SORITES, ISSN 1135-1349
Issue #12. May 2001. Pp. 33-54.
God and His/her Act of Creation: Leibniz and the «Why-not-sooner» Argument
Copyright © by SORITES and Abel B. Franco Rubio de la Torre
God and His/Her Act of Creation: Leibniz and the «Why-not-sooner» Argument
by Abel B. Franco Rubio de la Torre
by Abel B. Franco Rubio de la Torre
The question about how to conceive God's act of creation in a fashion compatible with Leibniz's own thought is in itself a cluster of complex and interrelated issues. I will discuss in the following pages only three aspects (or conglomerates of aspects) of the issue: (1) Leibniz's view of how God actually created the world, and within this and more specifically, (2) his arguments to reject the «why-did-God-not-create-the-world-sooner» question as not applicable to this case, and (3) the consequences of those arguments for the concept of time. I will argue that, given Leibniz's own view of creation and time, (1) the question about why God did not create the world earlier or later is a legitimate one despite his explicit efforts in the opposite sense, and, furthermore, (2) an answer to the question within Leibniz's thought would fall prey of fatal contradictions and inconsistencies.
This problem is not new in the history of philosophy. As far as I know the issue was for the first time clearly faced and introduced into the philosophical discussion by Augustine of Hipo (354-430). Interestingly enough, both Augustine and Leibniz were «forced» to face the problem by their contemporary opponents while dealing with other issues, as if they did not feel the question deserved attention in itself or did not feel comfortable dealing with it. Whereas Augustine was defending a correct interpretation of the Scriptures against the objections of the Manichees to the Old Testament, Leibniz found himself facing the problem of a possible earlier creation in the famous correspondence with Clarke while attacking Newton's absolute time. Both thinkers coincided too in defending similar views on some of the crucial ideas involved in the discussion: both defended, for example, a world in which time is, at least in some sense, dependent upon change, and, more important, both believed God is the timeless creator of a temporal world. The former idea -- time as the measure of motion (but dependent on it) -- was put forward by Aristotle in the fourth book of his PhysicsFoot note 2_1 and still enjoyed good health in seventeenth-century thinkers like DescartesFoot note 2_2 and Hobbes.Foot note 2_3 The latter view -- a temporal creation by an timeless being -- represents in itself a major philosophical difficulty: how can both be compatible, i. e. the timelessness of the creator and the temporality of the created world? how can it be possible at all that a timeless being creates something temporal? This difficulty can be explored by dividing and reformulating it from two of its basic premises, namely, that God creates a temporal world, and that he makes a decision to do so -- both Leibniz and Augustine agree on this. We would have, then, two basic questions to answer:
1) Which is the content of God's eternity, i. e. his occupation in that eternity, especially before creating the world? We can narrow this question more: how much of that occupation can we say from the very fact that he decided to create the world? and is that enough to talk about the existence of time? If time is the measure of motion (as both Leibniz and Augustine believe), the exploration of that pre-creation state in God may help to find out whether we can talk or not about time in a world in which only God existed.
And 2) which relation does God's (timeless) existence maintain with his own act of creation (not with the created world)? If we, in fact, admit -- and Leibniz, in particular, is quite explicit about this, especially because God is free --, at least, that God made a decision to create the world -- as opposed, for example, to Plotinus' necessitarian view of a God creating by necessity, or to Descartes' unification of God's only act with his will and with the expression of his own freedomFoot note 2_4 -- then the exploration of how to understand that very act of making a decision may also help resolve the issue of whether it in itself implies the existence of time or not. I believe these are the two crucial questions, not fully faced by either Augustine or Leibniz, whose answer will solve the matter of time before creation. And I also believe that, given Augustine's and Leibniz's view of creation, both of them lead to an affirmative response: there is time before creation. Let us see.
Leibniz does not devote much time to the details of how the world was created. Certain passages openly suggest that for him to understand the very act of creation does not seem to be a priority, or even a possibility:
PHIL. Many words, which seem to express some action, signify nothing [but the cause and the effect]; v. g. creation, annihilation, contain in them no idea of the action or manner..., but barely of the cause, and the thing' which is produced.
THEO. I admit that in thinking of the creation one does not -- and indeed cannot -- conceive of any process in detail. But one thinks of something in addition to God and the world, for one thinks that God is the cause and the world the effect, i. e. that God has produced the world. So obviously one does also think of action.Foot note 2_5
Creation is a word which «contains in it no idea of the action or manner..., but barely of the cause, and the thing which is produced» (my italics). But notice that Leibniz is clearly referring to creation as a «word». The problem, in these terms, seems to be simply one of the reference of the word creation: since it does not refer to a particular process the term simply does not say anything about that process. But in other places the problem becomes more than a linguistic one: it is an epistemic-ontological one. We cannot really know much about creation, in any case, Leibniz says, because of its own nature. Creation, according to Leibniz, is a good example of a «miracle,» one of those phenomena which «cannot be explained by the nature of bodies».Foot note 2_6 And although «there are miracles of an inferior sort, which an angel can work» (like «make a man walk upon the water without sinking»),Foot note 2_7 creation can only be done by God, which places it even further from our comprehension. «There are miracles, which none but God can work; they exceeding all natural powers. Of which kind, are creating and annihilating».Foot note 2_8
Statements like these in Leibniz's writings obviously contribute to deter anyone from trying to make manifest his view on how God created the world. If «thinking of the creation,» as we have just read, «one does not conceive of any process in detail,» and if, furthermore, that action is a «miracle» (and, therefore, beyond «all natural powers»), then, there is, in fact, not much to say about it. Leibniz does, however, say something about it. But these words help explain why there is -- if not a total absence of thoughts on the question in his writings -- at least a notable lack of a somehow organized and systematic treatment of it. This is not the case of the philosophical problems related to how creation is possible -- that is the problem of how something could come into existence from nothing, which for Leibniz is equivalent to the problem of why there is something rather than nothingFoot note 2_9 --, and why God created this particular world rather than another. These issues do have a lengthy place in Leibniz's writings. But they do not abound in details on how God brought the world into existence.
