Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Time and Regret: Why God is Outside Time

One debate in philosophical theology is over whether God is inside or outside of time.  (There are many debates “inside” that one, too, including over the nature of time.  I’ll just sidestep those for now on the grounds that you can’t solve every problem in a blog post.)  I want to present a sketch of an argument for the conclusion that God is outside of time.

Think of your own experience in time.  I think in particular of regret about its passage.  Now you might regret the passage of time because you made a bad decision, you are swept up in the consequences, and you wish you could go back in time and change it.  I suppose we all have that.  But note that if God is in time, that’s not a problem for God because God doesn’t make any regrettable decisions.  (Unless Open Theism is true and God doesn’t know the future.  But let’s pretend Open Theism is not true.  I’m inclined to think that most problems in philosophical theology get worse rather than better with Open Theism . . .)

OK, think for a moment about the past, about a memory that involves something wonderful that you cannot have back.  In my case, I think of my children when they were very young.  Years ago I lived in Kentucky, across the street from a dairy farm.  I would regularly carry my infant son over there to watch the cows.  For me that was a slice of heaven that I can never have back, because I don’t live there anymore and, most notably, because my son is too old to be carried like that.  I regret that.  Those days are gone, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.  When I ponder this I feel trapped, swept along.  I am a prisoner of time.

But if God is in time, isn’t God trapped in exactly the same way?  If God took joy in the childhood of my kids, God can’t get back to it any more than I can.  (Of course, God remembers it better than I do, but even perfect memory of an event is not the same as living it.)  Or think about the glory of the Resurrection:  a good day on God’s calendar, for sure, but also gone, irretrievably gone, sweeping farther into the past with every passing day.  And God, on this score, is just like me.  God has reason for regretting that what is past is gone.  God lacks control over the passage of time just like I do.

If this is a weakness in me – if I have regret in virtue of being trapped in time, a prisoner to it – then I suggest that the same is true of God, if God is in time.  But it would be unbecoming for God to experience regret in virtue of being trapped by anything.  That wouldn’t be appropriate for the greatest possible being!  I suggest, then, that these considerations about regret and the passage of time give us some reason to think that God is in fact outside time, that God is not bound in time but somehow transcends it.


Michael Hands said...

Really enjoyed the post, Dr. VanArragon. I agree with your thesis: if God exists within time, then he's prisoner to it like us.

The nostalgia argument is really fascinating. It seems like nostalgia pains us because we can't recreate the original experiences. It seems like the argument kind of hinges on whether God can recreate these experiences, which depends on your view of free will. If Compatiblism is true and God can determine our actions and our actions are still considered free in a meaningful sense, then it seems like God can recreate the original experience whenever he wants. It seems like this gets around the nostalgia problem. If we have radical free will in the libertarian sense, it doesn't seem like God can guarantee the original experience.

The post also reminded me of this CS Lewis line from Out of the Silent Planet:

"A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking... as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing... When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then–that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it."

Interesting to wonder if there really is only a superficial distinction between an experience and the memory of it. That they are parts of the same experience, like cooking and eating. And the pleasure of an experience is only "fully grown" when remembered. Maybe this casts nostalgia in a more positive light.

Wheelz said...

I think those of us who lean toward God's being outside of time could simply say that this whole discussion hinges on the one you didn't want to tackle: the nature of time itself. If the nature of time is such that it dictates that God couldn't be “outside” of it while still interacting with a world that exists “inside” it, then this whole discussion is moot. It wouldn't be a weakness of God's at all to not be able to re-experience events, since his being outside time while interacting with the world inside it would be a logical impossibility. This wouldn't be a weakness of God's any more than his inability to create a square circle would be a weakness for him.

Ray VanArragon said...

Thanks, Michael. And Scott, I agree. (Did you mean in your first sentence to say "who lean toward God's being INSIDE of time"?) I'm just giving this as a reason for thinking God is outside time, in the absence of conclusive reasons for thinking God can't be outside time while (in some way) interacting with the world inside time. I also take some solace in the fact that most philosophical theologians prior to the last hundred years or so have seen no problem with that.

Wheelz said...

Oops...yes, I did mean to say "inside" rather than "outside". Thanks.