Monday, February 28, 2022

What if there was no beginning?

If you could hie to Kolob in the twinkling of an eye
And 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.


3. Meaninglessness

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.

16 comments:

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - Some unfamiliar and interesting arguments.

I should clarify that I do not regard God's *creation* as eternal; and until creation there was not meaning or purpose.

Neither do I assume that we were the same through eternity, but changed, and did not become anything like 'Men' until some period after creation.

That seems make a difference to some of the assumptions behind the arguments.

1. I wrong as you say.

2. "How long will it take us to realize our divine potential? A billion years? " It is a matter of making the right choices and learning from experiences. Jesus has already done it. Maybe others as well - especially if relative time is different after death, as dreams are compared with waking.

(Also, there is the aspect that no matter how long a soul has failed until now, there is still the possibility of success - although Not if they give up hope and despair.)


3. " you're an accident and exist for no inherent purpose. " Existence is an accident, but you have a purpose that is given by the primary divine creation. But existence without divine creation does indeed have no purpose - since purpose is made possible by divine creation. (Even the purpose of demons arises from creation - because their purpose is to destroy creation, thus secondary to creation.)

4. " all things had a beginning, and that that beginning was a free act." Well, I think only an existing Being can act - so I can't accept this line of reasoning. But again, the happening of primary divine creation seems to make a difference to the feeling lies behind point 4.

Francis Berger said...

@ Wm - The idea of a primal free act probably marks the "beginning" of being(s), but this does not imply that the free act emerged from nothing.

When I said I am of the opinion that beings are eternal, I did not mean to imply that beings have always existed as beings, but rather that they have always existed in some form.

That prior form is likely rooted in something primordial -- a pregnant nothingess of meonic freedom that contains the potential "to be" rather than a pure void that contains "nothing". But for this to make sense, this pregnant nothingness would have to contain separated and distinct potentialities that yearn to "be". Perhaps this is where souls come in.

Hence, being does have a beginning of sorts -- a free act -- but this beginning emerges from meonic freedom, which has no beginning or end and is merely eternal potential.

I *think* this alleviates the infinite regress problem of eternal beings and the paradoxes of creatio ex nihilio. It also addresses the meaning and purpose problem. Being is superior to potential, but reaching a full state of being (divinity) appears to require "mastery" over the meonic freedom from which being chooses to emerge. I would say Christ is an example of this sort of mastery (of agency) in our world.

I tend to dislike the concept of infinity. To me, it's nothing but a dizzy ride that just loops back upon itself, goes round and round, but never really ends up going anywhere. Eternity makes more sense to me because it addresses time specifically without getting space all mixed up into it.

Anyway, that's roughly where I am with all of this at the moment. Many loose ends, I'm afraid, but several of the big problems -- why does God allow evil -- begin to make sense.

Francis Berger said...

@ Wm - One more point, what I have noted above also presents a coherent challenge to the traditional belief that only God can create free agents. The free agent God creates is already free, that is, it contains the meonic freedom from which God forms it. God Himself contains the very same meonic freedom, but he is able to "use" it "divinely" -- unlike the formed free agent, who does not yet have that mastery (which provides the underlying meaning and purpose of Creation . . . in my very humble opinion, of course).

Kristor said...

@ WM: Maybe I've missed something, but I'm pretty sure your argument here against Kalam fails, interesting and original though it is. If x has existed for an infinite amount of time, then it existed an infinite amount of finite years ago, and from that moment it would have to traverse an infinite number of years to fail to reach the present moment - or *any other moments in its past.*

Your argument from meaninglessness is extremely powerful. It isn't just that we'd feel ennui at the meaninglessness of our lives and acts, although that would indeed be a problem. The deeper problem would be that, because we (and, presumably, lots of other sorts of creatures, too, such as angels) had always existed, and so existed for no reason, we (and those other beings) would be irrational; we'd be ourselves instance of unreason; which is to say, of chaos, and so of nonbeing.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

@Kristor

"If x has existed for an infinite amount of time, then it existed an infinite amount of finite years ago"

No, that doesn't follow, as I think the number-line analogy makes clear (or as clear as anything can be when you're talking about something as counter-intuitive as infinity). The number line is infinite, but there is no integer that is infinitely distant from zero. The timeline is infinite, but there is no point in time that that is infinitely distant from the present.

"and from that moment it would have to traverse an infinite number of years to fail to reach the present moment"

Yes, but "that moment" -- a past moment infinitely remote from the present -- does not exist, even if the past is infinite.

