Is the Future set in Stone?

The short answer to this question is “no.”

At any given moment in time, future exists as multiple possibilities — none of which is set in stone — until one of these possibilities becomes real.   At that point, all possibilities other than the actualized one cease to be and an entirely new set of future possibilities arises.  These too will remain mere possibilities until one of them becomes actualized in reality.  And so on.

hat is set in stone is only what has already taken place, or whatever happens to be the case now. As a result, we must accept what has been, and what is, but we do not have to accept any single future scenario as absolutely certain. Since the future hasn’t happened yet, it can happen in one of many, many ways. In this understanding of time, freedom and determinism go hand-in-hand. All the choices made by the Creator and the creatures, taken together, determine which of the many possible futures will actualize into reality.

Both the Creator and the creatures are free, but neither is absolutely so. Past choices constrain present choices, and present choices constrain future ones.  As time passes, the possibilities for the future do not remain the same. As a result of the sum total of choices that are being made in the present moment, the possible future scenarios keep changing . . . moment by moment. One particular scenario for the distant future may have been a possibility yesterday, or a minute ago, but it’s no longer a possibility now. As some possibilities cease to be at each moment, new ones are constantly arising to take their place. Every choice, whether divine or human, necessarily closes some windows, while simultaneously opening new ones.

No single future scenario is absolutely certain, but it may in some cases be relatively certain. We cannot be absolutely certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that the boiling point of water will remain 100° Celsius during the next decade, or that aspirin will continue to work for headaches a month from now. Yet, we can be quite sure of these; that is to say, we can maintain a state of certainty regarding these future scenarios that is, relatively speaking, beyond doubt — not beyond all possible doubt, but definitely beyond any reasonable doubt. This does not give us absolute certainty that would satisfy a philosopher, but enough practical certainty that would allow us to get on with the task of living. And yet, our relative certainty about aspects of the future does not entail a belief that our entire destinies are set in stone.

Part of what bothers me about some science fiction novels and movies is their depiction of time travel. I like traveling backwards into the past; it’s the forward traveling into the future that I find unconvincing. Travel into the past may or may not be practically possible, but it is at least theoretically possible. It is possible to speculate that what has already been is still with us in some form or another, and for this reason it may perhaps be possible (at least in theory) to access the past either psychically or physically.  What I do not enjoy is the literary or cinematic depiction of time travel into the future, for such a voyage requires me to accept the impossible.

One could travel into the future (again, in theory) only if the future already existed, fully formed in all its details. To imagine that, we would have to think of the future as if it were a place that is real even now, existing a few years or decades or centuries “ahead” of where we are.  This entails thinking of time as a line that has already been drawn in its entirety, a notion that I must reject on principle. But if the line has not yet been completely drawn, as I will argue, then the future cannot exist in the same way as the past or present does. And obviously, one cannot travel into a realm that isn’t there yet.

Reading the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam has helped me understand that while there are definite patterns and trends in the workings of reality — summed up by the Qur’an in the phrase Sunnat Allah — the Qur’an does not support the notion of a universe that is pretty much fixed in terms of how its future will unfold. I have come to believe that Iqbal’s insistence on the reality of time is not only in harmony with some of the powerful currents in modern philosophy and science, but also–and more importantly for Muslims — it is an accurate reading and faithful expression of the Qur’anic view.

Thinking of the future as a place is a serious error, for it makes time unreal. To take the reality of time seriously, we have to recognize that the future is unsettled. This openness of the future, however, is not absolute. In other words, at least some elements of the future would have to be taken as settled or fixed, even if relatively so. This is because the Creator and the creatures have already made innumerable choices; these choices have made certain characteristics of all possible future scenarios virtually inevitable, while leaving their other characteristics open to the determining effect of choices yet to be made. One way of appreciating the inevitable aspects of the future is to think of them as the consequences of the tendencies inherent in the nature of reality. And yet, even these tendencies do not impose an absolutely fixed future.

There is nothing to be gained by defending, particularly from a religious perspective, the idea of a predetermined and therefore perfectly predictable future. In fact, such a perspective would be inimical to any religious teaching, since all religious traditions assume the reality of freedom at one level or another. At the divine level, no freedom would mean no creativity for God; at the human level, no freedom would imply no morality for persons. In a religiously conceived universe, therefore, freedom must be acknowledged and so the future cannot be fixed. A predetermined universe can only result from a mechanistic conception of reality in which the cause-effect relationship works in strict accordance with the qualities of matter; this would be a universe in which neither a human person nor God would enjoy any real freedom.

Regarding the error of thinking about future as if it were an already existing place, I would mention (once again) Iqbal’s critique of Einstein’s view of time as the fourth dimension of reality. All quotes are from the Reconstruction.

After noting the positive implications of Einstein’s contributions for religion, Iqbal writes:

 . . . Einstein’s Relativity presents one great difficulty, i.e. the unreality of time. A theory which takes time to be a kind of fourth dimension of space must, it seems, regard the future as something already given, as indubitably fixed as the past.  Time as a free creative movement has no meaning for the theory. It does not pass. Events do not happen; we simply meet them. (p. 31)

On the basis of the Qur’anic emphasis on a changing and dynamic universe, Iqbal rejects this space-like view of time. Instead, he argues that time “is an organic whole in which the past is not left behind, but is moving along with, and operating in, the present. And the future is given to it not as lying before, yet to be traversed; it is given only in the sense that it is present in its nature as an open possibility”  (p. 40). He goes on to say that there has been a tremendous misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Qur’anic notion of taqdir.  Contrary to popular belief, taqdir (“measuring out”) does not suggest a predetermined destiny but the sum total of a creature’s inner possibilities.

It is time regarded as an organic whole that the Qur’an describes as taqdir or the destiny — a word which has been so much misunderstood both in and outside the world of Islam.  Destiny is time regarded as prior to the disclosure of its possibilities.  . . . The destiny of a thing then is not an unrelenting fate working from without like a task master; it is the inward reach of a thing, its realizable possibilities which lie within the depths of its nature, and serially actualize themselves without any feeling of external compulsion. (p. 40)

Iqbal points out the Qur’anic teaching that God creates freely; the reality of time implies that “every moment in the life of Reality is original, giving birth to what is absolutely novel and unforeseeable” (p. 40). Repetition, and therefore predictability, is the character of mechanical action, not a feature of the free creative activity of God. I think what Iqbal is saying here is similar to what many Sufis have pointed out through the maxim la takrar fi al-tajalli (there is no repetition in divine self-disclosure).

Iqbal draws upon both Whitehead and Bergson. He agrees with the former on the reality of time and the nonfixity of the future. With the latter, he agrees on the question of purposefulness in the movement of reality, but adds this qualification: “if teleology means the working out of a plan in view of a predetermined end or goal” then this makes time unreal and “reduces the universe to a mere temporal reproduction of a pre-exiting eternal scheme or structure” in which everything “is already given.” Iqbal rejects this view as a “veiled materialism” for it leaves “no scope for human or even Divine freedom.”

Contra Bergson, Iqbal argues that it is possible to assign purpose to the movement of reality without succumbing to this “veiled materialism” that is hardly distinguishable from the mechanical determinism generated by modern scientism. In the heart of reality, Iqbal finds “progressive formation of fresh ends, purposes, and ideal scales of value” (43) that are anything but predetermined. He rejects the notion that there is a “foreseen end” or “a far off fixed destination” towards which the whole creation is moving. The movement of reality in time “cannot be conceived as a line already drawn.” True to his dynamic vision of a constantly evolving cosmos, Iqbal insists that “it is a line in the drawing—an actualization of open possibilities” (44).

