God and the Beginning of Time

Leibniz's question to Clarke, "Why Did God Not Create the World Sooner?" posses a difficult problem for theists holding to a neo-Newtonian view that God is omnitemporal and that time is beginningless. Kant's escape route—denying that the universe began to exist—is rendered implausible by contemporary cosmology. Unless we are prepared to say that the universe popped into being uncaused, we must face Leibniz's conundrum.

Leibniz's argument, when properly formulated, leads to the conclusion that time began to exist. The individual premisees are examined and found to be plausible.

But if time therefore began to exist, how is God's relation to the beginning of time to be construed? It is argued that God is plausibly timeless sans the universe and temporal with the universe. This paradoxical conclusion is defended against objections.

"God and the Beginning of Time." International Philosophical Quarterly 41 (2001): 17-31.

Did time have a beginning? Isaac Newton, whose disquisitions on time and space in his Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica became determinative for the classical concepts of space and time which reigned up until the Einsteinian revolution, held that it did not. Although Newton held to the traditional Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, he did not think that the beginning of the universe implied the beginning of space and time. Notoriously Newton held that prior to the beginning of the universe, there existed an infinite duration devoid of all physical events, a beginningless time in which at some point a finite time ago the universe came into being. For Newton our familiar clock time is but a "sensible measure" of this absolute time, which, he says, "of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration." 1

The prospect of this empty, beginningless duration prior to the inception of the universe has seemed scandalous to many, since in the absence of anything which endures it seems bizarre to maintain that duration itself exists. But Newton would have agreed wholeheartedly! Those who envision Newtonian absolute time as pure duration unrelated to and ungrounded in any substance or as itself an enduring substance have not yet comprehended Newton’s metaphysical views. For Newton conceived of absolute time as grounded in God’s necessary existence. In the General Scholium to the Principia, Newton observes that "It is allowed by all that the Supreme God exists necessarily"2—indeed, Newton held that "All that diversity of natural things which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing"3—"and by the same necessity he exists always and everywhere."4 As a being which exists necessarily, God must exist eternally, which Newton took to imply immemorial and everlasting duration. He writes,

He is eternal and infinite . . .; that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity . . . . He is not eternity and infinity, but eternal and infinite; he is not duration or space, but he endures and is present. He endures forever, and is everywhere present; and, by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes duration and space. Since every particle of space is always, and every indivisible moment of duration is everywhere, certainly the Maker and Lord of all things cannot be never and nowhere.5

Because God is eternal, there exists an everlasting duration, and because He is omnipresent, there exists an infinite space. Absolute time and space are therefore contingent upon the existence of God. As Newton elsewhere puts it, they are "emanative effects" of God’s existence.6 Thus, for Newton the beginning of the universe does not imply the beginning of time because prior to the moment of creation there existed God, infinitely enduring through beginningless ages up until that moment at which He created the world.

Why Did Not God Create the World Sooner?

Newton’s conception of absolute time scandalized his continental contemporary Gottfried Leibniz. On Leibniz’s preferred relational view of time, there are no instants of time in the absence of changing things; hence, given God’s immutability, time begins at creation and God’s eternal existence is to be construed in terms of timelessness.7 In his celebrated correspondence with the Newtonian Anhanger Samuel Clarke, Leibniz confronted Clarke with the following conundrum: Why, if He has endured through an infinite time prior to creation, did not God create the world sooner?8 Leibniz presented this challenge as an objection to Newton’s substantival view of time, but it is, in fact, an objection to time’s past infinity. The substantivalist who believes in the finitude of the past will find the question malformed, since there are no empty instants of time preceding creation, as Newton believed. Leibniz’s question is thus irrelevant to the substantivalism/relationalism debate; it is rather a challenge to the infinitude of the past.9 It asks what possible reason God could have had for delaying for infinite time His creation of the world. Whether time is construed substantivally or relationally, since God created all reality outside Himself ex nihilo at some time in the past, it follows, if past time is infinite, that God endured through an infinite period of creative idleness up until the moment of creation. Why did He wait so long?

One might think to avert the force of this conundrum by denying that the universe in fact began to exist, as Newton and Leibniz assumed. In fact Immanuel Kant thought that this was the position which we are rationally driven to adopt.10 In the antithesis to his First Antinomy concerning time, Kant asserts that "The world has no beginning" but "is infinite as regards. . . time . . . ."11 He argues,

Since the beginning is an existence which is preceded by a time in which the thing is not, there must have been a preceding time in which the world was not, i.e. an empty time. Now no coming to be of a thing is possible in an empty time, because no part of such a time possesses, as compared to any other, a distinguishing condition of existence rather than of nonexistence; and this applies whether the thing is supposed to arise of itself or through some other cause. In the world many series of things can, indeed, begin; but the world itself cannot have a beginning, and is therefore infinite in respect of past time.12



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