When God is referred to as a creator, he is depicted as a «mathematician» («a kind of divine mathematics or metaphysical mechanism is used in the origin of things»Foot note 2_10) or as an «architect»Foot note 2_11 who was looking for the best solution to the problem of how to create the world. The «problem» for him was to produce the maximum amount of perfection,Foot note 2_12 a task for which mathematics could provide the reasons to build a perfect mechanism.Foot note 2_13 And although the world is not only «the most wonderful mechanism» but is also «the most perfect [world] morally,» Leibniz reminds several times that «moral perfection is truly natural».Foot note 2_14 In any case, in order to produce a physical world the mathematician must be something else. He must act on matter. And this is what we want to know about here.
One of the few places where Leibniz faces openly and at some length aspects of the question about how God actually created the world is in his letters to Clarke (and, therefore, to Newton too), in particular the third and fifth ones. There Leibniz deals with the very specific problem of why God did not create the world earlier or later. He attempts, in particular, to refute the view of those who think it possible that God could have created the world sooner.Foot note 2_15 He divides the problem in two cases: (1) the possibility that God could have created this same world sooner, and (2) the possibility that he could have created a world sooner.
Regarding the former, Leibniz's answer does not leave any room for doubts. Anyone claiming that God could have created this world sooner is either «saying nothing that is intelligible» or «supposing a chimerical thing.»Foot note 2_16 His main reason for such a clear rejection is that «there is no mark or difference whereby it would be possible to know that this world was created sooner».Foot note 2_17 That mark is supposedly a temporal mark and without it we would not be able to «know» about a sooner or later. We should notice two things here: (1) Leibniz is not saying that there is not a sooner but simply that we cannot «know» it; and (2) the verb «to know» seems to have «we» as subject. But it could have also another subject, namely, God. We could think of a possible mark only knowable to God. This is interesting to note because, taking in all its generality Leibniz's statement that the necessary mark cannot be known, then he is clearly rejecting both possibilities: the mark cannot be known by us or by anybody else, namely, God.
But Leibniz does not simply reject an «earlier creation» from an epistemological perspective. It is also rejected ontologically. In which conditions would that mark exist? That mark would exist, according to Leibniz, only if we admitted an absolute time independent (a) of the created world or (b) of God. And both possibilities must be rejected. Let us see. An absolute time as independent upon the created world is rejected because time exists only if there are created things. «Time, without things, is nothing else but a mere ideal possibility.»Foot note 2_18 The lack of «things» before creation, in this case, means that there is no time before creation and, therefore, no mark to talk about sooner or later. The why-not-sooner question does not apply.Foot note 2_19 As to the second possibility, a time independent of God is rejected because nothing in the world is out of his dominion and, according to Leibniz, for God to be in time means that he depends on it. God cannot have «the property of being in time» because that would make him «depend upon time and stand in need of it».Foot note 2_20 Thus, if time were taken for something «real and absolute without bodies,» Leibniz writes, it would be «a thing eternal, impassible, and independent upon God,»Foot note 2_21 which for him is enough to reject that possibility.
Thus, we have two reasons why God did not create the world earlier: (1) he did not have a «reason» to do so; and (2) he could not even have a reason because time did not exist then. God did not have enough reason to create at a particular instant because before creation there are not two different instants then. Instants is, strictly speaking according to Leibniz, the only thing of time that exists. «Nothing of time does ever exist, but instants; and an instant is not even itself a part of time» which means that «time can only be an ideal thing».Foot note 2_22 But since two instants cannot be distinguished before time is created, Leibniz's principle of the identity of indiscernibles forces to conclude that, in fact, there are not two instants. «If two things perfectly indiscernible from each other did exist, they would be two [...] is false and contrary to the grand principle of reason».Foot note 2_23 Thus, «one must not say [...] that God created things in what particular space, and at what particular time he pleased. For, all time and all spaces being in themselves perfectly uniform and indiscernible from each other, one of them cannot please more than another».Foot note 2_24 And, therefore, God could not have «good reasons» to create the world sooner.Foot note 2_25
Leibniz extends further the consequences of his principle of indiscernibles. He talks sometimes about an «ideal time» which supposedly exists only in God's mind -- and, therefore, it does exist before creation. «If there were no creatures, space and time would be only the ideas of God.»Foot note 2_26 But even in this case it would be meaningless for Leibniz to talk about different instants because we are referring to «ideal things». «The parts of time or place, considered in themselves, are ideal things; and therefore they perfectly resemble one another like two abstract units. But it is not so with two concrete ones, or with two real times, or two spaces filled up, that is, truly actual.»Foot note 2_27 There is, however, at least one place where Leibniz talks about time (and place), not as dependent on the world or on God, but as a sort of precondition for creation:
It is very clearly understood that, out of the infinite combinations and series of possible things, one exists through which the greatest amount of essence or possibility is brought into existence. There is always a principle of determination in nature which must be sought by maxima and minima; namely, that a maximum effect should be achieved with a minimum outlay, so to speak. And at this point time and place, or, in a word, the receptivity or capacity of the world, can be taken for the outlay, or the terrain on which a building is to be erected as commodiously as possible, the variety of forms corresponding to the spaciousness of the building and the number and elegance of its chambers.Foot note 2_28
Although this time as the «receptivity of the world» seems to be independent of God -- unless God is taken as responsible for that receptivity -- it does not mean, however -- following Leibniz's previous argument -- that we have a mark to talk about sooner or later. It could still not be real time but only ideal, as the possibility is to the existence in Leibniz's larger view of creation.Foot note 2_29
Let us observe some of the implications of this argument so far. It has been an important implicit statement that it is by creating the things of this world how God brought time into existence. In other words, the created things and time started existing simultaneously:
Thus it appears how we are to understand, that God created things at what time he pleased; for this depends upon the things, which he resolved to create. But things being once resolved upon, together with their relations; there remains no longer any choice about the time and the place, which of themselves have nothing in them real, nothing that can distinguish them, nothing that is at all discernible.Foot note 2_30
This is also the reason why the only real time is the «time of things» (i. e. the time of the world), why time is dependent upon things, and why Newton's absolute time should be rejected. «Space in itself is an ideal thing, like time; space [and time] out of the world must needs be imaginary [...]».Foot note 2_31 And consequently, also, we cannot talk either about «instants» before creation. «Instants, consider'd without the things, are nothing at all; and they consist only in the successive order of things».Foot note 2_32 What about the moment of creation itself? Did it take place in the «first instant»?
