Quentin
Smith, one of the most formidable of contemporary atheist philosophers, died
late last year
.  One of the
reasons he was formidable is that he actually knew what he was talking about.  Most of his fellow atheist philosophers do not,
as Smith himself lamented.  In his
article “The
Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,”
Smith opined that “the great majority
of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true
and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false.”  He thought that most of them held their
opinion as a prejudice, and didn’t know or engage with the most serious
arguments of the other side.  If that is
true even of most atheist philosophers, it is even more true of atheists
outside of philosophy – other secularist academics, New Atheist propagandists,
Reddit loudmouths, et al.

Not
coincidentally, Smith was also free of that other besetting vice of
contemporary academic philosophy, overspecialization.  A philosopher whose competence is limited to
a small set of topics can do good work, but not the best work.  That is simply a consequence of the nature of
philosophical ideas, whose implications tend to ramify across the intellectual
landscape.  But one needs a knowledge of
that landscape to see that.  Smith had
that, and his interests and publications ranged widely.  This breadth gave his work depth. 

This is
clearest from his work in the philosophy of time, in which his deep knowledge
of and interest in metaphysics, physics, and philosophy of religion
converged.  All three are in evidence in
the book he co-wrote with William Lane Craig,
Theism,
Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology
– the book which, I think, is
what introduced me to Smith’s work in the early 90s, at a time when I was
myself still an atheist.  They are also
evident in another book of his from that period that I especially liked at the
time – the fun little volume Time,
Change, and Freedom: An Introduction to Metaphysics
, which he
co-wrote with L. Nathan Oaklander.  It is
written in the unjustly neglected dialogue form that once was common in
philosophy, and done very well.

In thinking
about this post I went back and re-read some of it.  Since there is no greater tribute one can
offer to a philosopher than to engage with his work, let’s take a look.  Chapter 4 is devoted to the topic of
eternity, and is a model of how to introduce complex philosophical ideas in a
way that is brief and lucid without being oversimplified.  Smith begins by noting that the concept of
eternity is traditionally defined in theological terms, as in Boethius’ famous
characterization of it as God’s “possession all at once of unlimited
life.”  This “possession all at once”
involves God’s existing timelessly.  It’s not that God has always existed in the
past and will continue to do so in the future, but rather that he exists outside of time altogether.  But what does this mean, exactly?  Smith considers four ways of interpreting
divine eternity that have been defended in recent philosophy, and raises
problems for each of them.  What follows
is a summary of what Smith has to say about these views, with some commentary.

1. Eternity as non-temporal duration: On this view, for God to exist
eternally is for him to exist simultaneously with every instant of time.  George Washington’s eating breakfast in 1776
and your reading this blog post in 2021 are not simultaneous events for either
you or Washington.  But on the
“non-temporal duration” view, they are simultaneous for God, who “sees” every
moment of time all at once, like someone viewing every part of a town all at
once from a vantage point on top of a mountain.

As Smith
points out, this view won’t work.  If 1776
is simultaneous with God’s awareness and 2021 is simultaneous with God’s awareness,
then 1776 is simultaneous with 2021 after all. 
Or, if they are not simultaneous,
then God’s awareness of 1776 and his awareness of 2021 are also not simultaneous,
in which case God exists at different moments of time and is not eternal.  The “non-temporal duration” interpretation is
a muddle.

This criticism
is correct, and I would add two more points. 
First, “simultaneous” and “duration” are temporal notions, which should already make us suspicious of this
way of spelling out the notion of eternity. 
(To be sure, it is very hard to avoid all temporal language when speaking of eternity, which means that
we need to rely heavily on the analogical
use of terms and explicit negation of
all of the temporal implications of univocal usage.  More on that in a moment.)

Second, talk
of God “seeing” different points of time all at once, though very common in discussions
of eternity, is extremely misleading at best and bound to lead to absurdities like
the ones exhibited by the “non-temporal duration” view.  God does not know the world via anything like
perception.  He knows it by virtue of
being its cause.  In particular, he does
not know what is happening in 1776 and 2021 by way of observing them.  He know them
because he knows himself as the cause of a world in which a series of events
occurs, some of which are in 1776 and some of which are in 2021. 

(Compare: A
novelist knows what happens in chapter 1 and chapter 5 of his book, not because
he has read both chapters, but
because he wrote both of them.  Much bad thinking about God’s relation to the
world in general and to time in particular results from thinking of God as if
he were just one more reader of the “novel” that is the world, rather than the
novel’s author.)

2. Eternity as tenseless duration: Consider the tenseless theory (or B-theory)
of time, according to which all moments of time – 1776, 2021, and all the rest
– are equally real.  There are earlier
and later events (for example, events in 2021 are later than those of 1776) but
no event is objectively past,
present, or future (as events are on the tensed
or A-theory of time).  The “tenseless duration” view of eternity
holds that the tensed or A-theory of time is true, so that events in time are
objectively past, present, and future. 
But it holds that God has duration with successive parts, ordered in
something like the way that events are ordered according to the B-theory.  There are earlier and later stages of God’s
existence, but none of them is
objectively past, present, or future (the way that events in time are) so that
God is outside of time.

One problem
with this, as Smith points out, is that it implicitly brings God into time
after all.  For suppose stage S1
of God’s life is the stage where he creates 1776 and stage S2 is the
stage where he creates 2021.  Then it
seems that S1 will be simultaneous with 1776 and S2 will
be simultaneous with 2021.  But if 1776
is past and 2021 is present, then it would follow that S1 is past
and S2 is present – in which case God has both past and present
stages and exists in time after all.

