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Simultaneous causation and the beginning of time

Messier-82
Published: 14 April 2018 (GMT+10)

Blake C. from the United States writes:

I have a question about simultaneous causation. Do we need simultaneous causation? If God is outside of time, he can create time and have a motive to do so without time passing, correct? Atheists would then be right however that the concept of "before time" is meaningless if that's true. They still can't explain how matter got there and clearly an eternal, non-time-bound and non-material God must be the uncaused cause, but the concept of simultaneous causation seems like a philosophical fudge-factor to me. So is simultaneous causation a possibility and can Atheists have a universe without a cause?

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Do we need simultaneous causation?

You ask: “Do we need simultaneous causation?” For time’s beginning, yes. There’s no other logical option. Clearly, causes cannot happen after their effects in time, even when the effect is time’s beginning. But could the cause of time’s beginning occur before time’s beginning in time? Of course not! Nothing can occur before time’s beginning in time; such an idea is self-contradictory. Thus, we have only one option left: the cause of time’s beginning occurred when time began. In other words, cause and effect (since the effect is time’s beginning) were simultaneous.

Note that I’m talking here of time’s beginning, not necessarily the universe’s beginning. We can conceive of the two being distinct without contradiction. For instance, say that God counted to three before He created the universe. In this scenario, the universe began after time began. If God counted in sequence before He created the universe, time would’ve existed before the universe began.

Moreover, the relevance of simultaneous causation isn’t affected by how long ago time began. Of course, the Bible teaches that it began around 6,000 years ago. But even if time began with the supposed ‘big bang’ 13.7 billion years ago, simultaneous causation remains the only way for time to begin as an effect. The biggest problem with using the big bang as evidence for God is that it contradicts the biblical time frame and event order (Did God use a big bang?), not that it presupposes a faulty understanding of causality and time’s beginning.

Is simultaneous causation possible?

But is simultaneous causation a coherent concept? Since effects cannot precede their causes in time, it could only be incoherent if effects must follow their causes in time. But why think this is true?

First, there’s no obvious incoherence in the term ‘simultaneous cause’. When we look at the term ‘married bachelor’, a basic understanding of both words quickly shows that it’s an impossible idea. Bachelors are unmarried men. Not so with ‘simultaneous cause’. A ‘cause’ is in some sense ‘responsible’ for an effect; there’s nothing about this that immediately tells us cause and effect can’t happen at the same time. Thus, the burden of proof lies with those who would say simultaneous causation is impossible.

Could it be that we only ever experience effects following causes in time? Even if that were true (which is debatable), it wouldn’t show that effects must always follow their causes in time. A prince of a tropical nation who only ever experiences liquid water can’t thereby argue that ice is impossible. Indeed, if time began and had a cause, it must be an exception to this, as shown above.

And consider the theological consequences of saying an effect must follow its cause in time. If so, then time must be uncaused. This is true whether time began or not (though a beginningless past runs into philosophical problems—Doubt your doubts!). Without a moment preceding time’s beginning in which a cause could operate, time must be uncaused if time began. Similarly, without a beginning, time cannot have a cause preceding it. Thus, time can’t be an effect if it has no beginning. And if time can’t be an effect, then it must be uncaused.

But if time must be uncaused, not even God can be time’s cause. Can this be avoided by positing time as a divine attribute? No, that’s a category mistake. Eternity is a divine attribute, which describes God’s relation to time. However, the Bible teaches that God is the sole source of all things, and it strongly implies that time began (see Process theism and Did God create time?). Indeed, any theism worthy of the name must insist that God is the sole source of all being. But if time is uncaused, God is not responsible for time, and so is not the sole source of all being. Such a ‘god’ is no God at all. Thus, without any obvious incoherence in the idea, or any solid evidence against it, the theist has no reason to abandon simultaneous causation, and plenty of reason to embrace it.

Nonetheless, we can give examples of simultaneous causation: e.g. a ball sitting on a cushion. This example goes back to Immanuel Kant. In this example, the depression in the cushion (the effect) lasts as long as the ball is sitting on the cushion (the cause). This would be true even if the ball had been sitting on the cushion forever, or if God had created them ex nihilo so that they began to exist simultaneously. As such, at any given time cause and effect are both occurring; i.e. they are occurring simultaneously. Thus, far from being “a philosophical fudge factor”, simultaneous causation is both coherent and even something we regularly experience.

