North of Lineland

Tony Jones, discussing Rob Bell’s Love Wins, asks:

Is God outside of time, or is God somehow bound to time as we experience time? … Rob takes biblical words dealing with eternity to mean the transcendence of time. This would seem to imply that God transcends time. But if God transcends time, what does it mean to say that God eventually gets what God wants? Is God bound by time or not? And, if not, what does “eventually” mean?

I realize such questions can seem like the old debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, but from my own pinheaded perspective, I find such questions fascinating.

I also suspect they may be important — actually of practical, day-to-day usefulness. Because if time isn’t all there is, then we likely haven’t got a very good perspective for thinking about things like constancy and change, cause and effect, choice, consequence, prevention, preparation, prediction, predestination, foreknowledge, memory, repetition, remorse, growth, death and rebirth. None of those things could possibly appear the same if viewed from outside of time. None of those could possibly appear the same to one not bound, as we are, in time.

If I ran the zoo, the book I would add to orientation for every seminary would be Edwin Abbott’s odd little allegory, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.

It’s an enormously helpful book for those attempting to think about things we’re not quite capable of really comprehending. That makes it as appropriate for seminary as it is for classes in mathematics and physics. Abbott walks us right up to the edge of what we’re able to think about, then points off into the abyss. He helps to explain not just that we are unable to understand what’s going on out there beyond the edge, but why we are unable to understand it.

And that, I think, is a very helpful thing for those beginning their studies in seminary. If one begins studying theology without appreciating that the subject, by definition, includes much that one will be unable to understand, then one will wind up doing it wrong.

“Eternity” is one of those words theologians toss around as though they or the rest of us were capable of really understanding what it means. We understand what they mean to mean when they use that word, but neither what they meant nor what we understood them to mean is even close to being adequate.

“Eternity,” we think, “that’s a very long time.”

But of course that’s precisely what it isn’t. We use “eternal” as a synonym for “for all time,” but those are actually antonyms. Eternity is what you get when you’re out of time — beyond time.

This is something I can’t grasp. I can’t even remember the future, how am I supposed to understand eternity? I’ve spent my entire life in time, moving through time — always in the same direction, at the same rate, without ever being able to stop — and I literally can’t imagine anything else.

What I can try to do, though, is to understand the limits of my ability to understand, and the misunderstandings that are bound to arise if I try to go beyond those limits.

And but so, Flatland. Here’s a bit of a rushed summary that doesn’t nearly do it justice.

Abbott’s hero is a square — an actual square, a two-dimensional, four-sided object who lives on the great plane of Flatland, a two-dimensional world.

One day our hero comes across the strange realm of Lineland, whose inhabitants are one-dimensional dots living out their lives along the line of their little world. To them, our hero doesn’t appear as a square, just as another dot at the point where he intersects Lineland. He tries to explain to them that he is actually two-dimensional, but that just blows their poor little 1-D minds.

I have two dimensions, the square tells the Linelanders, not just East-West, but also North and South. East and West the Linelanders understand perfectly, but North and South? Above and below the line of Lineland? That’s just crazy talk — nonsense.

After giving up on his frustrating conversation with the Linelanders, our hero comes across another strange character. This guy is a circle, but he has this neat trick where he changes size.

The circle explains to our hero that he isn’t actually changing size because he isn’t a circle at all. He’s actually a three-dimensional sphere, and he only appears to be changing size to our hero due to his moving up and down through the plane of Flatland. And now it’s our poor hero’s turn to have his own little 2-D mind blown.

Up and Down? You mean North and South?

No, not North and South — Up and Down.

More crazy talk and nonsense.

But then the Sphere does something that our hero didn’t think to do for the poor little dot-people of Lineland. The Sphere takes our four-sided, 2-D friend up out of Flatland into the third dimension of space.

Whoa.

From up there in Up, our hero can look down and see the whole of Flatland laid out before him. He can see inside his neighbors houses — inside his neighbors themselves. By transcending the 2-D world of Flatland, he is able to see the whole thing at once, in its entirety. It’s fantastic, beyond anything he’d ever imagined. Our hero’s mind is well and truly blown.

