the different views of time and how they relate to theology. This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a very long time – I remember doing a major research essay on the topic as an undergraduate. And so RJS’s post has prompted me to share some of my own thoughts on the topic. By the end of this post, we’ll have explored how the different views of time relate to views of God, human beings, time travel, and even Christmas.

One very popular view of time is often referred to as the “block time” or “block universe” view (I will avoid the latter so as to not confuse this subject with something to do with Minecraft). It regards all of time as existing “somewhen” in a way that would allow one, from a perspective outside of time, to see all of history. This view is obviously that adopted by those who speak of God as “outside of time.” But it is also the view of time that one has to adopt in order to envisage time travel as a possibility. Unless the past exists “somewhen” then the time traveler has no when to go to. (I am having to adapt language a bit to even talk about this topic, but I promise not to use the special tenses from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe).

The passage of time on such a view must be, from some perspective, illusory, as must our decisions and sense that we somehow determine how we will act or think. For all of time to be accessible either by a time traveler or from “outside” by a deity, then each moment must exist, and must exist timelessly. That we experience time as passing is an illusion, like being a character in a filmstrip, which thinks that the movie that is being projected on the screen one frame at a time is “real.”

I completely understand why this view of time is popular. In religion, it allows a straightforward way for God to be all knowing and in control of everything. In sci-fi, it allows for time travel. But the cost is great. It not only eliminates genuine freedom for humans, it makes our sense of personhood illusory as well. And for those who think that Christmas has something to do with incarnation, there is no meaningful sense in which a God outside of time could genuinely become part of this illusion and experience it as we do.

And so I disagree with RJS’s assertion that “The block-universe view is consistent with divine omniscience and with human agency and free choice. There is no “puppet master” and no deterministic path from beginning to end.” This is not a deterministic view of the universe, it is ever more rigid. Outcomes are not merely determined by what went “before” them but there is no genuine before and after, and so outcomes are eternally determined and only appear deceptively to us to be outcomes. Those who reject young-earth creationism’s view of the natural world as involving deception on the part of the Creator may justifiably feel that, theologically speaking, envisaging a God who creates a block universe involves something not altogether different, and feel justified in rejecting this view.

The alternative is to view time as simply succession, and while it may cost us realistic hope of time travel, the advantages seem worth it, even to this fan of Doctor Who.

The view that the universe is unfolding and thus the future is genuinely future does not in and of itself exclude determinism, and indeed anyone who claims to be completely free and unconstrained has not given this topic serious thought. Our biology constrains us. Our culture and upbringing influence us. And this makes us all at least somewhat predictable. If you have the gene that makes cilantro taste like soap to you, then when you go to a restaurant, you won’t order a dish heavy on cilantro, assuming you’ve tasted cilantro before and know what is in the soup.

Current science suggest that there is in reality at least a measure of indeterminacy. If one is inclined to relate such scientific perspectives to a traditional theistic view of God, then this would suggest that the future is genuinely open in some respects. As LOST put it, there are constants, but there are variables, and among the most unpredictable variables on one level are human beings. Our atoms are as predictable or unpredictable as any others in the universe, but somehow the configuration of them allows us to decide to either get up and go for a spontaneous walk, or stay seated and write a spontaneous blog post.

If one wishes to posit a deity who, even if not “outside of time” (because such language is meaningless nonsense if time is not something that persists in a manner that is not merely quasi-spatial but counterintuitively enduring), may foreknow what will occur, it is not impossible to envisage this, assuming that it is possible for information to flow from the future to the past in some manner. But even if that is possible, what one ends up with is a very bored and constrained God who, like Muad’dib in the Dune books, having foreseen the future can do nothing but say what he foresaw he would say. If one posits a deity who not only can foreknow the future but whose foreknowledge is always correct, then that deity would spend all eternity doing what God foresaw that God would do, and would be unable to change anything since that change would either simply be action that God foresaw God doing or would invalidate God’s foreknowledge.

It is perhaps best simply not to try to relate an anthropomorphic view of God to either view of time, and to envisage the ultimate, the transcendent, in other ways.

But whether one wishes to think about these topics theologically or not, hopefully it is clear from this post that science fiction provides a great many opportunities to reflect on and explore the implications of different views of time.

