Space-time, free will and purpose

In the next 2 posts, I would like to share some ideas that illustrate how my scientific training has influenced my reading and understanding of the bible. These thoughts are not confined to the realm of science (i.e. not testable) and I have taken creative liberties in my speculations. Furthermore, while some (probably most) of these ideas have been echoed by others in the past, the views expressed in the following posts are my own and do not represent those of the church or scientists as a whole. Also, as a scientist and a student of life, my understanding is fluid and may change with time as I get exposed to new evidence.

Whisper words of wisdom…

Let me start with a song: Psalm 139. This song was written by king David who reigned around 1000 BC. The psalm touches on the topics of God’s omnipresence (God is everywhere) and God’s seeming knowledge of the future. In particular, David’s song suggests God is aware of our every decisions before we even make them… for many, this raises concerns about our free will and agency in the world. If God knows everything we will do before we do it, what choices do we really have? And if we do not really have a choice, how can we be held accountable for our actions? I believe physics has some insights for this conundrum.

In the beginning…

In discussions of science and faith, the book of genesis is often a big can of worms. Many theologically trained people have provided well researched comments on genesis.  I will not explore those right now, but I will reiterate that the bible is not a science textbook. In my (possibly simplistic) view, the bible is helpfully described as a compendium of books recounting the story of God and His people passed down (first orally then in writing) over many millenia. It has a mixture of literary styles and is best interpreted within its context (historical and cultural) and genre.

Genesis is chronologically the first (although probably not the first written) “book” in the modern bible, and it is itself a compendium of stories possibly written by multiple authors. There are many wisdom nuggets one can glean from genesis that underpin the Christian worldview (actually that of the major monotheistic religions). One important one, is the statement that God somehow made the universe (it actually says “the heavens and the Earth” [Genesis 1:1], which I interpret as meaning “the Earth and everything beyond it”). If God made the universe, it is logical to assume He is not of it. In fact, my interpretation (and that of many others before me) is that the bible suggests that such a God would be outside of space-time.

What happened before the Big Bang?

A common question I get asked when giving public lectures is “what happened before the Big Bang?” or some variation thereof. I quite like how some have explained that this is analogous to asking someone “where were you before you were conceived“? (Although there are some theories within which this question may be legitimate.) I like Stephen Hawking’s analogy also:

ONE CAN REGARD IMAGINARY AND REAL TIME AS BEGINNING IN THE SOUTH POLE, WHICH IS A SMOOTH POINT IN SPACE-TIME WHERE THE NORMAL LAWS OF PHYSICS HOLD. THERE IS NOTHING SOUTH OF THE SOUTH POLE, SO THERE WAS NOTHING AROUND BEFORE THE BIG BANG. — Stephen Hawking

According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, time is another dimension. We know of and observe 3 dimensions of space and one dimension of time. If modern theories like string theory are correct, there may be many more dimensions. I note that these theories are currently untestable, so I will stick to Einstein’s theories, which are incomplete, but well tested. As 3 dimensional beings embedded in the so-called 4 dimensional “space-time”, we perceive time as flowing, but Einstein’s equations tell us that time is another dimension. Actually, we still don’t understand the reason behind why time flows in a single direction (or the origin of the second law of thermodynamics), but that’s beyond the scope of this post. Suppose that God created the Earth and everything beyond it (i.e. space), and time is a dimension like the 3 dimensions of space, then it follows that God would also have created time.

God creating time has several interesting implications. First of all, He would be outside of time. So just like “what happened before the Big Bang”, questions about what God did *before* He created the universe don’t make sense because the word “before” is only meaningful in the context of time.

Famous physicist and atheist Stephen Hawking thought “the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing“. This is a statement of faith by a (albeit famous and smart) scientist, not to be confused with a statement of science. Hawking believed nothing created itself, and to some that is less offensive than God creating everything. As you might guess, I agree to disagree on this point.

Also, if one accepts that God can be everywhere at once (omnipresent) as Psalm 139 suggests and time is a dimension, then it is reasonable that God is also “everywhen” (omnichronic, not sure this is even a word). In my experience, God’s omnipresence is broadly accepted within Christianity.

This also resolves the apparent contradiction of free will vs destiny/purpose. If God can be everywhen, we can still make decisions although whatever we decide is unlikely to surprise Him because he’s already “then”… 

Well.. ’nuff said for today. I’m keen to have a conversation and curious to hear your respectful comments/thoughts on this topic.

PS: There are a few passages in the bible where God seemingly changes His mind following human intervention. A quick google will swiftly bring a list of contradictory verses about whether God can or cannot change His mind. Could the conflict again have something to do with limiting God within time?

PPS: A really nice visualisation of time as a dimension is found in the movie interstellar [featured image]. When Cooper (the protagonist) enters the black hole, he is able to float around between different time snapshots of his daughter’s bedroom. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s a good watch. This is one of my favourite scenes and shows time as another spatial dimension where Cooper is able to float freely back and forth between various times. I should explain that nobody really knows what happens inside a black hole because the laws of physics as we understand them do not hold inside black holes, so the movie took some artistic license there.

Image credit: The featured image is taken from here and is a snapshot of the movie Interstellar.

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