What Time Is It?

This morning (Dec 3, 2008) Calvin – knowing I’d be interested – rang to ask if I’d seen the Horizon programme ‘What Time Is It?’ (8pm BBC2 Dec 2, 2008). For some reason I’d missed this in the Radio Times, but I promptly brought it up on BBC’s wonderful iPlayer and watched it this lunchtime.

The programme was interesting, although I didn’t learn much that was new to me. As is par-for-the-course with this kind of programme, there was a great deal of ‘could it be that…,’ and ‘we don’t know the answer to this yet…,’ etc. And, as always, there were several things which seemed dodgy from a philosophical standpoint and paradoxical from the programmes own starting point.

For a start, it seemed remarkable that God wasn’t mentioned once throughout the programme. When discussing things which openly stray into the areas of speculation and philosophy (as this programme did), one would assume that the notion of a Creator could at least be considered a possibility. But the very idea of this possibility never got a mention. This tells us something about the worldview of the programme makers. It tells us that they are not open-minded to all possibilities (as good science should always be) and that they have a preconceived philosophical agenda which, from the very outset, rules out the most obvious answer to the questions they themselves are posing. ‘What existed before the Big Bang?’ the presenter asked. He admitted that neither he nor anyone else had the answer and speculated that, perhaps, it was ‘time.’

After being informed that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, we were then introduced to the way in which space-time can be warped by strong gravitational fields.  The experiment which proved Einstein’s theory at this point was conducted by Shapiro in the 1960s, and involved reflecting light off Mercury.  This proved that time is not a constant and can vary. In fact, time is different for all of us. At a mundane level, it even runs slightly slower for an individual who lies on the ground, because there, one is closer to the mass of the earth, where time appears slower. I began to get cross! “So what about the 13.7 billion years” I began complaining at the screen; “tell us where all this leaves the 13.7 billion years”. If time can warp so readily in our own solar system, even for each individual, how can we trust calculations of time which reach to the very beginnings of the universe? How do we even know that the speed of light is constant? And if it’s not, either in all conditions (including gravitational fields), or throughout the duration of those 13.7 billion years, what happens to our calculations?

Towards the end of the programme came a part of Einstein’s thinking which has long fascinated me, and which many students will have come across in previous blog entries and lectures of mine. This is the idea of past, present and future all existing at the same time, sometimes called ‘block time’. I find this idea fascinating on various levels. What if all things exist eternally and at the same time? Well, if we could for one second get our head around this, we might, in a small way, get an idea of the universe as God sees it! But we should not simply believe that God is ‘outside’ (transcendent), he is ‘inside’ (immanent) this dimension too! ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).  Such things are ‘too wonderful for me’ (Psalm 139:6) and I stand in awe of our magnificent God, the Lord of space and time; the Lord who counts the hairs on our heads! The very same Lord and Creator of those responsible for TV science programmes who not only do not believe in him, but who can’t even bring themselves to mention him as a possibility in their oh-so-clever theories.

  1. chris,
    just wondering if youve reading william lane craig’s book time & eternity? you can also purchase a dvd set of his teaching on the subject at biola apologetics store..
    he discusses the problems with this ‘b-theory’ 4-dimensional block universe you mention that einstein postulated.. i think recently paul helm the christian philosopher has used it to keep God in a truly timeless state because recent philosophical arguments have told against divine timelessness in favour of divine temporality (like if God is timeless and the world temporal then He can have no knowledge of what is going on ‘now’ without becoming temporal Himself).. i think one philosophical problem is that the b-theory doesnt seem to be able to explain ‘time’s arrow’, the forward direction of time – it seems that its simply arbitrary which direction time goes in, if there is a static universe then all temporal relations are earlier than, later than, silmultaneous with etc. not before or after.. if thats the case the 4-dimensional block universe could just be flipped around in any direction like a thimble and time’s arrow doesnt hold as we experience it..
    also, looking at it from a theological perspective it seems that if the universe exists statically then it appears Christ is still on the cross and evil exists eternally – surely this means theres no real victory over sin? sin exists timelessly on this model and at most all we’d see is evil getting less potent as we go up the 4-dimensional block..


  2. Dave
    Thanks for your post. I haven’t read the book you mention, nor anything by Paul Helm on this (but will look it up).

    You say that if God is outside time, then it’s not possible for him to know what’s going on ‘now’. I understand what you’re saying and recognise the paradox, but I believe God can act in precisely this way. Perhaps it would be fruitful to give much more consideration to the doctrine and workings of God as Trinity in this area?

    I accept that time seems to have a forward direction as you say. Maybe it does, maybe it only seems like that to us from where we’re standing.

    Yes, you understand the problem well when you say that ‘it appears Christ is still on the cross’. If ‘block time’ has a shred of truth in it, we would have to explain this somehow. But even if block time is not true (and I didn’t say I believed the idea 100%, only that it fascinates me) then your observations are still problematic. Even if evil does not exist eternally, it is not cancelled out because time has passed. The evil which caused our Saviour to go to the cross is still there, and so are its opposite effects, ricocheting around the earth, bringing people into the kingdom. The cross is absolutely relevant now; in fact it is eternally NOW. There has always been evil and no doubt always will be until the Lord returns. But if God is Alpha and Omega and knows the end from the beginning (as so many of us often say), then we are saying there is something of the idea of block time in our traditional theology (though I accept that all analogies break down at various points).

