Thursday, April 12, 2007

God is Out of Time, in More Ways Than One

Recently I was reading C. S. Lewis’ acclaimed work of Christian Apologetics, Mere Christianity. No, I’m not a masochist. I was doing this because I have been told by many Christians that it is a really well written and intelligent examination of the beliefs of their faith. I always try to give their ideas a fair hearing. Many people say that this one book motivated them to become a Christian. One of these people is Francis S. Collins MD, PhD, director of the Human Genome Project. As an unbeliever, I am always interested in studying what makes people believe in something that seems to me to be ludicrous nonsense. And I know from experience that if an atheist fails to read all of the recommended references of religion, the believers will accuse him of being closed minded or being afraid that he might find out the truth of the matter. Heaven forbid! Actually, I don’t really care what they think of me. And frankly, nothing an atheist ever does will convince them that he honestly tried to understand their religion. However, it does lend credibility to your arguments when you can intelligently discuss these works and show that you have read and understood them or at least thought seriously about them.

As I read this particular book, I was amazed at Mr. Lewis’ certainty about things which no one has or could have the slightest knowledge. Although Lewis often says that there really is no way to know such things, he prattles on as if he has inside information. One of the things about which he is absolutely certain with no basis at all is the notion that God must exist outside of time. Obviously, this is nothing new. I have heard it said many times, but never in so much detail. To give the idea a fair hearing, I tried very hard to conceive of a God who might exist outside of time. Before I go into what I think about the matter, I must say that Lewis doesn’t seem to really understand what it would mean for any being to exist in a timeless state because throughout the book (both before and after he claims that God is atemporal) he refers to God as eternal (a reference to time) and he talks about what God did in the past and what he will do in the future. How is it that he can say God is not subject to time and then refer to him as if there is some chronology to what he does or is? It is very curious.

The first thing that occurred to me when trying to conceive of a God outside of time is that a vast amount of our language could not apply to such a being. This certainly appears to make it rather impossible to understand anything about God even though Lewis himself seems to think we can. He boldly states that God cannot be thought of as having a past or future and that all time is as a single moment to him. But he blithely ignores that assertion as he goes on to say many rather ridiculous things about God. I got the feeling that this notion of an atemporal God was developed as a refutation of some complaints about the concept of God. For instance, Lewis says that some people wonder who was minding the universe while God, as Jesus, was living a temporal human life. Of course, this could also be answered by referring to the belief that God is actually three people in one. Lewis attempted to make a case for this as well although he flatly denies that this makes Christianity a polytheistic religion. He claimed that this is because in the spiritual realm of God it is possible for multiple beings to constitute one being. Apparently they are somehow dimensionally analogous to how squares make up a cube. Anyway, I’ll leave that for another time and go on with the discussion of an atemporal God.

I think it might be useful to make a short list of words that have no meaning when referring to such a timeless God. Obviously, references to time are out of the question including nearly any statement using words such as: then, now, next, before, later, after, when, again, whereupon, begin, end, start, stop, because, while, during, duration, progress, history, happen, occur, plan, intend, attempt, interval, wait, dwell, develop, proceed, abide, delay, etc. Needless to say, when referring to such a god it is meaningless to refer to any past, present or future tense or the passage of time. As a thought experiment, try writing a story about something happening without ever using a word or phrase that explicitly or implicitly mentions the passage of time. Truly, this God he speaks of is so alien to us that it is simply not possible to understand it at all. This all makes me more certain of my claim that the God these people worship is incomprehensible, unintelligible and incoherent. Ah, but there’s more.

It would be equally nonsensical, when referring to this God, to speak of cause and effect since a cause must come before an effect. There is just no other way for things to work. Oddly, Lewis tries to make a case for Jesus being the begotten son of God while simultaneously claiming that Jesus has always existed. This puts a rather insufferable strain on any notion of begetting. But this problem would crop up with any claim that God performed an action that had a beginning or an end. Similarly, nothing can be said to move or act if time does not exist. Movement requires time because it implies that a thing is in one place and afterward is in another place. If no time elapses, there is no movement. If the thing is in both places at once, it is overlapping itself all through the phases of the movement. And that is just ridiculous. Even thought requires time to progress from one idea to another. Progression is meaningless without time. To gain knowledge implies time because there must be a state before the knowledge was gained where it had yet to be gained. Oh, it hurts my brain to think about it.

Lewis says that God knows our future and past actions because, for him, they are all happening at the same moment. Just think about that. If all things exist at the same moment at every stage of development and every point of movement then everything would overlap itself and everything else using that space at what would otherwise be another time. Matter takes up space and it moves around in space. A dynamic system like the universe cannot all be contained in the same instant irrespective of time. All change and movement depends on time. If there is no time, everything would have to be static and frozen in space.

