This is the the thirty-fifth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I continued a series within the series on philosophical theology, looking at a thorny problem about divine omniscience with respect to time. This post moves on to questions about omniscience with respect to human freedom.
A second puzzle related to omniscience is how an omniscient being could know the future given human free will. While the first omniscience puzzle is largely a problem for an atemporal God, this puzzle is primarily for a temporal God, although we will see that God’s being atemporal is not going to be enough for a complete answer for many theists. The problem is basically as follows:
If God knows that I will do something tomorrow, then it necessarily follows that I will do it. That seems to imply that I will not be able to do otherwise. How, then, is divine foreknowledge compatible with human freedom? If God knows the future, it seems that we are not free.
There are five ways people have tried to avoid this puzzle without denying either God’s omniscience or human freedom.
The first way is straightforward, at least at first. I believe Augustine was the first to suggest that if God is atemporal then God does not know anything before it happens. If all the knowledge of what I will do is outside time, then God’s knowledge of it can simply derive from God’s immediate perception of what is future to me. Since all of time is present to God, God is aware of all of time without knowing it in advance. That seems to avoid the problem.
Perhaps it does avoid the problem, but it is at some cost. For one thing, the atemporal view now needs to face the puzzle of omniscience and time in the last post. Someone taking this way out will need to take view 2 or view 3 on that problem. Whether you consider this a real problem depends on whether you considered those views plausible solutions to that problem.
But there is a further difficulty. To use atemporality to avoid the puzzle of foreknowledge and freedom, you need to say that all knowledge of human free choices is outside time rather than earlier in time. That means no human being can know the future. That means God could not give prophecies of what will happen unless it does not depend on human choice (or unless those prophecies never lead to human knowledge). So in Christianity, when Judas betrayed Jesus, something crucial to the divine plan in Christianity, God would not have been able to allow anyone know in advance whether Judas would do it, including Jesus, who the gospels tell us had predicted it within time. God could still know what is future to us, but he could never allow anyone in time (even the second person of the Trinity!) to know it ahead of time.
So it seems the atemporal solution is only technically a solution to this problem. It does allow you to avoid the problem, but those who accept human prophecy as leading to at least someone's knowlege in time can do so only by adopting another response in addition to divine atemporality. So we turn to those responses, since this one is insufficient given the existence or even possibility of prophets.
A second view is that God is in time, but God does not know the future. This view is sometimes called the open view of God, or open theism, because according to this view the future is open in the sense that there is no truth now about what in the future will be true. At least this is so when the future would depend on what free human beings will do. So on the open view, there is no truth about what I will do tomorrow, since I am free to do both of two things that I might do, and therefore God can know all true things without knowing which one I will do. If it's not true that I will do either one, even if it's true that I'll do one of the two, then God would know that I will do one without knowing which I will do.
If God’s knowledge is limited because there are no truths about the future, then it does not threaten omniscience if omniscience is just knowing everything that's true. You need a further claim that there are truths about the future to get the conclusion that God knows the future. Without that, God can fail to know the future without failing at anything possible. Many theists are still uncomfortable with God not knowing the future, but this avoids the problem. It retains omniscience (read as knowing every truth) in the face of human free choice that influences the future. As with the first view (if the first view were going to be a complete solution), this view does involved denying a traditional view of God. What, then, is required to retain traditional views of God?
(Note: The open view is often attributed to Aristotle, but he is often misinterpreted on this issue. He does present the view, and he may well be the first philosopher to do so carefully. But he presents it only to show that it is contradictory. He thinks it requires saying that "Either A or not-A" is true, while denying that A is true and denying that A is false. He thinks that results in a contradiction and is thus unsatisfied with where his starting point has taken him. What is not clear is what he thought as a result, but he seems to me not to be satisfied with the open view of the future. On the other hand, Aristotle's follower Alexander of Aphrodisias very clearly does endorse this view and even applies it to the foreknowledge question, perhaps for the first time, although he does not think in monotheistic terms.)
3. Time is Like Space
A third view retains God’s knowledge of the future with human freedom by taking a response from the omniscience and time puzzle above. If time is like space, it allows for a different way out of this problem. If time is like space (i.e. the B-theory from last post), then there is nothing special about past, present, or future. All times are alike. The only thing that makes the present special is because we are at it. There are beings at other times, including us at other times, and those times are present to us at those times.