Is time’s beginning an uncaused cause?

Of course, if time began, then the atheist’s only way out is to say that time began uncaused. But if time began uncaused, it would be an inexplicable brute fact. And why think time’s beginning is inexplicable? Nothing comes from nothing. If it did, then anything could come from nothing, not just time or universes. Balls, angels, ducks, unicorns, and Sherlock Holmes could all just pop into being without cause. Even worse, saying that causes are not always needed ruins the potential for any explanatory discipline, including science. After all, how could we justify trying to explain anything if anything could pop into being inexplicably? Thus, something had to be responsible for time’s beginning (see In the beginning God created—or was it a quantum fluctuation?). God is the sole source of all being, exists necessarily, and is the greatest conceivable being. Therefore, God is the best candidate cause for time’s beginning. And since simultaneous causation is a coherent idea, there’s no causal problem with God doing so.

God and ‘before time’

Now, you ask: “If God is outside of time, he can create time and have a motive to do so without time passing, correct? Atheists would then be right however that the concept of ‘before time’ is meaningless if that's true.”

First, if God is outside time, can He be in time? If He can’t, can He create time? How you answer these questions will determine whether God can have a timeless intention to create time. However, your answer will depend crucially on how you view God’s relation to time. This is a difficult subject on which Bible-believing Christians disagree. On these questions, please see How does God relate to time?

Still, is it true that “the concept of ‘before time’ is meaningless”? It depends on what we mean by “before time”. Obviously, if we mean by it ‘temporally before time’, yes, that’s a meaningless self-contradiction. I said that above, and theists have said so (e.g. Augustine and Leibniz) as much as atheists. But we don’t have to read it that way, since ‘before’ can have connotations other than temporal priority. For instance, it can be stipulated to mean something like ‘logically prior’ or ‘explanatorily prior’ without temporal connotations. And God is certainly ‘ontologically prior’ to time in that He is ultimately responsible for it existing.

Conclusion

God is responsible for time’s beginning. But that means at least one effect occurred when its cause occurred. It could be no other way for time’s beginning. And there’s no logical problem with saying so. We thus can’t say that effects must follow their causes in time. As such, we can use causality and time’s beginning as arguments for God. God is the only plausible candidate for causing time to begin (If God created the universe, then who created God?).

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Reader’s comments

Grahame G.
I'm confused by the sentence "If God is outside of time, he can create time and have a motive to do so without time passing, correct?"

You've dealt with part of the question but I don't understand Blake's intent or meaning in this question.

Is he asking if motive is "causation" and that God can have a motive for creating the universe without time passing and therefore that causation is not simultaneous? Which seems to misunderstand "simultaneous causation" and the nature of time when time doesn't exist.

Or is he saying that God created time and then time didn't pass? Which makes even less sense.

Or is there a meaning I haven't seen?

And maybe you did deal with it, but that I'm struggling to understand this so much that I don't even understand that you've answered it.

If you think it's useful, are you able to illuminate this for me?
Shaun Doyle
It is rather unclear. My understanding of the question is something like this: 'If God is timeless, he can create time instantaneously, and have a timeless intention to create, right?' This allows me to parse what he is saying in terms of God's relation to time. But once I do this, the answer depends crucially on one's view of God's relation to time (which is why I punted to my article How does God relate to time?). So, I'll try to spell out the most reasonable ways I see this playing out.

One option is that God is essentially timeless. This means He cannot be in time. The upshot of this is that He couldn't create objective temporal becoming (i.e. that things really come into being and go out of being). And if He can’t create it, He can’t have an intention to create it. After all, God is perfectly rational and can’t have an intention to do what He logically can’t do. But if God can’t be in time, the universe would be a static 4D spacetime ‘block’ co-existing timelessly alongside God. In such a world, we may experience temporal becoming, but what we experience would not correspond to any objective temporal reality. Still, the world wouldn’t have to exist, and it would still be causally dependent on God for its existence. The 'beginning' on this view would be like the left edge of a yard stick. But a yard stick doesn't come into being at its left edge. Rather, it’s just extended in (one dimension of) space the distance of a yard from its left edge. In the same way, if God is essentially timeless, the universe wouldn't really have come into being. Instead, our 'now' would just be extended in a time dimension c. 6,000 years from its 'beginning' edge.

