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.


25 thoughts on “A response to MaverickChristian: God and Time”

  1. Alex —

    As usual, great post! Very interesting stuff. I think this sort of argument is intuitively quite persuasive. Nonetheless, I wanted to offer two things in reply. First, on behalf of the theist, I wanted to offer what I think to be a fairly important objection to the argument that you’ve offered and one which I’ve never seen a theist offer. But, second, I want to show that this objection may show the way towards another argument undermining theism.

    You’ve argued that the relationship between a timeless God and a temporal universe is problematic if God is supposed to have created the universe. Creation involves efficient causation, efficient causation requires time, and so any efficient cause must be in time. Consequently, we have a contradiction: God is both in time and not in time. You’ve considered a reply from a theist who tries to deliver on God’s metaphysical relationship to time, but their explanation ultimately fails because they cannot deliver on an account of how a timeless x can be the efficient cause of anything. Good.

    I think a better response can be offered on behalf of the theist. The trouble comes when we set aside the manifest image of time and consider what contemporary work in the foundations of physics has to say about both time and the universe’s origins. While there is plenty of contention here, most people working in this area agree on two theses:

    The asymmetry between the past and the future is not a fundamental feature of time, but emerges from more fundamental temporally symmetric processes.
    Space-time is not a fundamental entity. Instead, space-time is a classical approximation to a structure (or structures) that will appear in some as yet not fully understood quantum theory of gravity.

    Typical accounts of efficient causation are undermined by (1) and (2). For example, we ordinarily think of efficient causation as a kind of temporally asymmetric relation, e.g., causes precede their effects. But (1) tells us that the asymmetry of time can be reduced, without remainder, to more fundamental temporally symmetric phenomena. So, while typical accounts tell us that efficient causation is irreducible, physics appears to be telling us that efficient causation is reducible. More to the point, at the energy scales thought to be relevant for the early universe, the quantum theory of gravity mentioned in (2) is expected to dominate. That is, if we trace time backwards, we come up against some boundary on the other side of which our usual understanding of time ceases. So, physics might provide us with an example of a non-temporal entity giving rise (?) to a temporal entity. (The grammar here is difficult, but may be an artifact of our language having developed to deal with medium scale dry goods.) And if non-temporal entities giving rise to temporal entities is acceptable in physics, it’s hard to see why the same shouldn’t be acceptable in theology.

    Perhaps contemporary physics requires a more fundamental and primitive notion of causation, to which efficient causation is an approximation relevant for particular contexts. If so, theologians would be right to say that God may have caused the universe without being the efficient cause of the universe.

    Nonetheless, I think a more careful examination of the situation in physics suggests an additional argument undermining theism. Physics may require a more fundamental and primitive explanatory relation than efficient causation. But the requisite explanatory relation either does not appear to be a kind of causation, or, even if the relation is causal, the relation is not causal in the sense relevant for theism. Recall that in contemporary physics, the asymmetry of causal relations is thought to be reducible, without remainder, to microphysical temporally symmetric phenomena. If so, physics offers no fundamental asymmetric explanatory relations. According to the theist, God’s relationship to the universe is asymmetric, e.g., the theist thinks they can sensibly say “God created the universe” but they do not think they can sensibly say “the universe created God”.

    I think what’s happening here is indicative of a broader pattern. Theists require that reality, at bottom, corresponds to the intuitive categories of the manifest image. At bottom, they think, we find a person, with a mind, who possesses agent causal powers, and whose thoughts and actions explain the rest of reality. (God is counterintuitive, but, as the cognitive scientists tell us, only minimally so.) Over the past several hundred years, what we’ve learned from the sciences is that all of the explanatory categories we intuitively believe to be so sacrosanct are contingent byproducts of how we happen to be situated in the universe. The universe is counterintuitive and not minimally so. In this particular instance, theism requires that causal relations like those we typically taken for granted are, contra the physicists and the metaphysicians, metaphysically fundamental.

    Of course, the theist can always say that their metaphysical categories can be rescued. They might tell us that though there is no metaphysically fundamental causal relations of the relevant sort in physics, there may be such relations at some level of description that transcends physics. Perhaps so. But in order for this to be more than metaphysical prejudice, the theist requires convincing argumentation, for which there does not appear to be any.


  2. Hi Dan,
    Are the two theses you talk about compatible with presentism? I’m thinking it’s not. I’m also thinking your reply is in the spirit of the early Russell who took considerations from physics to deny causation. I think Russell changed his mind later on. Edward Feser replies to Russell’s ideas by saying that since physics is concerned with equations, it couldn’t find causation, though I think there are nuances to his view that I’m not fully articulating.


    1. Hugh —

      I think the two theses are incompatible with presentism. Presentism holds that time is metaphysically fundamental and irreducible. I was suggesting that time is not metaphysically fundamental and is reducible. The tension with presentism doesn’t bother me in the least; I think that, long before we had any notion that time might be reducible, we had good reason to think that presentism was not compatible with our best scientific theories. Putnam argued in the 1970s that we ought to stop doing philosophy of time, since we now have a science of time. I don’t think this is exactly right — there are philosophical questions about time raised by physics — but I also have little patience for the kind of arm chair metaphysical theorizing that typically brings folks to endorse presentism.

