The first moment of time is the moment of God's creative act and of creation's simultaneous coming to be.
God's bringing about the universe is the total and direct dependence of the contingent universe on the divine will. Such a relation of dependence does not require that God be located in time. Thus, divine timeless action is not incoherent.
The Creator may be conceived to be causally, but not temporally, prior to the origin of the universe, such that the act of causing the universe to begin to exist is simultaneous with its beginning to exist.
Contemporary philosophical discussions of causal directionality deal routinely with cases in which cause and effect are simultaneous; indeed, a good case can be made that all temporal causal relations involve the simultaneity of cause and effect.
Philosophy of Religion Paper (May 14, 1994)
Among the objections to the classical account of God's eternality (according to which divine eternality is construed as timelessness or supratemporality) is that such a Being, a being who lacks all temporal location and extension, could not plausibly be viewed as an agent--could not coherently be thought of as bringing about various states of affairs, whether it be the bringing about the universe itself or any event within it. The classical theist seems to be involved in affirming divine timelessness at the expense of a coherent account of divine action.
In the present paper, I will argue that this popular contemporary criticism of classical theism, though carrying some prima facie force, can ultimately be defeated by a plausible account of divine action which is compatible with divine timelessness. The argument aims to show that divine action must be viewed as analogous to human action, and more specifically that the concept of causality when applied to God must be different in crucial aspects than when applied to things in the world. The coherence of timeless divine action depends on the coherence of timeless causality, and this in turn will be argued for on the basis of both considerations from religious language and the notion of atemporal causal dependence.
I. The Incoherence of Timeless Divine Action
Several philosophers have drawn attention to the apparent incoherence bound up in the notion of a timeless agent, and hence the untenable nature of divine timeless action.
Nelson Pike has explained the problem thus:
"The point seems to be that if God were to create or produce an object having position in time, God's creative activity would then have to have occurred at some specific time. The claim that God timelessly produced a temporal object (such as the mountain) is absurd." (God and Timelessness, p. 105).
"If we can assign a temporal location to what one produces, by the logic of "produces". . .we can assign relative temporal position to the productive activity itself. . . .if something is produced, it begins to exist. To produce something is to effect its beginning. Further. . .if something begins to exist it has position in time. [So] a timeless individual could not produce, create, or bring about an object. . .or state of affairs." (God and Timelessness, pp. 106, 107, 110).
Similarly, Richard Swinburne has argued:
"so many other things which the theist wishes to say about God--that he brings about this or that, forgives, punishes, or warns--are things which are true of a man at this or that time or at all times. If we say that P brings about x, we can always sensibly ask when does he bring it about. If we say that P punishes Q, we can always sensibly ask when does he punish Q? If P really does "bring about" or "forgive" in anything like the normal senses of the words, there must be answers to these questions even if nobody knows what they are. . . .So, superficially, the supposition that God could bring things about, forgive, punish, warn, etc. etc. without doing these things at times before or after other times . . .seems incoherent." (Coherence of Theism, p. 221)
Thus, we have an argument against the possibility of timeless action which runs something like this:
(1) A timeless being = df. a being who lacks all temporal location and extension.
(2) Given any being S, if S brings it about that X, S brings it about that X at a certain time.
(3) Given any being S, if S brings it about that X at a certain time, then S has temporal location.
(4) Therefore, a timeless being cannot bring it about that X.
Since, a necessary condition for bringing things about is temporal location, a timeless God would seem to not be able to create the world (i.e., bring about X, where X = the world), nor would such a being be able to act within the world. Timelessness seems incompatible with divine action, and hence the doctrines of creation and providence.
II. Some Classical Theist Responses
How can the classical theist go about rebutting this argument?
A. The Helmian Argument
Perhaps the classical theist can begin by distinguishing between God's separately producing each of the events within the world (something which would require temporal location) and God's producing the entire temporal order (which would not require temporal location). In other terms, perhaps the theist should make a distinction between acting within the universe (producing this thing and that thing) and the act of producing the universe itself, complete with the entire temporal order. Paul Helm advances this argument. In response to Pike's argument (considered above), Helm says that the difficulty of divine timeless action can be alleviated if we hold that, though every act within the universe requires location in time, a timeless God need not be thought of as acting within the universe, but divine action is rather the single act of bringing about the whole material universe, time included.
