Atemporalism & the Argument from Simultaneity

One often repeated argument against atemporalism is the argument from simultaneity (hereafter “AS”). For the life of me, I cannot figure why this argument persists even though there are much better arguments against atemporalism available (e.g. the argument from God’s knowledge of tensed propositions, or the argument from temporal becoming). Swinburne and Kenny’s formulations of the argument are usually taken as standard. According to Anthony Kenny (“Aquinas on Divine Foreknowledge & Human Freedom” in Reason and Religion, 1987):

Indeed, the whole concept of a timeless eternity, the whole of which is simultaneous with every part of time, seems to be radically incoherent. For simultaneity as ordinarily understood is a transitive relation. If A happens at the same time as B and B happens at the same time as C, then A happens at the same time as C. If the BBC programme and the ITV programme both start when Big Ben strikes ten, then they both start at the same time. But, on [the atemporalist’s] view, my typing of this paper is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Again, on this view, the great fire of Rome is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Therefore, while I type these very words, Nero fiddles heartlessly on.

So according to AS,

1) If atemporalism is true, then eternity is simultaneous with every event in history.

2) If eternity is simultaneous with every event in history, then by transitivity, every event in history is simultaneous with every other event in history.

3) But every event in history is not simultaneous with every other event in history.

4) Therefore atemporalism is false.

Now this argument is valid. 2) simply appeals to the principle of transitivity, and 3) is evidently true. 4) follows by modus tollens. If atemporalism results in the notion that the burning of Rome is simultaneous with the Kenny’s writing, then atemporalism is to be rejected. But AS has not shown this to be the case: 1) is plainly false, for according to atemporalism, God exists, but He does not exist at any time. Hence eternity is not simultaneous with every event in history; indeed eternity is not simultaneous with any event in history. So then, when Aquinas uses the language of simultaneity to discuss the relation between time and eternity, he is only doing so analogically and not literally. The latter is required to make argument work, but unfortunately for AS it turns out, this is the very thing makes the first premise false.


9 Responses to Atemporalism & the Argument from Simultaneity

  1. atilla says:

    to begin with i will say that i only feel comfortable/competent (in terms of philosophy) speaking about the problem of evil, middle knowledge, or epistemology.

    but i think i get your point. its not that great of an argument, in my ignorant opinion. to be honest, i respect swinburne but i have problems with a lot of his arguments. esp when it comes to the problem of evil.

    i wld like to hear the arguments you feel more solid and why. as a matter of fact, what is some good intro reading on this area of philosophy. i have a very basic understanding because of middle knowledge, but i have based my beliefs on more theological terms rather than philosophical…. but only bc ive been lazy in completing my thoughts on those issues.

    ps. i have spent a good deal of time with doc green. love the man. (never met you though – but quin hill is a best friend of mine… its a small world).

  2. Keith says:

    It is with great humility that I offer this response to my colleague; the intricacies of the philosophy of God and time are indeed difficult to maneuver. Though I am convinced of the doctrine that I hold, I lack adequate training in this area to offer any truly knock down arguments.

    Perhaps we have been too hasty in claiming that (1) is ‘plainly’ false; it seems there may be some good reasons for holding it after all. First let me say, you are correct that there are several better arguments against God living in tota simul than the one at hand. For my part I hold, given that temporal becoming is real, if atemporalism were true then God could not be causally related to the world. Further, I believe that an atemporal (timeless) view of time is incompatible with divine omniscience (in other words, I am convinced by each of the arguments to which you alluded in your opening paragraph). However, these thought are neither here nor there in this response, so I’ll return to my task at hand.

    The atemporal position obviously rests upon a B-theory of time (which provides amnesty from the two arguments mentioned above); the atemporalist is thus forced to carry the heavy baggage that accompanies her position (such as the B-theorist’s claim that the past, present, and future are distinguishable only by human consciousness; we know intuitively that there is such a thing as tense). Xavier, what is it you mean when you refer to simultaneity? Surely you do not agree with Einstein that simultaneity is relative; he wrote, “we can contribute no absolute meaning to the concept of simultaneity (“On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” trans. by Arthur Miller in “Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity,” p.394),” which seems absurd. We surely cannot hold that events which are not causally connected can occur in a different temporal order simply because they occur in different inertial frames! What implications such a thing would bring to bear on Christian beliefs! These are rather heady considerations for me, though, and I’m sure my colleagues who specialize in such things will soon be giving me an earful.