How “Islamic” is the above understanding of time? While Iqbal’s view does go against popular conceptions of taqdir as a predetermined future that is immune to our choices, it is important to consider that he defends this view as being firmly rooted in the Qur’an. In his rejection of taqdir as fixed destiny, Iqbal remains true to the spirit and letter of the Qur’an. There is, of course, no requirement that Muslims must be loyal to any historically contingent understanding of what the Qur’an means. God is continuously showing His signs, both in our own souls and on the horizons; not to notice these signs is not only an act of ingratitude, it is also a path that leads to misguidance and error. The entire task of “reconstruction” is nothing other than recognizing the signs as such, and of incorporating them into our overall picture of reality. Theologically, Iqbal is correct in arguing that the notion of a fixed destiny deprives not only humans of their creative freedom to mold their present and therefore influence their future; it also takes away God’s freedom to manifest His attributes in ever fresh ways, thereby undermining God’s omnipotence.

Iqbal argues that God’s omniscience should be understood in a way that does not compromise God’s omnipotence.  The common understanding of God’s knowledge is that it embraces equally the past, the present, and the future. In this view, the future is assumed to be merely a distant location that we do not see because we haven’t arrived there yet, but which is part of God’s knowledge since God enjoys a much higher vintage point than what is available to us. For Iqbal, such a spatial conception of time does not accord with the Qur’anic understanding of the nature of God’s omniscience.  He contends that the view of divine knowledge as a “single indivisible act of perception which makes God immediately aware of the entire sweep of history, regarded as an order of specific events, in an eternal ‘now’” is inadequate (62). While acknowledging that there is some truth in this conception, Iqbal would not embrace it because this view “suggests a closed universe, a fixed futurity, a predetermined, unalterable order of specific events which, like a superior fate, has once for all determined the directions of God’s creative activity” (62-63).

While the conception of future as an already existing distant location allows God to have foreknowledge, it clearly robs Him of omnipotence.  Iqbal writes:

Divine knowledge must be conceived as a living creative activity to which the objects that appear to exist in their own right are organically related. By conceiving God’s knowledge as a kind of reflecting mirror, we no doubt save His foreknowledge of future events; but it is obvious that we do so at the expense of His freedom. The future certainly pre-exists in the organic whole of God’s creative life, but it pre-exists as an open possibility, not as a fixed order of events with definite outlines. (63)

If Iqbal is right, it would follow that God’s omniscience has to be understood in a more nuanced fashion than what is implied by the spatial (and therefore static) conception of time. Following is a preliminary, and admittedly simplistic, attempt to paraphrase his suggestion.

To say that God knows everything is easy to understand and accept when “everything” is taken to mean the past and the present.  God’s knowledge of the future, however, cannot be of the same quality as His knowledge of the past and the present. God’s omniscience consists in having a complete knowledge of all the tendencies and dispositions of reality; of everything that has ever been right up til the present moment; and of the entire range of all the possibilities for the future as they appear and disappear at each moment in the life of reality. This much is obvious. But to say that God’s omniscience must include the knowledge of exactly which of the numerous possibilities for the future will actually realize itself is to make an unwarranted claim.

Of course, God’s knowledge encompasses everything; but the future is not yet a “thing” that God can know in the same way that God knows the past and the present. To say otherwise would be to assume that (1) God knows what God would do in the indefinite future; and (2) God knows what each creature would do in the indefinite future. Both of these assumptions put serious constraints on the freedom of choice, for God as well as for all of God’s creatures (including human beings). On the other hand, the affirmation of God’s intimate and complete knowledge of all the future possibilities at any given moment would fulfill the requirement of believing in divine omniscience, but without requiring us to accept God’s intimate and complete knowledge of the future itself.

It is far more important for Islamic theology to maintain God’s creative freedom than to save God’s foreknowledge of future events. Similarly, it is far more important for Islamic ethics to insist on the human freedom to make choices than to preserve the belief in a fixed, predetermined destiny.

11 Comments on “Is the Future set in Stone?

  1. Very well put in the words the idea which makes one more likely to stumble. It is more of kind of God’s omniscience v/s omnipotence, and i agree that we have to put the things to their due places (atleast we should try our level best though bit difficult when it comes to the attributes of GOD).