      As far as I can tell, presentism is merely an attempt to rescue the a priori metaphysical intuitions we inherited from the manifest image of time. As per the latter part of my original comment, that’s exactly the sort of thing we ought to be giving up. If theists need presentism for their theology, so much the worse for their theology.

      As far as Russell goes… I’ve read a lot of Russell, but I don’t quite recall the passage(s) you might have in mind. In any case, it’s fairly well known that the early Russell owes a large debt to Hume. Early Hume rejected causation because of Hume’s interpretation of physics. But this led to the crisis of the Appendix. In the first Enquiry, we find that Hume has rejected his projectivism and endorses a nuanced account of causation. Late Hume denies the sort of deductive causation endorsed by, e.g., Spinoza and endorses a nomic conception of causation. Strawson goes a bit further in interpreting what Hume might have in mind; for Strawson’s Hume, the hidden, internal states of objects determine their causal effects.

      In any case, whatever Hume or Russell thought on causation, I don’t think that either one of them — in their early or late stages — endorsed the view that I’ve offered here. Early Hume and, if you’re right, early Russell were eliminativists about causation. I am not an eliminativist about causation. Instead, I am a reductionist about causation.

      As far as Feser’s arguments go, I haven’t read through Feser’s comments here, though I am roughly familiar with the sort of line you mention. One might think that physics, in itself, provides us access only to the mathematico-structural layout of the world. A metaphysical interpretation needs to be added on top for a complete story, he might argue, allowing us to bring in all sorts of metaphysical entities physicists don’t appeal to in their theories, e.g., forms, essences, causation, whatever.

      A brief response to that sort of line.

      First, I don’t think physics provides us only with the mathematico-structural layout of the world. For the equations of physics to be intelligible, the equations have to match up with the world in the right way. But the way that they do this cannot be stated in language — let alone mathematically — for the way that they do this must instead be shown. Those showings are an ineliminable part of physics.

      Second, and more to the point, what physics appears to be telling us is that there are no fundamental temporally asymmetric processes. Suppose someone interprets some microphysical processes in causal terms. Consider a process in which electron 1 emits a photon that is absorbed by electron 2 thereby causing an increase in the energy of electron 2. That seems like a causal process: the absorption of the photon was the efficient cause for the increase in electron 2’s energy. But nature recognizes nothing special about this interaction. The time reverse process — e.g., electron 2 emits a photon that is absorbed by electron 1 — is an equally good process. And physics tells us that there is no fact about which process occured because there is no microphysical fact about which event was later than the other. And this contradicts the interpretation that the process was an instance of efficient causation, for, in the case of efficient causation, causes always precede their effects.

      For medium scale dry goods, life is rather different. For example, it’s perfectly sensible — at least metaphysically — to say that, e.g., Russian meddling in the election caused Trump to be elected. We can’t get rid of efficient causation in the biological and social domains.

      If Feser wants to reinsert efficient causation in fundamental physics, he needs to either: (a) show that efficient causation does not need to be a temporally asymmetric, (b) that physicists have been wrong to say that microphysical processes are temporally symmetric, or (c) show that even though there is a perfectly good and empirically adequate description of microphysical processes in temporally symmetric terms, we should, nonetheless, interpret microphysical phenomena in temporally asymmetric terms. I don’t think (a)-(c) are plausible.


      1. I know very little about physics but isn’t there some asymmetry at the fundmental level from the CPT theorem? I recall Tim Maudlin writing about that.

        Anyway, let’s ignore CPT because I don’t think it’s important. Does the idea that fundamental physics is symmetric come from seeing that the equations works just as well forward as backward? Temporally symmetric equations is consistent with presentism.

        I was thinking along the lines that physics only offers the mathematico-structural layout of the world, as you say. You say that, in addition, for the equations to be intelligible, it must be shown. I assume this is through an experiment and not philosophy. But I wonder how it can be shown that efficient causation is reducible? Hume argues we don’t see causation, right? We couldn’t see it even if it existed. I might be missing your point. Again, I know next to nothing of physics.

        Regarding (a), some philosophers (Mumford?) think that all causation is simultaneous, so even if there is a causal asymmetry, there isn’t a temporal asymmetry.


      2. Re: CPT. Yes, you’re right that the full symmetry group obeyed by the standard model (or any other quantum field theory consistent with relativity with a Hermitian Hamiltonian) is CPT. So, to completely reverse a state, you need to flip the charge, reflect through a mirror, and reverse time. Still, the fact that you get this sort of time asymmetry doesn’t help with reinserting efficient causation in fundamental physics. So, you’re right that this sort of thing isn’t terribly important for the present discussion. (Good observation, though.)

        > Does the idea that fundamental physics is symmetric come from seeing that the equations works just as well forward as backward? Temporally symmetric equations is consistent with presentism.

        The temporal symmetry of fundamental physics comes from a variety of observations and not merely that the equations of motion are time reversal invariant (with the CPT caveat). Nonetheless, that is a central observation.

        You’re right that this is consistent with presentism. But recall that I presented two theses. The first thesis had to do with temporal symmetry, while the second had to do with quantum gravity. The first thesis only shows that the distinction between the past and the future is not fundamental, but reducible. The second thesis involved the claim that the space-time manifold itself is reducible. Thus, time is reducible. Presentism claims that time is not reducible, so presentism is not compatible with the second thesis.

        > You say that, in addition, for the equations to be intelligible, it must be shown. I assume this is through an experiment and not philosophy.

