A response to MaverickChristian: God and Time

0. Introduction

In this post, I am going to respond to ‘MaverickChristian’, who wrote a blog post about my debate with Luke Barnes. In particular, I am going to focus on the last of three sections of his response, which is all about an argument I made about God being both timeless and causing the universe to exist.

  1. God and time – a problem for fine tuning

The fine tuning argument purports to show that the explanation of the physical universe is that it was designed by a divine mind, rather than is something which came about by pure chance. But there is a sort of dilemma here.

God has to be, in some sense, outside time for this inference to make sense. After all, if he were (entirely) located within time, it seems problematic to imagine that he created time. God would already have to be contained within the thing he is supposed to be creating, which makes it seem like bootstrapping. Yet, if God is outside time, how can he stand in any causal relation to anything? Causes are things that take place in time. So, either way round is problematic.

This is the basic problem that I tried to present to Barnes in our debate, and it is the bit that MC is going to respond to.

Just to make things a bit clearer, I am going to make reference to a book called ‘God and the Nature of Time‘ by Garrett DeWeese. He is a professor of philosophy and philosophical theology at the Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.  I’m doing this partly as an effort to help MC drop his guard a bit. The objections I raised are also raised by Christians. Not just Christians, but Christians who teach at the same department as William Lane Craig, as Craig seems to be a favourite of MC. I will come back to Craig’s personal view at the end. My point in using DeWesse to illustrate the issues is to show that one can be a devout Christian and a professor of philosophical theology and still advocate the argument I was making in my debate with Barnes about God and time. (I also find DeWesse’s book very clear and well argued. I don’t agree with him on everything, but we agree on the main thrust of the argument in this post).

Here is how DeWesse sets out the basic problem:

“On the one hand, it would seem that if God created time, he himself must somehow transcend time. On the other hand, it would seem impossible for a God outside of time to interact with his creation at moments of time. This, in a nutshell, is the problem.” (DeWesse, God and the Nature of Time, p. 1)

Clearly then, I am talking about the same problem as DeWesse.

2. A timeless mind

I actually made two arguments in the section of the debate that we are looking at here, and unfortunately, MC seems to conflate them and switch back and forth between them quite often.

The first argument was about a non-temporal mind. I said that a timeless mind seems incomprehensible to me, and so therefore is an unattractive candidate as an explanation for the fine tuning. The argument is not supposed to be ‘I can’t understand what it means, therefore it is impossible that it exists’. That would be a bad argument indeed. I was merely trying to express one of the reasons I am unable to consider the theistic explanation of fine tuning as an attractive option when picking explanatory hypotheses; how can I consider something to be a good explanation if it makes no sense to me? Anyway, I think MC accepts this type of response, after initially thinking I was making the bad argument from above. He says:

“Malpass gave no argument for his claim that a mind is necessarily a linear sequence of phenomenological experiences. At first I thought his inability to personally conceive of it might be one of his reasons for thinking this (see e.g. 1:26:44 to 1:27:46), but from the comments on his YouTube channel this doesn’t appear to be the case, despite sort of acting as if this were a reason to doubt such a timeless being in the debate (see 1:29:27 to 1:29:31).”

Anyway, we can forget about this point from now onwards. The real disagreement is about my second argument, which I think is more forceful.

3. A timeless cause

I suggested that there is something incoherent about the idea of a timeless agent causing the universe to exist. My reasoning is like this: a cause is a type of change, but a timeless being cannot change. Proposing a timeless being causing something to happen is rather like proposing a changeless being changing in some way. For that reason, it sounds to me like a married bachelor.

Despite that bit of reasoning being clear enough to me, MC makes the following comments:

My objection isn’t that Malpass gives bad arguments for these claims, but that he gives no arguments for these claims.


Malpass also gave no argument for his claim that a timeless entity causing events requires entering a temporal relation in a way that makes it not timeless.

I didn’t give an argument in premise/conclusion form, but I did try to explain the reasoning in a way that is similar to above.

Here is one way of stating the idea as an argument, seeing as this is what MC is complaining about:

  1. A cause is a type of change.
  2. Timeless things cannot change.
  3. Therefore, a timeless thing cannot (be a) cause.

4. Supporting the first premise

The first premise seems pretty straightforward, yet it could be challenged I guess. It’s hard to think of what a cause could be that isn’t a type of change though. Here is how DeWesse describes causation in the intuitive way:

“Causes bring about their effects; or, in the usual counterfactual reporting of such an event, if the cause had not occurred, the effect (other things being equal) would not have occurred either. Strongly implicated in this common notion of causation is the idea that causes are, or in some senses contain, power. So unless some other power intervenes, the power of (contained in) a cause will bring about a change in a state of affairs” (De Wesse, God and the Nature of Time, p 40, emphasis mine)

If MC is talking about a cause which doesn’t involve a change of any type, it looks like it has to be very different from this normal type of cause. It seems hard to know how to think of a cause that isn’t a change like this. The intuitive notion of cause clearly classifies it as intimately related to the notion of change.

