If you could hie to Kolob in the twinkling of an eyeAnd then continue onward with that same speed to fly,Do you think that you could ever, through all eternity,Find out the generation where Gods began to be?Or see the grand beginning, where space did not extend?Or view the last creation, where Gods and matter end?Methinks the Spirit whispers, "No man has found 'pure space,'Nor seen the outside curtains, where nothing has a place."
-- W. W. Phelps
When did that thinking thing begin to be? If it did never begin to be, then have you always been a thinking thing from eternity; the absurdity whereof I need not confute, till I meet with one who is so void of understanding as to own it.
-- John Locke
In comments to my recent post "Why does God exist?" Bruce Charlton and Francis Berger have both expressed the opinion that beings of some sort have always existed -- not atemporally like Allah, but temporally, with their existence extending back over an infinite expanse of time. Bruce Charlton wrote:
I find it very strange that (apparently) some people find it inconceivable that there should be infinite 'time' in the past leading up to now. I find the opposite impossible to imagine - i.e. that there was ever a beginning before which there was nothing.I think I have always been like this, since I was a child. Even when I accepted the recent (and constantly changing) scientific theories about the Big Bang as a certain truth, at the back of my mind I always wondered what happened before it - and assumed some kind of eternally expanding and contracting and re-exploding cyclical universe.
The infinite temporal existence of beings -- including God, man, and even the physical elements -- is also the Mormon position, expressed by Joseph Smith in the King Follett Sermon (part 1 part 2), and was my own position until fairly recently. I therefore thought I ought to devote a post to reasons for not believing it. Before doing so, let me state again my meta position that theologies are akin to map projections -- in order to get some things right, you have to omit or distort others; and which projection is "best" depends on what you most care about getting right.
1. Infinite elapsed time
As discussed in my earlier post, the Kalām Cosmological Argument assumes that there can be only two kinds of beings: (1) beings that began to exist a finite amount of time ago; and (2) beings that are atemporal, or "exist outside of time." Everything we know, including the physical universe itself, belongs to the first category; it is therefore necessary to explain their existence by positing a being of the second type, and this is Allah.
The reason given for rejecting a third category -- beings that are temporal but never began to exist -- is that for those beings an infinite amount of time must already have elapsed. They must already be "infinity years old." However, it is impossible for anything to ever be "infinity years old," because time elapses finite step by finite step, and infinity can never be reached by adding up finite quantities.
With the caveat that it is notoriously difficult to think clearly about infinity, I think this argument is in error. It conflates "never began" with "began an infinitely long time ago." Consider by way of analogy the number line of integers. It is infinite, but it would be sloppy thinking to say it extends "from negative infinity, through zero, to positive infinity." There is no such number as "infinity" (negative or positive) on the number line. Of all the infinitely many integers on the line, not a single one of them is infinitely distant from zero.
The present moment corresponds to zero, the past to the negative integers, and the future to the positive ones. If I say that my existence (in one form or another) is infinite in both directions, in precisely the same way that the number line is infinite, does that make me "infinity years old"? No. The Kalām Argument assumes that an infinite amount of time must have elapsed from "the beginning" to the present -- missing the point that there was no beginning. A billion years ago, I existed; and a billion years have elapsed since then. A quadrillion years ago, I existed; and a quadrillion years have elapsed since then. The "infinity" lies in the fact that the statement will be true for absolutely any number I choose, no matter how astronomically large it may be; but every number, without exception, will be a finite distance from the present, and only a finite time will have elapsed since then. Just as you can get from any point on the infinite number line to any other by adding or subtracting a finite quantity, so any distance on the infinite timeline can be traversed without an infinite amount of time elapsing.
So I reject this argument against infinite temporal existence.
2. Unrealized potential
Central to Christianity is the idea that we have the potential to become like God, but that at present we are obviously very, very far from having realized that potential.
How long will it take us to realize our divine potential? A billion years? But we have already existed for a billion billion billion years (or whatever other arbitrarily large number you choose) without realizing that potential. If something has never ever happened through all the countless kalpas of our existence, shouldn't it be pretty obvious by now that it's never going to happen? Thus the thesis that we have always existed would seem to lead to despair.
If we have always existed, and our existence is not "necessary," then it seems to follow that we exist for absolutely no reason. Our existence has no inherent meaning or purpose but is just a brute fact, no less an "accident" then if we had originated when lightning randomly struck the primordial ooze.
I'm actually okay with this -- I spent a decade of hard atheism getting used to the idea -- but most Christians are obviously not. It is extremely common to hear that atheism makes life meaningless because it means you're an accident and exist for no inherent purpose. No, atheism makes life meaningless because it means you die, not because it means you were born. Meaning and purpose in life come only from our choices, not from the circumstances of our coming into existence.
Still, though, there's something deeply unsatisfying in the idea that existence is irreducibly "random," that we all just happen to exist for no reason at all.
4. Agency is necessary anyway
The "no beginning" scenario would be most appealing to a determinist, who maintains that the state of the universe at any given point in time is determined by its state at the point immediately previous. An infinite past with no beginning would seem to be required by this "all dominoes and no fingers" theory.
If we accept agency, though, then some causal chains at least do not extend back infinitely into the past but terminate in a free choice, an uncaused cause -- and our metaphysics must accommodate that. Since we have this experience of things having a real beginning, and no experience of things having existed forever, it seems reasonable to assume, unless there is some strong reason to assume otherwise, that all things had a beginning, and that that beginning was a free act.