Kristor said...

@ Wm: But if there is no actual moment that is infinitely past, then the actual past is not infinite, but finite. To say that there is no infinitely past actual moment is to say that *all* actual past moments are finitely past; and that is to say that the actual past is finite.

Sorry to go on with this angels dancing dialogue, but you got me interested.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

@Kristor

No, I really must insist on this.

1. The number line of integers is infinite.
2. The difference between any two integers on the number line is always finite.

By analogy:

3. The timeline is infinite.
4. The time elapsed between any two points on the timeline (for example, between any past moment and the present) is always finite.

I assume that you will grant points 1 and 2, which are basic number theory. Can you explain why you think the timeline cannot have the same characteristics as the number line, why the analogy from 1-2 to 3-4 doesn't work? I really think my reasoning is rock-solid here, though of course I am open to correction.

Kristor said...

@ William James: I think that each pair of statements conflates formal and actual entities, so that each pair is internally incommensurate. Taking the number line as the base case, the difference is between the abstract formal number line – statement 1 – and actual measurement – statement 2. The latter can be achieved only by concrete acts of counting (or other arithmetic operations derived therefrom – multiplication, subtraction, etc.).

So, 1 is about the number line as an abstract formal extent, rather than an actual extent. 2 is about the iterated act of counting from any point on the number line to any other. Any such procedure is going to have to be finite, even though the number line is infinite.

This is why formalizations of physical theories that generate infinities are vicious, and certainly a bit errant somehow; it is why Halting is a Problem.

Likewise, 3 is about the time line as an abstract formal extent, rather than an actual extent. 4 is about the iterated act of being from any point on the time line to any other. Any such procedure is going to have to be finite, even though the time line is infinite.
Just as you can’t count to negative infinity, so you can’t work your way back by actual finite temporal moments to an actually infinite temporal extent.

If as we have both said *all* the moments of the past are finitely antecedent to this present moment, then the *entire past* that they together constitute must be finite. Finite durations cannot sum to infinity; they *must* sum to some finite number.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

@Kristor

I get your point about formal vs. actual, but I think Kalam depends on the very conflation you point out. It focuses on time elapsing (corresponding to "the iterated act of counting from any point on the number line to any other"), and says that only a finite amount of time can ever elapse. It then says that this is inconsistent with the timeline's being abstractly infinite when considered as a whole.

(The meaning of "actual" can get a little slippery when we're talking about time, though. I believe Edward Feser has argued against Kalam on the grounds that only the present actually exists, while the past and future exist only potentially. Not a point I'm making myself, but it becomes relevant if you want to bring formality vs. actuality into the discussion.)

"If as we have both said *all* the moments of the past are finitely antecedent to this present moment, then the *entire past* that they together constitute must be finite."

Here's an equivalent statement: If all the integers on the number line are finite (i.e. have a finite difference from the origin), then the entire number line that they together constitute must be finite. But this is false.

I have another post up on this topic here:

https://narrowdesert.blogspot.com/2022/03/no-two-points-on-infinite-line-are.html

Kristor said...

… Kalam … says that only a finite amount of time can ever elapse. It then says that this is inconsistent with the timeline's being abstractly infinite when considered as a whole.

Actually it says that only a finite number of actual (or real, or concrete, or factual, or what have you) finite moments can have transpired (meanwhile the future can be sempiternal, boundless). And it doesn’t say that the necessary finitude of a finite collection of finite actual moments contradicts the infinity of the abstract formal timeline. It is silent about the abstract formal timeline.

If all the integers on the number line are finite (i.e., have a finite difference from the origin), then the entire number line that they together constitute must be finite.

Again, this conflates the concrete measurement of finite differences on the abstract formal timeline by concrete (actual, real, factual, etc.) finite acts of counting with the abstract purely formal timeline. From the fact that it is impossible to count to infinity it does not follow that there is no infinity. From that fact it *does* follow that all the counting that has ever been done, or ever will be done, cannot sum to infinity, but must rather sum to a finite number. The same is true of any collection of finite moments: they must sum to a finite temporal extent. This, even though the timeline that stretches forward from the actual beginning of finite things is indeed infinite, so that there is no upper bound on the temporal extent of the whole collection of finite moments.

I grant however that this would have been clearer if I had written:

If as we have both said *all* the [concrete, actual, factual] moments of the past are finitely antecedent to this present moment, then the *entire [concrete, actual, factual] past* that they together constitute must be finite.