One might think that we could find one of the Aristotelian notions of cause to use here. These are the formal, material, final and efficient causes. It seems quite clear that the type of Aristotelian cause that is relevant in the claim that ‘God caused the universe to exist’ is the efficient cause. The claim is not that God is the material out of which the universe is made (the material cause), or the telos, or end, towards which the universe is directed (the final cause), or the form or account of what it is to be the universe (the formal cause). That leaves the efficient cause as the only one left. But Aristotle explains the efficient cause as “the primary source of the change or rest” (emphasis mine), and also that it is “That from which the change or the resting from change first begins” (Metaphysics, V, 2, emphasis mine). Thus, efficient causation is intimately tied via its definition to the notion of change as well.

What relevant notion of cause is there that does not involve change?

A closely related issue is that in the special theory of relativity, time and causality are shown to be very closely related to one another. Take this diagrammatic explanation of light-cones (taken from here):


The point-event A has a ‘future light-cone’, which is all other point-events which could be influenced by a causal signal emanating from A at up to the speed of light. The future light-cone contains everything that could be an effect of A. Similarly, the past light-cone is all those point-events which could have causally effected A. Events outside either light-cone are not causally related to A. Thus, special relativity shows us one way in which temporal relations and causal relations are very closely related to one another. Again, to quote DeWesse:

“Our grasp of the concept of causation may be incomplete, but it surely seems to involve temporal notions (even if simultaneous causation is possible).” (DeWesse,  God and the Nature of Time, p 159)

Thus, if the notion of cause in play involves no change, then it is very unlike the intuitive notion of cause. Nor can it be the Aristotelian efficient cause. Nor can it be anything like the notion of cause that we find in the heart of our best theory of space and time (special relativity being at the heart of general relativity).

5. Supporting the second premise

Equally, the second premise seems pretty straightforward. Change means something like having a property at one time, and not having it at another. A banana goes from being green at one time to being yellow at another. If a timeless being doesn’t exist at any times, then how can they change?

Here is an argument that DeWesse uses to support premise 2:

“For x to change is for x to have a property P at t1 that it does not have at t2. But for this to be true, x must occupy a location in a B-series (that is, stand in a B-relation) such that the state of affairs x’s-having-been-P-at-t1 is earlier than the state of affairs of x’s-not-having-been-P-at-t2. But … atemporal entities do not stand in B-relations. Therefore, atemporal entities must be changeless” (p. 249)

It’s not quite clear which of these two premises MC wants to challenge. Each seems pretty intuitive to me. We have a pretty clear intuition about how causation is temporal and involves change, and we have a pretty clear idea about what it means for something to change. And it is not just me who thinks this. De Wesse clearly seems to follow my intuitions here pretty closely as well.

6. MC’s model

MC makes a response to this. He wants to argue that there is a consistent way of modelling the situation which involves God being timeless, yet also causally interacting with the universe (such as causing it to exist, but presumably also interacting through things like causing miraculous resurrections occasionally, etc).

MC’s characterisation of the A- and B-theories leaves a lot to be desired. He makes the following comments:

On one view of time, called the B-theory of time (also called tenseless theory of time or the static view of time), all moments in time are equally real. This contrasts with the A-theory of time (also called the tensed theory of time or dynamic view of time) in which only the present is real, and things go out of existence when they existed in the past but no longer do (similarly, things can also come into existence as time progresses).

This explanation conflates various closely related views, which for clarity should be kept distinct. The distinction between the A- and B-theories is not the same as that between presentism and eternalism, which is about whether only the present exists, or whether all times exist). It is not the same as the distinction between static and dynamic time, which is about what the fundamental analysis of change is.

Here is how DeWesse describes the distinction between the A- and B-theories:

“The A-theory of time claims that time is defined by the properties of pastness, presentness and futurity; whereas the B-theory claims that time is defined by the relations of earlier-than, simultaneous-with and later-than.” (DeWesse, God and the Nature of Time, p. 16-17)

Unfortunately, MC not being clear about these distinctions is going to make things difficult as we move forward.

MC thinks he has a potential model for how God could be timeless and also causally interact with our universe. Here is what he says about that model:

“One view of God being timeless is that the B-theory of time is true and God transcends space and time, seeing all of the past, present, and future at once. For a timeless entity, there is no change; only being and nonbeing. Since God is outside time, he himself experiences no change and (at least in a metaphorical sense) everything happens “all at once” to him (God’s thoughts, intentions, beliefs, experiences, powers, etc. do not have phases of existence ordered by the relations “earlier than” and “later than”). God can causally interact with the physical space-time of our universe, including creating the universe, but he is not subsumed by it. Call a theist who accepts this view a timeless theist.”

The problem I have with this is that it is just hard to know what he is trying to say.

Firstly, the language used is very sloppy. Take the opening sentence: “One view of God being timeless is that the B-theory of time is true and God transcends space and time, seeing all of the past, present, and future at once.” But if the B-theory is true, then the terms ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ do not pick out objective features of the world at all. Those terms are part of the A-theory. If the B-theory were true, then there would be no such thing as the ‘past’, ‘present’ or ‘future’ for God to see.

Secondly, it is not clear why MC is talking about the way in which God experiences change. We are supposed to be getting an explanation of what it means for God to be timeless, and speculating about what a timeless being’s experiences would be like only seems to make the issue harder to explore. I think that MC is probably doing this because he is not keeping my two arguments apart. The first of those was about God’s mind not being a temporal sequence. It seems like MC is bringing that in here for some reason, even though it is not relevant. Let us suppose for the sake of the argument that God’s mind is not a temporally extended sequence of experiences. Still, the question remains how such a being can change, or causally interact with anything. Telling me that God has his experiences ‘all at once’ (whatever that is supposed to mean) rather than in a sequence, does not address the issue at hand.

Thirdly, I take it that this passage is supposed to be cashing out what it means for God to be timeless, given that it starts with the words “One view of God being timeless is…”. Yet, we do not get anything like a usable definition of what is meant by this term. We get various expressions, such as “God transcends space and time”, “God is outside time”, and “everything happens ‘all at once’ to him”, etc. Yet, these expressions are hardly easier to understand than the bare assertion that God is timeless.

The closest we get is the following:

A theist might instead define “timeless” as “not having phases of existence related to each other by earlier and later.”

In a footnote, MC says:

Christian philosopher of time William Lane Craig defines God being “timeless” in much the same way.

Unfortunately, he isn’t actually quoting Craig here. There is no page number for the reference. Under the footnote, he says “Craig, William Lane; Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship To Time (Illinois: Wheaton, 2001)”. Is this where the notion that God is timeless iff he doesn’t have phases of existence related to each other by earlier and later is coming from? It’s hard to tell because MC isn’t referencing properly.

As a definition of what it means to be timeless, it is rather unhelpful as it stands though. Presumably the idea is that if the B-theory is true, then an entity is timeless if it doesn’t have “phases of existence related to each other by earlier and later”. But because MC doesn’t add the antecedent condition in, we are faced with a problem. That’s because, if the A-theory is true, then strictly speaking, the relations of ‘earlier-than’ and ‘later-than’ do not exist. So it seems to follow from MC’s characterisation above that if the A-theory is true, and there are no ‘earlier-than’ or ‘later-than’ relations at all, then God is timeless, because he would not have “phases of existence related to each other by earlier and later”. But it seems wrong to say that if the A-theory is true, then God is timeless. I’m pretty sure MC does not intend this to be the case. It seems hard to imagine that Craig puts it in quite the way that MC does either.

A much more promising strategy, it seems to me, is to propose that God being timeless means something like the following:

God exists, but not at any time.

Here is how DeWesse puts it:

A is an atemporal entity iff A as no A-properties and stands in no B-relations” (DeWesse, God and the Nature of Time, p. 247)

This definition has the benefit of being very succinct, and not involving the unnecessary complication of being about God’s internal experiences. It also has the benefit of being neutral regarding the A- and B-theories.

I can see no reason to prefer MC’s characterisation of what it means for God to be timeless to DeWesse’s. In fact, I think MC really means something very similar, as this seems to be the most charitable way of reading the phrases “God transcends space and time” and “God is outside time”. These seem to mean something similar to God having no A-properties and no B-relations. If so, it is important to realise that God can be atemporal regardless of whether the A- or the B-theory is true; the two issues are logically distinct. For some reason MC asserts the conjunction of God being atemporal and the B-theory being true: “the B-theory of time is true and God transcends space and time”. I’m not sure if he is doing this because he wants the B-theory to be true on his model for some particular reason, or just that he mistakenly thinks God could not be atemporal if the A-theory were true. I’m tempted to think it is the latter, given his fudging of some of the basic distinctions in play here so far.

7. Causation in MC’s model

Let’s just say then that MC’s model is that God is atemporal in DeWesse’s sense (has no temporal properties or relations), and that the B-theory is true. MC goes on to assert that on this model:

“God can causally interact with the physical space-time of our universe”

There is no analysis given of what ‘causally interact’ means in this context, and MC seems to take for granted that a timeless being could causally interact with things. Yet, as we saw above, most intuitive notions of cause are closely related to the notion of change, and our best scientific theory of spacetime tells us that causation is a type of temporal relation. How is it then that MC thinks that the atemporal God, along with the B-theory, can causally interact with the universe?

