A Flatland analogy of God’s foresight

Flatland has often been used as an analogy for space-time. Flatlanders live in 2-dimensional space, like drawings on a page. Height, for them, is a difficult dimension for them to imagine, as time is for us. But they can move and act freely within their two-dimensional landscape.

Imagine, then, a Flatland in which height is a real dimension through which Flatlanders move unconciously and inexorably, as we do through time. You could picture the “real” Flatland as a cylinder slowly sinking through the relativistic “area-height continuum”. In the Flatland scheme of things, a Flatlander is born at some point in height c`, at area coordinates ab. He moves feeely round his landscape, which appears to him two dimensional but, because of the inexorable progress of height, is actually three dimensional space. He can’t actually ever return to ab, because if he tries, its real coordinates will be abc“ rather than abc`. After some arbitrary height-transition he will die (at coordinates abc“`).

Now, as a three-dimensional observer, you can see at a glance the whole of Flatland including its third dimension. To you, Flatlander’s life will appear like a wiggly three dimensional worm-burrow in its entirety. In that sense you are like an eternal God to him. Does your ability to know the entire course of his life (or even of the whole spatial history of Flatland) in any way deny Flatlander’s freedom of will? Does it make Flatland in any way less a land where free agents live genuinely freely according to their nature? Furthermore, would it inhibit you from real relationship with Flatlander as you share his interests, challenge his choices,  warn him of dangers, occasionally foretell his (area-height) future, or even interact with Flatland itself by creating it in the first place or intervening in its events? Flatlander retains his freedom of will throughout, though it must be added that you have an additional degree of freedom unknown to him.

You would think it strange if a Flatland Prophet insisted that, in order to be a real, relational, being rather than a mere dictator, you too must necessarily be living in the same area-height continuum, moving through height as helplessly as he is – albeit having knowledge of everything happening in Flatland at any one height, and everything that has happened since Flatland started sinking.

Since Einstein most views of space-time in our Universe consider time as just another created dimension, and closely related to the others to the extent that time for any object is relative to its velocity. Many see time’s apparent passage as somewhat illusory, perhaps due to the existence of entropy giving it directionality. More often than not, that is linked with an Eternalist view of time that is consistent with the view of God put forward by Augustine so long ago. In this God, transcending his Universe, sees time at one sweep as we see space. To him, every moment is “now”.

From the Open Theology camp, however, Greg Boyd says that God has no specific time-frame because he is omipresent and encompasses all the time-frames in the present Universe. But it is rather arbitrary to leave him free in 3 physical dimensions yet bind him in a fourth.

Open Theists say that this is necessary from taking the Bible seriously, because Scripture’s descriptions of eternity match elapsing time rather than Augustine’s Eternalism, and because God is said to change his mind, regret decisions and answer prayer in real time. But Scripture also describes God’s spatial relations in terms of movement, eg God coming down at Babel, passing before Moses, Christ ascending to heaven, and so on, all of which contradict Boyd’s description of omnipresence. Clark Pinnock, on the other hand, speculates that God is embodied, which flatly denies omnipresence and would confine God to one relative timeframe, leading to great relativity problems.

To employ the Flatland analogy, Pinnock is saying that God’s area-time wormhole is the same as a Flatlander’s, only extending further in height and depth. Boyd, on the other hand, would appear to make God dimensionless with regard to Flatland’s area, but moving through the height-continuum at the mercy of that dimension. Properly speaking, unlike the Flatlanders themselves, he would have no true history – just a single dimension of height. Both, in taking a Presentist view of time, are putting limits on God that do not seem consistent with the scientific consensus on space-time’s complexity.

In denying God’s foreknowledge, they are also treading in rather muddy boots on holy ground. As Richard Baxter, again, says in Catholick Theologie Bk1 1 SecVIII,141-2:

It is certainly unknown to mortals, formally, what knowledge is in God, and much more in what manner he knoweth futures or contingents, or any creatures, ex parte scientus… If the case of Aaron’s sons, the Bethelehemites, Uzzah, Uzziah and others that presumed too boldy to meddle with holy rituals and ceremonies was so dreadful; what is theirs that profanely toss God’s own Name, and pretend to know that of himself , which they know not, and turns his secrets profanely into matter of contention against the Churches of Christ?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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