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The other yous

August 2, 2010
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I’d like to spend this article discussing time, with specific reference to Open Theism and predestination.  The main problem with discussing time and non-time is that our language is bound to the way that we see time so sooner or later we’re going to end up with temporal subscripts.  However, we’d best start at the beginning (for temporal beings, at least), and address the problem of free will and omniscience.

The problem runs like this: people are supposed to have free will.  God is supposed to know everything that will happen.  Therefore, God knows what is going to happen, which means we can’t make a decision freely because the outcome is already known by God.  We’ve only got one choice, the one that God already knows we’re going to pick.  We’ll use an example, which may not be needed at this stage, but we’ll want it later.  Imagine that I am deciding what I will have for breakfast.  I could scramble some eggs or eat some waffles.  God already knows I’m going to eat some waffles, so do I really have the choice to eat eggs instead?

Both of the “supposed to” statements in the previous paragraph have been challenged to resolve this conflict.  A lot of more theologically conservative folks have challenged the idea of free will.  They run through the statement above and say, “Well, okay, looks like we don’t have free will, just the illusion of it.”  This happens to sit fairly well with double-predestination folks anyway.  Others are sure that we do have free will, and so they challenge the other end: perhaps God doesn’t know the future.  Now, very occasionally, I run into someone who says this and simply means, “God just isn’t very omniscient.”  Most Open Theists, though, seem to approach the issue as one about time.

Classically, theologians have thought of God as outside of time.  But what, as Open Theists suggest, if he isn’t?  That might not help anything because He’s still supposed to know everything, but there’s another step.  What if the future isn’t yet?  Here’s our first language problem, because of course the future is still future.  But imagine time as a book.  Is the book being written, with us living in the last word written, or is the book already written and we’re moving through it?  Or, to use another metaphor, what if time is like a carpet being unrolled?  God, in this case, could know everything there is to be known and still not know the future, which doesn’t exist to be known (although He would be perfectly capable of using existing data to calculate quite a lot of information about the future).

The major problem with this idea is that it requires that God be inside time somehow.  There’s a reason theologians have claimed that God exists beyond time: one of God’s foundational roles in Christianity is that of Creator and the Creator is not bound by anything created.  Time is an aspect of the universe (a dimension, as best I understand modern physics), which is a created thing.  God Himself would not then be bound by time.  He could certainly understand it, stick His fingers into it, and even enter fully into it in the Incarnation.  But He wouldn’t be limited by it.  He’s not on the timeline, and so He’s free to look and intercede at any point He wants.

This appears to circle us right back to the problem.  So God knows I’m not going to eat eggs, I’m going to eat waffles.  There’s no free lunch and there’s no free will – a wordplay which should point out that “free” isn’t the most specific adjective ever.  Free could mean “costing nothing”, “not caged”, “un-coerced”, or, for free will, “capable of choosing any option”.  How important is it, then, that free will actually mean this last one?  If free will was, in fact, entirely predictable (but un-coerced) would this be a problem?  For many of us the problem would actually be if free will stopped being free through coercion.  If I will always eat waffles for breakfast when given the choice that’s not really a big deal.  If I’ll always eat waffles because the waffle police will shoot me otherwise that’s a problem.  One possible solution, then, is simply to figure out what part of “free” matters, because someone knowing what you are going to do isn’t coercive.

However, I wish to propose something that requires far more lateral thinking.  How does God know that I’m going to eat waffles?  Because he sees me eating waffles in the future.  Let’s introduce some notation: today I am metoday, tomorrow I will be metomorrow, and so on.  Mebefore breakfast has not yet chosen what to eat for breakfast.  Meduring breakfast has because meduring breakfast is eating breakfast.  So was my choice free (in the sense of “not known beforehand”)?  Well, that depends who you ask.  Mebefore breakfast says no, because he hasn’t chosen what to eat yet.  Meduring breakfast has, though.  From his perspective God isn’t seeing what he is going to do, God looked at what he’s already done.  So who’s right?

Note that none of the various iterations of myself are mepresent.  I’ve done this for a very specific reason: we attach a lot of importance to the present.  If I discussed the various viewpoints of mepresent and mefuture you’d automatically tend to think of mepresent as the “real” me.  The problem is that today metoday thinks he’s mepresent, and therefore the real me, but tomorrow metomorrow thinks he’s mepresent and the real me.  In fact every single me thinks he’s mepresent and the real me.  There’s only one party capable of arbitrating this dispute, and that’s God, Who exists outside of time, and Who doesn’t need to deal with GodWho is to come insisting that He’s the real God over the objections of GodWho is.

I’ve had rather poor luck getting God to answer these sort of informational questions, perhaps because His first answer was giving me a brain to use, so we’ll have to ask ourselves what all of the iterations of ourselves look like from outside of time.  The short answer is that they probably aren’t too easy to distinguish.  As I’ve already pointed out, every me there is (and every you there is, where we mean “is” from the point of view of eternity, where the only “isn’t” is an “isn’t now, wasn’t ever, and won’t ever be”) thinks he’s the real deal.  So maybe he is.  You’ve probably seen a picture where the camera shutter is left open and aimed at the night sky.  The stars are lines, not points.  The camera has taken a sort of three dimensional photo, with time being the third dimension.  In each instant the star is a point, but across all instants the star becomes a line of starinstants  blurring together.  From the perspective of eternity you aren’t all that different, although you don’t fuse hydrogen quite so well and you’re lumpier.  The real you isn’t any youinstant, it’s the whole you-chain.

So how does this resolve the issue?  Well, let’s ask the question again.  Imagine that Ibefore breakfast am deciding what Ibefore breakfast will have for breakfast.  Ibefore breakfast could scramble some eggs or eat some waffles.  God already knows that Iduring breakfast is eating some waffles, so does Ibefore breakfast really have the choice to eat eggs instead?  Well, we answered that the minute we said “God already knows that Iduring breakfast is eating some waffles”.  Either Iduring breakfast doesn’t exist (yet) and the scenario stops before we ever get to the problem or Iduring breakfast does exist already (from the perspective of eternity) and so someone on the great I-chain has already made that decision freely.  It may not be the resolution you were hoping for, but there are only two choices: either there isn’t a problem, or, in some sense, you’ve already made all your choices.  You’re just working your way from the you who hasn’t made them to the you who has.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. prin permalink
    August 19, 2010 1:28 am

    a) Just because God knows the outcome, it doesn’t mean He’ll affect it (i.e. if you watch a kid choose to make a mistake and have the bandaids ready, you didn’t affect the kid’s decision-making processes or free will…).

    b) What if our free will is absolutely everything to us and is but a blip on the screen for God? Then we do have all the free will we can muster, but it’s of little consequence in the grand scheme of things.

    c) If there’s a squirrel in the park, I will tell my dogs “no” before they even see it. I am not in the future, but I know them well enough to know what their reaction will be and what course of action they will choose next. Multiply that by infinity and we barely have a glimpse of what God is working with.

    d) What if those who refuse to believe that God can know all and still let us be us have control issues and trust issues? If you want utter control over your life and want God to be completely hands-off, then predestination is absurd. But if you can have free will and believe that God has the ability beyond our capacity to comprehend to answer prayer without affecting said free will, then a part of you has let go of total control, which means you’ve let go of a piece of your free will.

  2. Eric permalink
    August 19, 2010 10:29 am

    I agree with most of this, but I have a problem with part d. I wouldn’t call surrendering control giving up free will. You still chose to follow someone else’s lead, and that choice is will.

    A variant of this argument is often used by authority figures trying to convince you that you aren’t responsible for following them into bad decisions. I find it equally flawed there.

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