Main   Terms   People   Interviews   Resources   Events

Isham, C.J. and J.C. Polkinghorne. “The Debate over the Block Universe."

Is ours a world of timeless being (the “block universe”) or of flowing time and true becoming? The current debate over the block universe, represented in the essay by Chris Isham and John Polkinghorne, brings together scientific, philosophical and theological arguments in a tightly-knit, interwoven pattern.

Proponents of the block universe appeal to special and general relativity to support a timeless view in which all spacetime events have equal ontological status. The finite speed of light, the light cone structure, and the downfall of universal simultaneity and with it the physical status of “flowing time” in special relativity result in a heightened tendency to ontologize spacetime. The additional arbitrariness in the choice of time coordinates in general relativity makes flowing time physically meaningless. Thus no fundamental meaning can be ascribed to the “present” as the moving barrier with the kind of unique and universal significance needed to unequivocally distinguish “past” from “future.” Instead the flowing present is a mental construct, and four-dimensional spacetime is an “eternally existing” structure. God may know the temporality of events as experienced subjectively by creatures, but God cannot act temporally, since flowing time has no fundamental meaning in nature. Theologians must accept the Boethian and even gnostic implications of the block universe.

Opponents of the block universe begin by distinguishing between kinematics and dynamics. Special relativity imposes only kinematic constraints on the structure of spacetime. The dynamics of quantum physics and chaos theory encourages a view of nature as open and temporal, thus allowing for both human and divine agency. The problem of the lack of universal simultaneity is lessened since simultaneity is an a posteriori construct. Philosophically disposed to critical realism, opponents are wary of the incipient reductionism of the block view. They resist the Boethian implications of relativity, and argue instead that divine omnipresence must be redefined in terms of a special frame of reference, perhaps one provided by the cosmic background radiation. God’s knowledge of spacetime events in terms of this frame of reference will be constrained by both the world’s causal sequence and the distinction between past and future. Similarly God’s actions will be consistent with relativity theory.

In the end, is the debate merely philosophical or could it actually have scientific consequences? Proponents of the block universe challenge their opponents to decide between a mere reinterpretation of the existing theories of physics and the much stronger claim that these theories should be changed. If forthcoming, such changes ought to be testable empirically and would constitute a major achievement in the debate over time. Proponents also point to additional complexities in the debate, such as the problem of giving a realist interpretation of quantum physics. These problems become even more acute when dealing with quantum cosmology, making an atemporal interpretation almost inevitable. They do not object to positing that God experiences the world through a special frame of reference or that God is aware of the experience of temporality of living creatures. However they find it hard to understand how God’s action on the world can respect the causal constraints on such action entailed by special relativity.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: CTNS/Vatican Observatory

Topic Sets Available

AAAS Report on Stem-Cells

AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms

Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine
Becoming Human: Brain, Mind, Emergence
Big Bang Cosmology and Theology (GHC)
Cosmic Questions Interviews

Cosmos and Creator
Creativity, Spirituality and Computing Technologies
CTNS Content Home
Darwin: A Friend to Religion?
Demystifying Information Technology
Divine Action (GHC)
Dreams and Dreaming: Neuroscientific and Religious Visions'
E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom
Engaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics
Evangelical Atheism: a response to Richard Dawkins
Ecology and Christian Theology
Evolution: What Should We Teach Our Children in Our Schools?
Evolution and Providence
Evolution and Creation Survey
Evolution and Theology (GHC)
Evolution, Creation, and Semiotics

The Expelled Controversy
Faith and Reason: An Introduction
Faith in the Future: Religion, Aging, and Healthcare in the 21st Century

Francisco Ayala on Evolution

From Christian Passions to Scientific Emotions
Genetic Engineering and Food

Genetics and Ethics
Genetic Technologies - the Radical Revision of Human Existence and the Natural World

Genomics, Nanotechnology and Robotics
Getting Mind out of Meat
God and Creation: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Big Bang Cosmology
God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion
God the Spirit - and Natural Science
Historical Examples of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)
History of Creationism
Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Issues for the Millennium: Cloning and Genetic Technologies
Jean Vanier of L'Arche
Nano-Technology and Nano-ethics
Natural Science and Christian Theology - A Select Bibliography
Neuroscience and the Soul
Outlines of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)

Perspectives on Evolution

Physics and Theology
Quantum Mechanics and Theology (GHC)
Questions that Shape Our Future
Reductionism (GHC)
Reintroducing Teleology Into Science
Science and Suffering

Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (CTNS/Vatican Series)

Space Exploration and Positive Stewardship

Stem-Cell Debate: Ethical Questions
Stem-Cell Ethics: A Theological Brief

Stem-Cell Questions
Theistic Evolution: A Christian Alternative to Atheism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design...
Theology and Science: Current Issues and Future Directions
Unscientific America: How science illiteracy threatens our future
Will ET End Religion?

Current Stats: topics: >2600, links: >300,000, video: 200 hours.