Notice that the sentence as just written is *not talking about the timeline,* but about the actual history of things. The same is true for Kalam. It is saying that *if* there were an infinitely past actual moment in the actual history of things, then this present actual moment of that history could never have begun to elapse; but, then, denying the consequent, it points out that this present actual moment *is* in fact elapsing; and concludes that *there is no infinitely past actual moment.*

Now, when push comes to shove, this whole discussion is moot, at least as between us. For, we agree that there must have been a beginning, and disagree only about the cogency of the Kalam argument in demonstrating the truth of that proposition. Still, it has been interesting (to me, anyway).

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Kristor, I'll be writing more about this shortly, but for now just let me address this:

"Notice that the sentence as just written is *not talking about the timeline,* but about the actual history of things. The same is true for Kalam. It is saying that *if* there were an infinitely past actual moment in the actual history of things, then this present actual moment of that history could never have begun to elapse; but, then, denying the consequent, it points out that this present actual moment *is* in fact elapsing; and concludes that *there is no infinitely past actual moment.*"

I agree with the conclusion as stated. Even the abstract timeline has no infinitely past (or future) moments on it, just as the number line has no infinite integers. Thus, a forteriori, there is no infinitely past (or future) moment in the actual history (or futurity) of things. We agree on that.

This is where we disagree:

You say that if universe has no beginning, then there must be in its actual physical history moments which are infinitely past; and you conclude that, since it has been proved that there can be no such moments, therefore the universe had a beginning.

I, in contrast, maintain that it can be true both that the universe has no beginning and that there are no infinitely past moments in its history. You seem to think that this can be true of the number line but not of an actual physical entity, but I don't see this. Suppose each integer on the number line represents an actual physical event in the actual physical universe. How does this supposition invalidate the logic that says no two points on the line are infinitely distant (no two events in the universe are separated by an infinite amount of time)? If no point in the universe's past is infinitely past, then no infinite amount of time needs to have elapsed in order to reach the present.

I think you're still thinking as if an infinite amount of time had to elapse from "the beginning" to the present -- thinking of "the beginning" as an infinitely past point in time, when in fact the hypothesis under discussion is that there was no beginning and no infinitely past point. The first integer is not "negative infinity"; there is no first integer, and no infinite integer.

Kristor said...

"You say that if universe has no beginning, then there must be in its actual physical history moments which are infinitely past …"

Not quite. I say that if the universe has no beginning, there must be in its actual history *an infinite quantity* of actual past moments … and that no finite iterated procedure – whether of counting, or of becoming – could traverse that infinite temporal extent. To be sure, no moment of that past would be infinitely antecedent to the present moment, or to any other such moment. But that doesn’t matter: by definition, the entire temporal extent of a past with no beginning is infinite, and by definition that infinite extent is not finitely traversible.

Given this clarification, I don’t think your commentary subsequent to the sentence quoted is quite pertinent.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

No infinite extent needs to be traversed, because no two points are infinitely distant. You hold than an infinite extent must be traversed to get to the present, and I ask “to get to the present from where?” There is no answer.u

Kristor said...

Sure there is: the infinite extent must be traversed from *all* of the infinite quantity of past moments. That’s absurd, of course; but then, the whole thrust of Kalam is to demonstrate that absurdity.

No infinite need be traversed, to be sure; but this is so only insofar as we specify a finite extent to be traversed. By that act of specification, we shall have abandoned the notion of the actual beginningless infinite temporal extent, instead invoking a finite temporal extent. In other words, if we specify any one point in the past infinite extent as the beginning of our finite traversal, why then we have ipso facto established the very sort of beginning that Kalam insists there must be, and we are no longer struggling with the insoluble problem of traversing an infinite extent by a finite number of finite steps.

You ask, “to get to the present [moment of the beginningless temporal extent *from what moment*]?” This is as much as to ask, “to get to the present moment of the beginningless temporal extent *from what beginning*?”

In asking this, you are trying – naturally enough – to avoid the absurdity of supposing the incoherent first premise of the Kalam argument – i.e., that there was no beginning – by jumping to its conclusion, which is that to make the temporal becoming of this or any moment conceivable, that premise must be false. Your question presupposes the correct intuition that there must have been a beginning; that the traversal constituted of finite steps, being as a whole finite, had to begin *somewhere* in order to be finite, and so to complete its traversal to now.