In a letter to Louis Bourguet written at about the same time he is maintaining his correspondence with Clarke, Leibniz discards «the necessity of conceiving a primary instant» arguing that «there is no one point whatsoever in nature which is fundamental with respect to all other points and which is therefore the seat of God, so to speak.»Foot note 2_33
Notice two things: (1) that he rejects only the «necessity» of a first instant, which means that «[he] do[es] not venture to deny that there may be a first instant»;Foot note 2_34 and (2) that the first instant for Leibniz is, in a sense, «the seat of God.» The latter is quite ambiguous in this context. In which sense would that first instant, if it existed, be «the seat of God»? One interpretation would be the one given above, namely, that without God the first instant would not be measurable as such. But would that not be the opposite, God as «the seat of time»? Why talk here about the «seat of God»?
Let us see how Leibniz deals with the second part of the why-not-sooner problem as it was outlined above in his own words -- the possibility that a world, any possible world, was created earlier. The argument he uses to reject this possibility is not very different. Leibniz proposes to imagine a prolongation backwards of a possible world already created by God, so that it would be a world created sooner. Now, can this actually happen? No, according to Leibniz. For although he admits that «one may conceive that such a world began sooner» he denies that such an augmentation «be reasonable and agreeable to God's wisdom...[for] otherwise God would have made such an augmentation.»Foot note 2_35 In other words, although that world could exist in our imaginations it could never have come into existence in actuality because it would not have been «reasonable» for God to create it then (i. e. sooner). Thus, as in the previous case of the possible creation of this world sooner, Leibniz concludes here that God could not even have had a «reason» because the possibility of an earlier creation was not even available. God was not even facing a dilemma among (temporal) choices where none of them looked «better» to his eyes. He actually did not have a choice, and, therefore, no reason to prefer the creation of the world at such or such particular point in time. Or in other words, since the possibility for any differentiation of temporal points is based on the existence of time, that differentiation could not exist before the world came into existence.
Both possibilities, then, regarding an earlier creation -- either of this world or another one -- have been rejected by Leibniz on the basis of a similar argumentation, namely:
One cannot say [...] that the wisdom of God may have good reasons to create this world at such or such particular time; that particular time, considered without the things, being an impossible fiction; and good reasons for a choice, being not to be found, where everything is indiscernible.Foot note 2_36
And with the rejection of these two possibilities, the problem seems to be exhausted for Leibniz.
Let us note again that Leibniz's resistence to accept the possibility of a world created sooner goes considerably beyond his rejection of an absolute time. The price one would have to pay is also too high for his metaphysics, in particular, for the «order of things» and for the «divine wisdom.» Both would be altered, Leibniz believes, because that possibility would shake two of the pillars of his ontology, namely, the principle of the identity of the indiscernibles and the principle of sufficient reason.
This supposition of two indiscernibles, such as two pieces of matter perfectly alike, seems indeed to be possible in abstract terms; but it is not consistent with the order of things, nor with the divine wisdom, by which nothing is admitted without reason.Foot note 2_37
An earlier creation lacks «sufficient reason». And that want of sufficient reason is based, precisely, on the identity of all the possible temporal points in which God could have placed the creation of this world. That is, the want of sufficient reason is based on the identity of the indiscernibles and, therefore, the identity or indiscernibility of the different «points in time» eliminates the possibility of God's choice. The denial of the other basic principle -- the sufficient reason -- brings about «chimeras such as an absolute real time or space.»Foot note 2_38
Leibniz's further clarification about what he understands by «this world» helps to complete his view of the issue:
When I speak of this world, I mean the whole universe of material and immaterial creatures taken together, from the beginning of things. But if any one mean only the beginning of the material world, and suppose immaterial creatures before it; he would have somewhat more reason for his supposition. For time then being marked by things that existed already, it would be no longer indifferent; and there might be room for choice. For, supposing the whole universe of immaterial and material creatures together, to have a beginning; there is no longer any choice about the time, in which God would place that beginning.Foot note 2_39
From these words several problems arise. Firstly, Leibniz is admitting here that if there were «things that existed already» before this world was created, they could serve as a mark and, then, «there might be room for [God's] choice.» It could be argued that since «the beginning of this world» refers to the beginning of the «whole universe of material and immaterial creatures» it could be the case that some immaterial things existed before the material ones and they would serve as marks -- or vice versa. But even if this were the case (i. e. that material and immaterial things do not come into existence simultaneously) we would not solve the problem with it. We would be just postponing it because the why-not-sooner question applies to whatever was first, whether immaterial or material. In other words, even if there are different levels of reality, we still have to face the problem of the beginning of the created world.