And everyone with the understanding of grade school science knows that our bodies and all physical things are made up of the elements of the universe. Each cell in our body and every molecule are replaced numerous times during our lives. As Francis Collins stated in his book, The Language of God, at one time the same molecules that were part of a rock or plant can at some other time be part of a person’s body. If time is an illusion created by God, as Lewis states, and all things really exist at once, how could the same matter simultaneously be part of a rock or tree and a person or fish? It makes no sense. We can also see an interesting result of this thinking in logic. Even believers in an omnipotent God will agree that he can only do what is logically possible. For instance, he can’t make 2 + 2 = 5 or make a rock too heavy for him to lift it. And virtually everyone will accept the rule of logic that says mutually exclusive things cannot coexist although they may exist at separate times. However, if time is illusory, this rule is either untrue or else mutually exclusive things cannot exist at all.

The whole concept of God existing outside of time is harder to swallow than a bowling ball. I even tried to invoke Quantum Mechanics, String Theory or M Theory to explain a being like God existing outside of time. But even though it might help to avoid some of the dynamics of matter coexisting in real space, it cannot explain how any sort of being or mind could exist apart from time in a complete void. I think I have gone further to try to understand this concept than is strictly necessary but I don’t want to be accused of intellectual dishonesty. I conclude that the proposition of an atemporal God is a baseless assertion. And even if I have not made a convincing enough argument that this type of God is impossible, at least I have shown that there is no explanation of how it is possible to know this about God. And Lewis himself says that there is nothing doctrinal or factual to base this idea upon. I really tried to give Lewis a chance but I have to say that, all in all, Mere Christianity is mere rubbish. And I didn’t even talk about the unsupported nonsense he preaches about a universal moral law. I’m going to save that for a later time.


Arul said...

Hey, man...i like your work....but it seems to me your beef should actually be with religion, not God. Religion is what tries to explain the existence of God, and ends up screwing everything else. God himself, i don't know anything about, and i don't think anyone in this world can explain God correctly either. You cannot say God cannot exist outside time because it's not logical. The concept of God itself is illogical, so you must not expect Him (if he exists) to follow logic. I for one would like to believe that there is something more to this life than just humans, animals, stars and space. If there is nothing supernatural to look forward to, then there's no hope. And life without hope, is well, hopeless.

Will Friday said...

Thanks for visiting my blog and sharing your thoughts on the subject of God. I am pleased that you like my work. You said a few things I would like to comment on and I hope you take it as constructive rather than critical.
First of all, I don't separate the ideas of God and religion for one basic reason. Belief in God is religion. Perhaps you refer to organized religions of which there are many. Organized religion is created when people come together with common religious beliefs. The beliefs are their religion. The organization is secondary. Organized religion has it's own problems and I address them as well. Yes, it does try to create explanations for God but every person who believes in God attempts to explain God in some way even if only subconsciously. They all have their own idea of what God is and how God works. God must be explainable to have any relevance to us. Of what value is the word “God” without any idea about what it means? Second, any area of thought that begins by throwing out reason and logic is pointless and dangerous. If reason and logic cannot achieve the truth about God then it is pure nonsense. Everything that is real can be logically and rationally explained. If God is real, it must have a nature of some sort and it must interact with the universe to have done any of the things people think God has done especially creation. Otherwise it's just a cute story.
If you think god is illogical then do you believe that he can create a rock so big that he himself cannot lift it? The rules of logic are not something like the physical laws that an all-powerful God might be able to supervene. Logic is not malleable. Not even an omnipotent God can make 2 + 2 equal 5 or make mutually exclusive things coexist. That’s why logic works when talking about God. No matter how we come up with our concept of God, if it is said to have an attribute then we can ascertain its veracity with logic. We must insist that things make sense or we risk being duped or swindled. We could be wasting our lives on nonsense for someone else’s gain or pleasure. You cannot go wrong in your life by insisting on reasonable validation of any such outrageous claims as those made of God.
Third, I understand the desire to believe in God and an afterlife. We all want to feel our life has purpose. You can read what I think about that in my post entitled “Ultimate Purpose” of May 10th. But the promises of religion are certainly attractive. I would like to believe in immortality and ultimate justice. I would also like to believe in telekinesis, telepathy and super powers. But wishful thinking is a waste of time. I completely disagree with you that a life without the hope of something supernatural is hopeless. The thing is that we must be hopeful regarding reality and not fritter away our lives worrying about what might have been. People need to learn to be happy with what they have. They need to know that being happy is a decision and quit waiting for something to come along to make them happy. There is no such thing. I also have hope that goes beyond my mortal life even though I know I will not be around to see it. I hope the human race can overcome its ridiculous prejudices and petty squabbles. I hope a just society can be achieved. I hope that my children will have great lives with just the right amount of joy and sorrow. I hope that they will find love and happiness. I know that if I want these things to happen, I must work toward them here and now and not depend on wishes or prayers.
You say you hope for more than humans, animals, stars and space. I think you have it and just don't know it. The mind is the greatest treasure we have and most of us squander it wishing for magic and fantasies. The universe is full of wonders and treasures too. I have a hard time seeing why this universe is not enough for some people. Open your eyes and enjoy life, love, knowledge and all the wonders of the universe. It will be enough if you learn to appreciate it.