Abstract: How does God relate to time? How do we? Modern science and revelation offer distinctive and fascinating perspectives to these questions. Specifically, the physical mechanisms underlying time have doctrinal parallels, they appear to be operative at the Fall, and they correlate with several phenomena that make God’s mercy possible.
Time is clearly not our natural dimension … Whereas the bird is at home in the air, we are clearly not at home in time — because we belong to eternity! Time, as much as any one thing, whispers to us that we are strangers here. – Elder Neal A. Maxwell1
People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. – Albert Einstein2
Questions about time arise as soon as you begin reading the standard works. From the very first sentence, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen 1:1), we may ask, what is this beginning? If it was the moment of this earth’s creation, how could the “evening and the morning” be called the “first day” if the bodies by which “days” are defined, wouldn’t even be organized for four days (see Moses 2:14–19)? If, instead, this beginning refers to the singular event of the Big Bang, [Page 2]which is presumed to have created not only the universe but time itself, can it have a cause? Can causality — and with it, law, rationality, truth, or freewill — exist apart from time? And if these did have a beginning, must they have an end?3
Should these questions be settled, deeper theological ones appear. Specifically, how does God relate to time? The traditional view sees him as “infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting … unchangeable” (D&C 20:17); “self-existent”;4 and without even a “shadow of changing” (Mormon 9:9–10). His power is “without beginning of days or end of years” (D&C 84:17) and is dispensed according to his “foreknowledge of all things” (Alma 13:7–9). Yet almost in flat contradiction to this, we are told that God’s power is also wielded by faith,5 which Alma defines as “not to have a perfect knowledge of things” (Alma 32:21). Not only does this incompleteness require the temporalizing virtue of patience (see Ether 12:6), it lays bare the curious tension implied in God’s aim to “to bring to pass” our “eternal life,” as if constancy is founded on fundamental change (see Moses 1:39, Mosiah 27:25–26). But how can we ever truly become like him if it is not in his nature to become anything, but to always be? Moreover, why would an eternal God admit concepts like “beginning,” “before,” “after,” “patience,” “change,” “becoming,” or even “faith” or “agency,” if these very terms suggest realities that are contrary to his eternal nature? The fact is, God’s purposes are only meaningful if the reality of change is admitted, but his power is only reliable if it is undeviating. The idea that organizes these questions of divine dynamics into a clear narrative is time.
Discussions of time and timelessness — whether in nature, in God, or in ourselves — inevitably lead to confusion. Infinite regresses, singularities, [Page 3]and paradoxes arise; the terms used are ill-defined; and we clearly have a bias — like a fish to water, we are in time, we breathe it. This has not stopped philosophers, scientists, and theologians from discussing it, however. Aristotle’s formal relation of time to motion and change6 was largely carried forward in Newton’s somewhat intuitive formalization of “absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flow[ing] equably without relation to anything external” toward the future.7 Similarly, Augustine’s 4th century elaboration of Greek notions laid the foundation for what has become the traditional Christian intuition regarding divine timelessness.8
Recently, a parallel expansion of both scientific and philosophic time has reoccurred. Modern physics presents an unexpected picture of time at both the cosmological and microscopic scales. In the former, time is a dimension that combines almost indistinguishably with space to form a larger whole called spacetime. Rather unexpectedly, however, this spacetime stage on which events occur dynamically responds to the energy, motion, and light of the actors within it. In the latter, time’s flow, if it exists at all, can be viewed as an emergent property of microscopic systems that are themselves potentially timeless.9 At the same time, some philosophers have advanced a view of God as genuinely collaborative and responsive.10 Contrary to the traditional [Page 4]static view, he is open to the uncertainty, tenuousness, and change inherent in the human temporal experience. This implicitly assumes God shares at least some aspects of our temporal nature, including the limitations it imposes. While many Latter-day Saint thinkers agree with this view, many have challenged it as well.11
In either case, these questions take on particular import for Latter- day Saints for at least two reasons. First, Latter-day Saint doctrine asserts a material yet eternal God. Latter-day Saints therefore accept a special challenge to make sense of the dynamics of physical element in the context of supernatural truths — to reconcile spiritual realities with spacetime concepts. Second, Latter-day Saints take seriously the admonition to become like God, even seeing themselves as his literal offspring, sharing his divine nature and destiny. Joseph Smith taught, “If men do not comprehend the character of God [and this presumably includes his temporal nature], they do not comprehend themselves … It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of [Page 5]God.”12 More specifically, early Church teachings warned, “any rational and intelligent being” must have “a correct idea of [the] character, perfections, and attributes” of God in order to “exercise faith … unto life and salvation.”13 How, then, does the Latter-day Saint reconcile her real experience of inexorable time along with its attendant attributes of uncertainty, weakness, temporality, and decay with the eternal yet responsive character of God and, more significantly, with her own atemporal identity as his offspring? In other words, what role does physical time play in the Latter-day Saint account of the Fall, redemption, and exaltation of humanity?
Though many have written on this topic, it is difficult to marry modern spiritual and scientific insights in an accessible way.14 Doing so demands multiple and sometimes competing perspectives from philosophy, religion, and science while forcing us to reexamine basic assumptions in each that have long been taken for granted. As a result, discussions quickly become broad, speculative, and even uncomfortable.15 It is risky to associate transient science too closely with enduring doctrines — it not only undermines the circumspection that science seeks, but believers do not want faith cast aside when scientific winds shift, as they always do. Other difficulties are met when trying to place a metaphysic of timelessness into a logical sequence because the subject itself transcends linearity. For instance, beneath the approximate [Page 6]and necessarily linear language of this paper is a network of parallel but recurrent and contrary themes such as coherence and corruption, becoming and being, relativity and rationality, progression and return, causality and agency, mercy, and light.
Still, enduring insight can be gained despite the temporality of the tools. In particular, the Latter-day Saint view makes a compelling case that things temporary and temporal are not flaws but divine tools — often preparatory and merciful in nature — used by God to develop our identity as not just timeless but eternal beings (see Moses 1:39). To show this, we first lay out two competing views of time from Latter- day Saint scripture. Then, drawing on modern scientific perspectives, they are illustrated, justified, and related. This will be of special interest when considered in light of the Fall narrative, since many of the physical conditions and mechanisms needed to understand the emergence, effect, and ultimate transcendence over time have parallels and connections to the conditions necessary for and brought about in God’s plan of redemption (see Alma 42:13). Some experiences such as seership, prayer, and atonement will finally illustrate how God’s nature and our own interact in and out of time. In the end, God’s merciful purposes emerge and are clarified as an effectively timeless character of divine reality comes into view. In that picture we see ourselves as creatures swimming in both time and eternity.