Again, it seems to me that throughout your analysis of the Kalam argument, you have conflated the realm of the merely formal possible – of the abstract time line – with the realm of the actual. Say that the created order of our world and of all others began 100 billion earth years ago. It could have begun a year earlier on the purely formal abstract time line; that possibility is real. And it could have begun 100 billion earth years earlier on the purely formal abstract time line. That possibility, too, is real. Indeed, there are an infinite number of points farther back on the abstract time line when the created order of all worlds might have begun. But those counterfactual possibilities are real only formally, and not actually (and, what is more, not potentially). They are as real as, and in the same way as, the possibility that you might have flown to the moon yesterday.

The bottom line is that infinity is strictly incommensurable with finity. Clearly, we are in a created order constituted of finite entities. So, it *cannot* be infinite, along any dimension (albeit, that it can be boundless along quite a few); for, obviously, it is impossible to constitute an infinity from finites.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Kristor, I will be addressing many of these points in a long post I am currently working on. For now, let me just dispute your "bottom line."

"Clearly, we are in a created order constituted of finite entities."

No, this is not "clear," especially it comes to the assumption that things are temporally finite. To take one example, all our observations are consistent with the proposition that energy is never created or destroyed. The assumption that it all was created at some particular point in the past is a metaphysical assumption, not something that we can observe.

"So, it *cannot* be infinite, along any dimension (albeit, that it can be boundless along quite a few); for, obviously, it is impossible to constitute an infinity from finites."

The assumption here, I think, is that if all the parts are finite, the whole cannot be infinite. But it can -- if there are an infinite number of these individually finite parts.

By the way, let me thank you for your continued thoughtful engagement with this post, which has been interesting and useful for me.

Kristor said...

Me again, sorry.

No, [it is not “clear” that we are in a created order constituted of finite entities,] especially it comes to the assumption that things are temporally finite. To take one example, all our observations are consistent with the proposition that energy is never created or destroyed. The assumption that it all was created at some particular point in the past is a metaphysical assumption, not something that we can observe.

From the fact that energy is conserved from each transaction to the next it does not follow that it is infinite along any dimension, even temporal. Indeed, considering energy as the capacity to work, it is running down to zero from some original maximum.

The assumption that it was *not* all created at some particular point in the past is furthermore a metaphysical assumption that is at odds with our current best understanding of cosmogony – and with Genesis 1:3. The assumption that it will not all be destroyed at some point in the future is at odds with John’s Apocalypse, and with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

I grant of course that this cosmos is not the measure of all things. But, since you adduced our observations of the behavior of energy in our cosmos …

Are there any infinite temporal entities you can identify, other than God? I.e., are there any temporal entities you can pick out that (like God) never had a beginning, and never change, and so are nowise caused, nowise contingent, and will never end – that, to put it bluntly, exist *timelessly* – which is to say, eternally?

The reason I mention change is that it is an end joined to a beginning: an end of one state of affairs, and the commencement of another. A thing that has changed once then is a composite of two states of affairs, the antecedent that ended, and so is finite; and its subsequent that began, and so is finite.

An infinite thing, then, must be a thing that does not change – including the changes of coming into being, and of passing out of it.

So, when I say that our world is constituted of finites, I mean it is constituted of things that change. Surely the ubiquity of change is the most basic observation of all. Energy is conserved *across changes,* and in the process *it changes its form.*

The composite of finites - of changes in states of affairs - is a finite. No matter how many changes we accumulate, we can never arrive at anything infinite. Add or concatenate or agglomerate any number of changes – of finites – and the result will be finite.

This is what I was getting at when I wrote:

Clearly, we are in a created order constituted of finite entities. So, it *cannot* be infinite, along any dimension … for … it is impossible to constitute an infinity from finites.

You write:

[… the whole composed of finite parts can be infinite] if there are an infinite number of these individually finite parts.

This is as much as to say:

… the whole can be infinite if it is infinite.

For, in effect, it says, “take an infinite number of finite things: there are an infinite number of them!” It presupposes the whole, and divides it into an infinite number of finite parts. So doing, it overlooks the actual constitution of that infinite number of finite things, and instead assumes its preexistence.

It’s back to the analogy with the number line. It encompasses an infinite quantity of finite numbers *because it is infinite to begin with.* Now, we can certainly take an infinite whole and subdivide it infinitely in thought – albeit, not via an *actual* infinite (ergo incompletable) computation, but rather only in principle, and so potentially. But we cannot do it in act (of being, or of computation), and nor can any other actual. Temporal reality is not like that. It is not already infinite. And we can be sure that this is so, for its temporal extent keeps growing – keeps changing – by finite quanta of change; so, it is always finite in temporal extent.

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