    Could (1) be shored up a bit by claiming that (1*) If atemporalism is true, then eternity is simultaneous with every event in history to God? I don’t think any clear-headed thinker could hold that (1) is true, but (1*) seems to be an inevitable result of timelessness. Given that simultaneity is not relative and atemporality does not recognize temporal relations, then God, in His eternal reference frame, finds himself confronted with innumerable events that cannot exist earlier than, simultaneous with, or later than one another (as these are temporal relations), which would present him with chaos in which he would not know whether Christ has yet died for the sins of the world or not. I suppose that a theist could hold that God sees events in such a way, but a Christian theist presumably would not.

  3. atilla says:

    this is off subject bc, even though i follow the discussion, i lack the intial ground work you guys are working from. but.

    the mention of einstein got me to wondering what the both of you think about the “string theory.”

    i have yet to hear a response from a christian philosopher, of which i am not (well at least not the philosopher part).

  4. Xavier says:

    Wassup ‘attilla tha killa.’ Keith and I are not that far ahead of you when it comes to issues of time and eternity so don’t fret. As for some recommended sources, here are some suggested:

    1)Stump, Eleonore & Norman Kretzmann. “Eternity,” Journal of Philosophy 78 (1981) 429-458.
    This is pretty seminal since the current debate on God and time mainly started here (you can find this article for free online).

    2) Craig, William Lane. God, Time, and Eternity, Boston: Kluwer Academic, 2001.
    Here, Craig brings together much of his previous writings on God and time (most are available online). This is probably the most thorough treatment of God and time with a view to current physical theories on the nature of time. A couple of chapters are really rough since Craig is well-versed in Relativity Theory and the rest of us are not. Craig argues that God exists timelessly in creation’s absence but in time (metaphysical, not physical) since creation.

    3)Leftow, Brian. Time and Eternity, Ithaca: Cornell Press, 1991.
    A sophisticated treatment of God and time with a view to Anselmian and Boeithian Perfect Being Theology. Leftow argues that God exists timelessly (this is a pretty heady book).

    4. Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
    Swinburne is pretty sharp and argues that God exists sempiternally, that is God exists for an infinite duration in time.

    Also, Alan Padgett and William Hasker have written a lot on the subject. A good introduction would be by Greg Ganssel, God and Time: Four views.

  5. Xavier says:

    Funny that you mention String Theory. I was watching something about that on Nova recently. Yeah I don’t know of any Christian Philosopher addressing issues like these. As far as God and Time is concerned, Craig is the only Christian Philosopher I know of who has seriously and extensively interacted with the bearing that current physiscs like Relativity Theories has on it. Yet Craig’s work is only half done, for he has not yet pondered what impact Quantum physics would have on issues of God and time. There is so much work to be done by Christian philosophers

  6. Xavier says:

    Well despite whatever “good reasons” there are for holding (1), it still must be rejected for it simply does not work as it is stated. Suppose that we can describe all of time as a temporal array T where T is composed of temporal events t1..t2..t3, and so on. According to atemporalists, God’s existence cannot be located at t1, or t2, or t3, ad infinitum, because God’s existence is in a mode temporally unrelated to T. God exists at eternity E, and if E is temporally unrelated to T, it is simply false to say that E is simultaneous, i.e., occurs “at the same time” with any event in T.
    Second, I simply don’t buy your claim that atemporalism necessarily entails the B or tenseless theory of time, but that is a matter for another time.
    Now as to your revised (1)*, I am a little bit unclear what you mean here:

    (1)* If atemporalism is true, then eternity is simultaneous with every event in history to God.

    Perhaps you mean:

    (1)** Relative to God’s reference frame, all temporal events occur simultaneously

    This sounds like Brian Leftow’s argument that God exists in an asymmetrical relativistic reference frame to temporal entities. Leftow argues that God’s frame of reference is such that relative to Himself, temporal entities co-exist with Him in eternity and relative to temporal creatures, He does not exist with them in time. But I do not buy Leftow’s argument (it requires too many strange ideas like his Zero Thesis, but that’s another story). If Leftow’s argument is right, then he will have to try to overcome your objection, namely, how does God know what is happening now? Or like you said, how does God know whether Christ has yet died for the sins of the world (which is really the argument from the knowledge of tensed propositions)? He and others have given some answers to this but for now I remain neutral. And neutral is a good place to be.

  7. Kirui says:

    When you say God exists but does not exist at any time, the onus is on you to illustrate such an existance. Please illustrate for me an event which is not simulteneous with any other event. Do you mean an event happening ‘after’ all other events or ‘before’ all other events. If not then what other meaning can ‘not happening simultaneously’ mean?

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  9. pktkreghrf says:

    Atemporalism & the Argument from Simultaneity | SUMMA PHILOSOPHIAE

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