        Not exactly. My point was closer to something that Wittgenstein says in the Tractatus, and was meant as a general point about language. If I give you a string of characters, those characters will be unintelligible unless I tell you what the characters mean. But I can’t tell you what the characters mean by giving you more strings of characters, for I would need to tell you what those characters mean. At some level, I need to get outside of language. In application to physics, in order to tell you the meaning of some mathematical expression, I need to, e.g., point to a variable and then point to a knob on some piece of laboratory apparatus: “this variable refers to this knob!”. If physics could only provide formulae, we’d never find any of it comprehensible. So, we already know that physics involves more than mathematics. (You’re right that physics is also going to involve experiments, though I wouldn’t make any claims about intelligibility there.)

        > But I wonder how it can be shown that efficient causation is reducible? Hume argues we don’t see causation, right? We couldn’t see it even if it existed.

        Well, as you know, we’ve come a long way since Hume. We no longer believe that, e.g., ideas are copies of impressions, so that if there is no impression, there can be no correspondiong idea. There are all sorts of things that we believe in because they are required for our scientific theories but which we never see directly. I’ve never seen an electron, but I believe they exist. In part, this is because I endorse a larger body of theory in which electrons play an ineliminable role.

        In the case of causation, we have good reason to posit our chemical, biological, and social theories in terms of efficient causes. And we have reason to think that the chemical, biological, and social sciences all reduce to, or emerge from, or (insert explanatory relation here) fundamental physics. So, unless you want to endorse, e.g., strong emergence of efficient causation, we seem to have good reason to believe that efficient causation is reducible. The alternative would be anti-realism about our best cehmical, biological, and social theories and I don’t think that’s tenable.


  3. Very nice post, as usual. It struck me, while reading it, that, given the definitions you provided, it seems that we can form atemporal entities by considering sets where at least one element is atemporal. So, for example, we could take the set consisting of the number 9 and my hand, and treat this as a single object {9, my hand}. This set would be atemporal because it does not have any A-properties or stand in any B-relations as a whole, even though one of its elements (my hand) is clearly temporal. Perhaps MC (and Craig) could consider God to be something of this kind, which is atemporal but which has “parts” that are temporal and have causal power. Why exactly we should consider anything like that as a single entity is mysterious to me, though, and the theist might have other reasons to reject God having “parts”. Anyway, this seems more promising than Craig’s response, which appears to me to be similar to saying that “God is atemporal at time t = -1”, which, in a universe that begins at t=0, would be vacuously true in the same way as “God is atemporal when 2+2=5” is true.

    Dan — don’t you think that there is an important difference between time-symmetry in the laws of (or equations governing) the universe, and time-symmetry in the events of the universe? After all, time-symmetric laws can give rise to non time-symmetric states. To be time-symmetric means that, if we take some “future” state of the universe, and reverse (parity, charge and) the direction of time, and then evolve the state in the new “forward in time” direction, then we will return to the original state. And that does seem to be the picture painted by our current understanding of physics. It seems that your interpretation of this is that, on a fundamental level, it does not make sense to view the states as ordered, i.e. one state preceding the next, because either ordering is consistent with the laws of physics. I have some sympathy with this approach from the point of view of parsimony, but it doesn’t seem to be the only tenable view.

    My interpretation of this kind of thing is that causation is a feature both of the world AND of our description of it, which is fixed (to some extent) by convention. There are obvious linguistic conventions underlying everything we say. For example, there is currently a window to the left of me and not to my right. If we were to suddenly agree to swap the meanings of the words “left” and “right”, then it would instead be true that there is a window to my right and not to my left. So the truth of this statement depends on some conventional choice. Nevertheless, there is a real relationship between my orientation and the position of the window, we just need to pick a convention in order to describe it.

    For another, more closely related example: take Maxwell’s equations. You could also consider a related set of equations, which are identical to Maxwell’s equations, but with a “-” sign every time a cross-product appears. Let’s call these Paxwell’s equations. Now, which set of equations describes the dynamics of electric and magnetic fields? If we choose a normal, right-handed set of coordinates, then Maxwell’s equations accurately describe reality and Paxwell’s equations are wrong. But if we choose a left-handed set of coordinates instead, then Paxwell’s equations are correct and Maxwell’s equations are wrong. Prior to choosing a convention (either right-handed frames or left-handed frames), either set of equations gives a possible description of the situation, and there is nothing “physical” which makes us choose one over the other. Nevertheless, there is a real relationship between the rates of change of the electric field and the magnetic field: we just need to pick a convention to be able to describe it. The convention in this case is one of spatial orientation.

    Take your example of an interaction between an electron and a photon. We could imagine a situation in which an electron emits a photon, or, with the opposite choice of time-orientation, the photon is absorbed by the electron. I would say that only one of these is a true description of what happened, but which one is true depends both on the physical events AND your choice of time-orientation. Once we agree on a choice of time orientation (for example, that time flows forward away from the big bang) then we can agree on which process actually happened, but prior to this there are several possible descriptions. On this view, causation is not an emergent relation, but a real relationship between events in the universe, which requires a prior choice of convention in order to be described — it’s just that there are multiple possible conventions. Of course, none of this means that causation isn’t actually reducible — just that I don’t see a strong argument from physics that suggests this. Anyway, I’d like to hear your thoughts on any of this.