Let’s keep going, he says to the Sphere. Let’s go farther or further or whichever is the right word for it. If there is a third dimension, there must be a fourth, and a fifth and on and on. Further up and further in! Let’s keep going.

Four dimensions? the Sphere says. That’s crazy talk. Nonsense.

And so it always seems.

Everything we say when we talk about eternity tends to reflect this basic existential inability to grasp what it is we’re trying to talk about. Here I am moving through time at a single speed in a single direction, unable not to do so. Trying to describe eternity to me is about as hopeful a proposition as trying to describe North to a Linelander, or Up to a Flatlander.

And yet we carry on doing theology and  saying things like “God is eternal,” glibly unconcerned with our inability to understand even one of those three words in a way that does any of them justice. We carry on speaking of eternity as though it meant only a very long time (“if a sparrow … sharpened its beak …”) and as though that endlessness were the most confusing or most interesting or most important aspect of the difference between time and eternity. No beginning — that’s much trickier. Beyond linear sequence — that’s downright bewildering. I couldn’t grasp that if I lived for 1,000 more years. Living for 1,000 more linear, sequential years would likely only further cement my inability to grasp that.

St. Augustine was better than most of us at thinking about this sort of thing — or at thinking about how we’re not well-equipped to think about this sort of thing. Centuries ago he wrote a fantastic, brain-bending riff about the hazards of trying to apply the logic of cause-then-effect to the category of eternity, the misleading dangers of using time-bound terms to describe that which is beyond time. Yet Augustine, a human living in time just like the rest of us, then turned around and wrote with misplaced certainty of his belief in “predestination” and “foreknowledge” — using just exactly those time-bound words with all that they entail of likely irrelevance outside the narrow bounds of our little world here in Timeland.

One of the things I like most about Abbott’s “Romance of Many Dimensions” is the way he portrays anger as the consistent response to people confronted with the mind-blowing possibility of a world beyond their ken — whether it’s the dots of Lineland being confronted by the impossible thought of North and South, or the shapes of Flatland confronted by the impossible suggestion of Up and Down, or the previously affable Sphere losing his patience over the suggestion that they keep going past the third dimension to the fourth and fifth and beyond.

That anger, a product of fear and stubbornness and simple incomprehension, is precisely how we tend to respond to being confronted by the idea that reality is, in some ways, just too big for us to easily understand. In understanding that anger, Abbott forgives it, and in forgiving it, he helps us to get past it. And that, too, is a big part of why, if I were in charge, every student entering seminary would be required to read his book during orientation.

The alternative to that anger is humility. Here we are, finite, mortal creatures bound in time trying to speak with certainty about things that transcend our ability to grasp. Some of us are quite clever by the standards of finite, mortal, time-bound cleverness, but still reality is bigger than we are. We want to understand — and that’s good. But sometimes that desire to understand causes us to pretend that things transcending our understanding are actually quite simple — that they are just as finite and limited as we are ourselves.

All of which brings me back to Tony’s questions and my own attempts to answer them from the limited perspective of my own little 4-D Timelander brain.

“Is God outside of time, or is God somehow bound to time as we experience time?”

Yes.

God is present in this universe — present with us — and this universe is a thing in time. But God is also present beyond/above/outside (we haven’t got a good word for this) this universe. God is bound by love for this universe, and it is bound in time. God is bound by love for us, and we are bound in time. But apart from love, I wouldn’t want to suggest that anything can or does bind God.

Is God bound by time? No. God is bound only by love, which is to say that God is bound only by God.

It might help to simply replace the word “time” in Tony’s questions with the word “space.”

Is God outside of [space], or is God somehow bound to [space] as we experience [space]? … Rob … would seem to imply that God transcends [space]. … Is God bound by [space] or not?

