Check out “Week 7” … you know your college is epic when they tell you that “Time Travel is now available.”
That’s right—in my Philosophy of Nature course, I got to learn about the notion of time travel! Might not sound like a particularly Catholic topic, but read on through my thoughts on the matter in my two Week 7 discussions to see how God and prayer tie in with the concept….
Can God change the past? Do you agree with Peter Damian or Aquinas?
God’s act of creation is eternal: that is, He did not create once and then let creation run its course, but rather constantly creates, constantly holds all creation in existence (cf. Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity, chapter 10). Since He’s beyond the confines of time, He does not experience it as we do; rather than experiencing a past, present, and future, all is present for Him in His eternity (see Scott Hahn, Understanding the Scriptures, 50). This is why Origen can argue that God does not change things according to His answers to our prayers as time goes on—that is, He does not alter His eternal plans—but rather creates things from all eternity according to His answers to our prayers (see Origen, On Prayer, IV).
Therefore, I would have to agree with St. Peter Damian that God can change the past, such as in accordance with our prayers (see the Week 7 PowerPoint), because, for God, it isn’t really the past at all. The thing is that, for us, it would just be past experience; it wouldn’t be as if anything had changed. One example might be a child who prayed for his dead mother’s salvation three years after she had died: God may have answered that prayer by allowing the child’s mother the grace of perfect contrition just before her death—not by “going back and doing it,” but by creating that grace to have been given from all eternity, in answer to the child’s prayer as it was prayed at a later point in time.
I do want to point out, however, that God is probably not going to change anything that we come to know has happened, since that might seem to intrude upon our freedom to know our own true past (if we do have such a freedom), if not also upon our free will (such as what we freely chose in the past) or upon the free will of others to affect us—even if either of these be for the worst, since God is not going to contradict His gift of free will. Perhaps you could say that all of the “changing of the past” in our lives will have already taken place by the “time” our past is past, if that makes any sense. So to try and pray for something different for ourselves in the past from what we know occurred might be said to be fruitless, wishful thinking, a denial of reality rather than a desire for its improval. This is where St. Thomas’s thinking about changing the past being in discord with reason could come into play (see Thomas Aquinas, ST I, q. 25, a.4).
Why is time travel impossible for Aristotle?
One cannot travel to a place that doesn’t exist. This statement is the center of why time travel would be impossible in Aristotle’s view: for Aristotle believed that the past no longer exists and that the future has yet to exist. Aristotle held, quite reasonably, that one cannot travel to a nonexistent place (for the past two sentences, see the Week 7 PowerPoint). While this fact is true enough, that isn’t to say Aristotle’s position is necessarily correct: for in God’s view, to my understanding, all things are present: there is no past or future (see Scott Hahn, Understanding the Scriptures, 50).
An interesting perspective to bring in here would be that of Origen on how God answers prayers. He believed that God created the world anticipating what people would pray for; that is, God created according to how He would answer our prayers (see Origen, On Prayer, IV). My point in bringing it up is that, if it’s correct, it obviously implies that all of time already exists in the mind of God—meaning that its entirety does objectively exist, which may invalidate Aristotle’s theory. But of course, another way of looking at it could be that, even though all of time does exist simultaneously in God’s view, it does not in ours—which would eliminate the possibility of time travel basically for the reason given by Aristotle.
C. S. Lewis’ analogy of a line on a piece of paper might be beneficial to this discussion. He suggested that
“If you picture Time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. We come to the parts of the line one by one: we have to leave A behind before we get to B, and cannot reach C until we leave B behind. God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all” (Lewis, Mere Christianity: HarperSanFrancisco, 1980, p. 168).
The point is that we cannot experience a simultaneity of all time like God can, due to our position; thus, the rest of time beyond the present does not exist “for us,” and can’t be reached by us.