And of course, in case I’m wrong about the possibility of time travel, you might still want to get this T-shirt

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  • Gary

    1) Block time or 2) simply succession. I have no idea which should make more sense. But as an alternative, it seems like a combination could also be an alternative. If you assume, as some do, that at the Big Bang, during the initial expansion, space and time as coordinates x, y, z, and t, were created, and did the initial expansion at faster than the speed of light, creating the framework for mass and energy to follow at the speed of light…and you assume there are multiple universes, each with its own unique laws of physics created based upon initial conditions for that particular universe….but there is still an x, y, z, and t, plus the additional dimensions predicted by string theory….then I could see alternative 2) simple succession, existing in each individual universe. But I could see 1) Block time existing in a form, with the multiple parallel universes each on its own time track. If you have multiple universes, then there is “something” outside OUR universe. There is no reason to believe they would be all on the same time track (especially if their universal physical constants are all different), therefore…seems like within our universe we can only see simple succession. And that is all that is possible for us, based upon the physical properties of our universe. But the big escape clause is our multidimensions of 5 to 10, beyond x, y, z, and t. As an example, a 2 dimensional world would have no concept of properties like mass, that only exist in a three dimensional world. So we have no idea what properties exist in a 10 dimensional world, since we live in a 4 dimensional world. Another point….if, as they say, the “bubbling soup” that creates multiple universes, or the soup that allows additional universes to “bud” off of existing universes (all theories proposed by cosmologists),  then there exists a place outside existing universes that are locked into simple succession. So this would allow for “block time”. Theologically, it would allow for a place for God to reside, and have peace and quite from his obnoxious human creations. For God’s sake, I hope this is the structure of the universes. Anyone who has had a bunch of children deserves their own quite place   :-)
    plus maybe we can travel in time…once you get outside our simple succession neighborhood.

    Or all of the above is simple ramblings that mean nothing….a distinct possibility.

  • Ian

    A couple of observations.

    Firstly time *is* quasi-spatial in modern physics. Not quite in the way your block-universe has it, but the Lorentz equations imply some kinshp between spatial and temporal dimensions.

    Secondly, there is an interesting range of models of time which involve more than one dimension. The thing about time travel is that it explicitly involves multiple time lines. In your block model, you draw time as progressing uniformly in one direction, where two whens are neighbors if one succeeds the other. But time travel would imply there are whens that are successive at distant points in that block. In jargon, the topology is more complex. And that’s just assuming one-dimensional time. One might travel back to a different past, or a different future, if one takes seriously the fact that multiple possible states can precede or succeed from any current state. This is used in sci-fi when chrononauts change the past or future.

    Thirdly, I’m not sure that the block model does shut down free will. The important thing to remember is that, whatever the topology of space-time, we are intrinsically limited in our ability to perceive time. We’re flatlanders, if you like. While it might be at some level that we’re do not have free will, that observation might be akin to saying that at some quantum level there is no possible distinction between one place and another. True, but both imperceptible, and entirely irrelevant for any meaningful reasoning at human scales.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

    Thanks for both your comments! Ian, I appreciate your elaboration of a number if points in moree detail that I dealt with in a rather cursory fashion. I think it certainly is poossible for people in a blog universe to perceive themselves as having free will, just as they perceive time as involving a succession of events. I didn’t mean to deny that time has spatial-like characteristics in equations, but merely the idea that one can extrapolate from that the persistence of past events, any more that the mathematics related to space require that we view all configurations of matter as persisting in block-universe fashion.

    • Ian

      I didn’t mean to suggest you’d missed important facts, just musing myself on the topic.

      “I think it certainly is possible for people in a blog universe to perceive themselves as having free will”

      This, I suspect, is rather important. One of the things that the last century of math has shown us is that there is a fundamental way in which complex things behave *differently* to what they’re made of. Determinism turns out to be rather pyrrhic. Something can be entirely deterministic, yet be provably unpredictable. It isn’t just a matter of perception, but a fundamental limitation on what can possibly be known. This being the case, I suspect free will is perfectly consistent with determinism.

      In much the same way that we perceive regular laws of the universe to be deterministic, even though they sit on top of quantum effects that aren’t. It isn’t that the determinism is somehow just a perceptual artifact. The macro world really is predictable in some important way, even though it is made up from processes that aren’t. Scale and complexity change reality, not just perception.

      “I think it certainly is possible for people in a blog universe to perceive themselves as having free will”

      Freudian slip? 😉

  • Michael Wilson

    If God were all knowing, God would know all possible configurations of things possible and the detail God knew them in would make them indistiguishable from real things wouldn’t it? Our immaginations are rather limited, but an all knowing being could simulate in it’s mind everyparticle in existance and what it would be doing given a set of paprmeters at any time. From our perspective the simulation in Gods mind would be the same as another reallity.