    And again it is something in human from God (“ego” the term used by Iqbal) the essense of human, that fascinates it to think of God’s mind in order to come closer to Reality and to understand it.

    Now i believe that understanding of this notion is of the same nature as the notion itself, i-e to explain it to the level of absolute certainity is uncertain. I think it is of nature that one may have deep understanding of the notion but would always stumble when will try to put in the words since language i think is insufficient to fully incorporate the deep notions and infact the Reality. It is the understanding of the notion which one can make to understand seemingly contradictory explaination about when semantical.

  2. So are you saying God is like a master chess player? He looks at the board, and can predict all the different moves far in advance, but what the other player actually chooses (what piece to move) is in the role of that player only? God reacts to the player’s moves, but he knows all the possibilities?

    • With due regard to the limits of language and the inherent imperfection of all anlogies, I would say: yes.

      What’s the point of playing a game of chess if all the moves that either side is going to make have already been decided in advance, and the final outcome is therefore predetermined as well? There is no risk in such a game, and therefore no meaning. The universe, on the contrary, is meaningful, as the Qur’an repeatedly proclaims. For the universe to be meaningful, there has to be an element of free choice available to all parties.

      The chess analogy breaks down, however, when we recognize that God and humankind are not really playing against each other.

  3. I like to play chess WITH someone, preferably someone who is better or at least equal to my abilities.
    And I still like my chess analogy because it is the process of playing the game that makes it so much fun. Everyone knows the outcome- at the end there will be one winner and one loser, but what makes the whole game worthwhile is the act of playing- together, with another individual, whose behavior you can’t predict, but from whom you may learn something.

  4. the path we choose is the path we were always going to choose? we may have convinced our minds otherwise but we would not have ended up making a different decision
    so therefore there is only one future possibilty
    we may think up different possibilities in our minds but the one we choose is the one we always chose
    if the future isnt set in stone then neither is the past, eg people 50 years from now will look back at what happened 10 years from now and call it the past, it happened the way it did and nothing could change that. So therefore our future is someones past thus making it set in stone.

  5. Great piece Ahmed. I read Iqbal a few years ago and (as a Christian with Process leanings) was excited to read a Muslim thinking in such terms. Question: Are there any precedents in Islam for such thinking regarding an ‘open future’ (and God’s knowing it AS open)?

    • Good question, but I would have to acknowledge my ignorance. I suspect that Iqbal must have an Islamic precedent for saying what he says, but I don’t know enough about the history of Islamic theology to offer any names. I do have a hunch that Iqbal may have been indebted to Rumi in this regard, in addition to Whitehead.

  6. Ahmed, this is an interesting conceptualization, liberating in many aspects. For Christians, and Muslims this defines the difference between determinism and foreknowledge, which I believe to be non-inclusive.

    Predeterminism promotes the idea that God has programmed us to life, death, and eternal union with, or separation from, him. Foreknowledge implicates his omniscience as knowing the choices we will make under veil of divinely granted freedom, this is far different from being fated to salvation or damnation. This is God standing at my birth, my present and my future, simultaneously, knowing intimately the choices I will make amidst my life journey, and making plans for me, based upon his foreknowledge of my free choices, responses to his cues to correct, calls to listen and respond to his voice evidenced through The Book, circumstances, relationships etc… .

    Not a programmed existence by any means, however, one that is known by the all knowing God. He isunlimited in his continuing creativity, our responses to which will be held before us in judgement, whether to our benefit as marks of obedience and response to his love, or subjection to eternal separation in response to our rejection of his provision of grace and mercy.

  7. The future is set in stone because what your talking about is timelines. There are different timelines, not futures. You live in one timeline and you will be whatever your future self is. If you try to change your future it won’t work because it’ll end up the same. Thinking your actions will change your future is a positive motive. But when you try to change your actions you are still in the same timeline, but you don’t know what your future is so are you really changing it? Or are you just doing what will make your future self?

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