Another option is that God is contingently timeless. This means He could choose to remain timeless or enter into time. This entails time’s passing is objective; things really come into being and go out of being, and there’s a mind-independent ‘now’. On this view, God enters into time as a by-product of creating time. God could have a timeless intention to create time on this view. He would exist by Himself (without the creation) changelessly; i.e. timelessly (in other words, time is change, and without change, there is no time). But in that changeless state, He could have a changeless intention to create a temporal world, though of course He doesn’t have to have such an intention. If God then exercises His causal power to fulfil that intention, He would instantaneously cause the first event, thus bringing time into being.

There are some other options for how God relates to time people have tried to make work (e.g. God has endured through an beginningless succession of events, or God is outside time with time also being objective), but I think they have serious flaws (e.g. I think a beginningless past is metaphysically absurd, and I don't think a timeless God can be really related to an objectively temporal world). So, I see little point trying to answer this question from those sorts of perspectives.

I hope that sheds a little light.
Kevin R P.
Thanks for the article,

John says that God is Light, yet Genesis 1 implies that God created light. God nowhere defines what light is; and possibly the light that we see is a very small subset of what light is - from God’s perspective. Likewise time. As far as I know there is nowhere in scripture that says that God created time. Rev. 10:6 says that chronos will be no more. Scofield 1967 translates 10:6 as “delay will be no more”. My own take on 10:6 is that the “keeping of time / chronologies” will be no more. In another article, on your website, someone defined time two dimensionally, on a “timeline”, that progresses from left to right. But maybe, like my view of light, we have only been presented with a tiny subset of what time is from God’s perspective. So, to say that the Eternal God created time may be as inaccurate as to say that God created light (or that he created all that light is - as being defined by our perspective). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit eternally conversed with each other; which to me, implies the existence of time. Humans, in heaven and hell, will eternally experience things over periods of time.
Shaun Doyle
Thanks for the compliments, and thank you for your response.

No doubt time is more deep and difficult to understand that we can fathom. Nonetheless, when John says 'God is light', he's using light and darkness as metaphors; he's not referring literally to the light created in Genesis 1:3 (What does “God is light” mean?). Moreover, while the Bible nowhere defines what time is, I think a case can be made for God creating time from the Bible (Did God create time?).

Furthermore, Revelation 10:6 is not relevant to God's relation to time. The idea that 'time will be no more' in the eternal state derives from a faulty interpretation of Revelation 10:6 (KJV): "And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever ... that there should be time no longer [emphasis added]". The point of the angel's oath in this passage is that the seventh trumpet (Revelation 10:7), which opens the heavenly tabernacle out of which initiates the pouring out of God's wrath in the seven bowls and the completion of God's wrath (Revelation 15:1), will no longer be delayed. It is a response to the saints' question in Revelation 6:10: "How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?" This is why most modern translations render the clause "There will be no more delay!"

(This merely concerns the internal coherence of narrative framework of Revelation's vision. I make no comment on how that vision relates to history, since that's outside the purview of our ministry—End-times and Early-times.)

At any rate, in the New Heavens and Earth is "the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month [emphasis added]" (Revelation 22:2). Which clearly implies temporal duration.

So, will there be time in eternity? In our experience, yes, eternity will be a long time; a never-ending succession of moments. See The new earth.
Robert W.
If time can begin, it could presumably stop and re-start again. What do you think would be between the stop and re-start?
Shaun Doyle
Good question! I wish it were easy to answer. From a pure 'is it realizable?' perspective, I think it one's view of the relation between God and time will dictate how this question is answered.

If time is tenseless, then I'm not sure if the question is intelligible. What does it mean to ask 'can time stop?' if time is subjective?

If time is objective and exists in the absence of events, I suspect the answer would be 'no', since I think the only way for that to work is if time were a necessary byproduct of God's nature. That would effectively mean time couldn't fail to exist, thus it couldn't be stopped.

If time is objective and is the byproduct of events, this means time is the byproduct of change. That would seem to imply that if everything stopped changing, time would stop. But how could a timeless state have a past? So, I don't know whether time could stop if time were objective and a byproduct of events.

