Not coincidentally, Smith was also free of that other besetting vice of contemporary academic philosophy, overspecialization. A philosopher whose competence is limited to a small set of topics can do good work, but not the best work. That is simply a consequence of the nature of philosophical ideas, whose implications tend to ramify across the intellectual landscape. But one needs a knowledge of that landscape to see that. Smith had that, and his interests and publications ranged widely. This breadth gave his work depth.
This is clearest from his work in the philosophy of time, in which his deep knowledge of and interest in metaphysics, physics, and philosophy of religion converged. All three are in evidence in the book he co-wrote with William Lane Craig, – the book which, I think, is what introduced me to Smith’s work in the early 90s, at a time when I was myself still an atheist. They are also evident in another book of his from that period that I especially liked at the time – the fun little volume , which he co-wrote with L. Nathan Oaklander. It is written in the unjustly neglected dialogue form that once was common in philosophy, and done very well.
In thinking about this post I went back and re-read some of it. Since there is no greater tribute one can offer to a philosopher than to engage with his work, let’s take a look. Chapter 4 is devoted to the topic of eternity, and is a model of how to introduce complex philosophical ideas in a way that is brief and lucid without being oversimplified. Smith begins by noting that the concept of eternity is traditionally defined in theological terms, as in Boethius’ famous characterization of it as God’s “possession all at once of unlimited life.” This “possession all at once” involves God’s existing timelessly. It’s not that God has always existed in the past and will continue to do so in the future, but rather that he exists outside of time altogether. But what does this mean, exactly? Smith considers four ways of interpreting divine eternity that have been defended in recent philosophy, and raises problems for each of them. What follows is a summary of what Smith has to say about these views, with some commentary.
1. Eternity as non-temporal duration: On this view, for God to exist eternally is for him to exist simultaneously with every instant of time. George Washington’s eating breakfast in 1776 and your reading this blog post in 2021 are not simultaneous events for either you or Washington. But on the “non-temporal duration” view, they are simultaneous for God, who “sees” every moment of time all at once, like someone viewing every part of a town all at once from a vantage point on top of a mountain.
As Smith points out, this view won’t work. If 1776 is simultaneous with God’s awareness and 2021 is simultaneous with God’s awareness, then 1776 is simultaneous with 2021 after all. Or, if they are not simultaneous, then God’s awareness of 1776 and his awareness of 2021 are also not simultaneous, in which case God exists at different moments of time and is not eternal. The “non-temporal duration” interpretation is a muddle.
This criticism is correct, and I would add two more points. First, “simultaneous” and “duration” are temporal notions, which should already make us suspicious of this way of spelling out the notion of eternity. (To be sure, it is very hard to avoid all temporal language when speaking of eternity, which means that we need to rely heavily on the analogical use of terms and explicit negation of all of the temporal implications of univocal usage. More on that in a moment.)
Second, talk of God “seeing” different points of time all at once, though very common in discussions of eternity, is extremely misleading at best and bound to lead to absurdities like the ones exhibited by the “non-temporal duration” view. God does not know the world via anything like perception. He knows it by virtue of being its cause. In particular, he does not know what is happening in 1776 and 2021 by way of observing them. He know them because he knows himself as the cause of a world in which a series of events occurs, some of which are in 1776 and some of which are in 2021.
(Compare: A novelist knows what happens in chapter 1 and chapter 5 of his book, not because he has read both chapters, but because he wrote both of them. Much bad thinking about God’s relation to the world in general and to time in particular results from thinking of God as if he were just one more reader of the “novel” that is the world, rather than the novel’s author.)
2. Eternity as tenseless duration: Consider the tenseless theory (or B-theory) of time, according to which all moments of time – 1776, 2021, and all the rest – are equally real. There are earlier and later events (for example, events in 2021 are later than those of 1776) but no event is objectively past, present, or future (as events are on the tensed or A-theory of time). The “tenseless duration” view of eternity holds that the tensed or A-theory of time is true, so that events in time are objectively past, present, and future. But it holds that God has duration with successive parts, ordered in something like the way that events are ordered according to the B-theory. There are earlier and later stages of God’s existence, but none of them is objectively past, present, or future (the way that events in time are) so that God is outside of time.
One problem with this, as Smith points out, is that it implicitly brings God into time after all. For suppose stage S1 of God’s life is the stage where he creates 1776 and stage S2 is the stage where he creates 2021. Then it seems that S1 will be simultaneous with 1776 and S2 will be simultaneous with 2021. But if 1776 is past and 2021 is present, then it would follow that S1 is past and S2 is present – in which case God has both past and present stages and exists in time after all.