I don’t know or understand enough about physics to say whether that’s an analogy or just an equivalent statement. From what I think I understand, it makes no sense to say that God is “omnipresent” and then to pretend that an omnipresent being is stuck, just like us, at a fixed point in time, moving inexorably in a single direction.

If we believe that God is omnipresent — present in all presents — then we ought to acknowledge that God’s perspective differs from our own in exponentially greater ways than the Sphere’s perspective transcended that of Abbott’s square hero.

  • Anonymous

    well here is a certain lord of time who gives his opinion about time.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vY_Ry8J_jdw

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6B4Q4GBCSR3MAPACKTN6PQAK3U Swintah

    The anger discussed in your post could be interpreted a different way. Instead of being the result of “fear and stubbornness and simple incomprehension”, it’s more likely the result of lack of demonstration.* After all, if some emissary of a deity(s) comes to explain eternity to me in a very incomprehensible manner (such that it sounded like crazy-talk), wouldn’t getting short-tempered with that emissary be a reasonable response? After all, very few people have the time to waste on crazy-talk.

    But, now imagine that emissary can demonstrate eternity to you immediately and understandably (like the sphere lifting the square.) I don’t think any person could possibly be mad at that! Like the post states – the mind would be blown with wonder, delight and awe.

    The fear, stubbornness and simple incomprehension would dissipate when subjected to supporting evidence.

    *I haven’t read the book, but let’s just look at it from a different perspective.

  • Froborr

    Um, actually under relativity some things are absolute. Space and time are relative if regarded separately, but space-time (which is, essentially, both) is absolute and defined by the speed of light in a vacuum, which is also absolute.

    Someone above asked what the universe is expanding into? That’s actually a meaningless question, because “expanding” isn’t really the best word for what’s happening. What’s actually happening is that space is continually being created, and since the newly created space is more or less evenly distributed* this has the effect of causing distant objects to get more distant.

    It is actually possible to tell the difference between “object moving away” and “amount of space between us and the object is increasing”–the latter involves no acceleration of the object and thus no inertial effects on it, and it also does interesting things to any light the object is emitting/reflecting.

    Also, in answer to Fred’s question, space and time are different because space is symmetrical and time is not. (The laws of physics don’t care what direction you’re facing, but entropy always increases as you move into the future.) But since they’re still both part of a single space-time, I think anything existing outside of space is also necessarily outside of time and vice versa.

    As I mentioned on another thread, I don’t think it’s possible to have a person** “unbound by time.” Thought, will, and awareness are all processes, and as such depend on time. Without time, they are not possible.

    That said, I don’t see anything impossible about there being a separate God-time orthogonal to our own. In other words, time passes in the God dimension entirely independently from our time, and as such someone in God-time could choose to experience events in our time in any order, much like skipping around on a DVD or flipping pages in a book.

    *Actually, it’s concentrated where there’s less matter, because matter bunches up the space around it in the effect we call “gravity.” But since the universe is mostly made up of places with very, very little matter, it’s still basically even.

    **Sophont, sentient being, agent, free-willed entity, thinking machine, whatever you want to call it.

  • Froborr

    Um, actually under relativity some things are absolute. Space and time are relative if regarded separately, but space-time (which is, essentially, both) is absolute and defined by the speed of light in a vacuum, which is also absolute.

    Someone above asked what the universe is expanding into? That’s actually a meaningless question, because “expanding” isn’t really the best word for what’s happening. What’s actually happening is that space is continually being created, and since the newly created space is more or less evenly distributed* this has the effect of causing distant objects to get more distant.

    It is actually possible to tell the difference between “object moving away” and “amount of space between us and the object is increasing”–the latter involves no acceleration of the object and thus no inertial effects on it, and it also does interesting things to any light the object is emitting/reflecting.

    Also, in answer to Fred’s question, space and time are different because space is symmetrical and time is not. (The laws of physics don’t care what direction you’re facing, but entropy always increases as you move into the future.) But since they’re still both part of a single space-time, I think anything existing outside of space is also necessarily outside of time and vice versa.