Latter-day Saint scripture presents conflicting evidence regarding the temporal nature of God and, as we have said, Latter-day Saint thinkers have come down on both sides. Some interpretations suggest time exists on the level of “element” as described in D&C 93:33 — a fundamental component of reality, co-eternal with and uncreated by God. God dwells in time (he is Immanent) and thus works within strict temporal bounds. Other views see time as contingent, a property that only arises from the organization of timeless element.16 This places God outside and above time (he is Transcendent). Inasmuch as man is his offspring and ultimately shares in his nature, this also makes mortal time a basically [Page 7]exceptional experience. Let us explore these competing interpretations in more depth.
1. God is In Time and Bound by It
The Lord told Joseph Smith that all intelligent beings reckon time “according to the planet on which they reside” (D&C 130:4–5). On earth, for example, it is divided into days, months, and years based on the relation of the planet to its governing star. The fact that this reasoning is explicitly applied to “God’s time” (see v. 4) is consistent with Abraham’s report that God himself resides on a planet with particular astronomical features. Abraham 3:2–9 clearly implies that there is a “reckoning of the Lord’s time” and that in it, “one revolution was a day unto the Lord, after his manner of reckoning, it being one thousand years according to the time appointed unto that whereon thou standest” (v. 4). Furthermore, Kolob, the planet or star “nearest to the … residence of God,” is “last pertaining to the measurement of time” and “moveth more slow” (see facsimile 2, Fig. 1; Abr. 3:5,9). Thus, it appears that God does have a time associated with him, that it is determined by external factors and can be reckoned, but it is such that even prolonged and significant human events are only a “small moment” by comparison (see D&C 121:7).
In addition to these specific passages, there are also many implicit references to the divine’s deference to time. If gospel concepts are authentic, then the themes of creation, conversion, forgiveness, agency, faith, patience, and progression make a strong case for the ultimate temporality of God because they place the past and the future on very different footing — they all assume the dynamic evolution of one state into another. Furthermore, the Lord’s general use of language in scripture — not avoiding words such as “before,” “after,” “first,” “last,” “past,” etc. — implies a real temporal element in the experience of God and man.
2. God is Outside of Time and Beyond It
While D&C 130:4 declares that “the reckoning of God’s time, angel’s time, prophet’s time, and man’s time [is] according to the planet on which they reside” it also strongly challenges a traditional understanding of time by stating that “all things … are manifest, past, present, and future and are continually before the Lord” (v. 7). Indeed, all things of both lower and higher order kingdoms can be made known (v. 9–10). This reality seems to contradict the definition of time as linearly and inexorably accumulating with each successive pass of a planet around its governing star. Furthermore, inhabitants of particular planets — ones that are [Page 8]a “sanctified and immortal” “globe like a sea of glass and fire” (v. 9, 7) or possessors of particular devices called Urim and Thummim — can apparently view history and future as simultaneous (see Mosiah 8:13, 17; Ether 3:23–25; D&C 130:7). Without distinctions between what is past and what is future, this would suggest that time as we know it is an illusion.
Again, indirect evidence mounts with the usage of concepts such as foreknowledge, truth, omniscience, immortality, eternity, everlastingness, unchangeableness, being, and perfection. Each implies a state that exists without cessation and presumably without need or possibility of change or increase.
God as Both Temporal and Eternal
While it is natural to consider these options as mutually exclusive, it is also possible to marry them. Before speculating as to how this can be done, it may be useful to lay a conceptual framework to prepare our minds for the union. To do this, we briefly consider the Plan, the Principles, and the Presence of God.
Latter-day Saint doctrine presents God’s plan as cyclic: man leaves his heavenly home to dwell in the immortal yet temporarily paradisiacal state of Eden, corruption and death enter via the Fall, and mortality begins. At the “meridian of time” (Moses 6:62), a Savior intervenes, creating an inflection point. Eventually, by death, man leaves the world only to be reborn in the resurrection as a newly embodied spirit, incorruptible and inhabiting a temporary millennial paradise. Eventually, his return is complete as he reenters his Father’s presence. In this sense, the course of the Lord is “one eternal round” (D&C 3:2; 35:1).17 But in addition to its cyclic nature, a doctrine of progression or becoming is also strongly evident — upon returning, man is not only near to but now also similar to God. He is now enabled to begin the cycle again with his own offspring (see D&C 84:35–38; 132:19–20), for he has [Page 9]gained not only the capacity for eternal life, but also for “eternal lives” (see D&C 132:24, 55). Thus, even while returning, man progresses along a cumulative, linear path.
The union of these two patterns — progression and return — is familiar to the Latter-day Saint mind, even if not fully understood. Planets make unending orbits, yet they grow old with age. Similarly, man becomes new even as he completes a repetitive course of return. Schematically, then, the human orbit of divine potential is a helix winding ‘round and ‘round even while it ascends. Alternatively, the discrepancy can be resolved as one of scale: like the earth’s surface, time appears flat despite its rounded nature only because our view is limited. In this way, mortal time is the linear unfolding of one tiny segment of one eternal cycle.
Among the indispensable principles God honors are the twin virtues of Justice and Mercy. Conceived loosely as the inevitable operation of eternal laws and the limited circumvention of these laws respectively, these appear to be opposites. However, taken together — and they must be taken together — they give another metaphor for how time and timelessness can be united in God’s character.
Alma articulates their relationship to his son, Corianton. Justice continually “executeth the law” while Mercy “appease[s] the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (see Alma 42:13–15, 22). In other words, mercy can operate only in and emerge only from a more fundamental background of eternal justice, not in violation of it — “If so, God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:13, 25). If the methodical and inevitable operation of eternal law can be correlated with timelessness and the properties of mercy with time (we argue for these correlations later), then this presents a framework for gathering the two concepts into one: though perhaps morally primary, Mercy (time) is metaphysically secondary since it emerges from and must be consistent with Justice (timelessness).
Perhaps the most compelling anecdotal evidence that God can be both temporal and timeless stems from an analogy with his presence. The Restored Church of Jesus Christ uniquely claims that God is both embodied and omnipresent. That is, his person has a specific and well-defined spatial location, and yet Latter-day Saints also comfortably claim that he is everywhere present, aware, and active by means of his Spirit. [Page 10]But nature has forced our hand: modern scientists must treat time and space on equal footing. The result is that many principles and arguments regarding space have an analogy in time.18 Hence, it is very reasonable to assume that if God can occupy a specific spatial location and yet fill all of space by means of his Spirit, he can equally occupy a specific moment while being in and through all times. This simply embraces the dual spatiotemporal meaning of the term omnipresent — he is “present” in terms of being here as well as in terms of being now.
“What then is time?” Augustine famously asked. “If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.”19 This confusion, likely resulting from a messy attempt to unify views (1) and (2) above, can be mitigated if it is realized that (1) defines time only in terms of regular laws and periodic events (i.e. planetary or other motions), whereas the intuitive difficulties with (2) arise from defining a unique temporal direction, one in which time inexorably flows only from past to future, not vice versa. The first view is merely the effect of any precise and orderly process as it evolves according to fixed laws; the second, as we will see, is the natural result when these laws operate in complex and uncorrelated systems. A failure to distinguish these physical differences is perhaps the source of much historical confusion.
