The Specious Present & God’s Relation to Time: Atemporal & Temporal Views.

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Image Credit: Ministry127, David McCoy, 2014.

This brief essay intends to touch on two important questions related to the philosophy of time as well as the philosophy of religion. We will first look at what it means for God to exist temporally or atemporally in relation to time. We will then briefly touch on the topic of the specious present which has been deemed rather significant to the contemporary field of the philosophy of time.

God’s Relation to Time: Atemporal & Temporal Views.

The concept of eternity, a particularly important and pertinent question to many religions, is that something exists permanently without beginning or end (1). Most philosophers and theologians agree that divine eternity is a property of God’s existing permanently (2). However, they largely disagree on the nature of divine eternity in how God, specifically the God of classical theism, exists in relation to time. After all, if God really did create the universe, then there must be some way in which he relates to it and the objects within it. There are at least two major ways that philosophers of religion think something could exist eternally: temporally or atemporally (3).

The former suggests that God is temporal in the sense that he exists in time. For God to exist in time means that his duration has phases which are related to each other as earlier and later. God therefore has a past, present and future. Today, perhaps most scholars commenting on this subject view God as temporal but everlasting (4). This is the view that God never began to exist and never will go out of existence though he exists at each moment in time. On this concept, God does experience temporal succession. In other words, God experienced, say, the events that took place in the 18th century prior to the events that have taken place since the year 2000.

Alternatively, for God to exist atemporally means that he has everlasting temporal duration, hence he does not have a past, present, and future (5). God exists timelessly in a timeless state that completely transcends time, and does not experience temporal succession. In other words, God does not experience the 18th century before he experiences the 21st century. Rather, he exists in what one might call a “timeless now” (6). So, during the year 1950, if Jack prays to God, and God hears Jack’s prayer, for God it takes place in the same timeless moment in which he hears Jill’s prayer in the 21st century. The likes of Anselm, Augustine and Aquinas, several influential thinkers in their day, held to this view of God, namely that he exists atemporally.

The arguments presented for each view are weighty and therefore extend beyond this current essay, though we shall visit them individually in successive posts. Nonetheless, arguments presented for a divine timeless view of God are numerous with the most widely used ones being God’s knowledge of the future, the fullness of God’s being, and God’s creation of the universe (7). Philosopher William Lane Craig, one of the leading philosophers to engage the topic of divine eternity, further notes the arguments from simplicity or immutability, and special relativity (8). In favor of divine temporality the arguments from the impossibility of atemporal personhood, divine action in the world, and the divine knowledge of tensed facts are frequently forwarded. Craig, however, proposes an alternative view; on his view “God is timeless without the universe and temporal with the universe” (9).

Craig sees God’s existence without creation a timeless existence. However, once temporal reality comes into existence at the creation of the universe, God himself must change. Thus, God became temporal when time was created. God never used to be timeless, but rather he became temporal. Craig, however, admits that there are weighty arguments for both views of how God relates to time, and that the debate remains largely unresolved at this present moment within the philosophy of religion; as philosopher Gregory Ganssle of the Talbot School of Theology explains that the “Questions about God’s relation to time involve many of the most perplexing topics in metaphysics. These include the nature of the fundamental structures of the universe as well as the nature of God’s own life. It is not surprising that the questions are still open even after over two millennia of careful inquiry. While philosophers often come to conclusions that are reasonably settled in their mind, they are wise to hold such conclusions with an open hand” (10).

The Specious Present

The specious present is the time duration wherein one’s perceptions are considered to be in the present (11), a concept first coined by E. Robert Kelly (12). It was further developed by psychologist William James who said that “the prototype of all conceived times is the specious present, the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible” (13). He goes on to explain that “We are constantly aware of a certain duration – the specious present – varying from a few seconds to probably not more than a minute, and this duration (with its content perceived as having one part earlier and another part later) is the original intuition of time.”

Though contemporary philosopher and professor of metaphysics Robin Le Poidevin criticizes James’ definition as unclear given that it proposes numerous possibilities of what might be deduced by his explanation of the “specious present,” Poidevin explains that what he was trying to examine is a duration which is perceived both as present and as temporally extended (14). This essentially says that when it comes to consciousness, the “present” has a certain length.

Kelly drew an analogy to listening to the lyrics of a song or one’s witnessing of a meteor in the distant sky. When we are watching or listening to such things we all believe that they are happening in the present. However, they are not as the listening to lyrics, for example, in what perceive to be the “present” has us hearing words in a successive manner as words follow on from one another, they extend over an interval. Thus, what we perceive as the present is actually a short duration of time, and our awareness of events and objects in the “present” are always accompanied by a sense of time passing. The notion of the present experience being “specious” means that it is an interval and thus not a durationless instant (15). As one might observe, if one were to define the present as anything but durationless, then it cannot be the objective present. If the objective present had an interval of any duration then the duration must necessarily consist of earlier and later parts, hence cannot be considered the present.

The concept of the specious present is of interest to philosophers given that it produces a number of significant questions (16). This is partly a result of James’ vague and confusing explanation of the concept and the methods he employed to measure its duration; it still remains, however, that he had undoubtedly made a vital contribution to our current understanding of our short-term experience of time and change. For example, questions now focus on whether or not an individual’s specious present can overlap with another person’s specious present, how an individual’s specious present combines to form his or her stream of consciousness, the length of a typical specious present, as well as many other areas of exploration.

References.

1. Helm, P. 2006. Eternity. Available.

2. Ganssle, G. God and Time. Available.

3. Craig, W. Time, Eternity, And Eschatology. Available.

4. Ganssle, G. Ibid.

5. Ganssle, G. Ibid.

6. Ganssle, G. Ibid.

7. Helm, P. 2006. Ibid.

8. Craig, W. Divine Eternity. Available.

9. Craig, W. 2007. God, Time, and Creation. Available.

10. Ganssle, G. Ibid.

11. Schreuder, D. 2014. Vision and Visual Perception. p. 560

12. Kelly, R. 1882. The Alternative: A Study in Psychology.

13. James, W. 1890. Principles of Psychology. p. 631.

14. Le Poidevin, R. 2000. The Experience and Perception of Time. Available.

15. Le Poidevin, R. 2000.

16. Dowden, B. Time. Available.

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