    As I mentioned on another thread, I don’t think it’s possible to have a person** “unbound by time.” Thought, will, and awareness are all processes, and as such depend on time. Without time, they are not possible.

    That said, I don’t see anything impossible about there being a separate God-time orthogonal to our own. In other words, time passes in the God dimension entirely independently from our time, and as such someone in God-time could choose to experience events in our time in any order, much like skipping around on a DVD or flipping pages in a book.

    *Actually, it’s concentrated where there’s less matter, because matter bunches up the space around it in the effect we call “gravity.” But since the universe is mostly made up of places with very, very little matter, it’s still basically even.

    **Sophont, sentient being, agent, free-willed entity, thinking machine, whatever you want to call it.

  • Froborr

    I dunno, I imagine I’d be kind of angry if suddenly and unexpectedly plucked into a terrifying realm unlike anything I’d ever imagined. If I recall correctly, Square is initially angry about this,* but gets over it as the wonder kicks in. (Which I hope I would, as well.)

    *Sphere warns him, but since Square doesn’t believe any of this initially, he doesn’t expect it to actually happen. Again, IIRC; it’s been years since I read the book.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > It is actually possible to tell the difference between “object moving away” and “amount of space between us and the object is increasing”–the latter involves no acceleration of the object

    Er? Surely this can’t be quite right. Objects moving away don’t necessarily involve acceleration, either.

    I’m assuming you mean “object moving away at an increasing speed”?

    But, even so: what inertial effects would I expect to observe in an object accelerating away from me? If there’s a force applying evenly to the object, how does that look different from if the space between me and it is expanding?

    Of course, if I’m seeing all objects accelerating uniformly away from me in different directions, either I’m in a very privileged position, or space is expanding. And it’s not too likely that I’m in a very privileged position.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6B4Q4GBCSR3MAPACKTN6PQAK3U Swintah

    I stand corrected, thanks for clarifying.

    I was half responding to the metaphor of the sphere and the square as a deity to humanity. You see, the sphere tells the square about the third dimension. The square scoffs and becomes irritated at the foolishness. The sphere then demonstrates the reality of the third dimension to the square. The square than changes his mind in light of compelling new evidence. However, in humanities case, the deity is undetectable and its emissaries say “trust me.” Is it so reasonable for humanity to believe the undetectable deity’s emissaries?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Not only that.

    If I had a visitation from an extradimensional emissary who took me on a journey outside of my three-dimensional context to demonstrate the reality of additional dimensions, I would have to think very hard about whether, after accounting for that experience, I thought it more likely that I had actually traveled through additional dimensions, or that I’d experienced a delusion.

    In the absence of additional evidence of non-delusionality (for example, getting some new information about the world during my journey that I could verify afterwards), I’d likely decide in favor of “delusion.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6B4Q4GBCSR3MAPACKTN6PQAK3U Swintah

    Excellent point. The journey to other dimensions would have to be replicable.

    Oh dear. I just realized we’ve applied science to religion. Non-overlapping magesteria and all. /sarcasm

  • Froborr

    Well, it depends on whether there are any detectable consequences to Flatland being embedded in a three-dimensional universe. If so, and if Square or someone else can work out what they are, then they can test for that.

    If on the other hand there are no detectable consequences, then the next step is to determine whether for each individual it is beneficial to *believe* that Flatland is embedded in a three-dimensional universe. If it’s beneficial for a given individual to hold the belief, then it’s rational for that individual to hold the belief.

  • Theo

    Some of you have already noted SPHERELAND’s author and PLANIVERSE. Here’s a sidebar from STRING THEORY FOR DUMMIES by Andrew Zimmer Jones (found on the Internet):

    —–
    The book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott, written in 1884, is a classic in the mathematics community for explaining the concept of multiple dimensions. In this book, A. Square lives in a flat world and gains perspective when he encounters a sphere passing through his world who pulls him out of it so he can briefly experience three dimensions.