I would make
three additional points.  First, the
defender of the “tenseless duration” view might avoid dragging God down into time,
but at the cost of absorbing (what at first seemed to be) time up into
eternity.  For he could insist that since
God is not in time, S1 and
S2 must not really be objectively past and present.  But in that case, neither are 1776 and 2021
(which are simultaneous with S1 and S2, respectively)
objectively past and present – in which case (given the A-theory, which the
“tenseless duration” view is committed to) they are not really in time after
all.

Second, all
this talk of God having “stages” is in any event a non-starter, because it
violates divine simplicity.  Third, talk
of “duration” has, here too, potentially problematic temporal
connotations.  But that brings us to the
third view.

3. Eternity as a present instant: This view abandons talk of duration
and conceives of God as existing in a single instant.  But this instant
remains permanently present, being outside of time and thus having no instants
preceding it or succeeding it.

As Smith
objects, this is simply a muddle.  If God
remains present, then that implies
that he persists through successive
instants, in which case he is in time. 
Or, if he really does exist only in a single instant, then he doesn’t remain, but passes away.  And in that case too, he is in time.

I would add
to this that it is simply a non-starter to think of eternity on the model of an
instant.  In my view, this is an even worse model for eternity than endless duration
is.  For one thing, it too is a concept
with temporal connotations.  But for another,
it implies something less than
duration, whereas the reason duration is a problematic model for eternity is
that eternity is more than mere
duration, not less!

As David
Oderberg suggests in his paper “Instantaneous
Change Without Instants,”
an instant of time is best thought of as a
kind of limit case of the division of a time interval into shorter units.  It is analogous to a point in space, and an
interval of time can no more be made up of a collection of instants than an
extended object can be made up of extensionless points.  Much fallacious thinking about the nature of
space and of motion arises from reifying abstract mathematical descriptions of
space and motion, and much fallacious thinking about time arises in a similar
way.  I have a lot to say about both
sorts of fallacies in Aristotle’s
Revenge
.  In any event,
the notion of an instant will only yield something less than temporal duration,
and thus something far less than
eternity.  But that brings us to the last
view considered by Smith.

4. Eternity as a tenseless instant: This view presupposes that the tenseless
or B-theory of time is correct.  Hence,
it holds that 1776, 2021, and all other points of time are equally real and
none is objectively past, present, or future. 
God, on this view, exists at a single instant, and that instant too is
not present (contrary to the “present instant” view).  But it is also outside the series of instants
that make up time, and thus is not earlier than, simultaneous with, or later
than any of them.  From this vantage
point outside of time, God is aware of all of the equally real instants that
make up time.

Smith seems
more sympathetic to this view than to the others, though he doesn’t ultimately
accept it either.  But even if it is the
least bad of the four, it is still not good, and not only because it endorses
the B-theory (which, for reasons I explain in Aristotle’s Revenge, I reject). 
For, again, an instant is the
wrong way to model eternity.  Eternity is
not endless duration, but it is more
like endless duration than it is like an instant. 

The main
problem Smith raises against the “tenseless instant” view is this.  Suppose Washington was worshipping God one
morning in 1776, but was not doing so an hour later when his attention was
distracted by other matters.  Then it
seems that God underwent a change (i.e. from being worshipped by Washington to
not being worshipped by him), and if he undergoes change, then he is in
time.  A traditional response to this
kind of objection, which Smith considers, is that while this involves a change
to Washington, it does not really involve a change to God himself, but only a change in the relations Washington bears to him. 
And this kind of change does not require God to exist in time. 

Smith’s
response (through one of his dialogue’s characters) is to suggest that either
sort of change involves God existing in time, but he gives no argument for this
and it is not plausible.  Nor need one be
a theist to see this.  If I am thinking
about a Platonic Form or the number 14 at 2:30 pm but no longer thinking about
them an hour later, it is hardly plausible to say that the Platonic Form or the
number 14 have undergone a change and therefore exist in time.

Smith (or
his dialogue’s character) also neglects to consider the Thomistic position
that while the world bears a real relation to God, God does not bear a real
relation to the world.  Of course, Smith
would no doubt reject that view, but the point is that it is a well-known thesis
that would have obvious application here, so that for Smith to give his
character the last word without considering it seems a lapse.

I would also
say that the analogical use of theological terms and apophatic or negative
theology are absolutely crucial to a proper understanding of divine eternity,
yet are not considered in Smith’s discussion. 
As I have acknowledged, in discussing eternity it is difficult to avoid
all terms that ordinarily have temporal connotations.  For example, Boethius’ phrase “all at once”
would normally be used in contexts where we are talking about what happens at
some moment of time, and his talk of eternity as a “standing now” also deploys
a term with temporal connotations. 
However, the situation here is similar to the one we face when
attributing things like power, goodness, knowledge, and the like to God.  We are saying both that there is in God
something analogous to what we call
the now (or power, or goodness, or knowledge) in our case, but that it is not
exactly the same thing, and that it lacks all aspects concomitant with our
being changeable, corporeal, composite, and so on.

But such
deficiencies do not reflect any bad faith on Smith’s part, nor any failure to try
to engage with his opponents seriously, respectfully, and constructively.  His admirable approach to conducting the
debate between theism and atheism has one fewer representative, and he will be
missed.  My earnest prayer for this man
from whose work I have profited is that, through divine grace, he now comes to
know divine eternity more perfectly than any of us ever could in this life.

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