3 variations of the same question: The problem of infinity and beginningless spirits

April 6, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 12:26 pm   Category: Eternal Progression,Theology

1. The two track Question: If Spirits are without beginning, God has always been God, and Time is Infinite, Why did God wait forever(an infinite amount of time) to begin the Plan of Salvation? How can he ever introduce the plan of salvation if it takes him forever to do so?

2. The God via self-effort (one track) Question: If Spirits are without beginning, Time is Infinite, and God Developed himself to be God via self-effort and obedience, it took him forever(an infinite amount of time) to do this. How can God ever reach the time where he is who he is, if it takes forever to get there?

3. The infinite regress of Gods (one track) Question: If spirits are without beginning and God became God by going through a process just like we are now, even down to the fact that he had a God like we do, and his God had a God, etc etc. God had to wait forever for his God to make him God, so how can God now be God if it takes him forever to become such?


  1. I should note that all three questions should be read as to imply the idea of a God within Time and Space.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 6, 2007 @ 2:55 pm

  2. Would you please explain the “track” phrases? What does “one track” and “two track” refer to?

    Comment by Aaron — April 6, 2007 @ 2:58 pm

  3. Does stating that God is “within time and space” automatically restrict him to the 3 dimensions of space and one dimension of time that we experience?
    One cannot help – when examining the multidimensional string theories that have presented themselves the last 20 years – ponder God functioning within many dimensions to bring about His divine plan. What if, for example, the immediate answering of prayers or the appearance of angels coming in and out of heaven was facilitated by extra dimensions? What if advancement in afterlife kingdoms is actually a matter of adding more dimensions? We think of ourselves as 3-dimensional beings, as if there is something special about this number. What if God is a 9-dimensional being, working with 6-dimensional angelic beings? Extra dimensions helps us to see how all things – past, present, and future, are before God and may shed light on the track 1 and 2 questions…or not.

    Comment by larryco_ — April 6, 2007 @ 3:25 pm

  4. You’re committing a cardinal sin of mathematics by turning infinity into a number and saying that anything that is infinite is equal to anything else that is infinite (and then saying that’s impossible to get to).

    The set of all integers is infinite but is still a proper subset of all rational numbers which is a proper subset of all real numbers which is a proper subset of all imaginary numbers.There’s actually an infinite number of infinite sets.

    Besides which, you’re using two well known logical fallacies to build up your argument.

    The first is the same argument that says you can’t ever get to the wall because if you walk half way there you’ll keep walking forever in infinitesimal steps.

    Or you can’t have a heap of sand because one grain of sand isn’t a heap, two grains, isn’t, ad infinitum. Or noone can be bald, noone can have a beard, you can’t give a pop quiz because the students will always expect it, you can’t hang a man if you tell him he won’t know what day he’ll be hung, etc, etc.

    The second fallacy is passing off imprecise language as precise mathematically rigorous proof. You say “he waited forever”, “it takes forever to get there” which are common hyperbolic idioms to represent an impossibly long amount of time. That’s perfectly reasonable in a mortal life, but when you’re dealing with infinite beings, nothing is impossibly long anymore.

    If X is a prerequisite for Y and you are an infinite (beginningless) being, than you can happily wait for an infinite amount of time to pass until X occurs and STILL have an infinite amount of time to get Y done. And don’t take my use of the word “time” to literally either. I just mean it in the relative sense of X occurs before Y from my perspective.

    Comment by Robert — April 6, 2007 @ 3:58 pm

  5. Beyond seconding Robert’s note of the dangers of uncritically applying transfinite numbers, I’d say that several of your assumptions are questionable.

    1. Spirits are without beginning

    This is probably the least controversial of your three, but one should be careful to note that spirit qua spirit may be without beginning but spirit structured as we think of it probably is not. Not everyone agrees, of course, depending upon how you take the conflation of intelligence/spirit in nauvoo discourse.

