Stephen Law’s Super-mountain Argument: Part Two

Can we retain a doctrine of divine atemporality while holding to a doctrine of divine personhood? What reason does Law give for believing premise 1 true with respect to (A) Causal agency, (B) beliefs and (C) desires?

With respect to (A) Law states that “You can’t do something if there’s no time to do it in.” But what if God, sans the universe, does nothing? Law is assuming that a person must (of necessity) do something, but this is not so in the case of a being who brings the universe into existence from nothing. Traditional Christian doctrine affirms the doctrine of divine freedom, such that God could have created or not have created if he had so desired. With such freedom, it is only true that such a being does something (in virtue of there being a universe created). Had he not done something (say, create the universe) he would not fail to be a person – he would just be a person who fails to act. That is to say that a person can have the power of causal agency, yet not display that power of causal agency. The conclusion (3) with respect to (A) is therefore a non sequitur. Premise (2) states “persons have (A)” and not (2`) “all persons must have (A),” which is required for the conclusion in (3). Premise (2`) is false on Christian theology, and so the argument either way is unsound and a doctrine of divine atemporality with divine personhood can be retained, albeit not an unqualified atemporality.

With respect to (B) Law says “a belief is a psychological state, and [psychological] states have temporal duration.” Why should he assert this as so? In a state of affairs where there are no changing facts the psychological state of any knower would be unchanging and atemporal. (That is a truism.) So Law’ comment that psychological states have temporal duration is dependent on there being changing facts in the state of affairs, which is not necessarily true in the state of affairs that is sans creation. He is thus reasoning in a circle, for the only reason he has for accepting Premise 1 with respect to (B) – that belief is a temporal notion – as true, is by understanding all those with “belief” experience changing facts, i.e. are temporal.

Whether or not there are changing facts for God to experience will all depend on which theory of time (the Tensed or so-called A-theory, or the Tenseless or so-called B-theory) is correct. However, irrespective of which theory of time is correct, Christian theology has always affirmed that the perfection of God’s knowledge is such that God knows every true proposition, and believes no falsehood, and that he knows all this from eternity. This is the classical definition of omniscience. In other words, there can be no time (or no state of affairs) in which God can fail to know anything true, or God’s beliefs about the content of the set of all true propositions remains constant and unchanging. So the truth of premise 1 with respect to (B) is only true if limiting the pool to those beings that are not omniscient. But in that case, Stephen Law is reasoning in a circle, for he is hiding in premise 1 the assumption that there is no such thing as an omniscient being.

Regarding (C), its not altogether clear that desire necessarily entails temporal duration either. After all, theres no explicit logical incoherence in the idea that God, as a personal being, can desire certain things and be atemporal. For instance, God may desire to maintain the fullness of love experienced in the inter-trinitarian relationship. The Thomist who is a B-theorist of time argues that God, as an atemporal being, from eternity desires to sustain the universe in existence, which he consequently does. It is true that our experience of desire, as finite persons, is one of swelling and abating in intensity over time, then eventually vanishing altogether at its fulfillment or with the onset of apathy. But why should Law extrapolate our experiences of desire as finite persons, to a person of infinite perfection? Again we can see he is reasoning in a circle.

This is obvious when you consider why Law does not stick with the physicality of his mountainous analogy, and say “but being a person is a concept necessarily rooted in the physical.” The only reason for him to accept this would ha assume there is no such thing as a nonphysical (or atemporal) person from the outset.


So it turns out that Stephen Law has, going only from what was given in the quote above, failed to explicate the incompatibility between personhood and divine timelessness. Only in the case of (A) does he give an acceptable reason to rule out an unqualified sense of divine timelessness. Still, he does not rule out divine atemporality altogether. It follows that talk about God being a person and somehow “outside of time” is not philosophical gibberish, or engaging in evasions and obfuscations, as he claims.

An additional note.

The problem with a non-spacial mountain is not that it is meaningless gabble, but that a necessary condition for it being a mountain is missing, namely the presence of physicality. Lacking this essential attribute, the “mountain” ceases to be a mountain. Any adequate definition must accord with the intuitive understanding of the concept, and a “non-spacial mountain” has no appropriate analogue to the nature of God, for when we consider the notion of God, we begin with a being who possesses certain attributes (such as personhood, omni-benevolence and incorporeality, etc.) and these provide something meaningful to be discussed. We do not begin with a being that has lost attributes (such as temporality and corporality) that are essential for being meaningful.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *