If you want a good radio program to listen to each week, you should listen to Greg Koukl’s program
It’s trite say that I don’t always agree with him on everything. However, it’s of a matter that I disagree with him that I want to address. This episode can be accessed here.
Click on the link at the bottom of the short article listing what topics he discussed to download and listen to the program. In the list, caller #3 brought up a topic about whether or not God is in time. Greg’s response is that he is in time. To support this assertion, he asked a question: “Does God count?” If you answer no, then you must affirm that there is something that God cannot do. This appears to contradict the omnipotent nature of God. If you answer yes, then counting requires time for that kind of sequential reasoning. The caller was stumped by the question at least for the duration of the call and Greg used the lack of response from the caller to elaborate on his point somewhat.
I know a little bit about time. I majored in physics and particularly excelled in special relativity. I also studied philosophy later on. From that perspective, I can say that philosophical considerations of time are burdened by the generalization of the flow of time as experienced macroscopically. That is to say that all of us as human beings living on the surface of planet Earth experience the flow of time in a generally uniform way. We make exceptions for time zones and the perception of time due to situational circumstances, but when an hour passes for me, it can be said that an hour passes for everyone else. When we think of a long time, we might think of a span of years out our lifetime, or even centuries or eons of history. As long as time has always passed the same as it has now, our imaginations can do a pretty good job of providing an accurate assessment of what happened. When we think of time, that’s what we think of.
So is God in time? Answering that question requires that we have an accurate concept of time. While the concept of time that I mentioned above is not entirely inaccurate and typically helpful in carrying out our everyday lives, it’s not helpful in addressing whether God is in time or not.
So we need to answer another question first: Is there a more refined understanding of time that we can know? The short answer is yes. The long answer involves discussing what that understanding is and how it pertains to the question of whether God is in time or not.
First of all, this understanding has not always been known. The implication is that this understanding is not important for having faith in God or understanding what is important about him. Previous generations didn’t need this understanding. The scriptures don’t go into detail about this although there is enough information to hint at the refined information while using normal experience to convey God’s relationship to a fallen creation as Creator, Provider, Redeemer, etc. We can know THAT God is involved with the world without understanding HOW God is involved with the world.
What we know about time is brought to us by testable and observable science. Now science cannot give us knowledge with absolute certainty. It can only give us knowledge that has a likelihood of being true based on a set of predetermined criteria. That which is testable and observable, like devising carefully planned laboratory experiments to test hypotheses, yields the highest likelihoods. That which is observable but not testable, like the social habits of gorillas in the wild, yields a high level of likelihood if conclusions are restricted only to what is observed. Many scientists make speculations based on non-testable observations or employ non-observable assumptions in the initial conditions of their experiments and call it observational science. Things like global warming or the age of the universe fall into this category. The likelihood of these speculative conclusions cannot be determined. Therefore we assign terminology such as “educated guess” or “professional assessment” to these kinds of speculations. The conclusion of someone trained in a field is reasonably more likely to be right about something than someone not trained in that field. However, I will reiterate, we have no way of measuring such rightness. In other words, we have no way of knowing for sure.
There is one other area of knowledge that we can use. This is theoretical science. Theoretical science uses the conclusions of testable science to develop either untestable conclusions or testable hypotheses. When a theoretical scientist adds a single element of speculation, (s)he crosses the line into speculative science. As long as theoretical calculations remain based solely on testable conclusions, the likelihood of the theory being true is fairly high. The knowledge of time that I will explore here relies exclusively on testable and theoretical science.
Parenthetically, as materialism is not provable, I am not given to it. It is assumed that the material world will behave in predictable ways. Otherwise, testable science is irrational. However, the material world can still behave in predictable ways while there is yet more to reality than the material world. During anomalous events where something other than the material world affects the material world, even testable science is unreliable. This is not germane to this discussion and I won’t discuss the ramifications here, but it bears mentioning in any discussion of testable knowledge.
From testable science, we know that time is affected by relative motion. The faster something goes relative to something else the greater the differential between their respective temporal frames of reference. That is if you saw a clock speed up to close to the speed of light, you would observe that the time on the clock slows down relative to the watch on your own wrist. There’s a paradox that will bake your noodle, to quote a popular movie: that is that if someone else were traveling with the clock, they would observe your watch moving more slowly than the clock they were with. Now, in one respect, this is merely an observational effect. That is to say that you both are actually experiencing the same passage of time, but the light from each of you takes longer to get to the other because of the change in distance.