    2. God has always been God

    This is much more difficult since “God” is such an equivocal name. Do we mean God in the sense of our God or merely that there is a God? Do we mean “always” in terms of all creations or just this creation? One has to unpack this and, as past debates have illustrated, there are quite a few ways to take it in LDS theology. Being a strong devotee of the KFD I just don’t think God has always been God even though I think he always has been God in the timeline of our universe.

    3. Time is Infinite.

    Once again one has to unpack this. What does this mean? Are we counting the intervals of a particular subjective time for a particular spirit? Are we making an ontological claim about the nature of time? Are we allowing for multiple quasi-independent time/space continuums? How one considers this obviously affect how one answers your question.

    Comment by clark — April 6, 2007 @ 5:38 pm

  6. I handle beginningless existence with a concept of spirit primordialism. If we go back in time there is point in which our knowledge approaches zero. Mind you, it never really hits zero, but it approaches zero…so much so that the difference in knowledge between two points in time is practically zero (even a difference of millions of years).

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 6, 2007 @ 8:27 pm

  7. Robert, If you wait an infinite amount of time for X to occur, how can X occur, as it is infinitely far away? I understand the logical implications that halving a non-infinite distance into infinite subdivisions will get you close enough for all intents and purposes, but this is an apples and oranges comparison. After all 5 miles\2 is 2.5 miles. Infintiy \ 2 is infinity.

    1. I’ll get to this when I respond to J.
    2. I tried to get into this by setting up the three questions, I am sure there are other iterations, but hoped the three would cover my bases. Does that help clarify the point?
    3. I’m not really spart enough to address the implications of your question here, but I think it’s critical to what I am trying to work at here. I guess my definition of time is infinite is for any moment X, there is always an X+1 and an X-1.

    J.- Spirit Primordialism sounds very John A. Widtsoe to me, but I am not sure it solves the problem completely, since there is an infinite amount of past involved. If God’s development is a curve (approaching zero, but never reaching zero) at some point, given the infinite dirrection to the left, It is going to be parralel to zero and reach a state of dormancy(for all intents and purposes), right? (Sorry, I suck at math.)

    Comment by Matt W. — April 6, 2007 @ 9:10 pm

  8. Matt,

    I asked some of these same questions last year in this post. It turns out it is a logical fallacy to assume that with an infinite past we could never arrive at the present (which is part of what you are asking). See Blake’s comments on that here and here.

    However, just because it is logically possible that an infinite amount of time passed before your options 1-3 happened, it still seems extremely unlikely to me. But that is why I lean toward the recursion model that I suspect Joseph alluded to with the ring analogy. (Of course there is debate over what Joseph actually meant…)

    Comment by Geoff J — April 6, 2007 @ 9:28 pm

  9. More for J. – Geoff would characterize you as falling into number one above, but your response seems more like #2 above. Is that an accurate assumption?

    Geoff- I think I poorly asked my question. I hope I have clarified in my response to J. as for MMP, I have a couple more bullets to shoot at that, but not yet.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 6, 2007 @ 9:44 pm

  10. Matt W.,

    This is a really tricky problem, but as the only alternative is some variation of the universe popping into existence, beginningless time seems enormously more plausible by comparison.

    One might consider the possibility that spirit-intelligences cannot progress autonomously, but rather only in concert with others (as implied by D&C 121:41-46), and there could have been an arbitrary history of both advances and setbacks in bringing that concert about.

    Or in other words, free will, infirmity, and sin seem to be responsible. Isn’t the Fall (conceived generally) the scriptural answer for why we are here instead of already exalted in heaven somewhere?

    [New handle: “Mark B.” was taken]

    Comment by Mark D. — April 6, 2007 @ 10:15 pm

  11. “3. I’m not really spart enough to address the implications of your question here, but I think it’s critical to what I am trying to work at here. I guess my definition of time is infinite is for any moment X, there is always an X+1 and an X-1.”

    Then in that case I tend to think it an empirical reality that time is not infinite in that sense.