Greater scientific sophistication has clarified the issues, but it has also made singular definitions of time harder to come by. In his book From Eternity to Here, cosmologist Sean Carroll outlines two relevant and common definitions.20 In the first, time is seen in terms of the duration of a process as measured by the relative motions and changes [Page 11]in other real processes such as orbital motions in planets or crystal vibrations in an electronic stopwatch. It is in this sense that Galileo was able to formulate tractable laws of motion before precise clocks existed — he simply compared changes in one part of the universe to changes in another labeled “clock” (In his case, the motion of a ball was tracked using the periodic beats of his heart or the steady accumulation of water in a nearby bucket). The parameter t that litters physics equations today is merely an artifact of this artificial division of the world into “timer” and “timed” because it summarizes, in a single numeric label, the cadence of the “clock” (i.e. some other system) without burdening us with its details. The implication, however, is fascinating: t could be removed if these divisions were mended!21 Since these relative changes are presumed to occur according to fixed laws, in this sense time is a fundamental expression of the timeless laws of nature and the relational aspects of its basic constituents (see D&C 88:34–43) and is grounded in precision, order, and wholeness. Furthermore, the characterization of states as either past or future is arbitrary, since the whole of events are, as C.S. Lewis put it, at once “interlocked” by laws. Going from one to the other is more nearly an inevitable logical step than an unanticipated creation. This leads many to confuse such evolution with timelessness itself. We will call this effective timelessness Periodic Time.
But time is not just experienced as the fact of change. As Carroll discusses in his second definition, it is also widely correlated with the quality of those changes. Time is not just a static number line with arbitrary, albeit periodic, tick marks and labels; the labels are arranged in ascending order. In experience, this manifests as a temporal direction, known in physics as the Arrow of Time, which points to the future and leaves the past irretrievably behind. This steady flow of events toward the future is a property, as we will see, that emerges from the complexity and incoherence of systems. On the everyday scale, it stems from dissipation and loss. This is frequently called Thermodynamic Time.22
[Page 12]Separating these two times in principle, even though they are inextricable in practice, is possible and important. We can easily imagine a pendulum swinging without dissipation, but dissipation cannot occur without swinging. In a similar way, Periodic Time and Thermodynamic Time do not have equal ontological status: like motion and dissipation, or Justice and Mercy, the latter emerges from and relies upon the former. Recognizing this makes it possible to claim that a divine nature is at once both temporal and (effectively) timeless — options (1) and (2) above both hold but in different senses or on different scales. While a clumsy empiricism conflates the two, being careful about the scientific mechanisms of both dynamics and dissipation elucidates their separate physical origins and even gives a foretaste of the merciful purposes in this dual nature.
The Science of Time
All intelligent beings reckon their temporal experience “according to the planet on which they reside” (D&C 130:4–5). In naive astronomical terms this is straightforward: our experience is divided into days, months, and years based on the motion of our planet relative to its starry heavens. But counting the days is far less than creating them; tick marks don’t make time flow. Section 88 makes clear that these heavenly bodies make their eternal rounds, giving “light to each other in their times and in their seasons, in their minutes, in their hours, in their days, in their weeks, in their months, in their years.” They share light. More than merely providing the means to count time, this light apparently “giveth life to all things [and] is the law by which all things are governed” (D&C 88:7– 13, 44–45). In some sense, shared light creates time.
To see this, consider the light of our sun. It shines in periodic cycles — days and nights, summers and winters — to different regions of the earth. Weather patterns, water cycles, and ocean currents are driven by it; plants are nourished and blossom by it; animals sleep, work, and self-regulate by it. Even microscopic geological, chemical, and biological processes are affected.23 In fact, chronobiological studies show that sunlight is the [Page 13]principle determinant of the human sense of time.24 Cued by light and proceeding by fixed laws, each individual cycle fits together in a complex interlocking hierarchy of biochemical rhythms — like planetary tracks across the sky or the gears of a clock — causing “our minds [to] construct the past, present, and future … sometimes [getting] it badly wrong.”25 For instance, when isolated from external time cues (sunlight), human systems can lose their tempo, like an orchestra playing without a conductor. Though each performer follows exact prescriptions under his or her own power, lack of coordination creates disharmony. In humans, this manifests in an altered sense of duration, simultaneity, sequence, memory, anticipation, and even self. Conversely, under the right conditions (e.g. regular days and nights) this discord can be lessened or even avoided. Hence, not only are basic natural traits orchestrated by laws, they are also cued by light. In fact, when properly coupled, collections of timekeepers such as pendulum clocks, electronic oscillators, swarms of pulsing lightning bugs, or human biorhythms can pull each other out of irregularity and into an undiminished synchronicity — the pull of dissipation can be transcended. Just as Thermodynamic Time emerges from Periodic Time, it also can dissolve back into it as systems achieve unity.26 To see how this is, we need to understand the underlying physical laws regarding motion and thermodynamics.
Two Views of Periodic Time
Latter-day Saints have an extraordinary amount of scripture regarding the fundamental laws of creation. Revelation to Joseph Smith states, “all kingdoms have a law given,” these laws are “irrevocably decreed” with [Page 14]“certain bounds … and conditions,” and “that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same.” Furthermore, a law is given “unto all things, by which they move in their times and seasons; and their courses are fixed” (see D&C 88:34–39; 130:20– 21). In its attempt to discover and expound these immutable laws, physics offers two equally valid, somewhat opposed, but complementary theories.
Einstein’s theory of relativity explains the observed fact that duration (Periodic Time) is a personal notion dependent both on one’s motion and environment. Moving clocks run slower, as do clocks near large planets or stars. In fact, if one were to observe a clock moving at the speed of light or resting at the event horizon of a black hole, the interval between tick and tock would be infinite — its time would stand still.27 Although this relativity is consistent with passages such as D&C 130:4– 5, it is still surprising. This is in part because it is not merely a perceptual illusion. For a given observer, any dynamic process — whether swings of a pendulum, vibrations of a crystal, or the beating of a heart — will slow in these circumstances because the laws of physics themselves operate at a slowed pace. Furthermore, while one observer might experience one event before another, observers with different speeds or locations could experience the pair as simultaneous or even reversed in order. While this both preserves and constrains our notions of causality,28 it is important to recognize that “it is [still] philosophically possible,” according to Latter-day Saint astronomer J. Ward Moody, “to assign every instant of time [not necessarily every pair of instants] as being ‘now’ to someone … ‘now’ is not unique.” Continuing his logic: “If every point of time can be called ‘now’ according to some perspective, then the entire extent of time must already be created” in much the same way that every signpost on a journey exists regardless of whether the traveler is currently passing by it. “Therefore all time — and with it, all past, present, and future [Page 15]— must already exist.”29 Thus, in a common scientific view, time is not an absolute external condition imposed upon nature. Rather, it is only a malleable part of a larger, fixed “block universe” — an unchanging block of spacetime — and each of us affect it by the way we inhabit it.30
Periodic time is also seen to have an elusive character when considered at the microscopic, or quantum, scale. As expressed in the famous Uncertainty Principle, there is a well-known but still mysterious reciprocal ambiguity in the duration and energy of all processes that contributes to the fact that quantum laws are only probabilistic: they predict only the distribution of results from a large number of “identical” trials, not the individual trials themselves.31 But the resulting patterns show a curious coordination — each individual must anticipate and accommodate the behavior of its cohort in order for the predicted pattern to obtain. When all trials occur close together, this is not too surprising — after all, a teacher giving an exam to a large group of students works very hard to avoid “undesirable coordination” (i.e. suspiciously matching answers). What is significant in the quantum case however, is that even if the individual trials are taken one-by-one — even hours apart — the same coordination appears!32 More to the point, what if a teacher went [Page 16]so far as to offer each student an exam on different days with a rubric not yet set — only after the exam-taking process does she decide whether she will grade only odd-numbered questions or every fifth question, etc. This is a version of what physicists call a “delayed choice” experiment. Even in these cases — cases for which the experimental conditions are not fully set until some time after the physical system has been probed — the time of the decision doesn’t matter! Coordination persists. Of course, students may talk outside the classroom, but how do they account for their teacher’s late decision at the time of the exam? It is as if either the students know what the teacher will choose beforehand, or the teacher’s choice can reconfigure the past collusion of the students!