The closest we get to an answer is when he says the following:

“Consider what would happen if a timeless God interacted with the physical spacetime of the universe on a B-theory of time, ceteris paribus … From God’s perspective, multiple instances of causally interacting with the universe at different times would be analogous to having multiple fingers simultaneously submerged in different places in a flowing creek”

The problems with this account are more obvious now we have given the more succinct and clear definition of God’s timelessness.

Firstly, MC is still focusing on what God’s experience of timeless causation would be (“from God’s perspective”), rather than explaining what it means to be timeless and causally interact.

Secondly, he is explaining how multiple causal interactions would be experienced by God, when what we want is an account of how even a single occurrence of causation is supposed to work. What does it mean for him to even have one ‘finger in the creek’? If the creek is supposed to be the river of time, then having a finger in it means that God has a temporal property of some type. If God intervened in the world to create it at t0 (if he has a finger in the river of time at t0), and if the time of me writing this blog post is t10, and if the B-theory is true (which he said it was on his model), then God is in a B-relation to the event of me writing this blog; his causal act is earlier than t10. But that directly contradicts DeWesse’s definition of what an atemporal being is; a temporal being stands in no B-relations. It seems to me that a timeless being cannot have even one finger inside the creek of time.

Maybe MC will object that though God’s causal influence is felt at t0, he is not present at t0 on this model. This would solve the problem only by making another in its place. In virtue of what is it God, rather than something else, or nothing at all, that is responsible for the cause at t0, if God doesn’t exist at t0 to do the causal influencing himself? If the cause is present without God, then it is hard to see how this qualifies as God causing something at all. To avoid this second mystery, God has to be present while the cause is happening, and that just puts us back to him standing in B-relations again.

MC goes on to develop another analogy:

“God would experience the universe as a whole just as an animator can see all the frames of a short cartoon all at once. Just as an animator can causally affect each frame of the animation without being fully in the animation, God would causally interact with physical spacetime without being wholly subsumed by it”

Again, for some reason we are talking about God’s experience of time, rather than being given any analysis of how it is that God can be timeless yet interact with something. But more significantly, the analogy presupposes temporal passage. The reason that an animator can cut up her frames of film (and rearrange them how she wants, etc), is that the animator is a being who is in time. First her film is connected, then she cuts it up, and then after that she rearranges the pieces. The analogy presupposes not a timeless agent, but a temporally situated agent.

One possible response would be to consider the timeline of the animation, and the timeline of the animator, as being two distinct temporal sequences. Maybe there is normal time, and meta-time. I think this is about all that the analogy can buy you, and I think it is really no help whatsoever here.

One problem is that it undermines the explanatory power of the theistic hypothesis in the first place. To see this, we can use an argument favoured by fine tuning advocates. Some people have postulated that our universe could be a simulation run by a being in another universe. This is often dismissed by proponents of fine tuning not really being explanatory. Consider Barnes:

“At face value, we’re just moving the problem up a level. Why does this universe permit life? Because it is the product of a universe that permits life, and and computers and simulations. Guess what my next question is?” (Barnes, A Fortunate Universe, p.373)

The implication is that his question is going to be: ‘who designed the being who is running the simulation?’ What we are trying to do, with the fine tuning argument, is judge hypotheses that are supposed to explain the existence of the universe as we find it. Postulating that there is some other universe somewhere which explains this via the simulation of a being in that universe, just pushes off the question of why this larger universe exists. We are not answering the real question, but just putting it off.

Similarly, if we say that God created time, but that to make sense of this claim we have to postulate a meta-time for him to act in, then we seem to just be ‘moving the problem up a level’. Where did that meta-time come from? Did God create that? We are right back to our original puzzle, because if God is in meta-time, how can he also have created it? If he is outside meta-time, how could he causally interact with it? Exactly the same problems we started with reappear at this meta-level. So postulating a meta-time doesn’t help here. However, it is the best the animator analogy seems to get you.

But really, it doesn’t even get you this. The situation we are supposed to be explaining (the one that MC wants to show is not contradictory) is a timeless agent acting. But the animator isn’t a timeless agent; she exists in time, cutting up her frames of film and rearranging them. It is a scenario that doesn’t feature a timeless agent at all. We want an explanation of how a timeless agent can act, but we are given an example of a temporal agent acting. That’s no help. Thus, this metaphor is obfustacing, rather than illuminating.