    Comment by clark — April 7, 2007 @ 7:11 am

  12. Clark: I totally do not get you sometimes. :)

    Comment by Matt W. — April 7, 2007 @ 8:52 am

  13. Clark,

    Sorry but I don’t buy it. If matter and spirits are beginningless then it seems to me that time is beginningless. So as far as I can tell that means that there have already been an infinite number of seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc that have passed (even if they might not be perceived as we perceive them here in mortality). How universes have come and gone or expanded and contracted forever is an interesting question but it either there is a beginning to spirits/intelligences or there isn’t.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 7, 2007 @ 11:27 am

  14. I also want to point out that what Jonathan is calling “spirit primordialism” is the same concept about the infinite past that Robert calls a logical fallacy in comment #4. (I’m not sure it is really a logical fallacy though)

    Comment by Geoff J — April 7, 2007 @ 11:37 am

  15. I think saying something is beginningless is not the same thing as saying time has always existed.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 7, 2007 @ 1:25 pm

  16. But saying all matter is beginningless is saying time is beginningless J.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 7, 2007 @ 1:48 pm

  17. Geoff, once again the question is what we mean by time and what we mean by beginning. If there are infinite number of finite time segments then there can be many beginnings of time yet matter in any of these segments (assuming it can move between segments) may be beginningless.

    Comment by clark — April 7, 2007 @ 3:07 pm

  18. Matt (#12) I simply mean that the big bang entails that there was a beginning to time of the sense you outlined.

    Comment by clark — April 7, 2007 @ 4:14 pm

  19. I suggest that appropriately good generalization of time is causality. You can suppose that there are multiple universes, extra-temporal actors, arbitrary metaphysical dependencies, etc. and nearly always reduce what is going on to a directed acyclic causality graph. (Of course if it is not acyclic you have a more serious problem.)

    And then the generalization of the infinite time hypothesis is that the causality graph has no root, i.e. one or more causal chains go on indefinitely in the backwards direction.

    Comment by Mark D. — April 7, 2007 @ 4:32 pm

  20. Clark, I am familiar of a few different theories that talk about events amd things before the big bang, which would imply there was an x – 1.

    Mark, I am sort of a John A. Widtsoe kick right now, so am limiting myslef to a single universe and all things happening within that universe.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 7, 2007 @ 8:06 pm

  21. Clark,

    I must be missing your point. I have no idea what you think is so complicated here. Our theology holds that intelligent beings who think and act have ALWAYS existed. That means there has always been time because thinking and acting require time. So what is your point?

    Comment by Geoff J — April 7, 2007 @ 8:20 pm

  22. Matt W, If you wait an infinite amount of time for X to occur, how can X occur, as it is infinitely far away?

    Infinite is not a number but a concept. Your question is the same as asking, if you count up an infinite number of integers, how can there be one more? You’re implicitly making the assumption that that new integer must be Infinity+1 and since that can’t be, the new integer doesn’t exist. Look up the infinite hotel paradox. The problem is that infinity is always counter-intuitive to us because we have never (or don’t remember ever having) experienced it.

    Geoff, Could you explain why you think “spiritual primordialism” is falling into the same trap?

    The real question is, if God is omniscient and you asked him to list all positive integers would God end up in an infinite loop?

    Matt W, If you changed X+1 and X-1 to X+e and X-e where e is epsilon (any arbitrarily small number) then you’d have a mathematical proof. But that’s probably what you meant anyway.

    Clark, I like the idea of an infinite number of finite segments. I think I’ve heard that used as an excuse/explanation for why the Bible says “In the beginning” (ignoring of course Joseph’s re-translation). It also fits in perfectly with the idea of causality. My personal opinion is that time for God (and spirits, etc) is defined in relative terms of causality. That is, there doesn’t need to be any concept of hours/days/years etc but rather indefinite periods of time between notable events. That also links back to the creation story (and doesn’t ignore Joseph’s retranslation).

