A legacy post originally published on AUGUST 26, 2006 at 3:27 PM
🔗 Can a Timeless God Freely Create? by Alan Rhoda
To say that God freely creates is to say that he could have refrained from creating and that he could have created a different sort of world, one with different initial and boundary conditions.
To say that God is timeless is to say that he undergoes no change in any respects whatsoever. In other words, it is to say that God is absolutely immutable.
Given these two assumptions (and assuming, of course, that there is a God who has in fact freely created), we can, I think, derive a contradiction:
- God is absolutely immutable
- God has freely created
- A free act proceeds from a free decision from among several mutually exclusive possibilities
- Therefore, God made a free decision to create from among several mutually exclusive possibilities (From (2) and (3))
- A free decision from among several mutually exclusive possibilities involves a change of ‘intentional stance’ from regarding something as indeterminate (as one of several possibilities) to regarding it as determinate (as the chosen course of action)
- Therefore, in freely creating, God undergoes a change in his intentional stance (From (4) and (5))
- Therefore, God has changed in some respect (From (6))
- Therefore, God is not absolutely immutable (From (7))
(8) contradicts (1), and since (8) follows from (2), it follows that (2) contradicts (1). Hence, God cannot both be absolutely immutable (and timeless) and freely create. To avoid the conclusion, the eternalist must challenge the logic at some point or reject one of the independent premises, namely, (3) or (5). As far as I can see, the logic checks out. That leaves the premises to be examined.
One might try rejecting premise (3) by arguing that a free act need not proceed from a free decision. Perhaps God never decided to create. Perhaps he has just immutably willed to create. Okay, but what makes this “willing” free? That God has immutably willed to create could just as easily be said of a God who had no freedom, who had to create precisely the sort of world that we find ourselves in. Perhaps one could say that God’s immutably willing to create is free because nothing about God’s nature constrains God to will as he does. But if that’s so, then why does God will as he does? Why does he immutably will to create precisely this type of world and not another or no world at all? It’s not clear that any answer can be given unless it’s along the lines of “because that’s what he decided to do,” in which case premise (3) is conceded. On the current proposal, therefore, it is just a brute fact that God wills as he does. He didn’t choose to will as he does; he just does will as he does. I think it’s safe to say that that’s a rather lame explanation.
What’s more, how is a denial of (3) to be squared with divine providence (i.e., God’s manner of ruling creation)? Every theory of providence that I am aware of—Calvinism, Molinism, open theism, etc.—makes explicit reference to God’s ‘deciding’ on or ‘choosing’ one possibility from among several others. The Biblical writers talk that way as well (for example, the nation of Israel is said to be “chosen” of God).
As for premise (5) it too seems highly plausible. Certainly, when we make decisions we move from a state of indecision to a state of decision and a clear change in our intentional stance vis-à-vis our deliberative options takes place. But perhaps this doesn’t have to be the case for a timeless God. Perhaps God’s deliberative process can be understood in terms of distinct logical moments, rather than distinct temporal moments. An example of this distinction is the order of the steps in the proof of a mathematical theorem. It takes a human mathematician time to trace through the logical steps in performing the proof. That’s a temporal sequence. But in the proof itself, considered abstractly as an ordered set of propositions connected by logical rules, there is only a logical sequence. The axioms from which the proof sets out are logically prior to the conclusion, but not temporally prior to it. Could God’s decision to create be understood along similar lines? In other words, could we say that God’s contemplation of possibilities and his deciding to actualize one of them occur simultaneously, as it were, with the “change” in God’s intentional stance reflecting a mere logical sequence and not a temporal one?
I don’t think this will work because the relation between (1) God’s contemplation of a set of creative possibilities and (2) his selecting one of those is not a logical sequence. In other words, no purely logical relation is going to get you from a proposition describing a set of possibilities (“Either A or B or C …”) to a proposition affirming just one of those possibilities (“A”). The latter just doesn’t follow from the former. What we need is not a logical rule, but something substantive, namely, the exclusion of the other possibilities (“Neither B nor C …”). It seems that this exclusion has to be due to a volitional act on God’s part, an act that effects a transition from volitional indeterminacy (“Either A or B or C …”) to volitional determinacy (“A”). And it is simply incoherent to suppose that God (or anyone else) could be in both states at once. There are two distinct intentional stances here, and they are incompatible. Hence, a free decision to create involves a qualitative change in God’s mental life. And qualitative changes are temporal, not logical.
If I were to reframe this argument today, I would distinguish between two senses in which God might be said to “freely” create: (a) creating in the absence of external compulsion (i.e., negative freedom), and (b) creating by *choosing* between two or more live options (i.e., positive freedom). My argument is only aimed at showing that a timeless God cannot freely create in the sense of (b).
Here’s how I would revise the argument today:
(1*) If God is timeless, then God is absolutely immutable and thus incapable of intrinsic change.
(2*) God freely creates in the sense of *choosing* between two or more mutually exclusive options (e.g., to create vs not or create, or to create world type A vs to create world type B).
(3*) A free choice from among several mutually exclusive possibilities constitutes an *intrinsic* change in the chooser from an open-ended, not-having-yet-decided intentional state of considering one’s options to a having-decided intentional state of being settled upon one of those options to the exclusion of the others.
(4*) Therefore, God has undergone an intrinsic change. (from 2* and 3*)
(5*) Therefore, God is not absolutely immutable or timeless. (from 1* and 4*)
I think the best rejoinder for a proponent of divine timelessness is to reject (2*) and hold that God freely creates only in the sense of (a), i.e., absence of external compulsion. Since a timeless God cannot undergo intrinsic change, a proponent of divine timelessness should not say that God *chooses* to create, but rather that God timelessly and unchangeably *wills* thusly.
I’m feeling queasy about 3* and 5 from the original argument. You frame the change as a process starting with a potentially decided state and ending in an actually decided state. I’m wondering why there needs to be a potentially decided state. If there is no risk of error… couldn’t an agent decide immediately?
Also, consider the choice we make about the kind of life we will lead. e.g. will you lead a contemplative life? Will you follow Jesus? These don’t seem like changes to your state as much as ongoing affirmations of a choice that you are continually making. If you had no beginning or end and there were no stages to your life etc… you could theoretically be continuing to make that choice timelessly.
The islamic philosophers and mystics do not construe God’s freedom in the sense of “being able to choose otherwise”. Rather, we define God’s freedom as God being free from being influenced or determined by anything that is not identical to Himself. We (the Islamic thinkers from the Ismaili, Avicennan, and Akbari Sufi traditions) reject that God chooses an option among a pool of possible choices, as this would lead to brute contingency in whatever is picked.
Therefore, we maintain that God timelessly and eternally wills the existence of Creation, beginning with the First Creation that is an eternal effect, and this creation could not have been otherwise because it is determined and necessitated by God’s Essence.
I have written about this at length in this recent publication: https://hrcak.srce.hr/287382