I've been having a discussion of the meaty topic of God and time on Facebook recently. Some philosophers (in this context, we were discussing the views of William Lane Craig) have held that God is in time. One argument given for this conclusion is that one must hold to an "absolute now" because the flow of time does not seem to be a mere illusion but rather an objective fact. If there is an "absolute now," then that "absolute now" must be known by God, must bear some objective relationship to God, and therefore in some sense God must be in time. That, at least, is how I understand the argument. I gather that the picture is of God in some sense going through our time with us so that God knows the tensed fact, "It is now Monday, January 20, 2014" (or whatever day it "really is" right now).
This argument is very puzzling to me, because it seems to me rather blindingly obvious that a term like "now" is just like all other indexicals ("I," "you," "here," etc.) in being understandable only in context, changing its meaning depending on who is speaking, and hence being as far as possible from the sort of thing that is absolute. Just as "I am the king of France" is either true or false depending on who is speaking, so "It is now Monday, January 20, 2014" is true or false depending on who is speaking and when he is speaking--on where, so to speak, the speaker is actually located in time. I cannot for the life of me see why one would think that there must be an absolute "now," which is the ever-moving "now" for the history of the entire universe and even for God (!), any more than there must be an absolute "I" or an absolute "over there."
The question then arises as to whether the passage of time is an illusion. But there, too, the problem is not clear to me. It seems to me that "this is an illusion" or "this is absolute, even for God" constitutes a false dichotomy. Consider location in space. It is objectively true that Lydia McGrew lives in the United States of America as opposed to living in the Sudan. That is a fact about a particular finite, embodied creature, and the relation that that creature has, via her own body (where her body is her chief means of interacting causally with the world), to a particular planet, Earth. I may say, "I live here, not in the Sudan," but this is no problem. We can get rid of all the indexicals and give a nice, clear, relational, but objective meaning to that statement. We can give that meaning quite readily because I am a finite creature and therefore am in one place rather than in another place.
My location in space is not an absolute in the sense that, for every entity now in existence, there is some "here" which applies to everybody and by which all others must orient themselves! Different finite beings will say "here" about a different finite location in space. And they can be speaking the truth as well, because they are related to the earth and the physical universe, as finite beings, in a different way from the way that I am related to the earth and the rest of the physical universe. Relational facts are not illusory. They are just relational rather than being the same for everyone.
There seems to me every reason to think that something similar applies to time. My "now" is different from Abraham Lincoln's "now." In fact, none of my "nows" overlaps with any of Abraham Lincoln's "nows." It would be as arbitrary to say that universal, absolute time really is moving along, has just (relatively recently) gotten to me, and that my "now" is the real now as to say that my location in space is the real "here."
This does not, however, mean that the passage of time is an illusion. We finite creatures really do change and really do grow older. Finite bodies really do move. Planet Earth really does turn, and it did really turn a certain number of times between the moment when Abraham Lincoln's physical body ceased to function and the moment when my body was conceived. These temporal facts are not illusory, but they are relational.
It is usually pointed out at this point in the discussion that time, unlike space, goes only in one direction. There are good logical reasons for holding real time travel to be strictly impossible. Put briefly, the problem with real time travel (with causal efficacy upon the past) is that it would in principle allow a being to cause itself never to have existed in the first place. A common example is my going back in time and doing something that prevents my grandparents from meeting, thus preventing my own eventual conception. How can I be causally efficacious in such a way as to make it the case that I never existed? For if I never existed in the first place, I could never be causally efficacious. Time travel allows the possibility of my both being causally efficacious and not being causally efficacious in the same sense at the same time, which is a contradiction. This seems to me an excellent argument against real time travel.
In this way we can give a meaning to time's arrow--a causal meaning. There is only a single direction to the possible causal efficacy of finite beings, since their existence, and hence the very possibility of their having causal efficacy, has a beginning. Without too much trouble we can extend a similar analysis to non-personal entities and events. The Civil War could not have causal efficacy prior to its occurrence, for if it could do so, then someone might been caused by the Civil War to prevent the Civil War, in which case it both did and did not happen, which is incoherent.
But it does not seem to me that putting a single-directional arrow onto the created order is at all the same thing as putting an absolute "now" into the created order, much less putting God in time. It goes without saying that God created in a coherent fashion. Hence, God created beings with limited causal powers. Among other things, those powers are logically limited; those finite beings cannot possibly cause themselves never to have existed. Therefore, they cannot be causally efficacious in the created realm prior to their own existence. In that sense God created a finite universe with a temporal arrow on it. But an arrow and an ever-moving, absolute-for-everybody, present "now" are two different things.
We can readily imagine, if we must have a picture, an object (our space-time universe) with a one-directional arrow painted on it. Nonetheless, the whole object is there, both the parts "at the beginning" and the parts further "to the right" (i.e., further along in the timeline). The temporal universe need not appear as nothing but an ever-moving dot or infinitely fine present moment. What came before the present location of a "present line" need not disappear as the present moves on; nor is what comes after some "present dot" literally unreal. The timeline is all there. It just has a temporal-causal arrow on it. Nor does the existence of the arrow necessitate in any form whatsoever a single, moving point denoting an ever-changing, canonical "now."
This seems to me quite a coherent picture of the created universe with a single causal-temporal direction, but without an absolute "now." Since God, the Incarnation aside, is not located within the finite confines of His own creation, He sees the whole of space-time. He also sees and knows what direction history goes in a causal sense. He knows which finite entities have which causal powers, and He knows that these causal power are based, in part, on where/when in the story they first came into existence. He knows all of their objective relations to one another, including the fact that Abraham Lincoln died, on the timeline, long before I was born. Or perhaps we should say, to try to get the faintest echo of a God's-eye view, that Abraham Lincoln (tenselessly) dies long before Lydia is (tenselessly) born. These temporal relations are not an illusion, but neither are they absolute in the sense that God must have some particular temporal perspective within the timeline of the created order.
As far as I can see, there is nothing at all incoherent in the picture that I have sketched. I have yet to see a good reason to take God to be in time, and this one--that otherwise time is strictly an illusion--is unsuccessful.
Previous post on this topic almost exactly a year ago here.