Second, Leibniz seems to assume -- here and in previous statements -- that God, in order to be able to create this world, existed «before» the world was created. He does, in fact, clearly separate in several places God and his act of creation by the mediation of a decision to create, which makes that separation temporal. This is supported, explicitly, by his above «God places the beginning of the world» and in other places.Foot note 2_40 But in some places, similar to Descartes, Leibniz argues that this is not the only way to save God's freedom with respect to the act of creation:
We therefore have the ultimate reason for the reality of essences s well as existences in one being, which must necessarily be greater, higher, and prior to the world itself, since not only the existing thing which compose the world but also all possibilities have their reality through it. But because of the interconnection of all these things, this ultimate reason can be found only in a single source. It is evident, however, that existing things are continuously issuing from this source and are being produced and have been produced by it, since no reason appears why one state of the world should issue from it rather than another, that of yesterday rather than today's. It is clear, too, how God acts not merely physically but freely as well, and how there is in him not only the efficient but the final cause of the world. Thus we have in him the reason not merely for the greatness and power in the world mechanism as already established, but also for the goodness and wisdom exerted in establishing it.Foot note 2_41
In this and other places Leibniz concentrates his efforts so much in rejecting any sort of reason in God to create the world earlier or later that his account of creation seems to come quite close to a form of emanationism Notice, however, that despite the fact that all «existing things are continuously issuing from the source» «God acts not merely physically but freely as well.»
Thirdly, the problem of the nature of the «mark» which enables us to talk about time is not sufficiently discussed by Leibniz. We have seen above that Leibniz rejected this mark both epistemologically «it cannot be known» and ontologically «it cannot exist». Indeed, if we assume that the mark is «part of the world» we will never find the appropriate reference, obviously. For in order for a reference to be valid to establish a moment «earlier to the creation of this world» it must be external to that world, i. e., must exist outside «this (created) world.» And if the mark must be «outside the world,» then, assuming with Leibniz that time only exists with the world, there cannot be a mark because there is no time then (at least, as we have seen not a real time). But, is this all there is? There is still another possibility, not taken into account by Leibniz. Why cannot God himself serve as the mark we need?
For Leibniz, God cannot have «the property of being in time» because that would make him «depend upon time and stand in need of it».Foot note 2_42 And he, in fact, refers to God as «extramundane,» which for him means, unambiguously, «beyond the world, beyond the collection of finite things.»Foot note 2_43 Thus, to place God in time would result in accepting that God is a subordinate being. And since this is impossible, according to Leibniz, we must reject that there is time before creation. (This does not deny that God is, in a sense, also in the world -- «To say that God is above the world, is not denying that he is in the world»Foot note 2_44 -- but that is another matter and does not affect directly our problem here.)Foot note 2_45 God, however, has eternity for Leibniz as one of his defining features. And this does not make him temporal because «eternity» does not mean either «in time»: «The immensity of God is independent upon space, as his eternity is independent upon time [...] I don't admit that if God existed alone, there would be time and space as there is now: whereas then, in my opinion, they would be only in the ideas of God as mere possibilities.»Foot note 2_46 That God is «independent upon time» means, then, that he is independent upon the time of this world. It means too that his «eternity» is either timeless (again, taking time as «time of the world») or that, if there is any time at all in it (in his eternity), it is a different kind of time (not the time of the world). Leibniz opts for the former of this two understandings:
It cannot be said that [a certain] duration is eternal but [it can be said] that the things which continue always are eternal, [gaining always a new duration.] Whatever exists of time and of duration, [being successive] perishes continually: and how can a thing exist eternally, which (to speak exactly,) does never exist at all? For, how can a thing exist, whereof no part does ever exist? Nothing of time does ever exist, but instants; and an instant is not even itself a part of time.Foot note 2_47
Now, is this compatible with Leibniz's view of time? Given his relational view of time, which is the justification to think of the possible relation between God and time as one of dependence? If time exists as long as two things exist, why should it mean dependence of any of them on time? Leibniz could avoid this question by saying that it does not apply if only God existed. In that case there would be no possibility of a «relation» to be established between two things and, therefore, we still would not be allowed to talk about time. But do we really need two things -- one of which should be outside God -- to talk about time? Why aren't changes in God himself enough to talk about time? Aristotle already considered changes in thought as sufficient for the possibility of time (and Leibniz seems to share his view in time). Changes in God's thought (or in his personality if we want) is all we need to have «two things» before creation -- and therefore time. Now, is this at all a possibility? It seems to be, in fact, more than a possibility. It is rather a conclusion from two of the premises in Leibniz's reasoning, namely, that God made the decision to create the world and that he is prior to the world. If he made the decision, we should assume that something must have preceded and led to that decision, whatever that something is -- we can probably venture to say that it might have been a certain process of thought.