    Flatland appears to have been part of a growing popular culture interest in extra dimensions during the late 1800s. Lewis Carroll had written a story in 1865 entitled “Dynamics of a Particle,” which included 1-dimensional beings on a flat surface, and the idea of space going crazy is clearly a theme in Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872). Later, H. G. Wells used the concepts of extra dimensions in several stories, most notably in The Time Machine (1895), where time is explicitly described as the fourth dimension a full decade before Einstein presented the first inkling of relativity.

    Various independent sequels have been written to Flatland through the years to expand on the concept. These include Dionys Burger’s Sphereland (1965), Ian Stewart’s Flatterland (2001), and Rudy Rucker’s Spaceland (2002). A related book is the 1984 science-fiction novel The Planiverse, where scientists in our world establish communication with a Flatland-like world.
    —–

  • Froborr

    Mmm, should have been clearer there, sorry.

    An object which is moving has, at some point, experienced acceleration. Energy has been applied to the object to overcome inertia and get it to move, and its speed is a function of the energy applied and the object’s mass.

    The expansion of space, on the other hand, does not impart energy on the object, and the speed at which the object is moving away is not in any way related to its mass.

    Among other things, this means that acceleration due to space expansion is not limited to the speed of light, and there may have been a point in the early history of the universe at which it expanded faster than light.

    IIRC, there is also a measurable difference between the Doppler effect proper (object is moving away as it emits light, “stretching” the light waves as they leave) and the Hubble red shift (space between us and the object is expanding, “stretching” the light waves throughout the journey). I may be wrong about this.

  • Froborr

    IIRC this is addressed in the book–Sphere is able to look “inside” containers that to Square are completely enclosed (but to Sphere are totally open from above) and name their contents, which Square can confirm. I seem to recall something about briefly spying on his wife and neighbors as well.

  • Keromaru

    Have you read Flatland? Because that’s actually how it ends. Square tries to tell everybody what happened, but no one believes him, because they simply have no concept of “up” or “down.” They finally imprison him as a heretic.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6B4Q4GBCSR3MAPACKTN6PQAK3U Swintah

    My main concern, to get deeper into the metaphor, is testing the truth or falsehood of the claim that a third dimension exists. I fail to understand why the consequences of a belief should be the next step in the reasoning chain, as it neither has bearing on the truth or falsehood of the claim, nor will it help us ascertain the truth or falsehood of the claim. (I think that last sentence is a little confusing, but I can’t think of a better way to put it at the moment.) I’m worried that we could get stuck discussing the merits of a comforting lie versus a cruel truth and vice versa, which could lead down a rabbit hole that won’t get us nearer to verifying the claim “a third dimension exists.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6B4Q4GBCSR3MAPACKTN6PQAK3U Swintah

    I think I mentioned it before, but, no I haven’t read the book. It’s a pity Square didn’t enlist Sphere and a squad of scientist squares in proving the existence of a third dimension. Then Square could’ve won the Squarebel Prize for Squience. :)

  • Anonymous

    Ooh! Thanks for all the info; it’s been years since I really looked at this, so my knowledge is pretty fuzzy and probably out of date.
    Now I have things to research. :3

  • Anonymous

    The sphere, which appears as a circle of varying dimensions in the universe of Flatland (also inhabited by Jimmy Dale Gilmour, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock when they become The Flatlanders), may be a mechanism which explains the many diverse notions of what the creator is. I’ve always thought that the definition of a Pooka — appearing now and then, to this one and that one — was a better analogy.

  • Froborr

    If you are trying to determine the truth of a claim, then the consequences of belief in it are indeed irrelevant.

    However, if you’ll re-read my comment you’ll note that in the second paragraph I’m discussing a situation where the truth of the claim is not determinable, in which case the question ceases to be “Is this true?” and becomes “Should I believe this?” In that case, as with any question of the form “Should I X?” the consequences become very relevant.

  • chris the cynic

    And then look up Max Tegmark, another physicist. He argues that the only things that exist at all are mathematical entities, but that *all* mathematical entities exist. *He* comes quite close to Plato, but with actual evidence and logic…

    I haven’t read Max Tegmark’s work, or heard about him before today, so if you say I’m wrong about what follows I’ll believe you.

    Are you sure you don’t mean Pythagoras? Pythagoras said what was really real were numbers and math. Plato said Forms. I would guess that Forms included math and numbers and there was definite mixing (Socrates hung around with Pythagoreans according to Plato) but when I think “Ancient Greek guy who says that what’s really real are mathematical entities,” I think “Pythagoras.”

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Tegmark is very different from Pythagoras, and is not an ancient Greek, but rather a living Cantabrigian. But yes, they do share a notion that mathematical entities have ontological primacy.

    Tegmark’s cosmology is counterintuitive, and I don’t presume to understand it, but it makes for fascinating reading.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Yes, I remember that too, though I don’t recall the question of actual evidence coming up.

    That is, it’s one thing for me to have the experience of astral projecting and seeing you sitting in front of your computer eating hummus on Triscuits. It’s a different thing to confirm that you actually were eating hummus on Triscuits at the time. The latter thing is noticeably stronger evidence that I’m not experiencing a delusion.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Actually, there are two separate questions here.

    If I actually have this experience, and I write down the information that I get, and I start investigating to confirm or deny the information I wrote down, and I find it’s all true, I would consider that evidence that I’d actually traveled through additional dimensions.

    But it would not be replicable, and it would not be science, and it would be very strange for anyone to believe me.

  • chris the cynic

    I meant Pythagoras instead of Plato, not Pythagoras instead of Tegmark.

    -

    Every time I try to use a link my post disappears. The number of posts it says I’ve made goes up, but the post itself simply doesn’t show up. Unless it takes over an hour, in which case a couple of posts are going to show up any time now. Anyway, here is the linkless version.

    There are other versions of Flatland available online (specifically a first edition, second edition, a fifth edition and an audio version.) Just run a search if any of that interests you.

    There are computer versions of Rubik’s cubes in 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 dimensions. For an X dimensional version search for “Magic Cube XD” except for the six dimensional one which is included in MC7D.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > I meant Pythagoras instead of Plato, not Pythagoras instead of Tegmark.

    (nods) Sorry… that was a misguided attempt to be funny.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

    Oh right the economist’s definition of rationality. So believing that there are monsters under the bed is rational if it encourages you to stay in bed for a full 8 hours of sleep?

  • ohiolibrarian

    I wondered if the reference was to Planck (as in Max Planck).

    Your friend may have read Flatland, but he can’t have read anything about string theory. Hoo boy, really hard to comprehend that stuff … even for people who understand the math.

  • Froborr

    No, because you can check and see that there are no monsters under the bed. Also presumably you’re staying in bed out of fear, and there are undoubtedly more pleasant ways you can convince yourself to stay in bed.

    And it’s not really the economic definition of rational; I think believing the truth is more rational when there is a truth available to believe. The question is what to do when there *isn’t* a knowable truth.

  • Ursula L

    I believe that this explains it fairly well:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vY_Ry8J_jdw

    (And I can’t believe that no one beat me to it!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

    It occurs to me that “North of Lineland” would make an excellent title for an album, or possibly even a name for a band. It feels more album-y to me though.

  • Anonymous

    This fascinated me, and I tried to write a sci-fi story based on a world in non linear time. I aborted it, because working it all out was daunting. But, the idea was intriguing. Sue walks up to her friend Bob who is crying. Sue asks why Bob is crying, and Bob defensively says it’s from the hurtful thing Sue said. Sue is bewildered. Later, (from Sue’s perspective) Bob calls her and Sue calls Bob a crybaby, causing Bob’s crying fit Sue saw earlier. But for bob, these two events happened in reverse order.

    I’m late to the party but I wanted to recommend a short story that plays with these ideas–”I’m Scared” by Jack Finney–not sure if it’s easily found online but I read it in the second volume of American Fantastic Tales, edited by Peter Straub. It’s a quite cool story.

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