In addition to microscopic co-located events separated in time, correlations can also occur between simultaneous events separated in space. This sort of coupling can result when particles are specially prepared in what is called an entangled state. Continuing the analogy, if two “entangled” students take an exam at the same time but on distant campuses their results are correlated. Even with a delayed choice such as suddenly changing the exam conditions, the distant student will be seen to instantaneously respond to the change! This “action at a distance” was famously called “spooky” by Einstein because it seemed to violate the last vestige of causality that relativity theory had so subtly preserved: it manifests instantaneously, no matter the distance or how late in the process the causal decision is made. Later work by John Bell and others has confirmed that holding to the familiar idea of locally causal determinism has serious consequences.33 Therefore, giving a coherent [Page 17]physical narrative of quantum phenomena has led to the proposal of some decidedly atemporal mechanisms.34 Time simply does not appear to be a well-defined or absolute constraint on the most fundamental scale, even when involving free choices.
Periodic Time as Timelessness
Does time then exist? Redemptive themes in the Christian message suggest the fundamental reality of and accessibility to change — a fact we call mercy — but even this must “appease the demands of justice [eternal laws], that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15). Ironically, this appeasement itself yields a sort of timelessness because “that which is governed by law is also preserved by law” (D&C 88:34). Thus, the precision and immutability of eternal law allows for or even causes a blurring of the distinction between Periodic Time and what many identify as timelessness.35
[Page 18]This equivocation may seem suspect; it certainly has difficulties. Much of this, however, is due to an innate human bias: all mortal experience is temporal, making it difficult even to imagine the possibility of anything to the contrary. Yet it can be simply illustrated by imagining an isolated, rotating sphere. How does even a careful observer know it is rotating? Usually this can be inferred from features that periodically pass through her field of view. But if the sphere is truly symmetric, it has no distinguishing features. This produces a motion that is confused with stillness. Only if the sphere were asymmetric — having a tiny pockmark on one side, for instance — would the detection of time’s passage be possible (see Alma 40:8).
Pressing further, we can see that even this conclusion is strained: while marking revolutions, the pockmark does not distinguish them — its first sighting is equivalent to its five-hundredth. Even with a reckoning provided, there is nothing to distinguish what is past from what is future. This makes even measurement impossible.36 Only if the imperfect sphere were not isolated, such as by including messy interactions with air or with a surface, would it show a temporal preference — it would grind to a halt. Thus, the mere presence of time and its past-future distinction are separate but related issues. Though clearly significant to human experience, the latter apparently depends keenly not just on the absence of symmetry but on interactions with a complex environment. This is well understood in the field of Thermodynamics.
Thermodynamic Time Emerges
Periodic time is easily conflated with timelessness in speech, thought, and analysis because “the deep down microscopic rules of nature,” as Carroll calls them, are symmetric with respect to time-reversal.37
[Page 19]The underlying laws of nature do not pick out a preferred direction of time, any more than they pick out a preferred direction in space … Rather, like the up/down orientation space picked out by Earth, the preferred direction of time is also a consequence of features of our environment … That distinction between the fixedness of the past and the malleability of the future is nowhere to be found in the known laws of physics. The deep down microscopic rules of nature run equally well forward or backward in time from any given situation.38
If this symmetry held at the human level rather than just “deep down,” the future would be as real as the present, death could precede birth, and memory would be indistinguishable from anticipation. While challenging us to formulate notions of free will, causality, and correlation more carefully, these are, interestingly, distinctions that prophetic language seems to often neglect (see Mosiah 3:13; 16:6–7; Jarom 1:11).
This can be illustrated using billiard balls. If one were to watch a movie of two simple and isolated billiard balls colliding, there would be no physical way of distinguishing whether the movie was played forward or in reverse because the laws of physics are satisfied either way — in either case two balls move into the frame, collide, change direction and speed in regular ways, and move out of the frame. However, if the movie consisted of many billiard balls (i.e., not simple) on green felt (i.e., not isolated) there would be a difference. In one temporal direction, a neatly racked set of balls is left in a disorganized configuration, whereas in the other, the disorganized configuration spontaneously pulls together into a racked pattern with only a single ball emerging into the gentle catch of a yielding cue stick. In both cases the balls are perfectly law-abiding — the motion, energy, and forces of each is consistent with known laws. However, in closed systems the combinations of motion, energy, and forces required by the whole to achieve the second result are statistically impossible, despite being physically allowed. This is because with such a complex system and without any outside influences directing traffic, there are overwhelmingly more roads that lead to disorder than to order, even if the roads are two-way streets.
On the macroscopic scale, this inevitable loss of order gives the impression that events are inevitably marching toward something (disorder). However, this is just the natural result when many [Page 20]symmetrically interlocked microscopic events evolve according to prescribed and unchanging laws. The irreversible losses are interpreted by mortal minds as future-flowing (Thermodynamic) time. In human molecules, cells, and tissues, the mounting decay particularly manifests not only as aging and death but also as the mental capacity to remember only the past and exercise volition concerning the future.39
Coherence and Decoherence
This description suggests that immortality could be achieved with complete isolation. Only if absolutely cut off from any environmental influence could a neatly racked billiard table remain so forever. In principle, even the slightest vibration or fall of a dust particle could break the order. Similarly, at the atomic level, any environmental disturbance — whether a single particle of light or even a tiny amount of heat (random microscopic motion) — could be enough to deflect a lone particle out of its prescribed place. As with billiard balls (who themselves are complex collections of many particles), this can set off a domino effect leading to the loss of coherent patterns or correlations in the same way that a gentle rain can obscure the symmetry of ripples produced by a stone dropped in a pond. Physicists call this process decoherence.