"Thus to say that a timeless being produces the universe is to say not that some event occurred before (in a temporal sense) the existence of the universe, but that the timeless being produces (tenseless) all that is, and that but for that tenseless production there would not be the universe." (Eternal God, p. 69).
As I see it, though, Helm's account suffers from two inadequacies.
First, the account fails to distinguish between the topology and metric of time. Given any two events, e1 and e2, we may say that: (1) truths about the length of the temporal interval between e1 and e2 require the existence of laws of nature (metric of time) and (2) that e1 is "before" e2 (or that e2 is "after" e1) independent of whether there are laws of nature (topology of time). Consequently, given the existence of the universe as a complex physical system within which there are laws of nature operational, every act within such a system would be subject to the metric of time--would be temporal in that sense. The production of the entire universe itself, though, could still be taken as temporal--topologically temporal. There is still a (time) "before" the universe was created, even if there is no truth about the length of the interval between God's act of creating and the beginning of the existence of the universe. God's creation of the universe is indeed the creation of a complex system that in a sense includes time, but it is the metric of time that is to be subsumed under the material universe. This still leaves open the possibility for a topology of time according to which there was a time before the universe was created, and so the divine act of producing the whole universe is in that specific sense temporal.
Secondly, and more importantly, it is not clear the Helm's argument actually addresses the fundamental difficulty proposed against the classical theist. Helm's argument tacitly assumes the real bone of contention. True enough, the universe has temporal development. True enough, the universe is contingent. True enough, God does not produce every event separately, but produces by one act of will, one act of bringing-it-about, that the whole universe with its temporal order, exists. Here Helm has merely elucidated the classical theist position. The question still remains as to whether it makes sense to talk about one act of bringing it about that the universe exists where this does not entail the temporal location of the agent? The issue at debate is whether God's bringing anything about (the whole universe or events within it) is compatible with his timelessness.
B. Temporality and Bringings-About
At this juncture the classical theist can try to argue that there is a distinction between:
(a) S brings it about that X is true at time t1.
(b) S, occupying some moment of time t, brings it about at time t, that X is true,
a distinction which suggests that although the thing God brings about is dated, his bringing it about is not dated. It is claimed (Davies, Yates) that the basic error in the objection to timeless action lies in its not distinguishing between (a) and (b) above. Where classical theists affirm (a) with respect to divine action, their opponents would have them committed to (b), which they actually deny (with respect to God's actions). What the classical theist wants to say is that "God's bringing it about that X" actually means (i) something X has been brought about at time t and (ii) what brought X about is not located in time. So although what God brings about can be dated, his action of bringing it about cannot be dated, but it is timeless. A timeless cause has temporal effects. "The story is simple," writes Thomas Morris, "there is one eternal divine act outside time that has a great number of different effects in time, at different times" (Our Idea of God, p. 131).
The objector will probably see this as somewhat of a begging of the question. The above elucidation of "God brings it about that X" only relocates the problem by asserting in a rather round-about way that God timelessly causes things which themselves, as effects, have temporal location. And isn't that the point at issue? Is it coherent to say such a thing? The arguments presented by Pike and Swinburne argue that it is not coherent. Both their arguments assume that temporal effects entail a temporal cause, that the relationship between cause (or agent) and effect (or action) is temporally reflexive. This, of course, is grounded in the conviction that the cause and effect relation entails "succession in time." In other terms, causes are always temporally prior to their effects (a point which I shall consider in detail in III.). Hence, to say that God's bringing it about that X is simply X occurring at time t and bring the timeless cause of X doesn't get anywhere.
Of course, though it might be thought that the move by the classical theist here is question begging (and smacks of adhocery), it is itself based on a plausible distinction between two different aspects of action, that aspect which is internal to the agent and that aspect which is external to the agent and which consists in the actual effect produced by the agent. This move, in its old form, can be found underlying Aquinas's claim that though God's decree is eternal and immutable, its effects are temporal and mutable. Recently, though, William Alston has argued that this distinction between internal and external aspects of action lends support to the coherence of divine timeless action. According to Alston, the internal aspect of divine action is an act of will, the effects of which God, being incorporeal, directly produces.