At any rate, I think we have sure warrant to conclude that God will not stop and restart time (if that's an issue). We will persist, whether in eternal life or eternal punishment. See The New Earth and How does God relate to time? for more information.
Ian M.
What is time but the period of the Spin Rate of the Earth, expressed in Years, Months, Days, Hours, Seconds and smaller. If there was a "Big Bang" and there was a period between the Bang and the formation of the Earth, how does the atheist measure the length of the period in Years months and days if time did not exist until the Earth existed. It is sheer folly. For Creationists this is simple. God created the heavens and the Earth and time began when the Earth started spinning (Day One). The Sun was created a day or two later.
The Concept of Eternity is harder to comprehend because the Day will not be separated by Night, because there will be no night there.
Shaun Doyle
Time could exist apart from a physical cosmos. Consider, for instance, an angel counting from one to ten in sequence. Counting in sequence means '3' comes after '1' in time. That is enough to constitute an 'earlier than/after than' relation, which is a useful working definition of 'time' (even if far from exhaustive).
Cameron N.
Hi CMI! Great job again on all of your articles. They truly are wonderful, informative, and inquisitive. Concerning God's personal relation to time, I believe many people are simply over complicating it. I'm a storyteller/ creative by trade and some of the work I do kind of illuminates this concept to me. When I am writing a book/comic, making a film, or designing a video game I am effectively creating a timeline of events that will be played out in sequence accordingly. This is sometimes covered as a catch all term called Sequential Storytelling. When I create I am a being outside of time, who has created a world full of characters, events, and actions that will play out by my design in a sequence. However, I am no means bound to the rules, constraints, and timelines of the world I have created. Effectively, I see the beginning and the end of my story/film/comic/game from a vantage point outside of the timeline I have set up. Simply put the events taking place has no physical bearing on me whatsoever. This is why it is called fiction. :)

When viewed from the vantage point of the character in the story we see that they are indeed bound to the timeline set up by their creator and are helpless/unable to circumvent the passage of time or events their creator has decreed. Thus we prove that a timeline can be created that does not affect the creator. I hope this example is proven to be a correct one and I welcome any criticism on my approach in our search for illumination and wisdom. I do think that thinking in these terms can help us to understand God's nature in some ways. Namely His sovereignty and His authorship of our fate.
Shaun Doyle
It's a common analogy to describe how God relates to the world. But it is just an analogy, and it's questionable whether it works well for explaining how God and time relate. Say you publish your story as a novel. Question: after it's published, does your story depend on you for its continued existence? Clearly not. The world, however, is causally dependent on God for its continued existence. God is the sustaining cause, and the world is the sustained effect. It would seem cause and effect are both really related to each other continuously. Thus, we can't separate God and the world like we can separate an author from his story.

Another disanalogy comes in the way we construct stories, and the way history is constructed. As creators of stories, we can write it in any order we want, revise it, refine it, or pause our writing for a time and come back to it. We can be all over the place with how we constructs the story's timeline because the story never actually happens. We're not messing with real people's lives whenever we rewrite a chapter, or start with the ending. Now, obviously God wouldn't need to do a rewrite. But God clearly didn't start creating history at Jesus' second coming. There are constraints in the way history unfolds that don't come into play in how we construct stories.

Finally, some may object that the story fits a tenseless view of time, but not a tensed view of time. If time is tensed, the story doesn't exist in 'block' form altogether; the past no longer exists, and the future doesn't yet exist. There can be no moving along the storyline if time is tensed. For more on different view of time, please see How does God relate to time.
Mitch C.
In his Special Theory of Relativity, Einstein demonstrated that simultaneity, like various other physical concepts, is not an absolute, but can vary according to fixed mathematical relationships. Two events that are simultaneous in one inertial frame can occur at different times in a different inertial frame if those events are separated in space. Your example of the ball and the pillow has no space separating the cause and effect. However, other situations, where we might normally think that one preceded the other in time, as viewed from one inertial frame, could possibly occur simultaneously in a different frame of reference. See Wikipedia's article on "Relativity of Simultaneity" for a discussion of this, along with examples
.
Shaun Doyle
Thanks for the thoughtful comments; you raise some very deep issues. For me, I would question whether simultaneity is merely a physical concept, especially when considering the beginning of the universe. After all, God, the cause of time's beginning, is non-physical. At any rate, reminiscent of how the ball and cushion are causally connected, God is aware of and causally connected to everything in the physical cosmos. Would that mean God's temporal experience is absolute time? Or would it mean God is timeless? I don't think relativity theory alone can tell us, especially since there are several empirically equivalent interpretations of special relativity that have radically different ontological implications.
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