From either a physical or soteriological perspective, however, isolation is not only undesirable, it is impossible. Even when the proverbial billiard room of the atomic world is walled-off, cooled, darkened, suspended, and evacuated, something seething remains. A space once regarded as absolutely empty, still, and cold is, in fact, irreducibly filled with roiling energy, particles, and fields. As a shifting stage for existence, this new “vacuum” prohibits isolation. Instead, it guarantees a degree of restlessness at the smallest scales that may account for time’s arrow, because even orderly systems are quickly rattled loose by the subtle yet constant bombardment of something within which they are inevitably immersed.
Curiously, this universal field also plays a physical role analogous to the spiritual one filled by the Light of Christ — it “proceedeth forth [from our Creator] to fill the immensity of space” and is “above,” “in,” [Page 21]“through,” and “round about all things.” More significantly, both have been associated with light and heat.40 Taking this loose association seriously, we may speculate as to one way in which the Light of Christ “giveth [at least a rudimentary] life to all things” and is a basic “law by which all things are governed” (D&C 88:12–13, 41): like thermal or quantum fluctuations, it may provide a gentle stirring in all things — a sacred imprecision — that makes their future different from their past. Like rolling waters seeking their level (see D&C 121:33) or sunlight dispersing from an organized sphere “to fill the immensity of space,” this asymmetry seems to leave the principles of life, growth, and order in its wake. But how is it done?
While preventing the isolation that would nominally save us from the ills of Thermodynamic Time, quantum laws ironically (and the Light of Christ unsurprisingly) may also provide a way to overcome its ravages. Once opened to others around them, systems don’t just lose their self- coherence, they become increasingly connected with their environment — ripples on a pond do lose their pristine circularity in the rain, but the new pattern more fully reflects the atmospheric whole.41 When this happens, spontaneous [Page 22]self-organization is possible.42 Even if initially out of sync, two pendulum clocks can eventually and naturally come to swing in unison because they hang on a shared wall.43 Distant particles can display perfectly coordinated properties if properly prepared and coupled. When conditions are right, entangled systems can actively pull each other out of chaos and into unison — even across time and space — spontaneously overcoming the natural but degrading march towards disorder.
As one of many examples, consider the phenomenon of superconductivity. Under normal conditions, a flowing electrical current will quickly diminish due to the resistance that stems from the decohering influence of the metal nuclei through which the electrons must clumsily flow. This is often overcome by providing a power source such as a battery. However, in certain materials and at sufficiently low temperatures, the flowing electrons couple, the two acting as a whole. In this special state, resistance vanishes! Electrical current can flow endlessly, without loss and without a power supply.44 Each pass around the circuit marks the passage of (periodic) time — motion happens — but no degradation occurs; the last cycle is indistinguishable from the first. Is it too much to wonder about the possibility of a similar potential for the quantum matter of which we ourselves are made?
Our Fall into Time
The scientific account of the onset of temporality is mirrored by a corresponding doctrinal one. The scriptures indicate that time as we know it became identified with earthly experience at the Fall of Adam. Lehi tells us [Page 23]that while in the pure paradise of Eden, “all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end” (2 Nephi 2:22). This is not to say that time (in a periodic sense) didn’t exist — planets had their motions, light shined in patterned ways, laws operated — but the organization and environment was such that things avoided decay. Whether in the thermodynamic act of metabolizing fruit or in his expulsion from the edifying environment of Eden, Adam’s Fall caused his system to become corruptible (i.e. subject to decoherence).45 This raised the need to “put on incorruption” again, otherwise his flesh would “[lay] down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more” (2 Nephi 9:7).
Alma’s epistle to Corianton further tells us that these changes not only cut man off from God spiritually but “temporally” as well (see Alma 42:7). Many take this to mean that man was spatially separated from God’s divine presence and placed on this earth, but “temporally” refers directly to time.46 Thus, a literal reading suggests Adam was removed from an experience of time that he shared with God and was placed in one that was in some way incommensurate with his eternal nature. This is supported by Alma’s summary, “And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man” (Alma 42:4). To emphasize that this new order was [Page 24]not created ex nihilo but was merely an extension or adaptation of an already extant dynamic (Periodic Time), Lehi alternatively writes that time was “prolonged” or “lengthened” (see also 2 Nephi 2:21).47
As we have seen however, separations in time are often representative of separations in space. Some early leaders of the Church taught that coincident with Adam’s fall, the Earth literally fell from its birthplace near Kolob to its present place in the solar system, thus obtaining a new reckoning (see Abr. 5:13).48 Though far-fetched by modern scientific standards,49 if true, the implications of this are not only significant but remarkably consistent with the account we have developed so far. Removing the earth from the Kolobian environment in which it was first formed would bathe it instead in the presumably coarser solar gravity and radiation. With the fixed rules of relativity and quantum mechanics, this new “glory” could dilate and decohere Edenic systems at a much different rate. More than mere accounting, this would change the clocks themselves (altering decay rates and transition probabilities) and potentially wash away the subtle correlations that unite and sustain otherwise decaying [Page 25]bodies, thus creating a new mortal estate. Whatever the actual processes during the Fall, the net result is that all individual bodies — those of people organized into families, those of particles organized into tissues — tend toward a state of ultimate disorder and decay; the organizations of which they are constituents approach dissolution. Interestingly, inasmuch as these bodies live a celestial law — by Latter-day Saint standards one espousing purity and consecration, leading to harmony and oneness — these degrading effects would presumably cease, making thermodynamic “time no longer” (see D&C 88:21–32, 110).
It is significant, then, that this temporalizing process was not just allowed but actively preserved in the Fall. After partaking of the Tree of Knowledge, the Lord was quick to block the way to the opposing tree “lest [Adam] should put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever.” Importantly, we are also told why: “If Adam had put forth his hand immediately, and partaken of the tree of life, he would have lived forever [in an unchanging yet corrupted state], according to the word of God, having no space [time] for repentance” (Alma 42:3, 5). Thus, because of the introduction of death and the time that carries us toward it, our state “became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless [timeless] state which has been spoken of by us, which is after the resurrection of the dead” (Alma 12:24, see 21–27). In other words, along with its limitations, (Thermodynamic) time brings opportunities.
Merciful Consequences of Time
Amidst its messiness, disorder, forgetfulness, weakness, and limitation, Thermodynamic Time brings with it two important possibilities: development and “ends.” These prepare and provide for other “beginnings” vital to the Christian dynamic such as repentance, rebirth, and becoming a new creature. This makes sense since only in a world of “ends” and “beginnings” are changes allowed that go beyond just the operation of impassionate and timeless law. To illustrate, let’s consider how mortal time expands freewill to become what is an otherwise latent moral agency.
Latter-day Saint understanding suggests that moral agency requires three elements: (1) an ontological structure of law in nature must exist that establishes genuine alternatives as the sure consequences of particular actions; (2) finite minds must be able to learn and understand so that it is possible for them to comprehend the actual nature of these alternatives; [Page 26]and (3) the mere freedom to act must exist.50 While prelapsarian man possessed this raw ability (3), he may have lacked a full agency because one or both of the first two conditions remained unsatisfied.51 The emergence of linear time facilitates the satisfaction of the first two conditions.