What bothers us about the future is that it seems open to us. If it is already set that we will do something, then it seems not open to us. So if someone knows ahead of time what will happen, it seems not open to us. But the problem isn't really foreknowledge, is it? What makes it seem not open isn't that someone knows it but that it's already settled. It can be settled without being true. This is why open theism (view 2 above) does not just deny foreknowledge. It denies any truths about the future (at least when the truth would depend on free action).
But if time is like space, there is nothing special about the future to make there be no future truths. Past truths are true even if they depend on free human choice. One way to capture this is to talk about necessity and possibility about the past and the future. If it is true that I was in Syracuse for Christmas this year, then there is nothing I can do now to change that fact. There was something I could have done beforehand that would have made it not true, but given that it is true there is nothing I can do to change it.
Can we say the same about the future? Those who pose the foreknowledge problem assume so. According to this view, however, that argument fails. There is actually nothing I can do to change the future from what it is, since the future is already what it will be. It is settled in one sense, the sense in which statements about the future are already true or false. What is necessary and what is true are not the same thing, however. What is necessary is what could not have been false. Some things are true that could have been false, and other things are true that could not have been false. 1+1=2. That could not have been false. But I stayed in Syracuse this weekend, and that could have been false. It could have been true that we went to New York City for Christmas. But we didn't. I can't now do anything about that, but it could have been true.
Similarly, even though it's (presumably) true that I will still be in Syracuse next weekend, there are things I can do now that if I did them (and presumably I will not) I would end up traveling over New Years. It's true that I will not do so (and I keep saying presumably not because it's not true about the future but because whatever the truth is I can't be absolutely sure of it yet). But things I can do now would affect what the future will be. That I will do certain things makes it true that other things will happen. I don't have to do those things. But I will.
Therefore, this view takes the foreknowledge problem to be a misunderstanding from the very outset. It relies on the assumption that truth about the future means necessity about the future. Something can be true about the past without being necessary, so why could it not be true about the future without being necessary? If truth about the future doesn't mean the future is necessary, then why should it interfere with freedom? (Cleanthes the Stoic was the first philosopher I know of to state this response clearly, although he didn't do so in terms of a theory of time. He simply focused on separating truth and necessity. Thomas Aquinas also takes this view.)
The only reason I can do something about the future, then, is because I am at this time and not at another time. That doesn't mean statements about the future are less true than statements about things that have already happened. It just means I am before the thing that is true in cases of future truth. When I was before the past things that are true, I could do things to affect that. It is because I did those things that I did the things I did. It is because I didn’t do other things that other things are false. But my doing or not doing certain things in the past did affect what is true about what I did.
Similarly, my doing or not doing certain things in the future affects what I will do in the future. None of this means I had to do certain things in the past or that I have to do certain things in the future. It just means that it is true that I did things in the past and true that I will do things in the future. The puzzle about omniscience, then, assumes that truth and necessity are the same thing. But truth is not necessity, according to this objection. Therefore, it can be true that I will do something and yet not predetermined by things true at this time that I will do it. What makes me do it is me at the time.
Now given such a picture, what can a theist say about God’s knowledge? Once you acknowledge that it is already true now that I will show up for class tomorrow, it is not a big step to say that God knows it. The worry about freedom was originally raised because of foreknowledge, but the way out that denies God’s foreknowledge in view 2 also has to deny that the thing not known is even true to begin with. If you deny that and allow that it is true, is it a problem if God knows it? If time is like space, then the existence of the whole time line already laid out before God’s eyes (whether God is in time or not) would contain what free beings do. It would not necessarily contain anyone or anything making those things happen against our wills, so why would it need to include those actions not being free?
Part of the trouble, according to this third view, is that God’s knowledge seems to be necessary. If God is a necessary being, and God is omniscient, it seems to God is necessarily omniscient, and that means that God’s knowledge is necessary. But that doesn’t mean the things God knows are necessary. If God knows something, it necessarily follows that it is true. But what is necessary is that it follows that it is true. God’s knowledge of that particular thing is not necessary, just as your action (the one God knows) is not necessary. If you had done something different, God would not have known the same thing. God knows it because you will do it. In a sense, this is something like backward causation. You do something now, and it causes God to have known all along that you would do it.