The possibility that time existed before creation has been suggested by Leibniz as we have seen above. It was not, however, time in its «real» form but only «ideal» -- something consistent with his view regarding the way we should understand «existence» of things before they are created: «if there were no creatures, space and time would be only the ideas of God.»Foot note 2_48 But would this, in any case, imply that God, in fact, may then have had certain reasons to choose time A instead of B to create the world? Or at least that we can talk about time before creation? If «ideal» is mere possibility then no. But Leibniz does not explore neither discards the possibility of looking for the «two things» in God himself -- the condition which would allow us to talk about time in the Leibnizian relational sense. The fact that God is «independent upon time» does not mean that he cannot be the «mark» we need to know about the passage of time. On the contrary, it could mean that God is probably the best possible mark of the passage of time since he fulfills the basic requirement to be it: he is «outside» of that time and he himself (given that he is a being who decides and acts, i. e. in whom changes occur) suffices to talk about Leibniz's relational time.
There are, of course, several other questions which would require an answer if this issue were to become clear in Leibniz. He has not fully, convincingly, and satisfactorily resolved the numerous questions about the relationship between a being out of time and a world created by that being which is from its very beginning in time. Is the moment of creation itself «in time» or not? How are we to understand the creation of the world -- and with it of time -- by a timeless being? How can a being «out of time» create time? Which is the relationship between a God «out of time» and the temporal world? It could simply be said that God does not create time but things (and once we have things we have time). But the question would still remain. We would just need to reformulate it in a different manner: how can a timeless being create things (which, again, once created happen to be temporal)? Is creation itself in time or out of time? Does God not have certain duration? Leibniz has denied this explicitly. Even if God is excluded from «the whole universe of material and immaterial creatures,» as we read above in Leibniz, it was Him who made the decision to create the world. Is that decision too «out of time»? Is that decision not one of the «acts» which have «a place» in God's own history, ast least? In other words, is it possible to conceive a being which (1) makes a decision to do something, and (2) does something, without temporality in him/her?
Let us now, before starting a further discussion of them, take a look at the problem from a wider historical point of view.
The problem arisen by Leibniz in the 18th century was first formulated and faced by Augustine of Hippo (354-430) who, seemingly, was the first thinker in positing clearly the salient issues here.Foot note 2_49 After reminding that the current problem is presented only to «those who agree that God is the Creator of the World,» Augustine places the «difficulties about the time of its creation» at the same level than the «difficulties we might raise about the place of its creation.»Foot note 2_50 In fact, both problems seem to be very similar. Both of them look for a reason why the world was «placed» here and not there. «As they demand why the world was created then and no sooner, we may ask why it was created just here where it is, and not elsewhere.»Foot note 2_51 Both problems stimulate also, according to Augustine, parallel questions on the limits of God's omnipotence and omnipresence. And, as a consequence, both lead us to ask about God's occupation before creating the world.
For if they imagine infinite spaces of time before the world, during which God could not have been idle, in like manner they may conceive outside the world infinite realms of space, in which, if any one says that the Omnipotent cannot hold His hand from working, will it not follow that they must adopt Epicurus' dream of innumerable worlds? with this difference only, that he asserts that they are formed and destroyed by the fortuitous movements of atoms, while they will hold that they are made by God's hand, if they maintain that, throughout the boundless immensity of space, stretching interminably in every direction round the world, God cannot rest, and that the worlds which they suppose Him to make cannot be destroyed.Foot note 2_52
Consequently both problems -- the possibility of a world created at a different moment and in a different place -- deserve, according to Augustine, a parallel answer. Leibniz did also maintain a constant parallelism between his conclusions regarding space and time on this issue. To start with, for Augustine God did have a reason to create the world when he did and to place it where he did place it. God did not «set the world in the very spot it occupies and no other by accident rather than by divine reason.»Foot note 2_53 This means that, unlike Leibniz, Augustine believes that God had a choice and did choose a particular point in time to create the world. And he did so even if «there was no merit in the spot chosen to give it the precedence of infinite others.»Foot note 2_54 But if «there was no merit in the spot chosen,» what about God's divine reason? Can we actually know anything about God's reasons to create the world at a particular moment in time? No, we cannot, according to Augustine. The reason God had to choose that moment was, as said, a «divine reason» which «no human reason can comprehend.»Foot note 2_55 Therefore, human curiosity cannot be satisfied in this regard. Augustine separates the realms of God's and human reasoning up to the point of denying our access to any divine reasons. Leibniz's principle of sufficient reason, on the other hand, allowed humans, at least, to put limits to God's actions in terms of what must be «reasonable» to God. Augustine does not think that he even has the right to enter that field.
Furthermore, even if for Augustine God had «reason» to create the world when he did, it is not possible to talk about time before the world was created. Time applies to the world only. With respect to God we have to talk about eternity. Their difference is very clear: «Time does not exist without some movement and transition, while in eternity there is no change.»Foot note 2_56 Two conclusions from this. First, God's reasons cannot be considered temporal (at least in this sense). The «reason/s» God had to create this world had nothing to do with placing the world in this or that moment in time. Strictly speaking, the «temporal considerations» could not even take place in God's mind. His reasons must have been of other kindFoot note 2_57. Second, God created the world not from time but from eternity.
