Simultaneity and Relativity

This morning I came across a blog post in which it was claimed that "time is a construct":
everything is happening simultaneously. Right now, I am writing at my computer. Right now, I am voting at my local school. Right now, Christ is dying on a cross. Right now, He is making a covenant and receiving a kiss. Right now, Napoleon is heading to Waterloo. Right now, George Washington is facing defeat for the umpteenth time. Right now, I am being needlessly cruel to someone. Right now I am being born. Right now I am 78 years old and grousing that my kids never visit me. Right now, Obama has won the election. Right now John McCain has won the election.
There is an interesting confusion here between the epistemological and the ontological (along with what looks like a conflation of relativity with certain string-theoretical interpretations of quantum mechanics). Relativity theory, famously, describes a universe in which the concept of simultaneity is in need of serious theoretical revision since, according to the theory, there is no such thing as a privileged vantage point from which to describe discrete events as having any meaningful temporal relations. It does not follow from this point about the relativity of frameworks, however, that time is in every sense a construct. Obviously certain elements of our subjective experience of time are constructed, but just as obviously there are certain temporal relations that are ontologically independent of any particular framework.

So, for example, if a man in Beijing sits down in a chair at 2:15 his time, and I sit down in a chair at 14:15 my time, there is no privileged vantage point from which it can be known with certainty that we sat down simultaneously. For the same reason there is no privileged vantage point from which one could say with certainty that he sat down before I did, or that I sat down before he did. On the other hand, there is no vantage point from which it would make any rational sense to say that we do not know with certainty that Julius Caesar died before I was born. You can carry this relativistic crap only just so far.

It is also worth remembering that relativity theory, though robustly consistent with observation, is like any other scientific theory: it is one interpretation of reality among many. Indeed, if it is to be counted as a scientific theory at all, it must be deemed falsifiable, which presupposes the possibility that it may prove to be, after all, an incorrect interpretation of reality. This, in turn, presupposes that there are such things as incorrect interpretations of reality, of course, but if we don't presuppose that then there seems little point in doing science at all other than for mere mental masturbation. Those who, in the 1970s and 1980s, sought to turn the sciences into more geeky versions of the humanities (which were still in the throes of critical theory at the time) might find it congenial to argue that there is no such thing as correct or incorrect when it comes to interpretations of the world, but such people need not be taken seriously in the lab. Or really anywhere else either.

That relativity theory may fail to interpret the world correctly is a possibility that is sometimes forgotten by undergraduates in some of my philosophy of science classes, who seem to take a kind of perverse delight in saying things like "There's no such thing as simultaneity" or "It doesn't make any sense to talk about events being simultaneous" (or temporally ordered, for that matter). Why they don't take the time to preface their remarks with some such caveat as "According to one physical theory..." is probably a reflection of the exuberance of youth, but its cuteness wears off after a while and it comes to seem like a sign of dogmatic adolescence more than anything else. Being impetuous may get you into the marriage of your dreams, I suppose, but it might also get you into the marriage of your nightmares.

The theological claim that "all times are eternally present to God" has a rather nice pedigree going back at least as far as St Augustine, but theological claims are a lot like scientific claims: they are open to falsification. This is an artifact of their being only analogies: some of them become enshrined as dogmata and we are required to give them intellectual assent, but that does not alter the fact that, come the eschaton, we may find that things are not precisely as we supposed them to be. To say that God is Three Persons with a single nature may very well be the best thing that can possibly be said by humans about God, but at best it only borders on what the truth actually is, because it is merely a proposition, not a reality. One trusts that it is the best representation of reality that humans are capable of given the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but it is a representation nonetheless: actually experiencing God in the eschaton will necessarily be different from merely thinking about him as a Trinity of Persons with a single nature.

There is an interesting review article by Stephen Barr in the most recent issue of First Things in which he assesses a collection of essays by Wolfhart Pannenberg called The Historicity of Nature: Essays on Science and Theology ("Theology After Newton", First Things 187 (November 2008), pp. 29-33) in which a very different theological interpretation of reality is proposed, one in which temporal relations are an essential feature of creation and God's presence in it. While Pannenberg is no Augustine his views are extremely interesting, and one is reminded that while there may be some sense in which it is meaningful to say that "all times are eternally present to God", it may not be all that salutary to take such speculation either too literally or too seriously.


To Mr. Scott Carson

I have just visited your blog, read some of the posts, and would love to revisit, as I liked the simple narration you have put on the screen. As you like Pather Panchali, the Bengali Film, I would love to read you more.

If you are interested in reading the short stories and humorous articles by an Indian writer, then a visit to my blog would be a good idea. You would get the value for your time spent in reading the same.

