God’s temporal dilemma



At his Asifoscope blog this week, nannus posted an interesting essay, “Omniscience and Creativity – A Note on Creationism” *, in which he points out the logical problems in assuming that the Abrahamic god is omniscient and creative (since an omniscient god already has all possible information available to him, and thus could not create any more; and a creator god would be bringing into being information not previously available as knowledge). In the part of his discussion concerning the nature of change between information states that god would have a difficulty with, he remarks “(An infallible god) would not even have a history. A history requires change.”

This reminded me of a moment in my own thinking that finally closed all doors to belief in such a god, leaving not even the trace of a doubt that the ‘god’ idea was at best incoherent, at worst simply rubbish.  (If what follows reads as though occasionally self-contradictory, please understand that the self-contradictions come with the presumed beliefs – that’s the whole point.)

The problem of an infallible god without history that still somehow brings forth the history of creation, was not unknown to the Father’s of the Church. Augustine, the brightest mind among the Fathers, attempted to resolve the problem by arguing that god existed outside of time itself, that ‘time’ is an aspect of created existence, which thus gives us the spiritual history of god’s relationship with his creation – which, by the way, comes to an end at Judgment Day. (In this schema, ‘eternity’ is not eternal; as a temporal qualifier, it belongs to the realm of creation and cannot be ascribed to the creator. Eternity itself therefore comes to an end on Judgment Day.)

This argument has held forth throughout the history of Christianity, and is, unsurprisingly, recurrent in Judaic and Islamic thought as well. God, among these religions, is considered so ‘outside’ of anything that no human qualifier should be able to describe him, but only hint at his divine qualities.

Well, maybe. But if we remember we are discussing qualities of existence per se, and not any particular existing being, infallible or not, then our inherited image of the Almighty begins to shimmer out of focus, like a cgi figure on a monitor suffering pixel decay.

A basic problem with Augustine’s argument is that it conflates time and history. History is the knowable path of entities in motion; but the baseline of time is simply motion per se. If an entity follows a path from point A to point B to point C, it has a history, whether that motion changes the entity or is simply a pathway of points of existence. But any motion at all will deliver an entity from moment A to moment B, even if this is a slight shimmy in place without any change in points.

This, I suspect, is one reason Kant came to hold that, along with space, time was a necessary form of sensible intuition, without which it would be impossible to say whether any entity existed or not. Even should we stare at an entity seemingly stationary in space, or hold in our imaginations such an entity, time would be necessarily attached to these activities; for while the entity itself be motionless, our minds are not; we would be aware of time, have some sense of it, however distorted by the unusual concentration of the activity.

And of course at the level of quanta, we know that no entity, whatever its appearance, is strictly motionless. And any entity that moves has a temporal aspect to its existence. Thus every entity we know – any we can know – will exist ‘in time.’ Time is thus a fundamental category of existence. The mechanical reversibility of time presumed in classical mechanics and its descendents doesn’t change that. In certain processes time can be reversed, but it cannot be removed or denied.

So here’s god’s problem:

In order to be outside of time first, in order to create temporal existence, and then to have complete knowledge of it, god has to be completely motionless. This means he can’t even think, since thinking is an activity – thoughts are in motion. So he can’t know anything, either, since knowledge necessitates thought. Nor can he create temporal existence, since that too is an activity, and thus the act of creation is necessarily part and parcel of temporal creation. So, we are left with the possibility of a god outside of time, incapable of doing anything (and thus, just by the way, utterly powerless), or a (presumably all-powerful) creating god that must exist within time and thus cannot be separable from his creation.

If god created the universe, he must be part of the universe; if he is not part of the universe, then he cannot have created it.

Once this dilemma is spotted, the coherence of the ‘god’ idea quickly falls apart. For instance, an ‘all powerful’ god should indeed have the power to place himself out of time; but he can’t, because power – the ability to move or shape reality – is itself temporally bound – to have power means, in part, to be able to do something in time.

And of course if god cannot get himself outside of time, he can’t have foreknowledge in the way that the Abrahamic religions have insisted since Augustine – by being outside of time, god supposedly sees all the history of his creation at once. But ‘seeing’ is an activity, and thus temporally bound; if god acquires foreknowledge of history thereby, he effectively becomes a part of that history, and this ‘seeing all at once‘ is clearly a moment of god’s own history. (And this history assures us that god cannot even be said to be ageless, since aging is a inevitable function of history.) Unless god wants to abandon the claim to foreknowledge, in which case he cannot be all-knowing.

This is where we at last see the intersection of the problem of temporality with the problem of history. If god does have any power at all, in order to do something, this ‘doing something’ will have its history.

Which returns us to nannus’ point, according to which god can be all knowing and not have a history (and thus cannot create) or he can have a history (including creation), and then can not be all knowing.

The point I add is that omniscience would still embed god into his creation’s history, and that to be free of history, – outside of time – god would have to know nothing and be completely powerless.

So is god omniscient and therefore without a history of his own, yet completely embedded in creation’s history? Or is he powerless and unknowing, yet somehow the origin of all creation, even time itself?

None of this is making sense; the very idea of god is simply incoherent. None of the ascriptions of qualities he is said to have, thought through reasonably, hold up as propositions proper, once linked to logical implications of other asserted qualities. And time is the wrench that undoes the whole works. Because none of the active qualities ascribed to god can be realized except in time – and god is supposedly outside of time. But if this were so, his existence would be completely moot.

Time is thus the irreducible absolute of existence, the inescapable necessity of fundamental ontology, that undoes the whole of the ‘god’ idea, revealing it as a portmanteau of ancient myth and uninformed metaphysical speculation, patched together from the fabric of human hope and suspicions concerning the unknown. Its a superstition transmuted into an ideal , the re-assuring parent in the sky who will love us despite our flaws, and receive us into his embrace after we have survived all the tests he has given us.

I can hear the protests of theistic believers – ‘You don’t understand, god is beyond our comprehension entirely!’ If so, then he is also beyond our caring or concern. A god we cannot talk about is a god that has no relevance for us – a mere hope, a mere suspicion, a mere sense of re-assurance that may help one get through the day, I suppose, but provides no adequate ground for belief.

* http://asifoscope.org/2015/06/15/omniscience-and-creativity-a-note-on-creationism/
(The graphic above is borrowed from nannus’ post; it’s from wikimedia.)


5 thoughts on “God’s temporal dilemma

  1. Buddy, this post is excellent.
    And this, sums up my thoughts very well

    A god we cannot talk about is a god that has no relevance for us – a mere hope, a mere suspicion, a mere sense of re-assurance that may help one get through the day, I suppose, but provides no adequate ground for belief.

    A god outside time is a god that doesn’t exist.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The problem is solved by making time emergent. Thus existence depends on time, but God does not, being beyond the existence/non-existence dichotomy. hence this world is called the ‘world of opposites’, existence, non-existence being one of these opposites, while God would transcend all distinctions.

    Not really arguing, just suggesting that the issue may be more complex or subtle than it is portrayed here. These problems do have workable solutions, albeit we might not like them all.

    I’d agree that any idea we have of God will be incoherent. But is a proof of the limits of our intellect or a proof of God’s unreality? It can be argued either way. .


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