    God would also be able to simultaneously simulate all it’s own possible mind states which would all seem equally real. Would you say this is correct? What would this do to personality when one has memory of every possible event experiencable? Does God have a free will at this point? It seems the only way God could have free will is by not knowing everything. It also seems to me that a being that knows everything would also not be aware anymore which seems to a product of our experiences experiencing the future and converting it into the past. For an all knoiwing God their is no such process as all possible things are experienced as a continuous present.

    • Gary

      Michael said “If God were all knowing, God would know all possible configurations of things possible”….I don’t know about you, but if I was God, I would be pretty darned bored if I knew everything, and how every situation’s outcome will be. Like knowing the end of a book or movie, before watching it. I would consider being mortal, and not knowing everything, as preferable. One thing quantum physics is good for, giving God an uncertainty in the outcome.

  • Ian

    “From our perspective the simulation in Gods mind would be the same as another reality.” Why posit another reality then? Why not say that reality is the thoughts of God’s mind. In order for a god to predict even a deterministic universe, it would need a simulation at least as complex as the real universe, which means the individuals in the simulation would have mental lives, and physics would hold, and so on.

    Normally when you talk about ‘simulations’ you mean abstractions. But the math don’t work: there is no abstraction that will give the correct result. It doesn’t matter how smart or unlimited you are. The only simulation that will give the correct result is one at least as complex as the real thing. And at that point it makes no sense to call one ‘real’ and the other a simulation.

    • Michael Wilson

      Exactly Ian. I think it is then realistic to imagine the universe or multiverse as the product of a “mind” not dependent on any observed phenominon. I have always seen this as a problem for atheism as it is hard to imagin a cause of existance that does not sound a lot like a hypothetical God. On the other hand the attribtion of what we can comprejhend as a human mind to God seems out of the question if you beleive God is limitless in knowledge, which would also require God to be limitless in power since as you say, knowing everything=creating everything so we could explain existance as something trying to know everything.  

      • Ian

        It isn’t a problem for atheism, since positing God doesn’t explain existence, by definition, it just hypothesizes another thing than exists. The atheist and theist are in the same boat – neither has a good explanation for the existence of something rather than nothing. Ultimately most theologies posit that there is a something that always was, and that it is strictly meaningless to ask the question “what caused it”. But then if that is a valid tactic, having a god is superfluous, you can use the same to explain the universe directly – that the energy of which it is made always was. Further, unlike a god, there are good empirical reasons to believe energy always was. And even beyond that, there are better materialistic explanations that have elements which are empirically demonstrable. So one can say atheism has it much easier than theism in that regard.

  • Just Sayin’

    Any reading recommendations on this topic?

  • http://theology.geek.nz Geoff Gummer

    Firstly, I kind of agree. I think that time is merely a measurement of successive durations and that God also experiences durations, but in a manner unlike ours (ie linear).

    I feel there is a difference between foreseeing and foreknowing. I dont think God necessarily foresees the future, I think he foreknows it. Foreknowing, in this sense is non causative and non determinative. Knowing what will and could possibly happen is not the same as being forced to only be able to follow one course. 

    However, if you “see” that something will happen, one is bound to follow that course.

    (ps have an article by Paul Helm somewhere, detailing how if one is “some when” in a linear sense, one also has to be “some where” – and God can not be “some where”)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

    Ian, that was indeed a slip, although I could understand if someone, given that my blog mentions our Matrix, thought I meant it literally. An avid blogger is prone to see blogging everywhere – as for instance when I thought someone said they have to get up in the middle of the night sometimes to let the blog out (what they actually said was “let the dog out”).

    Just Sayin’, if you are looking for a book not just about the philosophy and science of time but how it relates to theology, then I seem to remember the book God and Time: Four Views providing a useful introduction to a range of different views, within a theistic context. Panentheists and process theologians would have somewhat different perspectives to offer.