Third, the world was not made «in time» but «simultaneously with time» (Leibniz will repeat this as we saw). And change came into existence at that very moment too. The former simultaneity -- creation of the world and beginning of time -- is explained by arguing that «that which is made in time is made both after and before some time.» And, since in this case there is no «before,» as we have already discussed, we must conclude that the world was not created «in time.» Regarding the latter simultaneity -- beginning of time and beginning of change -- it «seems evident from the order of the first six or seven days [of creation, according to the Scriptures].»Foot note 2_59 Thus, the absence of a «before» and the simultaneity of the beginning of change and time are the reasons to affirm the simultaneous beginning of the world and time. The «sacred and infallible» Scriptures are for Augustine a good guide in this regard.
And if the sacred and infallible Scriptures say that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, in order that it may be understood that He had made nothing previously -- for if He had made anything before the rest, this thing would rather be said to have been made «in the beginning» -- then assuredly the world was made, not in time but simultaneously with time. For that which is made in time is made both after and before some time -- after that which is past, before that which is future. But none could then be past, for there was no creature by whose movements its duration could be measured. But simultaneously with time the world was made, if in the world's creation change and motion were created, as seems evident from the order of the first six or seven days. For in these days the morning and evening are counted, until, on the sixth day, all things which God then made were finished, and on the seventh the rest of God was mysteriously and sublimely signalized. What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!Foot note 2_60
Some of Augustine's contemporaries, however, did not follow this «infallible» conclusion from the Scriptures. Among them were the Manichees who had some trouble finding meaning in certain claims that can be read in the Old Testament, in particular, that God created the world «in the beginning.» Augustine addresses directly to them in order to answer two of their main objections:
The Manichees are accustomed to find fault in the following way with the first book of the Old Testament, which is entitled, Genesis. About the words, «In the beginning God made heaven and earth,» they ask, «In what beginning?» The say, «If God made heaven and earth in some beginning of time, what was he doing before he made heaven and earth? And why did he suddenly decide to make what he had not previously made through eternal time?»Foot note 2_61
These two last questions presented by the Manichees go beyond the temporal one -- why God did not create the world sooner. The objections arise from the very fact that God created the world -- whether in time or out of time -- and that such an action must have been preceded by a certain kind of «decision.» Leibniz, as we saw, did not face directly this question.
Before attempting to answer those questions Augustine corrects the Manichees on the appropriate manner of understanding the expression «in the beginning.» He does it in two senses; both try to show that there is no temporal content in the expression. On one hand, he gives a particular interpretation of the words «in the beginning» in the Biblical text. To those with doubts, «we answer them,» he says, «that God made heaven and earth in the beginning, not in the beginning of time, but in Christ. For he was the Word with the Father, through whom and in whom all things were made. For, when the Jews asked him who he was, our Lord Jesus Christ answered, «The beginning; that is why I am speaking to you».»Foot note 2_62 Thus, the adequate way to understand «in the beginning,» in the Scriptures, is as meaning «in Christ.» No temporal content must be perceived in the expression.
Augustine gives a second sense in which the expression «in the beginning» has been misunderstood by the Manichees. He does this by referring to his claim, already mentioned, that time was created simultaneously with the world. «In the beginning» cannot be read as implying «in time» because time did not exist before the world was created. They came into existence simultaneously.
And here is also the basis for Augustine's answer to the first question of the Manichees, namely, «what was he doing before he made heaven and earth?» In the Confessions we read:
At no time then hadst Thou not made any thing, because time itself Thou madest. And no times are coeternal with Thee, because Thou abidest: but if they abode, they should not be times.Foot note 2_63
And in the Two books Against the Manichees, this is his reasoning:
But even if we believe that God made heaven and earth at the beginning of time, we should certainly realize that there was no time before the beginning of time. For God also made time, and thus there was no time before he made time. Hence, we cannot say that there was a time when God had not yet made anything. For could there be a time that God had not made since he is the maker of all time? And if time began to be with heaven and earth, there cannot be found a time when God had not yet made heaven and earth.Foot note 2_64
God was not doing anything before creating the world because there was no time. Although a literal interpretation of this conclusion seems to be the most appropriate, let us concede a wider margin for meaning and consider three ways of understanding the words above.Foot note 2_65 We could read in that fragment that Augustine is rejecting the question the Manichees have posed as a whole just for introducing temporal content (through the verb «was doing,» for example) where it is not possible to do so properly -- because «God also made time, and thus there was no time before he made time.»
Moreover, God's eternity does not accept past or future.Foot note 2_66 But the fragment quoted could also be understood as meaning that the inexistence of time keeps God from making anything at all in the world. This would imply that before creation God simply was; or, even better, he just is (if this serves as an attempt to avoid the distinction between past and present). He would not be the author of any action whatsoever, including any thought. This possibility is even less satisfactory if, again, we take into account that that same «paralyzed» God (1) precedes creation and, while preceding it at the same time (2) he is the «potential creator» of this world.
In other words, his creation seems to be part of his history. And from an a posteriori view, is the fact that he created the world not enough to doubt about this supposed previous paralysis? Was he not in that previous stage, at least, planning the creation? And, is that planning not based, in its turn, on some other considerations (i. e. some other, say, `thoughts')? How can we make compatible that «frozen stage» of God with his own future «decision» to create the world? When and why does that decision occur in him? How can any decision, in general, take place at all without any «change» in the being deciding?Foot note 2_67 There is still a third manner of understanding Augustine's claim that God was not doing anything before creating the world. It could be read that the inexistence of time would keep God from doing certain things, among them intervening in the material world.
