Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Temporal Responsibility

I’ve been mulling over something. I noticed that in discussions involving responsibility and culpability, there is often a hidden variable smuggled into the definition of terms. It’s a variable that, when you think about it, doesn’t seem to be relevant to the discussion; yet it is one which nearly every philosopher discussing the subject has, at the very least implicitly (and quite often explicitly), in his or her definition. That variable is time.

Consider for a moment a typical generalized libertarian definition of responsibility. “A person is responsible if at time (t) a person could have done other than he did do.” Here we have an explicit reference to time. Yet it can also be hidden in the shorter version: “A person is responsible if he could have done otherwise.” The assumption of “could have done” is that time is relevant to determining responsibility. (Note: to be fair, the “could have done otherwise” is really dealing more specifically with the idea of “freedom” rather than “responsibility,” but this is usually crammed together in the idea that “one cannot be responsible unless one is free” so I will be treating this concept as being part of “responsibility” throughout.)

This is immediately awkward when we view God. God is outside of time. He is eternal and transcends time. Indeed, time itself was created by God. If responsibility implies a time aspect, then it seems to me that by definition God can be responsible for nothing that has been created. For “God is responsible for creation because at time (t) God could have done otherwise” is nonsensical—there is no time (t) before God created time.

Yet it seems completely absurd to say that God is not responsible for creating the universe. It seems that only if responsibility refers instead of the concept of cause that God is responsible for creating the universe, because He caused the universe. Yet causality requires no reference to time, it only requires logical precedence. In other words, a logical effect cannot logically precede its cause, which (when it comes to the physical world) will typically mean the logical effect cannot temporally precede its cause too; however, there are certain relative space-time frameworks where a cause and its effect are temporally simultaneous (Einstein’s example of a moving train with a signal being observed simultaneous to some other event for the observers on the train, but not simultaneous for those outside the train, being an example of such a relative framework).

Or think of it this way. Suppose C is a cause and E is an effect such that E cannot occur unless C has caused E. C is therefore responsible for E (in the causative sense), no matter what; yet C is only responsible for E if C could have done otherwise in the libertarian sense, and that requires a temporal distinction between C and E.

E cannot occur apart from C regardless of any temporal aspect though. E necessitates a logically prior C regardless of the length of time between C’s occurring and E coming about. We can even think about E temporally preceding C (such could even already occur with antimatter, which is mathematically described as normal matter going backwards through time). Regardless of that, one can always say C and E can be simultaneous.

So it seems to me that any definition of responsibility that requires a temporal aspect must be a completely different “animal” than any definition of responsibility that deals only with a logically causal chain. Perhaps the libertarian will say that this shows the difference between moral responsibility and causative responsibility. I think this means merely that which definition you chose will automatically beg the question.

Regardless, it appears to me that under libertarian principals, God’s responsibility for creating the universe cannot have any moral connotations. That is, He was not commendable for His creation, nor can He be condemned for it. In other words, this would automatically defuse the concept that God is the author of evil in any moral sense of the word “author.”

On the other hand, if one were to claim that God is still morally responsible for creation (as I would argue—after all, we commend Him for what He has done), then it seems to me that one cannot keep a view of responsibility that necessitates a temporal aspect within its definition.



  1. If there must be a temporal aspect to responsiblity, then the agent is morally responsible for any event that he caused and happens in time. The act of creation happened in time. Causes and effects of those causes happen at the same time, so that God's act of creation and the result, the creation, happened at the same time. So God was morally responsible for the act of creation.

  2. Vytautas,

    Except there was no time "before" God created time (or more appropriately, spacetime), so the act of creation wasn't an act "in time." That said, it is true that God can act within time; but His creation of time cannot be an act within time. Yet would we not still say that God is responsible for there being time?

    As I look at it, the time aspect seems to be completely irrelevant, and as such it should be cut. It seems to me that the libertarian argument would be better defined as saying, "One is only responsible if one is free; and one is free only if one's choice is not necessary." One wouldn't need to reference time at all in that scheme, even when defining what a "not necessary" choice would be.

    Indeed, after uploading the original post, I thought that perhaps the time aspect is being used simply as an identifier for which choice is being referenced. That is, it's like saying, "The choice made at four o'clock." But as an identifier, that's redundant since in the simple logic of the case, the choice is already identified (and called "the choice") so you don't need to reference anything else. Thus, time as an identifier of which choice is a redundant identifier that can be ignored.

  3. We know that there is a temporal aspect to God's creation. However, since God is eternal, his creation is absolute such to say that God's creation is an eternal absolute.

    Causality is necessary for culpability but sufficiency for culpability requires intent as well.

    Therefore, God creates (causes) that which will happen with good intent. However, he ordains secondary causes in us that bear intent from us that for us can only be evil. God does what God must and it is good. But what he does necessarily results in actions of ours that of us can only be carried out with our evil intent. We are culpable. God is not.

    Let me give a temporal analog. Let's say we have a stretch of road that we have determined to be dangerous. It has been posted at 45 miles per hour, but it needs to be posted at 25 because we have seen too many fatalities. If we change the speed limit, we know that people will become upset and intentionally break it until enough law enforcement activity makes them unwillingly follow the new speed limit. These are people who have willingly followed the old speed limit. If we change the speed limit we will not be culpable for people suddenly breaking the law even though we know they will. And if they do, then we can write enough tickets to enforce the safer speed limit effectively. Our intent is good. Their intent is not. However, we have saved more lives.

    Likewise with God vis his eternal intent with creation.