And this is really the root of the problem here. Recall, MC says that:

“Since God is outside time, he himself experiences no change and (at least in a metaphorical sense) everything happens ‘all at once’ to him”

What we have is an account that tries to paint a picture of God being timeless, but also interacting with the world, which has to resort to blatantly temporal vocabulary in order to make it work. ‘All at once’ is a temporal relation – two things happening together is what it means for them to be simultaneous. If we read that literally, then it would be obviously contradictory; God cannot be timeless (stand in no B-relations) yet also have everything happen all at once for him, because that means them all happening at the same time (which is a B-relation). If God doesn’t exist at any time, then neither does his experiences happen all at the same time. But if we insist on this being taken literally, then what is left of the metaphor? Nothing at all, it seems to me. The metaphor only seems to work because it is just an attempt to have your cake and eat it too.

So, we really haven’t been given anything like a workable model of how God could be timeless and causally interact with the universe.

8. Craig’s view

At the end of the post, MC makes it clear that he adheres to Craig’s view of God and time. (In some sense there is an irony to MC’s name. It’s not very ‘maverick’ to hold to the same position as the most mainstream Christian philosopher’s view on this subject. ‘Predictable Christian’ might be a more apt name. Anyway…)

Craig defends a sort of hybrid view of God’s relation to time and creation; God is sort of both timeless and temporal. The promise of Craig’s approach is that it seems to be a way to get around the problem we started with, namely how a timeless being could create the universe.

Craig’s view can be found here. As he says in the very last line:

“…the proper understanding of God, time, and eternity would be that God exists changelessly and timelessly prior to creation and in time after creation.”

On this view, God is timeless sans (or without) creation, and then temporal since creation. God ‘enters into’ time and ‘becomes’ temporal.

This view is baffling to many commentators, and this is because on their face, ‘entering into’ and ‘becoming’ are paradigmatic temporal activities. Craig even uses the phrases ‘prior to’ and ‘after’, which look like the B-relations of earlier-than and later-than. It seems a lot like MC’s proposal, in the sense that temporal vocabulary seems required to cash out how a timeless entity can causally interact with the world.

But there is another worry. The issue requires us to say explicitly what it means to be a temporal entity. Again, DeWesse provides a clear definition:

T is a temporal entity iff T possesses an A-properties or stands in a B-relation to some other entity” (DeWesse, God and the Nature of Time, p. 244)

Given the definitions of temporal and timeless, one cannot be both. A is timeless iff A is not temporal. This produces a problem for Craig though, and something close to a contradiction in the view.

Take the sentence:

a) The number 9 is a timeless entity

If a) is true at any time at all, then the number 9 does not exist at any time. Were (somehow) the number 9 to exist at some time t’, and then disappear again, we would say that a) was false, at all times. The number 9 is not an atemporal entity if it exists at any time. For a) to be true, 9 exists at no times at all.

If that is right, then we should be able to say the same sort of thing about the following:

b) God is a timeless being

If b) is true at some time, t, then it should be true at all times, t’, as well. We can run the same sort of reasoning. Suppose that God briefly popped into time, but only for one instant. This would be enough to make b) false at all times. So if b) is true at any time, it must be true at all times.

But consider the following:

c) God is a temporal being

Craig thinks that ‘since’ creation, God became temporal, and remains temporal. Since time began (at t0), when God ‘entered into’ time, God stopped being a timeless entity, and became a temporal entity. So c) should be true now, for Craig, because God exists temporally now.

So the problem seems to be that both b) and c) are true right now. God being timeless sans creation, and God being temporal since creation, actually seem to entail mutually exclusive propositions. Namely, the proposition ‘God is a timeless being’ is true at all times, and ‘God is a temporal being’ is true at all times, on Craig’s account. But that means that God both exists at no times, and exists at some times. That is a contradiction. How is this to be avoided?

In fact, DeWesse poses this very problem:

“[Craig’s view] seems to entail the following conjunction: ‘God is (tenselessly) timeless and God is (present tense) temporal.’ … statements made about timeless entities are made at a time, and a truth value may be assigned at that time; a proposition about timeless entities that is tenselessly true is true now. If this is correct, then if God is (tenselessly) timeless, then it is true that God is timeless now, and that clearly contradicts the second conjunct” (DeWesse, God and the Nature of Time, p.270)

Interestingly, DeWesse put this point to Craig on ReasonableFaith. Here it is. ‘Garry’ is Garrett DeWesse. Part of Craig’s reply is as follows:

Now not all propositions about atemporal entities are tenseless, e.g., 3 is the number of apples on the table. That is true right now. The tenseless version of this arithmetical statement will also require a temporal index, e.g., 3 is the number of apples on the table at 2:00 p.m. PST, December 26, 2007. Even pure mathematical statements have implicit temporal indices indicating the times at which they are true. This is evident in that if time has a beginning or end, they are not true at times that don’t exist.

This is right, of course. Tenseless propositions require a temporal index to get a truth-value. The point though was that ‘God is a timeless being’ is true at all temporal indexes if it is true at any. Craig goes on to say:

Now God’s state of existing timelessly sans creation can serve logically as a sort of temporal index. So God exists timelessly sans creation is tenselessly true and therefore true at all times. So it is true now.

