Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Problem with Time

Many people have a problem with time--they don't think they have enough of it. That's odd, because time is the one commodity that is truly distributed equally: everybody gets exactly 60 seconds every minute. We don't all get the same number of years on earth, but if the Bible tells the truth, that hardly matters--everybody gets the same amount of time after the resurrection. (See John 5:28-29.)

There's more to time than too little of it. Time may be the most mysterious thing we experience directly. Scientists and theologians wrangle over questions that can't be fully solved without a better understanding of time.

Here are two trick questions about time:

  1. Can the future cause the past? Laboratory experiments say yes.
  2. Does "time out of mind" exist? The arrow of time says "not as we know it."
Here's a question that's still wide open: How many futures are there? Scientists disagree whether the correct answer is "1" or "all." Theologians are split between "0" and "1."

The scientists are split because classical and relativistic physics leave no room for what the rest of us think of as "free will." Einstein believed that every moment in time was fixed from the beginning--he envisioned all of space-time as a "block" that was cast in concrete by the laws of physics. Quantum physicists are divided between the standard Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and the "multiverse model," which says that every possible future is real, no matter how unlikely. So Albert Einstein would say there is one future, while Hugh Everett would say there are not merely an infinite number of futures, but that all possible futures exist.

Theologians haven't caught up to the new nuances in fundamental physics, but they have been debating what is really a question about the nature of the future since at least 1610. Calvinists and Arminians have been debating predestination and free will since then, while the Catholic debates go back even further.

The most current controversy over time is driven by the Open Theology movement, which has finally revealed that the free will debate is ultimately a question about the nature of time. Open theists say that God is omniscient, but He doesn't know the future--because there is no "future" to "know." (This puts them at odds with orthodox Arminians, who say God knows the future but doesn't cause it.)

I don't know of any scientist or theologian who thinks there might be more than one future but less than all possible futures--but it makes for some fascinating speculation. More on that later!

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