Naval Langa
From a different perspective, a college kid from New Zealand named Peter Lynds wrote an interesting paper back in 2003 entitled "Time and Classical and Quantum Mechanics: Indeterminacy vs. Continuity" that made the argument that "time is a construct" as you say.

Wired magazine had an article about Lynds on issue 13.06 which you may access here: Time's Up, Einstein.

Lynds, apparently, embraces an antitheological view of time: there is no "now," just a sequence of events happening. Time is neither a sequence of tower clock bells nor one large gong. There is simply no clock, no gong, just clock-makers and gong-forgers - that's my analogy.

Lynds' speculations aside, I do take a bit of an issue with you on your skepticism on the notion that "all times are present to God." Perhaps if we rephrase it "God is present at all times" we may have a better, albeit still limited proposition of how God sustains every single point of reality in one single, eternal Act.

Yours in Christ,
Chris said…
It's interesting that you should write about this today... Just yesterday I was continuing my reading of C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity with Book 4/Chapter 3, "Time and Beyond Time," in which he discusses this very concept. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in this topic, because it gives a down-to-earth (i.e. easy for the armchair philosopher to understand) explaination of difficult concepts. I think that I (and Lewis) would agree more with Theo's rephrasing of this concept to "all times are present to God," but that implies the existence of a "past" and "future." Lewis's point is that the "present" in "all things are [present] to God" serves to tell us how things are to God, using a concept from our experience. Perhaps one could say "to God, all things are" (in the Tetragrammaton sense.)

But keep in mind that theological theories and explainations are just our attempts to describe aspects of a Truth that is completely beyond our full comprehension, along the lines of one blind man describing the elephant to another blind man, and as Lewis says throughout the book, "if it does not help you, leave it alone."

Blessings, Chris
Tony said…
But keep in mind that theological theories and explainations are just our attempts to describe aspects of a Truth that is completely beyond our full comprehension, along the lines of one blind man describing the elephant to another blind man,

Well, no, I think that this is just a little bit of a cop-out, or least sets up a possible cop-out. Theology properly speaking is a science, where the foundational known facts are things revealed to us by God, who knows all things and cannot deceive. Not only does God know absolutely the truths He wishes to reveal, but also the human mind to whom He wishes enlightenment, so He can arrange and support our reception of such truth without error, even when that achievement is incomplete. Therefore, when we do science based on revelation, we can rightly hope to achieve truth.

It is fundamental skepticism (that is to say, fundamentally anti-Christian and anti-revelation) to say that whatever "truth" we arrive at in this process will be so far superceded by what we ultimately find in heaven as to bear no resemblance to how we think now. True, the eye has not seen, and the ear has not heard, the wonders prepared for us. But when we experience those wonders in the end, they will be the fruition of the seeds planted by grace and study in the here and now. For the kingdom is God is like a mustard seed...

If the truth about God were utterly beyond us in every sense, then Christ's mission to reveal the Father to us would have been impossible, and his Incarnation would be in vain. St. Thomas Aquinas defeated this excessive skepticism in showing how we understand the things of God in an analogical sense. Ultimately, man would not be made for the Beatific Vision if our minds were wholly incapable of being conformed to the Divine nature so as to see Him as He is in Himself. But the fact that our nature IS capable of being raised to this Vision means that even in the world, we can approach to Truth under a mode that is a a real (though lesser) mode of knowing, and therefore is really truth, though imperfect.

Perhaps the natural sciences can lend an example: when relativity overturned the Newtonian way of understanding the world, it did not say Newton was wrong simply: rather, Newton's formulation is valid in an approximate way, as long as you don't get into areas too excessively small or too grandly large, and the newer theory incorporated all of the conclusions of Newtonian physics within those limits, while extending our explanation successfully into areas where Newton's theory did not explain. Perhaps likewise in explaining Godly time using revelation and theology: whatever advance we make in this will probably not end up saying that Relativity is wrong simply speaking, but we can refine it so that it retains useful power to explain in many areas.

God is absolutely simple Act. Being in time as we are, we are not simple act. Things that to us are true as relations (such as before and after) are true to God, but the relation is not in God. The lack of simplicity is found only on our side of the divide, not on God's.

Likewise, the multiplicity of nature reflects the true and the good in God, but not by way of reflecting what exists with multiplicity in God - rather, creation employs many beings to reflect the many goods that are in God as one.
Chuck said…
Great article. Ken Wilber puts it like this; the world is composed of both wholes and parts. There are fluctuations within perimeters. Some only recognize the fluctuations.

I would like to invite you to say a word on my blog concerning philosophical arguments for design.What is your take on the arguments by Thomas Aquinas in the beginning of his Summa.

This is the link if you have the time.
eli sairs said…
This is interesting. Unrelated: I may give up on God Delusion, it's really boring me now and I have very limited reading time. Hopefully Christopher Hitchen's God is Not Great will offer me some kind of challenge.

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