1. Causality, Predictability, and Classicality
To see how mortal time could have established (1), consider decoherence. While not knowing the precise conditions surrounding the Fall, we know different environments can cause matter to display very different — sometimes abruptly different — features. To be sure, systems could evolve faster or slower, but more importantly, the character of physical law can also significantly change. Just as a slight change in temperature causes liquid water to become solid — the former described by complex fluid dynamics, the latter a block whose motion is much simpler — paradisiacal, immortal, atemporal creation could have crystalized into a more concrete, causal, and determinate state simply because of the environment into which it was then placed.
As we have seen, isolated microscopic systems can evolve as if in many states at once; these possibilities can interfere, correlations can entangle widely separated bodies, and observations are constrained by irremovable uncertainties. But these traits would limit agency because by them, individual mortal agents can’t unambiguously predict the consequences of their actions. By contrast, in the everyday (Newtonian) world, objects have a definite state, they concretely exist, reductionism is [Page 27]an adequate approximation, and properties are reasonably unambiguous. How can this be? What makes the indeterminate and connected order causal and bite-sized? Decoherence — the same process that contributes to Thermodynamic Time — is generally regarded as the mechanism by which this quantum-to-classical transition is achieved. When it is included in scientific models, persistent paradoxes melt away, leaving an everyday world that is the well-defined, causally determinate, sensible one of which we are so fond. A world emerges in which distinct alternatives actually and recognizably exist.52 This mimics Lehi’s language as he also derives agency from the fall of nature: all things were a metaphysical “compound in one,” until temporality removed superpositions of right with wrong, or “sense” with “insensibility,” enabling us to be “enticed by the one or the other.” By this, he says, “the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself” (2 Nephi 2:11, 16).
2. Logic, Learning, and Rationality
Metaphysical distinctness allows an epistemic clarity that makes rational thought and learning possible in finite minds, satisfying condition (2) for moral agency. This is because the linearity imposed by the Arrow of Time places certain realities in order — or at least forces us to comprehend them one-by-one — so the mind is led along a sequential path (experienced in time as logic) that makes the conclusions compelling. Thus, although objects and ideas may exist in a web of somewhat symmetrically interlocked being, it is natural to speak more linearly of a “chain” of reasoning that terminates in a conclusion that “follows.”53
[Page 28]To illustrate, imagine doing a puzzle. Can one complete it by simply opening the box and looking at the pieces? Probably not. Rather, a common approach is to create a space on which to spread out the pieces such that no two are interfering or overlapping each other. Only then will the solver comprehend the task and execute it rationally, or deliberately. In a similar way, can one do a puzzle without spreading it out in time? If it weren’t for the sequential nature of forward- flowing time, the realization of the end result would be clouded by the simultaneous confusion of the beginning with the errors of the middle, all present in one complex but “eternal now.” For a god, presumably, this is unproblematic, but for creatures of finite capacity, this would not only disorient but also destroy. In this state, Lehi argues, we would not experience joy or pain, neither “happiness nor misery … wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of our creation” (2 Nephi 2:11–12). Thus the injunction to take everything “in order,” “line upon line, precept upon precept” (Mosiah 4:27; 2 Nephi 28:30), to continue from “grace to grace” (D&C 93:13), is not merely an ethical maxim but a rational, or even metaphysical, imperative. Milk simply cannot come before meat if there is no “before.”
This has at least two important implications for our learning and growth as agents. First, tasks are not only more digestible in this way but also less threatening. With temporality we can “learn from [our] experience without being condemned by it,” because change and recovery is possible.54 It literally gives us time to learn, a “space for repentance” (Alma 42:2–5), and prepares the mind for and even necessitates that mental exertion toward the future that is faith.55 Second, seeing how time enables rational thought helps us appreciate what might be characterized as irrational yet clear cognitive moments. Just as learning “by study” requires time to sort through and assemble the jumbled mess of concepts presented by experience, learning “also by faith,” or by revelation (see D&C 88:118), can allow one to comprehend complex ideas as a whole in an instant. Joseph Smith described this as receiving “sudden strokes of ideas” as “pure intelligence flow[s] into you,”56 a seemingly time- independent process. It is from these “sudden strokes of ideas” that the rational sequence of temporal articulation often grows. C.S. Lewis explained this saying, “something beyond Nature [beyond that which is bound by spacetime] operates when we reason … Each [human mind] [Page 29]has its tap-root in an eternal, self-existent, rational Being, whom we call God.” In this way, “[our] rationality [even while playing out in time] is the little telltale rift in Nature which shows that there is something beyond or behind her.”57
So authentic, in fact, is our need for temporal sequence and so real the (effectively) timeless perspective of the Divine, that even God recognizes a need to navigate the differences. Doctrine and Covenants 29:31–35 states that “all things,” including man, are created “both spiritual and temporal,” but the spiritual (atemporal) is more fundamental (see v. 34). The Lord “[speaks] unto [us] that [we] may naturally understand; but unto [him his] works have no end, neither beginning; but it is given unto [us in these terms] that [we] may understand” (see also 50:10–12). Hence, the temporal language of God to us may be interpreted as merely a merciful convenience, not an expression of his limitation but of his accommodation of ours. In this way, God further facilitates the agency of man, for he provides for our preparation, pondering, learning, proving, and most importantly repentance, none of which could occur in the Garden of Eden as it was (see 2 Nephi 2:22–23, 27).
Given that mortal minds operate vitally on temporal sequence, it is expected that questioning time will be difficult, even irrational. But in these cases, especially in discussing the nature of God, it seems very plausible that it is not the premises that fail as much as our own mental capacity for making sense.
God’s Nature and Ours
To illustrate the implications of the view proposed here, consider the famous philosophical question, Can God know the future? If he does, many argue we cannot be truly free (fatalism). Conversely, if we are truly free, God cannot know all future with absolute, specific foreknowledge (incompatibilism; the position that such knowledge is consistent with free will is compatibilism).58 In addressing this question, we’ll assume God interacts with time in a dual manner (as do we) but because he is [Page 30]pure and incorruptible, at least part of that interaction — specifically the part that distinguishes past from future — is very different from ours. Also, and importantly, we must take special care due to the fact that because time is necessary for rational thought, there will be no purely rational arguments (even here) that can unambiguously discuss time (see Isaiah 55:8–9). The failure of compatibilist arguments, therefore, may not be a failure of compatibilist doctrine but only of our ability to construct arguments independent of uni-directional, linear time. For instance, the formulation “Can God know what I will freely choose before I choose it?” assumes a posture with respect to time that begs the question — invoking foreknowledge at all biases the discussion — because it assumes the term “before” has a singular meaning.59
Without clarity on these subtle points, there has been some ambiguity on the question of divine knowledge in Latter-day Saint theology.60 Some have suggested that God’s knowledge is merely a function of his familiarity with his children,61 and some have disagreed.62 Many [Page 31]Latter-day Saint incompatibilists align themselves with Process or Open theology as advanced by Whitehead or Pinnock respectively. Of Open Theology Pinnock writes:
Though we wither and die, God abides and is not threatened or undone by time. We need an understanding of God’s eternity that does not cancel or annihilate time but stands in a positive relation to it … When I say God is eternal I mean that God transcends our experience of time, is immune from the ravages of time.