    1. I’m not sure I get your idea about the atemporal sets. One way of thinking about sets is that they are abstract objects, regardless of the elements they contain. In that case, the set {my left hand} is atemporal even though it contains one temporal object. On the other hand (no pun intended) maybe sets are located where their constituent parts are (I think Lewis says something like this somewhere). In that case, the set {9, my left hand} exists at a time, so the set is not atemporal. I’m not sure I like that way of putting it though. I think sets are just abstract objects, at least I think I do.

      But we could consider the composite object that is made up of the elements of the set {9, my left hand}. That object would be temporal according to DeWesse’s definition, I think. You are temporal iff any part of you is temporal (I think).

      There has to be some rule which settles it one way or the other anyway. Either you are atemporal iff every part of you is atemporal, or you are atemporal iff some part of you is atemporal. I think the former is right. That has the correlate that you are temporal iff some part of you is temporal. I don’t have an argument for that as such, but it just seems like we are setting up a rule for a term.

      How does that sound to you?


      1. I think I agree — it seems to me like a set containing at least one atemporal element should be considered atemporal, since it can’t stand in a causal relationship with anything. On the other hand, a set of elements, each one of which is temporal, could possibly be said to stand in causal relationships — for example, if every element in the set is “in the past” of some event, it seems reasonable to say that the set as a whole is “in the past” of that event. This is pretty much what we do in general relativity: causal relationships are first defined between “events” (which are just points in spacetime) and then extended to sets of points, which could be “space at a given time” or “a region of spacetime” or even “the path traced through spacetime by an individual (a worldline).

        Anyway, this only occurred to me because, reading your narrative, it’s where I thought MC and Craig were going to go, rather than this “atemporal sans creation” stuff. If God were like some kind of set, some of which is temporal and some atemporal, then it seems like God as a whole would be atemporal, but it might still be possible to make some kind of sense of the notion of “God acting” temporally.


    2. Joe — You’ve suggested that time symmetric laws of physics do not provide a convincing case for the conclusion that efficient causation is reducible to some lower level, more primitive explanatory relation. You’re right that time symmetric laws have time asymmetric solutions and that we can always pick out some time orientation. This is the usual practice when solving problems in physics; for example, we always pick out some orientation for our Feynman diagrams. So, once we’ve picked out a time orientation, the argument goes, aren’t we left with a perfectly objective fact about which event preceded which other?

      Yes, once we’ve picked out a time orientation, we are left with a perfectly objective fact about which fact preceded which other. But that doesn’t mean that we are left with efficient causation at the level of fundamental physics.

      Briefly, here are two reasons that strongly distinguish the sort of asymmetric temporal relationship you discussed from efficient causation.

      Picking out a time orientation explicitly involves a choice of coordinates. Likewise, your two examples — your orientation with respect to the window and the choice of handedness in Maxwell’s Equations — involve an explicit choice of coordinates. And I will concede that we might recover a temporally asymmetric ordering of events via a choice of coordinates. Nonetheless, we generally say that phenomena that we recover only through a choice of coordinates are not metaphysically real (e.g., the principle of general covariance). So, supposing a choice of coordinates does allow us to recover some objective temporal asymmetry tells us, at most, nothing about whether there exists metaphysically fundamental efficient causation. In fact, if this is the only way to recover a temporally asymmetric description at the level of fundamental physics, then this might provide additional reason to think that metaphysically fundamental efficient causation does not exist.

      Second, while temporal asymmetry is a necessary condition for efficient causation, temporal asymmetry is not a sufficient condition for efficient causation. For example, let’s suppose — for the sake of example — that Russian meddling was the efficient cause for Trump to be elected president. We could choose a coordinate system in which Trump is president and then the Russians are, e.g., removing propaganda from social media. While this would be a perfectly sensible coordinate system from the perspective of fundamental physics, this would not a sensible coordinate system from the perspective of social scientific or political explanation. The fact that we cannot arbitrarily choose a coordinate system for social or political explanation follows from the fact that efficient causation is ineliminable for social and political explanation.


      1. Thanks for your reply. I think perhaps the issue is that I’ve been thinking of efficient causation as a way of describing events, rather than something that is necessarily “metaphysically fundamental”. So that, after we’ve picked a time-orientation, we are free to use the language of efficient causation to describe events, and it’s a useful way to speak about them. In particular, when we say “A is an efficient cause for B” we are always making an implicit reference to a time-orientation.

        I’m still not sure that this means that efficient causation cannot be “metaphysically fundamental”. Here’s yet another example: without separating “space” from “time”, one cannot talk about electric and magnetic fields separately, because an electric field with one splitting of spacetime might be a magnetic field with a different splitting. One response to this (which I think would be the one you favour) is to regard the magnetic and electric fields as lacking metaphysical reality. But I think a plausible alternative is to think of the triple (electric field, magnetic field, splitting of spacetime) as being metaphysically real. In this case I might favour the former viewpoint, but only because we have a useful way of talking about the electric and magnetic fields (using the field tensor) that doesn’t refer to a splitting of space and time, and so this viewpoint appears more parsimonious. But it’s conceivable that, with regard to causation, there is no useful way of talking about things that doesn’t involve a choice of time orientation, and so we could not use the same approach. Even if we can, I don’t see anything terribly wrong with thinking of the triple (electric field, magnetic field, splitting of spacetime) as the “real” object. After all, if we all agree more-or-less on a splitting of space and time (as we do on the Earth) then the language of magnetic and electric fields is very useful, and does seem to describe something “real”.

