How Can Something Outside of Time Act Within Time?

Time in the physics sense is something that is hard to define definitively or with absolute accuracy. St. Augustine once famously wrote in his Confessions that when asked about what God was doing before He created the universe Augustine replied, “He was preparing hell for those prying into such deep subjects” (Confessions; chp. 13, Book XI, cp. 1960).

Now, physicist Sean Carroll has given a few definitions in his book ‘From Eternity to Here’ (2010):

  • Time labels moments in the universe.
  • Time measures the duration elapsed between two events.
  • Time is a medium through which we move. (see chp. 1, ‘The Past is Present Memory’)

Time is one-dimensional while space is three-dimensional thus making up the four-dimensional spacetime entity that is curved throughout the universe and blah blah blah, you get the idea.

For more info on time, see P. Davies, ‘Mind of God’, cp. 1992; ‘God and the New Physics’, cp. 1983; ‘About Time’, cp. 1996).

However, a few interesting discussions regarding God’s relationship to time are found in Brian Leftow’s ‘Time and Eternity’ (2009), as for William Lane Craig and his volume, ‘Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time’ (2001). When asked about what sense can be made of there being a person-like being outside of time, Leftow responds:

Well, obviously, a lot of personal predicates won’t apply. He can’t forget. You can only forget what’s in your past. He can’t cease to do something. You can only cease to do something that’s over in your past. But there are other personal predicates that don’t seem to make an essential reference to time – things like knowing, which can just be a dispositional state without a temporal reference. And, I would argue, intending as well. Having an intention can be a dispositional state such that if certain things were to occur you would do something. So I’m inclined to think that there are reasons to think that God is outside time. (A. Flew; cp. 2009, p. 152)

Antony Flew has been widely known for objecting to this sort of discussion before he converted to theism (see ‘God and Philosophy’). In short, the idea of an incorporeal omnipresent Spirit sounded like the sort:

As I was walking up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
Oh, how I wish he’d go away.
 (Hughes Mearns; Ibid. p. 148)

Regarding the perfection of agency Thomas Tracy has written a few books in these regards (see God, Action and Embodiment and The God Who Acts). In short, as a position similar to Richard Swinburne’s (see ‘Is There A God?” cp. 2010), he sees both agents (human and divine) with the ability to act intentionally. His reasoning later goes on as such:

“…human person as an agent organism, a body capable of intentional action. But though all embodied agents (such as human persons) must be psycho-physical unites (and not minds plus bodies), all agents do not have to be embodied… God is an agent… whose every activity is intentional action. To speak of God as a personal being is to talk of him as an agent of intentional actions.”

Referring back to Leftow: “If God is timeless, then everything he does, he does, so to speak, all at once, in a single act. He couldn’t do one thing first and then another later on. But that one act might have effects at different times. He might in one volition will that the sun rise today and the sun rise tomorrow and this has effects today and tomorrow…. [But,] How could there be a causal connection between a spaceless, timeless being and the entirety of space-time?” And I fill finish with Leftow’s concluding remarks:

If you think that the concept of cause involves an essential temporal reference [i.e., that cause is tied to time] – for example, a cause is an event that precedes another event and has certain other relations to it – then that’s going to be ruled out. But there are analyses of cause that don’t involve that essential temporal reference. I myself am inclined to the view that the concept of cause doesn’t really have an analysis – that it’s just a primitive concept and that causation itself is a primitive relation…

If the concept of cause doesn’t have an analysis, then there isn’t anything you can pull out of it by way of an analysis that would rule out a primitive causal connection between a non-temporal God and the whole of time” (Oxford University, 2006).


3 responses to “How Can Something Outside of Time Act Within Time?

  1. Ok, first of all, things do happen future to past. Light leaving the sun 8.5 minutes ago, because it travels the speed of light experiences no time. Its is everywhere at the same “time”. Its destination affects its trajectory 8.5 minutes in the past. If an alien mind can comprehend the possibility’s that we cannot, if we are like chimps to them, would they not be gods to them? or more over of we are a simulation on a massive God Computer….he could see causality both ways in time.

    I just started my crazy ramblings at

    • I don’t think you understand my position correctly. You purport the premise “things do happen future to past”, and use a factual such as light traveling from the sun to earth in 8.5 minutes to support that premise. However, that is not future to past, but rather evaluation of the present state of affairs to examine the past.

      The Andromeda Galaxy being over 2 million light years away, and the nearest star being about as little as 4.2 light years away, are not us winding back in time in the literal sense if I am understanding your position correctly. We are merely examining the light that has reached us to determine its distance. If I have mistaken your position, could you elaborate on what you mean by “from future to past”?

      • What I mean by future to past is that for light I was led to believe that the target helps determine it’s path from its Source. Its future location determines its past path. I was led to believe that causality works in reverse in such a case. I could be wrong I’m just some crazy guy with thoughts.

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