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Temporal Flow, Relativity Theory, and Open Theology

Hello friends,

In our fifth session of the Quincy Science and Theology Conference, we heard from Robert Mann. Mann is the head of the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo in Ontario Canada. Unlike our previous guests, I’d never heard of Mann before. But this was, in my opinion, by far the most exciting and beneficial session thus far.

Dr. Mann gave the clearest, most insightful, and yes, entertaining talks on physics I’ve ever heard! It was truly remarkable. On top of all this, Dr. Mann is a Christian, and he ended the talk by discussing how every scenario science offers regarding the future of the universe leads to inevitable and complete doom. If there’s any hope, he argued, it’s in the Christian doctrine of resurrection. It was powerful.

But the main topic for the day was what science has to say about the nature of time. Among the many things Robert said was that there are 7 indicators in science (as we presently understand it) that suggest that the flow of time from the past to the future is real. (This is very important since the flow of time has for the most part been considered superfluous for the physical sciences, since most equations work forward or backward. Prediction and retrodiction are essentially the same).

I don’t have time to explain these, but for those who are curious, these 7 arguments are:
1) Cosmological: Evidence of the big bang suggests the universe is moving from a start in the past to a finish in the future.
2) Radioactive: Light and sound diverge outward but don’t converge inward.
3) Thermodynamics: Disorder increases over time. (This is the famous “Second Law of Thermodynamics”).
4) Gravitational: Black holes absorb all matter in a one way motion. There are no “white holes” that reverse the process.
5) Subatomic: Anti-kaons (the anti-matter of kaons) disintegrate faster than kaons.
6) Measurement: The collapse of the quantum wave is irreversible. And….
7) Psychological: People uniformly remember the past and anticipate the future. (This one, of course, is not a strictly scientific piece of evidence, but perhaps Mann included it simply because its a phenomenon that needs explaining.)

All of this is very signficiant for theology, if for no other reason than because the arrow of time from past to future must be real if a) humans are to be free and b) if the future is to be open.

But the REAL exciting stuff took place around the theory of relativity — which Mann presented more clearly than I’ve ever heard or even read before (and believe me, I’ve read quite a bit on this topic). At one point Mann seemed to suggest that Special and General Relativity Theory entailed a “block view” of the universe (this is the view that the past, present, and future are timelessly present as a sort of settled block. The flow of time, in other words, is not real ). He said that this didn’t rule out believing in the real flow of time, however, since Relativity Theory isn’t an exhaustive map of reality and other aspects of science suggest the flow of time IS real. (Plus, Mann confessed, he believes in free will, which rules out a block view of the universe).

After his presentation, we spent 90 minutes discussing and debating various topics. I jumped right in and pressed Mann on his interpretation of Relativity Theory. My argument was something like this:

We all know that Relativity Theory stipulates that the NOW of every finite perspective cannot be absolutely correlated with the NOW of any other finite perspective, since WHEN an event happens depends on WHERE you are, and HOW FAST you’re traveling, relative to the event in question. Yet, each finite perspective has ITSELF as a NOW, and this NOW has a real “before” and a real “after.” So the universe is comprised of all finite perspectives with their own NOW and their own “BEFORE” and “AFTER.” (In relativity language, each perspective has its own “time cone”).

Now, if we believe in an omnipresent God, God would be internally present to, and thus contemporaneous with, each finite perspective, and thus each NOW. God could therefore have — indeed, MUST have — a “NOW” that synchronizes and integrates ALL finite perspectives. Thus, for God, there is an absolute NOW that encompasses all NOWS. So even with Relativity Theory, I argued, God and the universe are moving forward from a real past to a real future. (I and Jim Knudson argue this in more depth, and with more humor, in The Cosmic Dance).

Mann’s response to me sort of missed the mark, since he apparently thought I was asking about the predictive power of Relativity Theory. I was making a metaphysical point, but he gave a physics answer — a mistake that happened throughout the morning (but which is totally understandable, given his training). Other seminar participants pressed him on the point throughout the morning, and by the end, Mann was quite explicitly agreeing that there’s nothing in Relativity Theory that suggests the future is somehow “out there” as an already-settled reality. In his lingo, the “block universe” has fudge room. The future is only contained in a “block” in the sense that there are parameters to our free decisions (and to chaotic movement as well as quantum indeterminacy).

All of us Open Theists felt very good about this. It is refreshing, since we’ve all been frustrated reading in critical literature over and over AND OVER again that Relativity Theory refutes openness theology.

It just ain’t so folks. If anything, it confirms it.

Enough for now.


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