    Finally, is it not possible that block time could be true from where God stands (i.e, Absolute Truth) but God has created us within the constraints of time which appears to ‘travel’ in a ‘forward’ direction, as though we were passengers on a train? If we could look at all things (including time) as God does, we would become like him! there are obviously zillions of things we shall never understand.

  3. Chris,
    thanks for the response in turn..
    im not sure how looking at God as a Trinity could get round the problem of God not knowing what happens ‘now’ in time if He exists timelessly.. all i can think here is if Jesus exists Incarnate on the earth and thus temporal/spatial then it appears that if God is timeless He cant even know His son is right now (or even was back then past tense) Incarnate.. if He did know such a thing (and also that Jesus NOW no longer walks the earth Incarnate) it would appear His knowledge changes in relation to these facts, and He’s thus temporal.. if we deny God doesn’t know whats happening now surely we’re denting His attribute of omniscience immensely.. for me this a huge problem for divine timelessness – should we keep it to sacrifice God’s omniscience?
    also I cant imagine how to construe the Holy Spirit as acting timelessly in a temporal situation with believers on the earth.. maybe youre suggesting the Father remains timeless but the Son and the Spirit are temporal in their dealings with man? i guess then it still seems that the Father will remain ignorant of much the Son & the Spirit encounter and do..

    when you say that God sees the universe as a block yet we experience it in a temporal manner with a forward direction.. thats fair enough, but i guess my response would be that this only puts the problem back a step – there is still a temporal progression, but its just in our conscious minds rather than objective reality – like a string of lightbulbs that goes off one after another in a row, and surely if we’re going to ascribe omniscience to God He’d have to know what conscious state is currently ‘now’ in human minds.. and to go back to time’s arrow, why should the progression go in this forward manner? why not backwards or just arbitrarily? if the universe is a block theres no specific direction it goes in..

    my belief at the minute is that many theologians dont want to get rid of divine timelessness simply because it has a long and impressive tradition of great Christian minds (some of my personal heroes amongst them) subscribing to it (Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards etc.).. but i see no real warrant in scripture for it – if anything scripture portrays a vibrant picture of the Lord interacting in human affairs.. to me it is a leftover relic of Greek philosophy and Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover.. im saying all this while being very wary of both open theism and process theism which emphasize divine temporality – but there are many evangelicals that do go along with it..

    i think william lane craig’s model seems to make the most sense to me – that God is timeless sans creation and then upon creating a universe (an act which happens silmultaneously with the first moment of time, so its not in itself a ‘temporal’ act) He becomes temporal due to His changing relations of knowledge with the world – but being timeless or temporal isn’t essential to God’s character like omniscience or omnipotence would be – He can be either and still be God..

    anyway, if you get a chance to read either craig or helm id be interested to know what you think! its an extremely fascinating subject


  4. If the only thing that limits God is his own character, in that He cannot lie, cannot sin and cannot tempt to sin, etc, then it would be most logical to assert that God cannot be limited by time in transendence or immanence. God is not trapped within time nor is trapped outside of it. He does not merely act upon time, he enters into it and can experience it as you and I can. Hence the Theophanies in the Old Testament and God dealing with individuals and societies relationally throughout time. If we limit God either to time or to being out of it we go too far. And that, I propose, has been the problem in theology down the ages. Man has either not recognised God’s transcendence, as in liberal theology, or swung the other way and not recognised his immanence as in many neo-orthodox, when the answer has to be both if we are to hold to the nature of God as the Bible reveals Him to be.

  5. Dave
    Thanks once again. I don’t want to develop this too much in this way but will just reply to your last post. perhaps the Campus Forum would be a good place to continue this and see if anyone else joins in?

    First off, can I reiterate that this is just an area which I find fascinating. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m sold on every idea I discuss! The idea that God looks on time as a ‘block’ or that it’s somehow all laid before him is certainly not new as you point out. My suggestion about the Trinity was bound to cause confusion and I should not have made it. I can’t outline thoughts in a sentence when a book would be required. Very briefly, it seems to me that the doctrine of the Trinity is neglected and that this should be considered in all areas of space-time discussions. the Spirit blows where he wills etc; the Spirit is IN us, the Father is the Creator who also (somehow) is ‘outside’ us. It seems that in any consideration of the Trinity, our instinctive views of time and space are inadequate and we are left with mystery. I’m quite happy with mystery and don’t feel the need to try and explain everything. That’s why I wouldn’t have a problem with God looking at all of time from the outside, but being able to be inside it too and being ‘Now’.

    Yes, I’m agreeing that time appears to move ‘forwards’ to us but that it may not do that. The main reasons we have for any kind of view of time is primarily in the ageing of things around us (and ourselves); everything doesn’t appear to stay the same. As one comical philosopher has commented, ‘Time exists so everything doesn’t happen at once.’ In a similar way, we could say that space exists so that everything is not in the same place at once. We get older and die, and it appears that time is moving. It seems that we’re on a train, heading towards the buffers. But it’s just possible that the ‘time’ we’re occupying is largely of our own invention; we are ‘moving’ (ie ageing) but no train (time) exists (ie we’re not ‘inside’ ‘something’. Does God need to be restricted by time as we are? According to the ‘Openness of God’ theologians he is restricted, and has to wait and see what happens in any given situation.

    Just one final thing on this and then I’ll leave it here; time, like everything else in existence, needs human beings (other than God) to be perceived. Like Kant, I believe that we cannot know anything for certain from our senses, we can only know how things appear to us.

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