Excerpted from The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God with permission of Templeton Press.
There is an old Texas aphorism: 'Time is how God keeps things from happening all at once.' Perhaps for God things do happen all at once, and 'time' as we know it is only an approximate description.
As long ago as the fourth and fifth centuries, the Christian philosopher Augustine of Hippo gave a great deal of thought and prayer to the subject of time. Like Aristotle and Islamic natural philosophers, Augustine concluded that time begins with the beginning of the universe. He made a sharp cut between the things that exist in time and space and what is outside time and space.Augustine began with the question 'What was God doing before He created Heaven and Earth?' and decided that the question has no meaning because words such as 'before' and 'after' and 'then' can't apply where time as we know it doesn't exist." According to Augustine, time as we know it is part and parcel of this creation, not something that applies to God.The timeless present tense in which Augustine proposed that God exists is difficult to imagine or describe. Augustine wrote: 'Who shall lay hold upon the mind of man, that it may stand and see that time with its past and future must be determined by eternity, which stands and does not pass, which has in itself no past or future."' Augustine doesn't say, you will notice, that eternity lasts for ever, though that's how most of us think of eternity. Eternity lasts no time at all. Eternity 'stands and does not pass'; and 'in eternity nothing passes but all is present'.In this model of reality, you can't talk about a 'time' before time was created, any more than you can talk about it in Hawking's no-boundary universe. There was never a 'time' when time didn't exist. 'There can be no time apart from creation . . . Let them cease to talk such nonsense,' wrote Augustine. What he proposed instead of 'such nonsense' was that God, existing in an eternal present, creates chronological time for the benefit of our human minds and existence.What would it be like if events were not ordered in chronological time? If God knows everything in the universe that ever has happened and ever will happen in the same way (except in infinitely more detail) that I know what's happening right now in the room with me, in what way would that affect God's power to affect this universe? What meaning could cause and effect have in such a setting? What would happen to 'predictability'? Where events are not filed chronologically, is there some other sort of filing system? Those are questions we have no hope of answering, but we can speculate a little.
Our chronological framework forbids knowledge of the future. That's a proscription one wouldn't have in a timeless situation. It wouldn't be at all surprising to find God knowing the future-it would all be NOW to God. That makes problems for us, because it is difficult to think of ourselves as having free will if someone knows the future and knows what we are going to decide. However, I know what I did yesterday. I decided to push on with this chapter rather than to write some long-overdue letters. It would never occur to me that this knowledge, which I have on Wednesday, in any way obliged me to make that decision yesterday, on Tuesday. True, I can't change my mind about it now. Is it my knowledge about what I decided yesterday that makes it impossible for me to change that now? Why should I necessarily conclude it is that?We cannot assume it is knowledge of the past that robs us of ability to change it. Why should we assume that knowledge of the future robs us of our ability to change the future? Why, in any instance, should knowledge of an outcome determine that outcome? In our framework of chronological time, knowing the future would seem to determine the future, and certainly the psychological situation of knowing and having free will at the same time would not be one we could cope with-a good argument for why that possibility isn't allowed in our spacetime creation. But why should this necessarily hold for God in a regime where time as we know it doesn't exist at all? It isn't difficult to imagine a situation in which I have free will and God might know every last detail of what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. As a seventeenth-century Afghan writer expressed it, 'All the pages not yet written He has read'-and yet I can write on them anything I choose.The biblical description of God's activity in the world makes a great deal more sense if Augustine's model of time is the correct one: God's ability, as described in the Old Testament, to plan over a period of thousands of years, taking into account all the spanners that his Chosen People are going to throw into the works; the blame that falls on Judas, though Judas' betrayal of Christ fulfils prophecy; puzzling incidents in which Christ apparently overlooks the fact that his disciples are constrained by a chronological point of view and has to re-explain in a way that will make sense to them; Christ's statement 'Before Abraham was born, I am'; and all the incidents of prophecy, great and small. None of it seems so bizarre if God is seeing it and intervening in the whole of 'history' at the same instant, not constraining our free will but taking advantage of our choices and mitigating the consequences. The oddness from our point of view is merely the oddness with which this perfectly feasible activity shows up in our chronological time, where it doesn't mesh and we have no vocabulary to describe it.We, of course, have no idea whether this is the way time works-or the way God works. We do know that we can't yet understand time. It remains one of the great mysteries. We suspect that the chronological arrow of time as we know it is a broken symmetry, because the underlying laws of physics don't in general have an arrow of time themselves. With few exceptions, they are time-reversible. If a law allows a sequence of events to occur, then it also allows a time-reversed version of the same sequence-the film run backward.
Nevertheless, in most of nature, events and change occur in a time-directed manner and the film is never run backward. Once again, as in the case of galaxy clusters, it's difficult to determine whether what we observe is really a broken symmetry or something more fundamental. The best judgement at present indicates that chronological time is only a part of a more fundamental reality.