I would make three additional points. First, the defender of the “tenseless duration” view might avoid dragging God down into time, but at the cost of absorbing (what at first seemed to be) time up into eternity. For he could insist that since God is not in time, S1 and S2 must not really be objectively past and present. But in that case, neither are 1776 and 2021 (which are simultaneous with S1 and S2, respectively) objectively past and present – in which case (given the A-theory, which the “tenseless duration” view is committed to) they are not really in time after all.
Second, all this talk of God having “stages” is in any event a non-starter, because it violates divine simplicity. Third, talk of “duration” has, here too, potentially problematic temporal connotations. But that brings us to the third view.
3. Eternity as a present instant: This view abandons talk of duration and conceives of God as existing in a single instant. But this instant remains permanently present, being outside of time and thus having no instants preceding it or succeeding it.
As Smith objects, this is simply a muddle. If God remains present, then that implies that he persists through successive instants, in which case he is in time. Or, if he really does exist only in a single instant, then he doesn’t remain, but passes away. And in that case too, he is in time.
I would add to this that it is simply a non-starter to think of eternity on the model of an instant. In my view, this is an even worse model for eternity than endless duration is. For one thing, it too is a concept with temporal connotations. But for another, it implies something less than duration, whereas the reason duration is a problematic model for eternity is that eternity is more than mere duration, not less!
As David Oderberg suggests in his paper It is analogous to a point in space, and an interval of time can no more be made up of a collection of instants than an extended object can be made up of extensionless points. Much fallacious thinking about the nature of space and of motion arises from reifying abstract mathematical descriptions of space and motion, and much fallacious thinking about time arises in a similar way. I have a lot to say about both sorts of fallacies in . In any event, the notion of an instant will only yield something less than temporal duration, and thus something far less than eternity. But that brings us to the last view considered by Smith. an instant of time is best thought of as a kind of limit case of the division of a time interval into shorter units.
4. Eternity as a tenseless instant: This view presupposes that the tenseless or B-theory of time is correct. Hence, it holds that 1776, 2021, and all other points of time are equally real and none is objectively past, present, or future. God, on this view, exists at a single instant, and that instant too is not present (contrary to the “present instant” view). But it is also outside the series of instants that make up time, and thus is not earlier than, simultaneous with, or later than any of them. From this vantage point outside of time, God is aware of all of the equally real instants that make up time.
Smith seems more sympathetic to this view than to the others, though he doesn’t ultimately accept it either. But even if it is the least bad of the four, it is still not good, and not only because it endorses the B-theory (which, for reasons I explain in Aristotle’s Revenge, I reject). For, again, an instant is the wrong way to model eternity. Eternity is not endless duration, but it is more like endless duration than it is like an instant.
The main problem Smith raises against the “tenseless instant” view is this. Suppose Washington was worshipping God one morning in 1776, but was not doing so an hour later when his attention was distracted by other matters. Then it seems that God underwent a change (i.e. from being worshipped by Washington to not being worshipped by him), and if he undergoes change, then he is in time. A traditional response to this kind of objection, which Smith considers, is that while this involves a change to Washington, it does not really involve a change to God himself, but only a change in the relations Washington bears to him. And this kind of change does not require God to exist in time.
Smith’s response (through one of his dialogue’s characters) is to suggest that either sort of change involves God existing in time, but he gives no argument for this and it is not plausible. Nor need one be a theist to see this. If I am thinking about a Platonic Form or the number 14 at 2:30 pm but no longer thinking about them an hour later, it is hardly plausible to say that the Platonic Form or the number 14 have undergone a change and therefore exist in time.
Smith (or his dialogue’s character) also neglects to consider Of course, Smith would no doubt reject that view, but the point is that it is a well-known thesis that would have obvious application here, so that for Smith to give his character the last word without considering it seems a lapse. that while the world bears a real relation to God, God does not bear a real relation to the world.
I would also say that the analogical use of theological terms and apophatic or negative theology are absolutely crucial to a proper understanding of divine eternity, yet are not considered in Smith’s discussion. As I have acknowledged, in discussing eternity it is difficult to avoid all terms that ordinarily have temporal connotations. For example, Boethius’ phrase “all at once” would normally be used in contexts where we are talking about what happens at some moment of time, and his talk of eternity as a “standing now” also deploys a term with temporal connotations. However, the situation here is similar to the one we face when attributing things like power, goodness, knowledge, and the like to God. We are saying both that there is in God something analogous to what we call the now (or power, or goodness, or knowledge) in our case, but that it is not exactly the same thing, and that it lacks all aspects concomitant with our being changeable, corporeal, composite, and so on.
But such deficiencies do not reflect any bad faith on Smith’s part, nor any failure to try to engage with his opponents seriously, respectfully, and constructively. His admirable approach to conducting the debate between theism and atheism has one fewer representative, and he will be missed. My earnest prayer for this man from whose work I have profited is that, through divine grace, he now comes to know divine eternity more perfectly than any of us ever could in this life.