That is indeed a strange result, but one kind of prayer that some people believe in also has this result. For instance, suppose a particular election has crucial significance for some important issues that will affect the direction of the world, and the election has just ended. They are now counting the votes. What if many people pray for the election to go a certain way, and God answers those prayers in the affirmative? God ensures that certain events happen in the right way to convince enough people to vote a certain way. But that would involve making sure that all sorts of things had already happened. The only way God could answer such a prayer is by foreseeing that people would pray a certain way and answer it ahead of time. That would mean God’s action was caused by people’s later prayers. If this kind of prayer is possible, then backward causation already happens in some sense. Maybe the kind that causes God’s knowledge ahead of time is not so worrisome in that light. (See here and here for more on retroactive prayer. The first argues for its theoretical consistency, and the second points out how common it is in practice.)
There are two other ways out of this problem. One is very straightforward. I expect to begin discussing free will as a subject in its own right not in the next post but in the one after. It will become clear that philosophers disagree on what freedom even is. The kind of freedom that's inconsistent with determinism is what I've been assuming in this post. If freedom is compatible with determinism, as the majority of philosophers today believe, then this problem is much easier to deal with. That kind of freedom is easily consistent with the future even being necessary. I won't work out the details of why, but I wanted to acknowledge that one way out of this problem is simply by accepting compatibilism about freedom and determinism. I wanted to show in this post that there are other things to say in case compatibilism is false. Freedom might still be consistent with foreknowledge. But that way out is indeed available to those who prefer to be compatibilists.
Second, some philosophers take a view that they call middle knowledge. This view is sometimes called Molinism, after Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, who first expressed it formally. Molinists think God knows what free beings will do in any given situation. Compatibilists who accept determinism have no problem accepting this as well, but it is those who do not accept compatibilism who think this helps with foreknowledge problems. I will say only that it would help with foreknowledge problems if it were true, since God's knowledge of what free beings will freely do must somehow be consistent with their being free, but the solution can't really get off the ground.
The problem is that there is no explanation of these special truths. Philosophers call them counterfactuals of freedom, because they are truths about what people would do freely in circumstances that might not be true (thus counterfactual). What makes counterfactuals of freedom true? Apparently nothing. If we are free in the relevant sense (and thus not predetermined), nothing about the world now could make these things true. Thus counterfactuals could be true only if we have compatibilist freedom anyway, and thus Molinism ends up working only if you already accept compatibilism.)
So there are five responses to this puzzle, each affirming both God’s omniscience and human freedom, and each involving some potentially unwelcome admissions.
1. The atemporal view denies the view that God is in time, which unfortunately was one of the easy ways out of the first puzzle. That means view A has to accept one of the other views for the puzzle about what time it is, and those have their unfortunate implications. This view also has to deny the possibility of foreknowledge through prophecy. No human being could know the future by getting it from God.
2. Open theism has to deny God’s knowledge of the future, even if it can hold on to omniscience by saying omniscience is knowing everything that is true. This similarly removes the possibility of prophecy, at least about things that human action could affect, and it denies much of the teaching of traditional religions.
3. The time-like-space view has to accept the counterintuitive view that time is like space. There is nothing special about the present, and the future is like the past in the ways specified above. This view also has to accept either God's atemporality (see view 1) or something like backward causation, which is also counterintuitive.
4. Compatibilism accepts free will as compatible with determinism, which is certainly not the expectation of most people when they start studying philosophy, even if it is the dominant view now among philosophers.
5. Molinism either has truths that are true for no reason, or compatibilism in true (in which case I refer you to view 4).
So in the end it seems that one can (a) deny prophecy that leads to knowledge, (b) deny foreknowledge, (c) accept the future like the past, i.e. B-theory of time, while accepting something like backward causation, (d) accept the future like the past, i.e. B-theory of time, while accepting divine atemporality, (e) accept compatibilism about freedom and determinism, or (f) accept that there are some truths that have no explanation. Views (a) and (b) are revisionary theological claims. Those who prefer a traditional view of God, then, have options (c), (d), (e), and (f). I should note that if (f) is true, then the cosmological argument for God's existence is defeated extremely easily. See the post on that subject earlier in this series.
In the next post I'll present an argument about what kind of revelation we might expect from a good God.