    J. Stapley, I believe that saying spirits are beginningless does imply that time is infinite in the backwards direction. However, I’ll agree with you that in general those two statements are not necessarily the same thing.

    I like the idea from Brane theory that our universe is a small part of an infinitely larger something (super-universe?). Then it’s easy to imagine that we each eventually get our own little universe to play with. There’s another theory (not sure if it’s compatible with branes) that says that universes grow like bubbles and possibly inside of one another. So other universes are here but ours just keeps growing in step with them so you can’t ever get there. (Correction, it will take you an infinite amount of time to get there ;).) That makes it plausible to have an infinite hierarchy of universes where our universes are bubbles inside of our God’s universe which is a bubble inside of another universe, etc. It’s a stretch of the imagination both in cosmology and theology but interesting none the less. Of course, Occam’s razor says it can’t be and you can’t prove it anyway which is probably why Widtsoe et al. can dismiss it for now.

    Comment by Robert — April 7, 2007 @ 9:39 pm

  23. Matt,

    I was speaking hypothetically. I regard the idea of “multiple universes” as more or less a contradiction in terms. If one “universe” has any sort of connection with another they are no more than partitions of a unified whole. And any sort of real connection is going to be causal in nature.


    It seems to me that one cannot use a theory based on physical laws to predict there is some sort temporal singularity where none of the laws actually apply. And any sort of big bang with no temporal antecedent (such as a “big crunch” or whatever) seems to be nothing less than the hypothesis that physical laws are always valid except when they are not, and that casts the whole evidentiary framework in question.

    Comment by Mark D. — April 7, 2007 @ 9:54 pm

  24. Mark, note that problem only pops up in a limited set of ontologies. There are plenty where it’s not a problem at all.

    Comment by clark — April 8, 2007 @ 6:38 pm

  25. Clark,

    If it still a matter of a choice of ontology, then an absolute temporal boundary can hardly be said to be an empirical reality. It is difficult for me to think of any proposition less scientific than that one.

    Comment by Mark D. — April 8, 2007 @ 9:18 pm

  26. The point being that at this point the notion of a big bang, despite some ontological interpretations of QM, appears to be fairly empirically established.

    Merely pointing out a potential problem isn’t enough to invalidate it. Otherwise the problem of QM and GR and their reconcilation would invalidate both. We’d end up with a situation where we can know anything only when we know everything.

    Now we ought accept fallibilism towards the big bang, of course. But it seems to me you are asserting something stronger. That since one particular interpretation of QM make interpreting the big bang problematic, it isn’t empirical.

    Comment by Clark — April 10, 2007 @ 5:26 pm

  27. Clark,

    Although I am skeptical of the Big Bang in general, my complaint here is not with the evidence that there was a cosmic explosion, but rather with the unfounded hypothesis that the initial state of the universe had no cause and no temporal precedent.

    The only evidence available we have for most scientific predictions is experimental repeatability, based on two fundamental ideas:

    1. The future is governed by the same laws as the past.
    2. Those laws closely constrain and relate successive temporal states

    The hypothesis that there was no time before the Big Bang entails the proposition that every known physical law has embedded within it an exception for a one time event no one can account for. I think that rises to the level of metaphysical speculation rather than empirical science.

    Comment by Mark D. — April 10, 2007 @ 10:31 pm

  28. There are plenty of mathematicians that are bothered enough by the idea of infinity as to say it doesn’t exist. You can come up with all kinds of mysteries and paradoxes pondering it. While I am perhaps a killjoy for stating this, I think the psssibility of a finite mind beginning to comprehend infinity is about equal to a finite number divided by infinity.

    Comment by Doc — April 13, 2007 @ 8:09 pm

  29. Doc,

    I don’t think anyone here would defend the proposition that infinity is a thing. And it is certainly not a number. But it is a well defined mathematical concept of sufficient practical value that it would be impossible to do without.

    Comment by Mark D. — April 14, 2007 @ 12:12 am