  • Michael Wilson

    Gary, boredom is a mind state created by a combination of chemicals in your brain. It theoretically is possible to set up your brain so you never experience boredom. I would have a hard time imagining a mind completely unlike our own experiencing an emotion like boredom. In fact I don’t think it is aware, experiencing qualia, because I haven’t seen enough evidence to support this. And even if it is aware, God would only have to be a few centuries more knowledgeable than us to make its mind immune from suffering.
    Ian, I think you subscribe to the idea that god must have a personality, to be a conscious psychological being. That is how it is most commonly thought of I suppose.  The question then is whether the universe came about thought the necessity of universal principles (nature), or was the intentional work of a rational being (god). I would like to argue that the concept of God is misappropriated here. In traditionally thought, the person of the God was the metaphor for the phenomenon the God was associated with. Personality is a rather secondary attribute. It was essentially a popular theory for why the God behaved as it did. I think we should think of God not as “the being that created (or required) the universe”, but as “that which created (or required) the universe.” That is the questions the inventors of god were trying to answer. They weren’t conceiving of a being and then trying to figure out what it did. They were looking for the highest force in the cosmos, the first cause. I would argue a couple of other things are shard in common by the expectation of what God is and that which required existence. It contains all that is knowable in the universe, so it is all knowing, and it contains all power that will ever exist, so it is all powerful.
    On the practical side I think our opinions are the same; that the universe exists for reason of logical necessity or natural law, not by the decision of a person. I will leave aside whether God or the reason for existence should be honored, can be said to be wise or love for later. I just want to say that God, in the Abrahamic tradition is simply a metaphor for  an irreducible reality.

    • Gary

      Michael, you said “I would have a hard time imagining a mind completely unlike our own experiencing an emotion like boredom”. Not for me. I see it in my cat, as he is trying to bud me when I have other things to do. Of course, this may be a chemical in me too, I don’t know. Or perhaps beer.

      • Gary

        Bug, not bud….must have been still thinking of beer.

        • Michael Wilson

          Well the cat’s mind is actually a lot like yours. It to is a biological device that developed in response to situations on earth. I make this point because a lot of people seem, maybe most, seem to think that their feelings are based on absolute conditions. That is to say if you have nothing to do you feel bored, if you see a helpless person being asaulted you feel angry and so on. but all of those feelings are based on chemicals being released in response to stimulous. If you take a drug like heroin, you will find your self feeling content doing absolutely nothing because it artificially sends out the O.K. chemical to your brain. (Its a scary idea at some levels because a society with artificially controlled emotions could be kept from resisting oppression or eliminate guilt for their own evil actions.)

  • Ian

    “I think you subscribe to the idea that god must have a personality, to be a conscious psychological being.” No, not in this case. See my post on the cosmological argument. The objection works for all concepts of ‘god’. It works in purely formal terms.

    “God, in the Abrahamic tradition is simply a metaphor”

    I think you’ve got a bad case of revisionism there. God in the Abramic tradition is overwhelmingly theistic. Panentheism is old, and has a distinguished history in theology, but it is in no way the mainstream of Abramic thought, you have to look hard for any extended exposition of it in pre-modernity. That theologians conceived of the Abramic God as being the first cause does not mean the converse that they started from a philosophical first cause and personified it as the Abramic God.

    “they were looking for the highest force in the cosmos, the first cause.” [citation needed]

    “I would like to argue that the concept of God is misappropriated here.” Given they got here first, I would think it more likely the concept of God has been extended and demetaphored to encompass panentheistic or even deistic or pantheistic conceptions of God. Or even further some folks after Tillich claiming god is ‘whatever is of most concern’. 

    • Michael Wilson

      Where is your post on the cosmological argument? I’d like to read it.
      “I think you’ve got a bad case of revisionism there. God in the Abramic tradition is overwhelmingly theistic.”

      Yes, but God is the answer to the question, “what orders the universe?” Just as people imagined the sun and moon to be people who rode in vehicles, God in the Abramic tradition is the imagining of the creator and sustainer of existence to be a person who rules on a throne. When you see the symbolic nature of the myths of the gods, you realize their deeds and characters are determined by what is observed in nature. Even if believed to be true, they are effectively poetic devices. I don’t think someone would invent a mythic being then try to attach them to natural phenomenon. Thor wasn’t invented and then invoked as an explanation for storms, Thor is the storm personified.

       I don’t see a process of Yahweh given more powers, but Yahweh being synchronized with gods who are creators, El and Ea. These are deities associated with creating the world. They are credited with creation because the natural phenomenon each represents seems to be one involved in the origin of the universe. El, for example is an air god, and in the society where he was creator god, the sky was seen as the highest point in the universe, and a father of gods would be above his children. In biblical tradition the association of El with ruling the universe is stronger. While he is still described in terms used for sky god, I think the more central development is God as the apex of cosmic authority. And I think what led to this was speculation on what God, being the ruler of gods, would be like. He must be stronger, wiser, and older than all other gods. But the god being speculated upon was already conceived of as the ruling force and originator. The ancients did not wonder if events where caused naturally or by gods, they thought gods where the natural cause of events. That they thought the events acted with intention was the first of many errors to be made in understanding them, that they thought they were worthy of devotion is not among those errors.