"The crucial point is that the two aspects can differ in temporal status. The worldly effect will be at a time. But it is quite compatible with this that the divine volition should be timeless, should be embraced with all other divine activity in one eternal now. The action is in time by virtue of its effect, but not by virtue of the immediate activity of the agent. In speaking to Moses God wills that Moses should hear certain words in certain circumstances at a certain time. The hearing of those words by Moses is dated, but the divine volition is not. How can a timeless being act in the temporal world? By timelessly performing acts of will that have temporal effects" ("Divine-Human Dialogue and the Nature of God" in Alston, Essays in Philosophical Theology, p. 154).
Alston backs up the consideration here by adducing evidence from action theory which shows that there is often a difference between the date or time at which something is done in an action by an agent and the time of some effect that is a necessary condition of the type of action in question. John wills to stab Mary, and he performs this action at time t1 (say, 3:30 pm, July 3). But Mary does not die until time t2 (say, 5:00 am, July 23). As Swinburne said, if S brought about X we can always sensibly ask when S brought about some specific effect. When did John bring about the killing of Mary? Alston says that there is no single date of John's action in this case, for "we have one for the volition (and what it immediately issued in) and another for the effect ultimately aimed at" (p. 154f). Alston is, of course, aware of the limitation of this analogy, for the example shows how the date of a volition may be different than the date of its effect--but both are dated! "The present point [i.e., divine timeless action] differs from this only (!) by the fact that the "date" of the volition is the eternal now" (p. 154f.)
To turn the preceding argument from action theory around a bit, an atemporalist might want to suggest that if the eternal now is treated "logically" as a kind of time timeless acts in the eternal now may be given logical (as opposed to temporal) priority over their temporal effects. Leftow has suggested that this would allow the atemporalist to respond to the Swinburne line of argument as follows. When did S bring it about that X? At eternity. And if there is nothing untoward in an act's occurring at one time and its effects happening at another time, by analogy one can separate divine eternal acts and their temporal effects.
III. Critical Analysis
Are these moves of the atemporalist ultimately successful in showing the coherence of timeless action? In themselves, I think not. I believe that the account of timeless action must be extended further. Clearly, whether it makes sense to talk about a timeless cause having temporal effects depends upon whether causality requires temporal location. And here it is that the we reach rock bottom in the debate, for what the atemporalist accounts (expounded above) assume is that divine causality is, in at least one way, different from human agent causality--divine causality is not subject to a temporality constraint. It is this point which needs to be drawn out. The question is whether such a position can be defended as internally coherent and whether it will give an account of divine causality consistent with the doctrine of creation.
A. The Status of Talk About God
First, what of the status of the claim that causes must always precede their effects in time? must be "before" their effects? Is this a necessary truth? or might it be a contingent truth? When dealing with causality within the world (what I will call cosmological causality) the principle seems sensible enough. The consequences of denying "temporal succession" in the cause and effect relation include opening the door to such things as backwards causality. We want to block such inferences as effects may come before their causes (or maybe even be simultaneous with their causes). But if these were the only considerations, it's not clear how timeless causation would involve us in such problems, for timeless causation is just as incompatible with effects coming before their causes as it is causes coming before their effects (as well as causes being simultaneous with their effects). What timeless causation entails is that the divine act of creation (or divine acts in general) is neither "before" "after" nor "simultaneous with" its effect, the universe (or the events which unfold within it). So if one thought that the temporal priority of cause to effect was a necessary truth because its denial entailed certain contradictions (as some hold to be the case with backwards causality), it need only be pointed out that timeless causality would not entail these consequences.
I believe that this highlights the central point of the discussion: divine causality in theological discourse differs in sense from causality in ordinary, everyday, discourse. Talk about God is drawn from our talk about human beings and other creatures. And the question arises as to whether when we move into the theological realm the sense of words undergoes alteration. Specifically, are words applied to God in the same sense in which they are applied to creatures? or does the sense undergo modification? And if so, how much? The classical theist must employ a distinction between that causality proper of the creature (which carries temporal entailments) and the causality which is predicated of God. In other terms, if temporal succession is built into the notion of causality, then causality cannot be predicated univocally, cannot have the same sense when applied to God and man. But it is precisely this move which saves classical theism from incoherence.