        With regard to your second point, I’m not sure that, on your account, efficient causation is completely ineliminable for social and political explanation. After all, we could eventually reduce this kind of description to a description in terms of fundamental physics, which we could then run forward or backwards in time as we please. Perhaps at this point the explanation would no longer count as a “social or political explanation”. In any case it’s clear that, sometimes, certain choices of orientations are far more useful than others, if only because they allow for simpler or “higher level” descriptions. In principle, I don’t see why this couldn’t also be the case in fundamental physics. After all, we are talking about choosing coordinates that are adapted to the situation, and the situation in the universe is certainly time-asymmetric, so in principle one choice of coordinates could result in a much simpler and more useful description than another. I accept that there’s no real reason to suspect that this is actually the case.

        Incidentally, a choice of orientation is not exactly the same thing as a choice of coordinates. Think of the situation on the surface of a sphere. An orientation for the sphere gives us a way of identifying whether pairs of vectors, which are tangent to the sphere at the same point, are “right-handed” or “left-handed”. We can easily do this over the whole sphere, and if we want the orientation to be continuous then there are only two possible choices. On the other hand, any attempt to define coordinates on the sphere will necessarily “degenerate” somewhere: for example, the latitude-longitude system degenerates at the poles. A choice of coordinates in some region will induce an orientation on that region, but a single orientation will be compatible with many different possible coordinate systems.


      2. Thanks for your response. I think this is productive and helpful.

        You noted that you’ve had in mind that efficient causation is a useful way of describing events and not that efficient causation is metaphysically fundamental. I agree with you that events are often usefully described in causal terms! In fact, I would go a step further. If causation is merely a useful way of speaking, then this would suggest an instrumental or projectivist interpretation of causation, as opposed to a realist interpretation. On my view, causation is more than a useful way of speaking — causation is objectively real. That is, when we coarse grain in the way required for the social sciences, we make “real patterns” (ala Dennett) explicit, and those patterns include efficient causation. (By the way, you correctly guessed the sense in which causation is ineliminable for social scientific explanation; you could skip the coarse graining and describe social systems solely in terms of their microphysical constituents, but then you’d no longer be delivering a social scientific explanation. You’d miss the real patterns in which efficient causation appears.)

        As far as the electric and magnetic fields go, it’s not entirely clear to me what your point is. We have a perfectly good generally covariant formulation of Maxwell’s Equations. I don’t know why we wouldn’t just adopt the view that what’s expressed by the generally covariant formulation corresponds, in some suitably approximate way, to what’s real.

        (You’re right that orientability does not come down to a choice of coordinates. A choice of coordinates will not uniquely determine the orientation of a vector field defined in terms of those coordinates. Moreover, I’ve technically been wrong to utilize general covariance, because I need something more general than invariance under *continuous* transformations. But I think you recognize my point.)

        In any case, my argument was never for the conclusion that physics tells us, with deductive certainty, that there is no metaphysically fundamental efficient causation. Instead, I’ve argued for the conclusion that the best interpretation of fundamental physics suggests efficient causation is not metaphysically fundamental, as required by (some) theistic arguments. My claim is not that other interpretations do not exist, but that other interpretations are less plausible.


  4. Apologies if I wasn’t clear regarding electric and magnetic fields. Perhaps I’ll try again with a bit more detail.

    As you said, we have a perfectly good generally covariant set of equations for Maxwell’s equations (written in terms of the field strength tensor). Written this way, the equations don’t reference any particular set of coordinates, nor any particular “foliation”, which is a way of splitting spacetime into space and time. However, if we do choose a foliation of this kind, then we can write the Maxwell equations in the more familiar form, in terms of electric and magnetic fields. In fact, you can’t define the electric and magnetic fields without a foliation. Now, the question is, what is more “real”: the field strength, or the electric and magnetic fields? I think that you would like to say that it’s the field strength, because we don’t need to include any extra ingredients (like a foliation) in order to make sense of it. But on the other hand, both descriptions have the same “physical content”, and if we want to actually make sense of “a solution to Maxwell’s equations” as some kind of unique mathematical object arising from some kind of initial data (which I think is how we should be thinking of Maxwell’s equations), then we necessarily need to introduce a foliation anyway.

    Now, I might agree that the field strength is a more fundamental, and perhaps more “real” object than the electric and magnetic fields, since we can make use of it without adding the extraneous detail of a foliation. But this is precisely because we have a useful way of talking about it (or writing down the equations for it) without introducing a foliation! This is in contrast to the case of causality, where we don’t currently seem to have a good way of talking about things without making use of the notion of causality. Perhaps the time-invariance of the equations is an indication that we might be able to come up with such a way of talking, but we don’t seem to be there yet, and it’s conceivable to me that we might never be able to completely drop this notion from any useful description of the phenomena, in which case I might be tempted to say that causality is “metaphysically real”.

    Hopefully that’s a bit clearer. I think we’re more or less on the same page, I’m just perhaps a bit less convinced that time-invariance is evidence against the reality of causality, but this has been a lot of fun to think about!


    1. “This is in contrast to the case of causality, where we don’t currently seem to have a good way of talking about things without making use of the notion of causality.”