As to the second question asked by the Manichees -- «why did he suddenly decide to create the world?» -- Augustine answers by taking advantage of the presence of a temporal term in it, namely, «suddenly.» His answer is somehow expected. Those who show this kind of doubts «speak as if some time passed during which God produced nothing. But a time could not pass that God had not already made, because he cannot be the producer of time unless he is before time.»Foot note 2_68 The use of «suddenly» here is not legitimate for there is no temporal background against which it may make sense. This way of arguing, however, could be counterproductive for Augustine. He himself is making the same mistake of using temporal terms where he has said it is not possible to do so. God, he says, «cannot be the producer of time unless he is before time.»Foot note 2_69
How are we to understand that «before»? Has Augustine not said that «before» is a word with no referent if there is no world (outside God)? Why does it not make any sense to ask about God's «sudden» decision and at the same time it is acceptable to say that «he cannot be the producer of time unless he is before time» (my italics)? Augustine seems to be aware of that the relationship between God and the created world, if it is not «temporal,» requires new non-temporal terms to be referred to. And, however, despite noting the inconvenience caused by the absence of that language, he does not seem to be making a great effort to overcome it.
Augustine does not stop there. He goes further. He shows that he is not trying to avoid the real problem and faces the same question the Manichees asked after removing the word «suddenly.» The question then to be answered, he believes, will simply be: «Why did God create the world?»Foot note 2_70 Thus formulated, however, Augustine thinks that it cannot be answered; it is beyond human understanding. If, anyway, someone wants an answer the only one a human being can provide will be: «because he willed to.»
But if they say, «Why did God decide to make heaven and earth?» we should answer them that those who desire to know the will of God should first learn the power of the human will. They seek to know the causes of the will of God though the will of God is itself the cause of all that exists. For if the will of God has a cause, there is something that surpasses the will of God -- and this we may not believe. Hence, one who asks, «Why did God make heaven and earth?» should be told, «Because he willed to». [...] Hence, let human temerity hold itself in check, and let it not seek what is not lest it not find what is.Foot note 2_71
This is not satisfactory. Whether the term «suddenly» is or is not in the question, it is still very difficult not to think about creation as, at least, an «act.» And as such, it would have a place among other acts -- within a succession of other acts, someone's live or a world history. I do not see how this minimum can be denied, or even avoided. And if that is the case we need to answer still another question which will be an intermediate one between «Why did God suddenly decide to create the world?» and «Why did God create the world?» We can accept that the former must be «cleaned up» in a certain way to make it fully legitimate -- according to Augustine's thought -- by avoiding temporal assumptions in the question. But it is not either the latter question the one we are exactly interested in here. Although our inquiry falls into its extent, this question «why creation?» still asks too much. Moreover, the inquiry about the «reasons» why God created this world, unlike the why-not-sooner question, may be satisfied by many answers. Not so our question. We need, then, to reformulate the question, without using temporal terms. The question should ask (1) about the reasons for that decision in relation to God's occupations before creating the world, and (2)about the (temporal) relationship between God and the world.
In the same books against the Manichees, and within the same discussion about the time of creation, Augustine reminds us again about the different ways in which the world and God are related to any notion of time. He uses in this case the idea of eternity to show their difference. And he adds further clarifications about this idea. Although we have previously read in his Confessions that only God can be said to be eternal, he now says that the world too can be considered eternal, but not in the same sense. Furthermore, God's eternity also has duration -- something explicitly denied by Leibniz -- but, again, is not the same duration the world has. This seems to be an attempt to extend the wordly language, with appropriate modifications, in order to make it meaningful to refer with it to God.
We do not say that this world has the same duration as God, for this world does not have the same eternity that God has. [...] Time is not eternal in the same way that God is eternal, because God who is the maker of time is before time.Foot note 2_72
Times can be eternal in the sense that they are everlasting, but God is eternal in the sense that his duration is not stretched out, but is all at once.
Nor dost Thou by time, precede time: else shouldest Thou not precede all times. But thou precedest all things past, by the sublimity of an ever-present eternity; and surpassest all future because they are future, and when they come, they shall be past; but Thou art the same, and Thy years fail not. Thy years neither come nor go; whereas ours both come and go, that they all may come. Thy years stand together because they do stand; nor are departing thrust out by coming years, for they pass not away; but ours shall all be, when they shall no more be. Thy years are one day; and Thy day is not daily, but To-day, seeing Thy To-day gives not place unto to-morrow, for neither doth it replace yesterday. Thy To-day, is Eternity; therefore didst Thou beget the Coeternal, to whom Thou saidst, This day have I begotten Thee. Thou hast made all things; and before all times Thou art: neither in any time was time not.Foot note 2_73
Augustine's attempt to adapt the old language to the new necessities is not enough. He is still having many problems to talk about the «place» of the world with respect to God without using temporal terms. «Temporal,» in its first meaning as Augustine is using it, only applies to the world and not to God. Thus, if time is to be applied to both God and the world it could never mean the same in both cases -- the same must be said about «eternity,» «duration,» etc. In a like manner, all those time-related terms such as «before,» «now,» «then,» and «later» should be prohibited when talking about God, for they cannot mean the same when we are dealing with time (world created) and eternity (God).
The difference time/eternity is for Augustine prior in thought to the definition of time itself. To grasp the idea of eternity does not offer, for him, as many problems as to express the meaning of time does. It is just after giving the above account on eternity when Augustine suddenly finds himself swimming in the famous sea of doubts about what time is.