To explain he then continues,
Philosophically speaking, if choices are real and freedom significant, future decisions cannot be exhaustively foreknown … the future is not fixed like the past, which can be known completely. The future does not yet exist … Future decisions cannot in every way be foreknown, because they have not yet been made. God knows everything that can be known — but God’s foreknowledge does not include the undecided.63
As a solution, Pinnock goes on to propose that God, like a wise (and perfect) parent, knows us intimately and how we are likely to react in any given situation and He genuinely reacts himself. He does not foreknow our choices any more than our mortal parents do, but He handles them with wisdom and grace when they occur.
While Pinnock’s first sentiment above is reflective of and even calls for the dual definitions of time we have developed here, the conclusions drawn in the second quotation equivocate on these definitions and exclusively emphasize the mortal and asymmetric perspective that “the [Page 32]future does not yet exist” (despite Moody’s suggestions to the contrary). Openness theology thus fails to recognize that the “distinction between the fixedness of the past and the malleability of the future is nowhere to be found in the known laws of physics,” as Carroll stated. It is only an emergent property of something more timeless. This oversight biases the conclusion. Beyond these philosophical technicalities, this approach preserves agency only by interpreting God’s knowledge as that of a mortal chess master: his victory is statistically certain because of perfect strategy, familiarity, and crises management skills, not knowledge “of things as they really will be” (see Jacob 4:13; D&C 93:24).64
While the incompatibilist answer is common among Latter-day Saints who rationalize God’s knowledge, it is not a necessary conclusion. There are instead several reasons to accept the compatibilist view. To begin, one need not presuppose an asymmetry to time that is not forced upon us either scripturally or scientifically. It appears to be only a function of our local experience and grammar, not of fundamental reality. Like the blind violinist who “sees” the curves of his instrument with his hand sequentially and who cannot anticipate what comes next or even conceive of color, we see the course of our lives unfold along a directed timeline and cannot conceive of something to the contrary. God, on the other hand, has developed the power to “open his eyes,” taking in the whole of the violin at once — neck, body, and strings in an orchestration of color. He comprehends the curves, the context, and the player at once.65
This view is also supported by the scriptural distinction of prophet from seer, a distinction rarely found in the relevant literature but uniquely [Page 33]developed in Latter-day Saint restoration thought.66 By definition, seers, including God, actually see events. Their experience appears to be visual, not just vague, implicit, or manufactured abstractions. Perhaps this is why Limhi states that “a seer is greater than a prophet” — in prophecy, the latter declare contingencies based upon past and present circumstances while the former possess a “high gift from God,” being able to “look” and
know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them [seers] shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known. (Mosiah 8:13–17)
Accordingly, the Brother of Jared was given two stones and a pair of spectacles, the Urim and Thummim, that would “magnify to the eyes of men” all the Lord desired to reveal such as, in his case, “all the inhabitants of the earth which had been, and also all that would be … even unto the ends of the earth” (Ether 3:23–25). The receipt of a similar device enabled Abraham to see the stars from the least to the greatest, each with their specific times and seasons, names and orders (see Abraham 3). Joseph translated ancient records by looking at or through stones, enhancing what must have been a visual experience. Finally, those who inherit God’s presence will dwell on a planet that is itself a Urim and Thummim giving them vision of “inferior kingdoms” and will receive a small white stone by which they can “see all things pertaining to a kingdom of a higher order” (D&C 130:4–11).67
Visions offered by the seeric gift can also contain amazing resolution. In addition to the cases just cited, Isaiah (and Nephi) report the experience of Martin Harris and Charles Anthon with stunning specificity (see 2 Nephi 27), the fall of a sparrow or hair of the head is not unnoticed (see Matt. 10:29–31), and Nephi predicts the details of a crime scene and a subsequent interrogation with an accuracy that is apparently legally binding (see Helaman 8–9). Likewise, when Moses spoke with the Lord, he
[Page 34]cast his eyes and beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, discerning it by the spirit of God. And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not; and he discerned them by the spirit of God. (Moses 1:27–28)
As with the Brother of Jared, Isaiah, Nephi, or Moses, Latter-day Saints claim that “if [a man] believe[s] in [Jesus Christ] that he could show unto him all things — it should be shown unto him; therefore the Lord could not withhold anything from him, for he [would know] that the Lord could show him all things” (Ether 3:26). Though certainly not definitive, these passages suggest a more stable scriptural basis for the absolute and specific knowledge of God than is recognized in traditional arguments.68
C.S. Lewis articulates a compatibilist view as it relates to freewill, petitionary prayer, and providence. To “correct the admittedly false picture of Providence” as involving a clockmaker God who determines all events both evil and good at the outset by setting things in motion, Lewis says
It is probable that Nature is not really in Time [as several physicists suggest] and almost certain that God is not. Time is probably (like perspective) the mode of our perception. There is therefore in reality no question of God’s at one point in time . . . adapting the material history of the universe in advance to free acts which you or I are to perform at a later point in Time. To him all the physical events and all human acts are present in an eternal Now.
To illustrate the reconciliation this idea offers, Lewis discusses an instance of prayer, while taking care to keep separate time as the inevitable action of law from time as a past-present distinction.
Most of our prayers if fully analysed, ask either for a miracle or for events whose foundation will have to have been laid before I was born, indeed, laid when the universe began. But then to God [Page 35](though not to me) I and the prayer I make in 1945 were just as much present at the creation of the world as they are now and will be a million years hence. God’s creative act is timeless and timelessly adapted to the ‘free’ elements within it: but this timeless adaptation meets our consciousness as a sequence and prayer and answer … The event certainly has been decided … But one of the things taken into account in deciding it, and therefore one of the things that really cause it to happen, may be this very prayer that we are now offering. Thus, shocking as it may sound, I conclude that we can at noon become part causes of an event at ten a.m. (Some scientists would find this easier than popular thought does.)69 … Thus something does really depend on my choice. My free act contributes to the cosmic shape. That contribution is made in eternity or ‘before all worlds’; but my consciousness of contributing reaches me at a particular point in the time-series.70
Thus, the picture one has who embraces full divine knowledge with genuine agency is one that does not ask if God can know of my actions before I choose them but that recognizes that God can know them as I choose them. Rather than destroy the authentic joy of novelty, creativity, and surprise that many incompatibilists cherish and strive to preserve, this merely presents the situation as that of a loving parent who feasts on the sight of his or her unknowing child opening a gift that has already been purchased. The hidden beauty of the present, however, is that it “has not already been purchased;” it is also purchased now. When the gift is God’s grace, this means a new future is possible, no matter the path along which we arrive at the present because, even while our “courses are fixed,” all human orbits intersect and coexist in the singular moment of Gethsemane. This makes all petitions, decisions, change, and forgiveness possible in a way that does not “rob” timelessness (see Alma 42:25) because, in a poetic sense, Christ is at the crossroads dynamically adapting our path to our choice.