It is helpful to be clear about what Craig is saying here. He is leveraging the index, ‘sans creation’, as a way of avoiding the contradiction I outlined above. Think about the banana example from earlier on. One and the same banana is green all over and yellow all over, which seems like a contradiction. But this is not a real contradiction, because there is a temporal index which distinguishes the stages of the banana from each other; the banana is green at t1, and yellow at t2. There is nothing contradictory about being green at one time and yellow at another. So the temporal index avoids the apparent contradiction here. This is how Craig is using the index. It isn’t a temporal index as such (‘sans creation’ isn’t a time), but it serves as a way of distinguishing being temporal and atemporal; God is atemporal sans creation, and temporal since creation. In exactly the way that the banana example isn’t really a contradiction, neither is the God case either.

In a sense, that does get out of the problem. However, it is not an impressive result, for two reasons.

Firstly, if ‘sans creation’, and by extension ‘since creation’, are pseudo-temporal indexes, then that means they can be used as temporal indexes, even if they aren’t really temporal indexes. But this is a double-edged blade. They cannot only be used like this when it gets Craig out of trouble, but not also to put him back into trouble. And they can put him back into trouble.

There are lots of different indexes that get used in formal semantics. For instance, if the language you are analysing involves first person pronouns, i.e. “I”, then there is need for a ‘speaker of context’ index. “I am called Alex” is true if the value of the speaker index is me, but it is false if the value of the speaker index is Dave Grohl. Evaluating the same sentence with different values for the speaker index can provide us with different truth-values, as we just saw. Similarly “the banana is yellow” is false if the value of the time index is t1, but it is true if the value of the time index is t2.

The thing to note though is that if a proposition has a different truth-value with different values of the time index has a special name for it; we call that ‘change’. Varying the value of the speaker index, for example, is not ‘change’. We don’t have a word for that at all. But when Craig says that the ‘sans creation’ index is “a sort of temporal index” it makes the result of changing the value of this index ‘sort of a change’. To the extent that it is like a temporal index, it is a change. If Craig just means it to be analogous to a time index in the sense that it is a semantic index more generally, then varying its value is not a change. But then it isn’t ‘sort of’ a temporal index at all, any more than the speaker of context index is a temporal index. It’s just an index. It’s just not quite clear exactly what relation Craig wants the ‘sans creation’ index to have to the temporal index. I suspect he wants it to have a very loose relationship, to avoid the result of varying it as a change.

There is a deeper problem with the proposal though. Imagine Bill pours himself a beer from a can into his glass. It’s a hot day, and Garry looks like he could do with some as well, but that was the last beer. So Bill takes pity on Garry, and pours half his beer into Garry’s glass. Now, ask yourself the question: is all of the beer in Bill’s glass? Well, intuitively the answer is no; some of it is in Garry’s glass. But now imagine that you are allowed to use the index ‘sans Garry’s glass’ to mean ‘not in Garry’s glass’. Should we think that the following is true:

d) All of the beer, sans Garry’s glass, is in Bill’s glass

Well, if we simply introduce the index as defined above, then d) is true. However, it being true shouldn’t distract us from the fact that not all of the beer is in Bill’s glass. If we think of the situation simpliciter, we can see that some of the beer is in Garry’s glass, and that entails that not all of the beer is in Bill’s glass. The index doesn’t help us describe things as they really are, but introduces a more artificial way of talking about the situation.

The lesson of this is that we can always introduce an index to cook up any semantic result we want. The game though is in thinking about the real indexes, the ones we cannot do without; not the ones that are helpful merely to score a point.

How does this relate to Craig’s proposal? Well, even though God is timeless sans creation, if we think about the situation simpliciter, we can see that God is just not timeless. That’s because God exists at a time (indeed, at every time). If we ignore all the times he exists at, then it is true (on Craig’s view) that God also has a mode of existence that is independent of time. For example, had God not made the universe at all, then he would have existed atemporally. But because he did make time, and entered into it, that means he is not atemporal. In reality, Craig’s view of God is not a version of atemporality, but merely a version of temporality. Only in an ersatz sense is God atemporal; only in the same way that all the beer is in Bill’s glass. In reality, God exists in time on Craig’s view, just as in reality some of the beer is in Garry’s glass.

What this means is that it isn’t an example of a timeless God causally interacting with the universe. It’s an example of a God who exists in time interacting with the universe. For that reason, it isn’t a counterexample to the claim that a timeless God couldn’t causally interact with the universe.

10. Conclusion

At the end of all this, I think my view is pretty clear. A timeless being cannot cause anything to happen, because it requires that being to have A-properties or B-relations; it requires the entity to exist at a time. MC didn’t provide a coherent explanation of how this is supposed to work. He helped himself to blatantly temporal metaphors whenever he got close to addressing the central point. He clearly favours Craig’s view, but Craig’s view isn’t an example of a timeless God, and so isn’t an example of a timeless God causally interacting with the universe.