If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain to one that asketh, I know not: yet I say boldly that I know, that if nothing passed away, time past were not: and if nothing were coming, a time to come were not; and if nothing were, time present were not. Those two times then, past and to come, how are they, seeing the past now is not, and that to come is not yet? But the present, should it always be present, and never pass into time past, verily it should not be time but eternity. If time present (if it is to be time) only cometh into existence, because it passeth into time past, how can we say that either this is, whose cause of being is, that it shall not be; so, namely, that we cannot truly say that time is, but because it is tending not to be?Foot note 2_74
His further reflection on the concept of timeFoot note 2_75 will lead him to his idea of time as distentio animi. We know now that time comes into existence simultaneously both with the world and with change. This does not mean, however, that time for Augustine is dependent on motion.Foot note 2_76 It is true that Agustine, when he considers time as a physical phenomenon (e. g. to demonstrate that the world was created cum tempore), he associates it with material mutability and formal change,Foot note 2_77 but time itself is independent of motion, a distentio animi produced by the spiritual operations of the perceiving consciousness.Foot note 2_78
It is in thee, my mind, that I measure times. Interrupt me not, that is, interrupt not thyself with the tumults of thy impressions. In thee I measure times; the impression, which things as they pass by cause in thee, remains even when they are gone; this it is which still present, I measure, not the things which pass by to make this impression. This I measure, when I measure times. either then this is time, or I do not measure times. What when we measure silence, and say that this silence hath held as long time as did that voice? do we not stretch out our thought to the measure of a voice, as if it sounded that so we may be able to report of the intervals of silence in a given space of time?Foot note 2_79
Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, considers that Augustine, not finding time out there as a reality his mind can lay hold of, he turns within and makes time into a creation of his own mind.Foot note 2_80 This interpretation is not at all evident. The dependence or independence of time with respect to movement has received much attention among scholars and there are notable disagreements among them.Foot note 2_81 And, however interesting those discussions might be, we should not enter into them here since we are not directly affected by them.
We have so far found two main kinds of problems in our inquiry. The first series of problems include those problems related to the formulation of the appropriate questions themselves -- the questions which «show» where the problems are and along which paths our inquiry must proceed. The second series of problems, obviously, have to do with the answer, or answers, to the question.
Regarding the first group of difficulties, we have found, after the discussion above, that the original formulation of the two main questions causes too many problems. Those questions were: «What was God doing before creating the world?» and «why did he suddenly decide to create the world?» Both Augustine and Leibniz have prohibited us to «impose» on God any idea of time which is only valid for the world. Both have pointed out the independence of God with respect to the time of the world. God is not «in time»; he is eternal, out of time (where «time» means the time of the world). Consequently, we cannot ask about the actions of God in reference to the act of creation by using terms such as «before,» «then,» «suddenly,» etc. And, although we have not read any explicit reference to verbs, we should also assume that their tenses must also be used carefully. However, neither Leibniz nor Augustine has provided the necessary «new language» to deal with God's eternity and its relation to the world. For now, the original question could be formulated as follows, avoiding the old «temporal» terms: which are the actions God performs insofar as he is, at the same time, both ontologically prior to this world and potentially Creator of the latter?
Neither Leibniz nor Augustine have resolved either the difficulties in understanding the relationship between God's eternity and the temporality of the world. This is especially remarkable since both have admitted that the latter «the temporality of the world», unlike the former, has a «beginning» (creation), and, therefore, a point of confluence is accepted. In other words: (1) the «independence» of God's eternity and the time of the world cannot be «total» if God is the creator of the time of the world, i. e. there must be some relationship between them; (2) if creation is an act of God -- and not the only -- does it not mean, at least, that there is «succession» in God's acts?; and (3) if there is succession in God, is it not true that he has his own «history» and, therefore, there is prior and posterior in him in a certain sense? And is it not true that he would be, then, «temporal» too?
The absence of a discussion of the relationship eternity/time of the world is a serious handicap in this debate. A further clarification of it would make much easier to find, first of all, the «new language» to talk, from the created world, about God before creation, i. e. to talk about God despite the fact that we are in the time of the world. It would make it easier also to talk about all this despite the fact we are humans. For to accept simply that our inquiry is useless, as human beings, since we cannot know anything about God's eternity and its relationship with the world (i. e. similarly to other «divine matters») is not satisfactory. Why should we allow philosophy to adopt a premise like the creation of the world without demanding an explicit account of what is implicit in that premise when the author who assumes it demands absolute rigor of thought after that moment?
Both in Augustine and Leibniz, the question why God did not create this world sooner seems to be legitimate if indeed he believes that God made the decision to create the world. And the fact that God is independent upon the created world and time does not mean that he cannot be the «mark» we need in order to know about the passage of time. On the contrary, as discussed, it could mean that God is probably the best possible mark of the passage of time since he fulfills the basic requirements to be it: he is «outside» of that time and there are, at least, «two things» in him (given by the process of thought or changes in his personality before creating the world). If so, it is «reasonable» to think that he could have created this world «sooner» because we could talk about a change of events (or thoughts) in God leading to the moment of creation. This would allow us to talk about time before the creation of the world. But couldn't Leibniz use at this point the criterion of perfection to argue that God created the world, even if there was time, at exactly the moment in which he considered the world could be created perfectly? This, again, is not so evident. If God is omniscient and all-powerful, what could he be pondering with respect to that perfection before creating the world? why would God need to think about which one is the best moment to create the world?
Abel B. Franco Rubio de la Torre
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
1017 Cathedral of Learning
Pittsburgh, PA 15260, U. S. A.