The classical theist tradition has emphasized that divine causality takes on a sense that is not identical with the ordinary sense of causality. This has been typically stated in terms of the doctrine of analogy, according to which terms applied to God will not have the same meaning as they have when applied to creatures. St. Thomas distinguished between the res significata (thing signified) and the modus significandi (mode of signification) of terms. Talk about God is analogical since the res significata is the same, though the modus significandi diverges by virtue of the doctrine of divine simplicity. God, being a wholly simple being, will possess perfections in a way different than humans. Hence when predicating terms of God (which are in the first place predicated of humans), there will always be qualifications since God will possess all the perfections of the creature in a way consummate with his nature--a being wholly actual sine ulla potentialitate. Since God is understood by Thomas as the First Existent--a uniquely necessary, immutable, sustaining cause (efficient and final) of the world, which is the ultimate explanatory being--divine causality will have a particular mode which entails that it is not the same as causality in the world. In short, God is not another causal agent in the causal nexus of the world.
Now the doctrine of analogy is subject to a number of apparent liabilities. The way of analogy entails a stretching of meaning of words such that the words might convey less information, and inferences and tests for coherence will become correspondingly difficult (Swinburne, Coherence of Theism, pp. 70-71,221-222). This, of course, doesn't mean that we cannot employ analogy (that seems unavoidable given some of the claims about God), only that we must exercise caution in the extent to which analogy is employed. But this means that in a theological system where divine timelessness is considered essential (as essential as "God is a person" in other theological systems), the classical theist can avoid the charge of incoherence by playing the analogy card. When and how often that card is played will vary from one theological system to another.
B. Divine Causality as a Relation of Timeless Dependence
How then can we think of the divine timeless activity of creation?
I think the discussion is often obscured by construing creatio ex nihilo as requiring a beginning to the universe, when in fact the classical theological tradition allows for a temporally infinite universe, one with no beginning. Creatio ex nihilo does not necessarily involve a temporal beginning to the universe, but only that there would be no universe at all but for the creative activity of God. And the best way to unpack that creative activity is in terms of causality as a relation of dependence. Once this is done, the question becomes one of the coherence of a timeless sustaining cause of the universe. Put this way, the latter doesn't carry with it the temporal associations with "the beginning of the universe." So we ask: must all causal relations be temporal, involving succession. True enough, generative causes might be thought to involve such things. But what of sustaining causes? the notion of dependence?
Brian Leftow has given the following formulae (based on David Lewis' counterfactual notion of causality) in order to explicate the coherence of a timeless sustaining cause. First, we lay down a definition of a sustaining relation between two terms A and B:
(S) A sustains B = Df. (i) A and B occur contingently, (ii) B occurs continuously over more than one temporal position, (iii) A does not occur later than B does, (IV) A and B do not occur in and are not discrete temporal series, (v) in every nonactual world W such that no world is more like the actual world than W, A occurs only if B occurs continuously over more than one temporal position, and (vi) were A not to occur, then if B's continuance is not overdetermined or redundantly caused, B would not do so.
Where A is the divine will of a timeless being, the timeless being's creative activity could be articulated in the following terms:
(S*) A Timelessly Sustains B = df. (i) A and B occur contingently, (ii) A occurs timelessly, (iii) B occurs continuously over more than one temporal position, (iv) in every non actual world W such that no world is more like the actual world than W, A occurs only if B occurs continuously over more than one temporal position, and (v) were A not to occur, then if B's continuance is not overdetermined or redundantly caused, B would not do so.
Perhaps (S) and (S*) leave further questions or do not convey everything we would like to have conveyed about the divine will's creative activity, but that it is empty of content is hardly the case either. The definition does avoid (by virtue of (ii) and (iii)) such philosophical problems as reverse dependence. More importantly, it does not require A to have temporal location (whether we are talking about the topology or metric of time).
In this paper I have argued that the coherence of timeless divine action depends upon an important distinction between cosmological and metaphysical causation, between causality understood scientifically (involving temporal location) and causality taken metaphysically, which in the very nature of the case could not partake of certain aspects of scientific causality (both the topology and metric of time). Far from being left with a sense of "causality" so stretched in meaning that it conveys little information, I have attempted to show that there is an understanding of causal dependence which sheds light on how God could timelessly bring about the universe. God's bringing about the universe is the total and direct dependence of the contingent universe on the divine will. Such a relation of dependence does not require that God be located in time. Thus, divine timeless action is not incoherent.