Jeff asked:

I failed my exam.

If I pray hard enough, is it possible (logically possible) that God could bring it about that I passed?

Does it make any difference whether I know that I failed (received the result) or not?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This is can of worms, Jeff. Which God are you praying to? I’ve lost count of how many there are, but even if I restrict them to monotheistic religions, there are plenty to choose from. But irrespective of this doubt, I’ve heard on the grapevine that none of them pick up the receiver any more, because sales have diminished so much of late that the cost of the line exceeds the value of the service.

It is a serious problem, as otherwise it would be wholly possible, logically speaking. There are books you should read, written by eye witness accounts, of such corrections of a faulty reality. I remembered the name Enoch just now. But another consideration is, are you important enough to your God for him to go through the trouble of creating a time tunnel and alternative world just for you where reality changed your failure into a pass due to a bribed or incompetent examiner? You should keep in mind that logically this small alteration to your personal fortune could (depending on the exam’s importance to world politics) affect everyone else in the college, even the whole world, maybe World War III will break out over it and change the course of future history. Remember the little winged phrase, ‘for the want of a nail …’ So be careful about what you ask for!

Finally, if you failed, you must know. But if you didn’t know for sure, because no-one informed you, it makes no difference. You wanted to pray anyway. A kind of Pascal’s wager. Do it! A little contrition never hurt anyone. Meanwhile your question loops back to the beginning. So does my answer.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

We’ve had a version of this question before. See:

Bringing about the past

I’m interested in the question what kind of world would this be if it was a world where a sufficiently powerful being (God, say, or it could just be the kind of god who lives on Mount Olympus) can make the past different from what it is (or was).

So far as one’s personal experience is concerned, nothing seems easier than to make it the case that when I look at my result on the exam results notice board later today I see that I have passed. On the notice board yesterday, it stated that I got an F and so I failed. Today, it states that I got a respectable B.

It doesn’t matter whether I looked at the notice board yesterday or not. Reality has been changed, for the better in my case.

Yes, of course, a lot of other facts have to change too. My exam script was rubbish, and I remember that it was rubbish. But now, a day later, I ‘remember’ that it was quite good. And the examiner thought so too.

Lots of facts about the past have to change, and also my memories of particular facts. So… let it be.

The world I have described is a world where there is no past. There is a view in the philosophy of time called ‘presentism’ according to which only the present moment is real. The past is just things we say or ‘know’ or ‘remember’ (in scare quotes) about the past. (This would be a counterexample to the dictum pinned on Birdman’s dressing room mirror, ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said about that thing,’ Sontag.)

The past isn’t a thing. The universe does not have a past. We just talk as if it had.

In that case, does that mean all bets are off, we can change the past in any way we like? The assumption of this question is that it requires a lot of power. Wishing the past had been different, or getting a group of nutcases together (Holocaust deniers, for example) and ‘agreeing’ that the past is different from what it is taken to be isn’t sufficient to make the past different.

Broadly Kantian considerations would come in here that the past has to be largely or for the most part difficult or impossible to change, in order for experience to have any coherence. But we do not need to go down the road that Kant took, insisting on ‘all or nothing’ (e.g. universal determinism, or nothing).

We thought reality was hard as steel. Facts are immutable. We were wrong. Reality is plastic. It is mutable. But it still has shape and form.

I am not saying this is the world we inhabit. It is a logically possible world, one which is familiar to certain genres of fiction.