      I have to admit that I don’t know what you mean when you are talking about causation. We do have a way of talking about fundamental physics without making use of the notion of efficient causation. Consider what you do when you want to solve a typical problem; you might write down an action, plug that into a path integral, and charge forward. Efficient causation is nowhere in sight. Of course, there’s a notion that physicists refer to as “causality”, but that notion is not co-extensive with what philosophers are talking about when they talk about efficient causes. I don’t think that, e.g., quantum field theory manages to resurrect Aristotelian physics, nor do I understand why we would expect it to.

      Perhaps the idea is that we need efficient causation at astrophysical or cosmological scales. And perhaps we do, but, if we do, that’s because we’ve already performed quite a bit of coarse graining when we discuss those sorts of systems. After all, in describing astrophysical systems, we’ve selected out our universe’s largest degrees of freedom. I’m perfectly fine saying that efficient causation might emerge at those scales, just as efficient causation emerges for social systems. Put it this way: on my view, efficient causation is a thermodynamic phenomenon and, like other themodynamic phenomena, has a statistical interpretation in terms of lower level phenomena.


    1. Perhaps I wasn’t clear exactly what I meant by “cause”. I am thinking along the lines of relativity, or really any theory compatible with relativity. Here, you can specify the “state” of the universe at some time, and then the equations tell you what will happen in the future. Then, in some sense, that initial state “causes” all of the future states. In relativity we can localise this: suppose we only specify the state of the universe in some region of space at some time. Then we can uniquely predict the state of the universe at times which lie in the “domain of dependence” of that region, which is a kind of conical region, where the slope of the sides of the cone is the speed of light. The fact that we can uniquely predict the future in this kind of region, even if we know nothing about the outside of the initial region of space, is often said to be a manifestation of the fact that “causal influence cannot travel faster than the speed of light”. So really causation is really a way of talking about the light-cone structure of spacetime, given that we have already chosen a time-orientation for spacetime. I agree that this is surely not what Aristotle had in mind by “efficient causation”, but I think it’s the modern descendent of this idea. In other words, we can impute the value of some quantity to the values of some related quantities, in a slightly bigger region, at slightly earlier times.

      This also captures a property of the equations, which they might not have possessed: for example, if we look at an elliptic equation (like Laplace’s equation) then we cannot understand this as giving rise to an “initial value problem” of the kind discussed above. Rather, this kind of equation allows us to predict the “interior” of some region, given data on the “boundary”. If these were the kinds of equation which governed the universe, then we would not be talking of “causes” in the same, temporal manner. Rather, the “cause” of some quantity taking some value would be the values of some related quantities, not at some “prior time”, but at the “boundary of the universe”. We would also be unable to localise causation in the same way: to know, uniquely, the value of the quantity at some interior point, we need to know the value of the boundary data along the entire boundary. But, as far as we know, this is not the kind of equation which governs fundamental physics, so in this sense I want to say that causation is actually implicit in the equations.

      “Consider what you do when you want to solve a typical problem; you might write down an action, plug that into a path integral, and charge forward. Efficient causation is nowhere in sight.”
      I think this illustrates my point, in a way. I’d prefer to talk about classical physics to keep things simpler, but the point is that you “charge forward”. Suppose that we specify some state at some initial time, and let’s say that we only specify the state locally. It’s true that the equations themselves do not make any explicit reference to causation. However, an analysis of the equations will reveal that they only predict the future uniquely in a certain region of spacetime, that region being the “domain of dependence” of the region where the data is specified. That region actually extends a little bit on both sides of the initial data surface: a little bit to the “future”, and a little bit to the “past”. These two regions are already disjoint (they are separated by the “initial time”), but to select which one we consider “the future” and which one we consider “the past”, all we need is a time-orientation. Then, since the initial data allows us to uniquely predict all of the events in “the future domain of dependence” of that data, we can say that this initial data, localised in that specific region, is the “cause” of all of the events in its future domain of dependence. A typical problem in physics might be to give a mathematical description of the future domain of dependence of some initial data. What I want to say is that, although causation is not explicit in the equations themselves, it is implicit in the kind of problem you can solve using those equations: namely, predicting the values of various quantities in the “future domain of dependence” of some initial data.


      1. I thought you might have had the causal structure of space-time in mind when you said that fundamental physics ineliminably includes causation, which was why I specified that the physicist’s causal structure is not what I am talking about. I haven’t looked at the historical trajectory here, but I suspect that the causal structure of space-time is not the descendent of Aristotle’s efficient causation.

        At any rate, you are right that for initial value problems, you can specify the state of a system on a space-like surface and then, using the equations of motion describing the system, calculate the the state of the system on some other space-like surface. There are some fairly strong caveats that come out of quantum field theory, e.g., typically problems are solved by specifying the state of the system on two space-like surfaces, but even that’s not sufficient for specifying the trajectory the system proceeded along between the two surfaces. There’s a really nice illustration of this in Unruh, W. (1995) “Time, gravity, and quantum mechanics”. In Steven Savitt (Ed), Time’s Arrows Today: Recent Physical and Philosophical Work on the Direction of Time. Cambridge University Press.