The ‘God can do anything’ objection

0. Introduction

Since I had my debate with Luke Barnes, I have received quite a few questions about different objections to fine tuning, and easily the most common one is the ‘but God could do anything’ objection. The idea is like this. God could have made a world in which there was ‘corse-tuning’. In such a world, the laws of physics are such that if you varied the values of things like gravity, the entropy of the early universe, the mass of the electron, etc, you would still have circumstances in which life as we know it could survive. Why think that if God existed then we should expect to find fine tuning? Surely, fine tuning is evidence against God? I take it this is the ‘God could do anything’ objection.

Here is Hans Halvorson making pretty much this argument. Here he is making the same sort of argument again. The relevant section involves an analogy:

“Suppose that you’re captured by an alien race whose intentions are unclear, and they make you play Russian roulette. Then suppose that you win, and survive the game. If you are convinced by the fine-tuning argument, then you might be tempted to conclude that your captors wanted you to live.

But imagine that you discover the revolver had five of six chambers loaded, and you just happened to pull the trigger on the one empty chamber. The discovery of this second fact doesn’t confirm the benevolence of your captors. It disconfirms it. The most rational conclusion is that your captors were hostile, but you got lucky.

Similarly, the fine-tuning argument rests on an interesting discovery of physical cosmology that the odds were strongly stacked against life. But if God exists, then the odds didn’t have to be stacked this way. These bad odds could themselves be taken as evidence against the existence of God.”

This is an interesting argument. I think it is a good argument. However, I think it is not the slam-dunk that some people seem to think it is. It shows that in some sense, the existence of God is very very unlikely. However, it really poses no objection to the fine tuning argument as such.

In this post, I want to explain why this is the case.

  1. Doing the maths

Part of explaining the power, and limits, of this argument requires doing a bit of maths. Firstly, we need to set out the terms involved. The idea of fine tuning is that if we vary the physical parameters of the universe by a tiny amount, then the universe becomes hostile to life as we know it. Roger Penrose expresses the odds against this happening as less than one part in ten to the power ten to the power one hundred and twenty three, or: 

1 / lklk

That is a stupidly small number!

Let’s call this fact F (for Fine tuning). Let’s call the fact that the universe is hospitable to life L, and let’s call the hypothesis that God exists G. Not all cosmologists accept the fine tuning of the universe, but a lot of them do (in some sense or another at least). Regardless of whether it is true, we can agree that if it were true, then the chances of life existing, as it were by chance, are low in the following sense, and using Penrose’s numbers:

  1. P(L | F) = 1 /  lklk

(The probability that the universe would be life-permitting, given fine tuning, is stupidly low)

Let’s also say that, because God is good, and because life is good, God favours universes that are life-permitting, in the following sense:

2.   P(L | G) > P(~L | G)

(The probability that the universe would be life-permitting given that God exists is higher than the probability that the universe would not be life-permitting given that God exists)

However, if you believe in both God and fine tuning (as people like Robin Collins or Luke Barnes do), then you believe in something only a tiny bit more likely than that the universe is life permitting by pure chance. This is what the ‘God can do anything’ objection’s most interesting implication. Here is how it works.

Firstly, let’s add in the fact of fine tuning into the conditional hypothesis in 2:

3.   P(L | G & F) > P(~L | G & F)

The idea is that the proponents of fine tuning who are also theists believe both G and F to be true. F is part of their background knowledge, as it were, so we can add it in to the right side of each conditional probability. The fact of life is more likely on God and fine tuning, than no life is on God and fine tuning. Now, we can use the conditional probability formula (see it here) to express P(L | G & F) differently. The formula says:

P(A | B) = P(A & B) / P(B)

In our case, A = L and B = G & F. If we plug them in, we get:

4. P(L|G & F) = P(L & G | F) / P(G | F)

(The probability that the universe is life permitting, given God and fine tuning, equals the probability that the universe is life permitting and God exists, given fine tuning, divided by the probability that God exists given fine tuning)

We can do exactly the same thing for the other side of 3 (which just uses ~L instead of L):

5.  P(~L|G & F) = P(~L & G | F) / P(G | F)

3 says (effectively) that 4 > 5, so we can restate 3 as:

6.  P(L & G | F) / P(G | F) > P(~L & G | F) / P(G | F)

Each side of 6 has the same denominator, namely P( G | F). So we can eliminate that as follows:

7.  P(L & G | F)  > P(~L & G | F)

All we have done so far is basic algebra, and we have an inequality which says that the probability that the universe would be life permitting and that God exists, given fine tuning, is greater than that the universe would not be life permitting and that God exists, given fine tuning. This enables us to make a rather nice move here (which is where all this maths starts to become interesting). The probability that God exists given fine tuning, P(G | F) is equal to P(L & G | F) + P(~L & G | F). This is because L and ~L constitute all the possibilities for L that there are, so if we consider both of them in there, then it means we can basically just remove them from the equation. So,

8. P(G | F)P(L & G | F) + P(~L & G | F)

And we can get P(L & G | F) + P(~L & G | F) (i.e. the right side of 8) by simply adding P(L & G | F) to each side of 7, as follows:

9. P(L & G | F) + P(L & G | F)  > P(L & G | F) + P(~L & G | F)

So the right side of 8 just is the right side of 9 (which is why they are both orange). 8 says that P(G | F) equals P(L & G | F) + P(~L & G | F), and 9 says that this is less than P(L & G | F) + P(L & G | F). Because of 8, we can substitute P(G | F) for P(L & G | F) + P(~L & G | F) in 9:

9′. P(L & G | F) + P(L & G | F) > P(G | F)

We can simplify P(L & G | F) + P(L & G | F) into 2 x P(L & G | F). What this shows is that the left side of 8 is less than 2 x P(L & G | F), i.e.:

10.  2 x P(L & G | F) > P(G | F)

It is obvious that P(L & G | F) cannot be more than P(L | F) (the probability of two propositions on a hypothesis cannot be more than the probability of one of them on that same hypothesis); so P(L & G | F) ≤ P(L | F). So, because of 10, we can say that P(G | F) must be less than 2 x P(L | F). We know from Penrose what P(L | F) was; it was the stupidly small number lklk. So we can say that the probability that God exists given fine tuning is no more than twice the probability of life given fine tuning:

11.  P(G | F) ≤ 2 x lklk

This is the mathematically rigorous way of saying that fine tuning makes the existence of God very very unlikely.

2. What does this mean?

What this shows is that if you think that a) fine tuning makes life happening by chance as unlikely as lklk, and b) you think that God would favour life permitting universes, then you should also think that c) the probability that God exists is no better than twice 1 / lklk. We have effectively put an upper limit on the conditional probability of God existing given fine tuning, and that limit is twice that of life existing by chance given fine tuning (which is the number fine tuning advocates are always keen to stress is so stupidly low).

Even if we think of the very top of this limit, we can see that it is not much help. Two times 1 / lklk is not as small as one times 1 /  lklk (obviously), but because 1 / lklk is such a stupidly low number, the upper limit is also stupidly low. 2 x stupidly low is still stupidly low. In that case, we might think, fine tuning is pretty good evidence against God. This, it seems to me, is the strength of the ‘God could do anything’ objection. It makes the probability that God exists look stupidly low.

3. The ‘God could do anything’ objection and the fine tuning argument

Yet, how does this result fit into the fine tuning argument? What impact does it have? Recall, that fine tuning argument goes like this (where N is naturalism):

  1.    P(L | N & F) << 1
  2. ~(P(L | G & F) << 1)
  3. Therefore, L is evidence of G over N.

Using our numbers, we can restate the the first two premises as follows:

  1. P(L | N & F) = 1 / lklk
  2. P(L | G & F)  ≤ 2 x (1 / lklk)

We don’t know that the second probability is actually twice the first, but it could be for all we have found out. So long as it is more than the probability in the first, then we can use the likelihood principle and infer the conclusion still. So we have not cut off the argument as such.

Even given all the maths we did above, we have not established that premise 2 is false. All we did was limit how much more likely than premise 1 it could be (it is at most twice as likely). But another way of saying this is that the second premise could be twice as likely as the first, which still enables us to infer the conclusion. And this is where the weakness of the ‘God could do anything’ objection is plain to see. Even if we grant it, we really have no good objection to the fine tuning argument. It isn’t itself a reason to doubt either premise or the inference to the conclusion.

What the fine tuning argument shows is not that God exists. It is not even really just supposed to be evidence that God exists. It is evidence that supports the hypothesis that God exists over the hypothesis that naturalism is true. It is about comparing two hypotheses together and picking the one with the higher probability. This conclusion is very weak, and this means that it is very hard to argue against. Even if fine tuning is evidence that makes the existence of God very unlikely, this is not a rebuttal to the fine tuning argument because it gives us no reason to suppose that life is more likely on naturalism. We need to remember that we are comparing two hypotheses here. Indeed, the upper bound is higher than on theism, so if anything it gives us some very limited reason to think that the fine tuning argument is actually correct, and no reason to doubt it.


Luke Barnes very helpfully sent me a copy of the unpublished paper ‘A probability problem in the fine tuning argument’ by Hans Halvorson, where I got the basic outline of the maths involved in this argument. I’m also indebted to HughJidiette for helping me get my head around the maths.