To make sense of this timeless atoning moment, it has been suggested that the simultaneity in Abinadi’s words (borrowed from Isaiah) is literal: “When his [Christ’s] soul has been made an offering for sin he shall see his seed” (Mosiah 15:10).71 Thus, we might imagine that during [Page 36]those few moments when the Savior — the “Great I am” — knelt in Gethsemane, he also entered eternity, seeing and comprehending each of us individually in the totality of our experience, yet in the present. Perhaps in the same way that Moses saw the earth, “he cast his eyes” and “beheld the inhabitants thereof [his seed], and there was not soul which he beheld not; and he discerned them by the Spirit of God” (Moses 1:27– 28) affording each of us, according to C.S. Lewis, “infinite attention” while not having to deal with us “in the mass.”72
Finally, the compatibilist view is articulated in another Isaiahic passage that also respects the dual definitions of time even while weaving them together. It also highlights the merciful purposes of the seemingly untenable idea of having certainty regarding action for which the actor is still uncertain. Perhaps its opacity is naively attributable to the fact that it is given by a notoriously cryptic 8th century BC Jew, but we can now see that he is attempting to explain what we have drawn on millennia of philosophy and science to illustrate and yet have concluded is fundamentally an irrational reality. Nephi’s transcription reads:
Behold, I [the Lord] have declared the former things from the beginning; and they went forth out of my mouth, and I showed them. I did show them suddenly. And I did it because I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass; And I have even from the beginning declared to thee; before it came to pass I showed them thee; and I showed them for fear lest thou shouldst say — Mine idol hath done them, and my graven image, and my molten image hath commanded them. Thou hast seen and heard all this; and will ye not declare them? And that I have showed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, and thou didst not know them. They are created now, and not from the beginning, even before the day when thou heardest them not they were declared unto thee, lest thou shouldst say — Behold I knew them. (1 Nephi 20:3–7)
Isaiah, himself a seer, here ties together several themes relevant from our discussion. Principally, his (accommodated) language supports a compatibilist position inasmuch as it explicitly recognizes both the certainty of the declarations — Jehovah stakes his reputation on them — and that the associated events “are created now [by free human [Page 37]action], and not from the beginning [at the time of their being known and declared].” Moreover, a merciful motivation is revealed: “hidden things” are suddenly and visually foretold that Jehovah might be known, significantly, as the eternally present “I am” and not as merely an extrapolation of our finite capacities, as are our idols.
In closing, I give an anecdotal experience from graduate school. During lunch, a group of students would meet to discuss issues in the history and philosophy of science and religion. At these meetings, various professors would direct the group in a reading, discussion, or presentation.
At one particular meeting, around five students showed up to participate. On his laptop, a professor had a very simple computer program. Given the position and velocity of a number of virtual balls in a box, the computer would model their evolution in time. He chose some parameters and started a run. As he introduced the topic, the balls on the screen moved and collided with each other and with the walls of the box. After outlining some of the same thoughts discussed here, he paused the animation and showed a printout of the precise locations and velocities of each of the balls in the simulation. At this point he reversed the motion of each of the balls and continued the simulation, effectively running the system in rewind.
Because of time symmetry in the programming, the expectation was that the balls would all return precisely to their original locations in precisely the same amount of time along precisely the same paths, just as if time flowed backwards. But soon the professor’s message became clear. The balls began to traverse completely different paths than they had previously. Due to the corruption necessarily introduced in storing finite data — an approximation whose error compounds exponentially in systems like this — the ball locations were not just a little off their original values, they were wildly off. Within seconds, time-reversal symmetry was effectively destroyed. Because of tiny imprecisions, the past was very different from the future. The balls never returned to where they started.
As the professor explained this result, the students began to grasp the reality and difficulty of the question: can anyone, including God, really predict the future with any sort of precision? He then suggested God could not know the future with certainty. Because he is bound to participate in time with us, this simulation forced us, it was argued, to take a non-literal interpretation of divine knowledge: God knows the [Page 38]future only as we do, based on inference from theoretical considerations, and can react to our choices only after they are made.
It was an interesting and impressive demonstration. However, at this point a girl shyly raised her hand and shared an experience. She reported a dream in which she had a memorable conversation with her mother under some fairly unextraordinary circumstances. Upon awaking, she found that within days the experience in her dream was realized in every detail even down to the lace pattern on the drapes. It did not seem this girl shared her experience to challenge the professor but to ask how his model could explain it. The professor gave a standard response in terms of anomalous results in experimental science. However, the impact of the girl’s experience was multiplied when a young man then raised his hand and said he had the very same experience, a dream had become actualized in vivid detail some time after having it. If these accounts are authentic and accurate, even if rare, they would pose significant challenges to the thesis that God’s omniscience is only figurative, incomplete, unspecific, or limited with regards to the future. As it is, their place in the discussion is uncertain: deeply personal experiences are difficult to rigorously analyze and yet, as opposed to the philosophizing above, they may be the most relevant because they are the most raw.
Perhaps we will never know the true nature of time; perhaps we cannot. In this mortal life, dominated by temporality, it appears to be a basis for achieving understanding and therefore cannot be its object except by the seemingly atemporal experience of eternity slicing in to enlighten the mind with a “sudden stroke.” If so, although time is a veil that separates us from God, it is a merciful one that protects and prepares as much as it prevents. On the one hand, it permits change, learning, clarity, simplicity, and order, making an active mortal agency possible. On the other, it brings with it a burden to live in the face of incompleteness and decay, requiring faith. With a scientific view, it is exciting to see that the physical mechanisms behind time — coupling and coherence in particular — give a hint, even if only in analogy, as to how natural systems can rise to “put off” these conditions (see Mosiah 3:19). But is it only analogy? Is it mere coincidence that modern revelations center Celestial society so strongly on oneness, exactness, and purity as well (see D&C 38:27; 88:21–22; 97:15–21; Moses 7:18)? Whatever the case, time and eternity are obviously topics on which much remains to be learned, for as we pass through that final veil to enter the highest estate, “time is no longer” (D&C 84:100). The past, present, and future stretch before us as one eternal and wonderful now.
In the most standard quantum approach, however, the problem of time is made more difficult because time is given such a unique role. All “observable” quantities like energy, position, or momentum must be represented a certain way, but time is not. In the standard view, it cannot therefore be considered observable! This prevents giving a coherent account of it. Non-standard interpretations such as the de Broglie-Bohm formulation provide other perspectives. See Peter R. Holland, The Quantum Theory of Motion: An Account of the de Broglie-Bohm Causal Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 215–17.