        In any event, we can ask: does the physicist’s causal structure allow us to recover a relevant sense of efficient causation? I don’t think so. For one thing, the physicist’s causal structure does not specify which events are prior to one another and so does not specify which events are the cause and which events are the effects. And the rules of quantum field theory undermine attempts to make a specification (e.g., you are allowed to rotate Feynman diagrams). To put this another way: nothing about causal structure demands that you make predictions as opposed to retrodictions. Initial value problems are just as well posed as final value problems. Or as any value problems, since, at least for classical systems, the specification of the state of a system on one space-like surface will fully specify the state of the system at any other space-like surface.

        Let’s suppose two events, E1 and E2, are causally related in the physicist’s sense, so that E2 lies in the future light cone of E1. Would we then say that E1 was the efficient cause of E1? Well, Trump has some state in my future light cone in which he is writing a message on Twitter. Unless a fairly fortuitous state of affairs were to transpire, we should not say that I caused Trump to do anything.

        You might object that there is an event on the space-like surface we call “now” which does specify Trump’s futture state — namely, Trump’s present state. Perhaps the whole space-like surface was the cause and not some localized portion. In reply: relativity forbids us from specifying a unique space-like surface as “now” (e.g., the relativity of simultaneity). So, if we do take the entire space-like surface as the cause, then — unlike efficient causation — the cause is not uniquely specified. Alternatively, and more plausibly, we could say that the cause of Trump’s future state is Trump’s present state, together with various exogenous variables. In this case, we are picking out some small portion of Trump’s past light cone as the cause. Nothing in physics tells us to make this selection.

        Let’s consider another example, in which we examine how social scientists utilize efficient causation. Imagine a sociologist who makes the following correlation: drowning is often preceded by ice cream eating. That is, when someone drowns, ice cream eating is often in their past light cone, so that the two events are causally related in the physicist’s sense. Does this mean that ice cream eating causes drowning? No — a third variable (e.g., the ambient temperature) causes both ice cream eating and swimming. In turn, people who drown are typically people who are swimming. There’s a familiar adage: correlation does not imply causation. If the physicist’s causal structure were the same thing as efficient causation, then correlation would be causation.

        Notice that, in this case, we’ve selected out for the present state of a person (i.e., they are eating ice cream) and, even though their present state allows us to predict their future state (i.e., they drown), no part of this description uniquely picks out the cause of their future state. We need to filter out the aspects of the state of the system that are relevant to us by imposing the explanatory framework of the social sciences. And we need to do this precisely because the physicist’s causal structure was completely insufficient for specifying the efficient cause.


  5. While they might not be historically related, I feel like efficient causation and causal structure in physics are conceptually related (at least that’s how I see it). Both types of causation relate the current state of a system to a previous state of a (perhaps larger) system, and they both allow us to talk about “chains of causation” etc. This is in contrast to some of the other Aristotelian causes.

    You’re right that we can talk about different types of problems in physics, such as “scattering problems” or “final value problems”. One type of problem you might be interested in considering is the “characteristic value problem”, where data is posed on a null surface rather than a spacelike surface. Then, it turns out that we can uniquely solve the equations to the future, but NOT to the past. Essentially, the shape of the initial data surface is such that the past domain of dependence is empty while the future domain of dependence is nonempty. Note that the equations themselves can be time-invariant (e.g. you can solve the equations of GR for a problem like this).

    On the other hand, you’re wrong to say that this notion of causality does not specify which events are prior to other events. An event is just a point in space time. It is prior to another event if that second event lies on a future-directed causal curve from the first event. In order to be able to make this definition we need a light-cone structure and a time-orientation for spacetime, two things which are commonly granted in physics.

    “Perhaps the whole space-like surface was the cause and not some localized portion.”. Yes, this is exactly what I would say, and you’d be right to point out that this is highly non-unique. But isn’t this often the case, even with efficient causation? Take your example of a person drowning. Is the efficient cause the hot weather, or is it the person deciding to go swimming, or is it the water entering their lungs? All of these seem like efficient causes to me, but perhaps I’m misunderstanding something.

    “Alternatively, and more plausibly, we could say that the cause of Trump’s future state is Trump’s present state, together with various exogenous variables. In this case, we are picking out some small portion of Trump’s past light cone as the cause. Nothing in physics tells us to make this selection.”

    Here, what I think is going on is that we are “coarse graining” over our description of Trump’s state. In other words, we are specifying his state as “tweeting” rather than specifying his state by describing, for example, the quantum state of every elementary particle which makes up Trump. If we want to give a “full” description, then we really do need to think of the entire collection of events on some slice through Trump’s past light cone as the “cause”, since we know that, if we leave out any part of the description here, then we cannot uniquely predict Trump’s future state. On the other hand, if we coarse-grain over our description of his present state, then we may be able to leave out many “irrelevant” facts about the past state, since these would not affect our macroscopic description. In other words, if we coarse grain over his present state then we can also hope to coarse grain over the “causes”. Exactly which things we should consider relevant or irrelevant is no longer the job of physics but the job of, for example, social science or psychology. Perhaps you think that “efficient causation” should be reserved for this kind of “higher level” description of causation?

    Let’s return to the example of a person who drowns after eating ice cream. You say that the ice cream eating did not cause them to drown, and this is true because our description of them (as a “drowning person”) is compatible with them having eating ice cream or not eating ice cream. It’s an irrelevant detail. But suppose we give a more thorough description of their state: they are drowning, and they are digesting ice cream. Now it seems that eating the ice cream IS an efficient cause for their current state. I don’t see a problem with keeping this analogy going: as we give a more and more thorough description of their current state, so more and more things about the past are identified as efficient causes, until we reach the level of fundamental physics and we describe their current state as being caused by the entire state of the universe on some slice through their past light cone.

