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Friday, December 9, 2011

Time and Free Will

Most of my catholic friends, here in the USA, have not two, not three, but five children. It seems like a lot
of children to me, because in Italy child number three is usually the last one.
I have great respect for these mothers. I've had only one child and I could barely cope with fatigue. But probably having more children forces women to approach motherhood with more balance. I insisted on picking up my baby every time he cried at night, and as a result I was badly sleep-deprived. As if that wasn't enough, he wanted to be held all the time also during the day. He cried in his stroller, on the floor, in his chair, basically everywhere except in somebody's arms. Exhausted, one day I went out and bought a baby-walker. As soon as my baby's feet touched the ground, he became the happiest child in the world. I guess he felt more in control of his surroundings. He would run around all day long laughing and cheering, so I thought that I had found the perfect solution to his tantrums. But there was only one problem…my son was only seven months old! In my defense, I can say that I didn't know any better. Today it's common knowledge that baby-walkers don't help toddlers' physical development and that it's much better for them to crawl and learn how to walk on their own. Anyway, to make a long story short, my little boy got into the habit of walking on his toes, and for that I blame myself and the baby-walker. Countless times I've wished that I could go back in time and correct that mistake. But I can't change the past; what's done it's done.

The past is unchangeable, but what about the future? People have different theories. When something they wished for doesn't happen, some find consolation in the idea that "it wasn't meant to be". They believe in destiny.
Others believe in will power. If you want something strongly enough, they say, it will happen. From a religious perspective, this is pretty much what Jesus said:
"Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there', and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."
But is our destiny determined by our actions? The protestant thinker John Calvin thought that God chooses
who is going to be saved and who is not, and called this "predetermination". Of course Catholics rejects this idea: They believe that God gave us free will and our salvation depends on our choices.

Free will is an old philosophical problem, which is coming up again in the light of modern physics. As a matter of fact, it's giving nightmares to the above mentioned son of mine, who on and off tiptoed all the way to his twenty-second birthday.
He recently discovered that Einstein special relativity says that time doesn't flow at all, rather it's simply there as a part of the physical universe. Time burst into existence, together with space, in the great explosion known as the Big Bang. We presume that the past is gone and the future is still unformed, we think that they don't exist, but apparently they do. Space-time is like a book and, to say it with the physicist Paul Davies, change occurs because objects move about through space in time. According to some physicists, this implies that free-will is an illusion. But before we get into that, let's look at the problem of time more deeply.
Christian thinkers have always been intrigues by the notion of time. Remarkably, St. Augustine had an exact intuition of modern physics. He wrote:
"The world and time had both one beginning. The world was made, not in time, but simultaneously with time."
Boethious thought that a metaphysically simple being must be eternal and immutable, for it is an imperfection of temporal human beings to have a past that is lost and a future that is still unknown.
St. Anselm also held an intuition of the truth. He wrote:
"You (God) exist neither yesterday, today, nor tomorrow, but You exist right outside time".
He claimed that God is present at different times at once, and that the eternal and temporal entities exist all at once in eternity.

If God is not in time, how does He act in it? John Polkinghorne, a physicist and theologian, rejects the classical idea of the atemporal God in favor of a temporal and eternal One. In other words, a God who observes the succession of events and can act in the physical world, lasting forever within our time. Polkinghorne gives up omniscience in favor of omnipotence: His God doesn't know the future of our universe of true becoming.
I admit that it's difficult to reconcile the atemporal God of classical theology with the God of the Bible, who is deeply engaged in history. Yet, I find Him more consistent with the idea of divinity. I believe that God has knowledge of events that are in the future, but our future is not predetermined because it takes shape according to our actions. If space-time is like a book, then the end couldn't be what it is unless something happened in the storyline to determine that specific end. This makes perfect sense to me, but I have to acknowledge that some imagination is necessary to be at peace with the discoveries of modern physics, for they contradict our perception.
It is precisely for this reason that we should stretch our imagination as a spiritual practice. This doesn't mean, as my atheist son maintains, "wasting time entertaining meaningless speculations". Rather, it means to look at the universe from a broader perspective. It means to overcome our boundaries and take a glimpse of the beyond.

My son thinks that, since his future is somehow already existent, his life resembles the one of a robot. But how can he come to this conclusion if he doesn't know how space-time actually works in respect to our existence? Science doesn't have an answer to that. John Polkinghorne writes:
"Science's inability to reproduce so fundamental an aspect of human experience is to be interpreted as indicating the incompleteness of the scientific account rather than the illusory character of our experience".

We all perceive our actions as dictated by our own free will. Why should we doubt its reality when it takes only a small leap of imagination to figure out how it may be compatible with special relativity?
Pride is what prevents people from seeing the Kingdom. The kind of pride that makes them say: "Unless we understand every aspect of an idea, that idea is unworthy not only of our faith, but also of our time."
But why should we, limited human beings, understand everything? We are like travelers, equipped with all the necessary gadgets; we have laid out a map to reach our destination, but can't find the means of transportation to get there. We need a ride. Let's hope that Jesus will take us all the way to His Kingdom.

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