However, there is an actual differential in the passage of time. In a famous experiment, synchronized atomic clocks were sent on flights in different directions. When they were brought back together, the time between them was different. Another observation was made in the engineering of the cathode ray tube. This tube was the display device that made the first television technology possible and has been used until the recent advent of LED, plasma, etc screens. An in the tube and electron gun is used to fire electrons onto a screen where pixels would be illuminated by the electrons. In order to aim the electrons at different pixels on the screen they would be fired through a magnetic field that would change their direction. The field had to be calibrated precisely. The engineers at first calibrated the field according to a uniform passage of time. However, it wouldn’t work. The electrons weren’t going where they were supposed to. They discovered Einstein’s theory of relativity and applied a transformation formula to account for a difference in temporal frame of reference between the moving electron and the stationary tube apparatus. It worked and has worked since. Therefore, some differential in time must be in play.
And it makes sense. It has been tested and observed that the speed of light is the same regardless of the difference in movement between the source of light and the measuring apparatus. This has become a governing principle of special relativity. That is to say that if you were in a car with the headlights on and you approached the speed of light driving forward, light would not build up in front of the car as you continually caught up with the light emitted from the headlights. As far as you could observe, light would continually move away from you at the speed of light. For an observer standing on the side of the road in the distance, light would reach them from the car at the speed of light, not at the speed of light plus the speed of the car. The only way to account for the constant speed of light is to adjust the passage of time for car and stationary observer. Time would pass more slowly for the car than the observer.
Now, this is difficult to think on in macroscopic terms because we simply don’t experience such dramatic speeds. But on a subatomic level, these speeds are normal. The movement of a subatomic particle is the energy that it has. If it absorbs energy and increases to a level of motion that approaches the speed of light it will appear to the particles surrounding it as though it slows down, or looses energy. Given the laws of thermodynamics, the energy cannot be lost in a system, which includes a single temporal frame of reference. So what happens to the energy? This question, in particular, pertains to electrons that whiz around the atomic nucleus with alarming speed. When energy of some sort is absorbed the by electron, it increases in speed such that it appears to lose energy relative to the rest of the atom. With the loss in energy, it drops to a lower orbital shell and emits a photon of light perpendicular to the plane of centripetal movement. The photon travels for a time according to the distance between the atom of origin and the particle the photon hits. The energy of the atom is absorbed by the receiving particle.
To theorize from the perspective of the frame of reference of the electron, the distance between the electron and the particle that its lost energy is transferred to is nullified. There is no photon to the electron. There is only the receiving particle. The photon is like an accountant that equalizes the difference between extremely diverse temporal frames of reference. In fact, the same formula that describes the difference between temporal frames of reference can also be used to describe the difference in distance between temporal frames of reference. At this point, time and distance become interchangeable.
This effect is extremely common. The light hitting your eyes as you read this is following this same course. The radio signals that you use in your wifi, your cell phone, and countless other devices in this world, are using photons of electromagnetic radiation that follow this same pattern of temporal accounting. There are so many particles of electromagnetic radiation crisscrossing your body at any given moment, that your experience of time is a tapestry of temporal extremes homogenized into a single macroscopic temporal experience. This is such an astonishing thing to consider that scientists have speculated that there is only one electron in the universe and shares its existence throughout all things by virtue of its extreme temporal experience.
In fact, on the most foundational level of matter, the difference between matter and energy becomes interchangeable. Energy, therefore, is a material thing. This is how we were able to develop atomic energy by converting matter directly to energy. At this point, matter doesn’t consist of a tangible substance as we would understand it, but it consists of form itself. For my non-materialist brothers and sisters, it consists of the very thought of God.
And so time and distance are part and parcel of the matter and energy contained within them. You cannot have time and distance without matter and energy. You cannot have matter and energy without time and distance.
I have written all that to arrive at this final conclusion. If God is immaterial, he cannot be in time. At the very least, he cannot be in time as we know it.
So what do we make of Greg Koukl’s argument in the form of the question, “Does God count?” There is a theological statement in the Bible that bears considering: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” While many theologians don’t consider God as Creator to be an attribute of God, I do. While creation adds nothing to him, I believe the very fact of creation to be absolute. As such, God as Creator is an absolute attribute. He creates because he is creative. And creation bears his attributes in many different ways so as to glorify him. He magnifies himself in creation. Creation doesn’t materially exist on its own, but every particle of matter and energy with the smallest iteration of time and distance is upheld by the mind of God. God doesn’t count in order to know. God counts in order to create, and what he creates is temporal. If this is true, Greg’s question refutes his implications. God’s counting is the source of temporal creation, not the result of it.
I hope you were able to follow along this far to the end of a longer article than I like to read, much less write. But I hope it has been well worth it for you.