    By the way, we’re very far away from the original topic of Alex’s blog post, and I wonder whether it’s fair on Alex to keep this discussion going here. Perhaps we should move it to some other venue?


    1. I’m quite happy for you guys to keep discussing this here, as it is interesting. If you take it elsewhere, please link it so others can follow the conversation.


      1. This is interesting stuff, though the physics stuff goes way over my head. I hope you guys check out the video I linked above because I think it discusses many of the issues raised here. I also find Feser’s reply to the early Russell convincing.

        I agree with Joey’s point about “coarse-graining”: when we want to find the cause, we’re wanting to find an explanation to some implicit or explicit question and that means it’s relative to the context of the conversation. That doesn’t mean that, in another context, we can’t point to a different cause while fixing the way the world is. On the Aristotelian view, there would be efficient causes everywhere: quarks as a substance would be efficient causes.

        This issue about causation depends on your view on the laws of nature. On my view, the laws of nature are mathematical descriptions of the causal powers of things (like quarks). On the other hand, someone else might think that the laws are more fundamental than causes, and we derive causes from the laws of nature.

        I think some of the arguments from the panpsychist can be adopted by the causal non-reductionist. Briefly, the idea behind panpsychism is that everything has some level of consciousness, even quarks. The equations of physics say nothing about quarks having consciousness, but that doesn’t deter panspychists from thinking quarks are conscious. There is a version of panpsychism attributed to Russell.

        Russell writes:
        “It is not always realised how exceedingly abstract is the information that theoretical physics has to give. It lays down certain fundamental equations which enable it to deal with the logical structure of events, while leaving it completely unknown what is the intrinsic character of the events that have the structure.”

        I think causation is like this: it is an intrinsic character of a thing. I’m not saying that the arguments against causation don’t have any force. I once felt the force myself, but other reasons to hold onto a non-reductionist causation are more powerful to me.


  6. Okay, as long as you don’t mind! I was just aware that we had gone very off-topic, and I didn’t know how you felt about that.


    1. The whole argument seems to be that Alex is guilty of the fallacy of the false dilemma. God is descdribed Theologically as transcendent and immanent at the same time. Alex wants to place God as ‘either/or’, whereas God is ‘both/and’. God is outside of time in that He is transcendent and He is in time as being immanent and personal. In Christ, we have the hypostatic union. Christ is God that took on a human nature. 100% Good and 100% man in one essence.


      1. You write that Alex has mistakenly taken God to be either transcendent or immanent when God is both transcendent and immanent. The hypostatic union marries the transcendent and in the immanent in the person of Jesus Christ, who is wholly man and wholly God. Therefore, God is both outside time — insofar as God is transcendent — and inside time — insofar as God is immanent.

        You are right that orthodox Christians are committed to the view that God is simultaneously both transcendent and immanent. Does this help the Christian to solve the problem that Alex presents? Not at all. There is another option: Christian doctrine is self-contradictory insofar as Christian doctrine states that God is both transcendant and immanent. Nothing can be both. There’s an illustration in this particular case:

        1. Jesus is in time because Jesus is wholly man.
        2. Jesus is not in time because Jesus is wholly God.
        3. Therefore, Jesus is in time and Jesus is not in time.

        That’s a straightforward contradiction. More generally, the doctrine of the Incarnation is contradictory; nothing can be, e.g., simultaneously infinite and finite.

        How has Christian theology historically handled the matter? By declaring the incarnation to be a Mystery beyond human understanding. (As is sometimes said, the Central Mystery of the Christian Faith.) Well, maybe so, but there’s a simpler explanation than the invocation of a Mystery beyond our understanding: the doctrine is just self-contradictory and so ought to be rejected as false.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. The whole argument seems to be that Alex is guilty of the fallacy of the false dilemma. God is described Theologically as transcendent and immanent at the same time. Alex wants to place God as ‘either/or’, whereas God is ‘both/and’. God is outside of time, in that He is transcendent and He is in time as being immanent and personal. In Christ, we have the hypostatic union. Christ is God that took on a human nature. 100% God and 100% man in one essence.


  7. Thank you, Alex. Excellent post.

    I have spoken with several Christian friends about this issue and have myself moved away from this hybrid view of God’s relation to time to the belief that God is in some sense a temporal being, or that God’s very nature includes a relationship with time. I absolutely agree with you that God must in some sense be in time if he is to act in time, by definition; and that to be a cause requires that you act in time.

    I think we tend to use the term time a couple of different ways. I think we use the word time to mean both sequence and a particular set of sequences involving the working of our solar system.

    It seems to me that our experience of time must be based on some miniscule, irreducible but definite sequence of events. I guess other theorists have come to the same conclusion and have called this concept Planck Time.

    My belief would be that God created “Planck Time” but that he himself is a sequential being, meaning his thoughts and actions proceed in an order. God has a past, a present and a future, which is something that the Bible states over and over.

    One belief, which some of my friends hold to, is that God is the necessary cause of evil and yet God is not evil. I personally find the claim that God is the necessary cause of evil to be both horrifying and incoherent. However, you often find this belief defended with some sort of plea that “God is both temporal and atemporal”. I see this coming out clearly in the debates between Infralapsarians and Supralapsarians.


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