Theology: August 2008 Archives

[Cross-posted at Prosblogion] Open theists distinguish between two different varieties of their view. There are actually a number of ways to divide up open theism into varieties, but one particular division that open theists make among themselves is between the following two positions:

1. There is no such thing as a future to be known, and that's why God doesn't know the future exhaustively. It's not a limitation on God that he doesn't know everything that will happen. There's nothing to be known, so God can't know it. So God is omniscient in knowing all the facts about the future. There just aren't very much such facts yet.

2. God could know the future, but it would prevent our freedom, so God chooses to limit his knowledge, knowing that knowledge about what we would choose to do would make us unfree. God doesn't know all he could know metaphysically, but he does know all he could know given his choice not to know future free choices.

I'm not really sure these are distinct views. It sounds as if one view has God unable to know the future, and the other has him able to know it but choosing not to. But think about what would make him unable to know the future in the first case and unwilling to know it in the second. If he's unable to know the future because there's no future to be known, we're working with a picture of a world that's not deterministic. When people make free choices, they can do otherwise, and the idea is that open choices like that require an open future, which requires there being no fact about what you will do until you do it. But on view 1, it seems God could arrange for me to choose a certain thing. I just wouldn't be free if God did that. So God chooses not to know what I'll do in order to ensure that I have the chance to make free choices. But isn't that view 2?

Now think about the second view. What would happen if God chose to know what I'd do ahead of time? On view 2, I wouldn't be free if God chose such a thing. So God voluntarily chooses not to make me unfree, and he chooses to let the future be open with respect to my choice, which means he can't know my future choice, and we're really dealing with view 1.

So I'm not really sure these views are different views after all. In both views, God could know what I will do, and it would require me not being free. View 1 expresses this by assuming God won't ensure that I do any particular thing and then says God can't know my future choice. View 2 expresses it by making it explicit that God has chosen not to know and acknowledging that God could have known but it would mean I'm not free. But I'm not sure we're dealing with a different picture of what's going on, just a different way of describing it.

This is the third post from the Right Reason series I did last year.

In my last post, I presented some background views of Augustine that will inform his views on the relationship between Christians and civil government. Before I move on to his specific treatment of that issue from City of God chapter 19, I want to look at two other related background issues in this post.

First, it's always worth remembering that for Augustine the ultimate governor of all things is God. In City of God 4.33, he dwells on the significance this has. If God is the governor over all creation, and God is omnipotent and has exhaustive foreknowledge (as Augustine thought), then nothing happens without at least God's permission. There's an ordering of events. This strong view of God's sovereignty required him to come up with something to say about the problem of evil, which he does spend a great deal of time on in other sections of City of God, but even without that additional work it's clear that Augustine doesn't think God sees everything that happens as morally good. It's just that it all somehow fits into a larger plan that God is in control of.

What political relevance does this have, then? God distributes worldly power irrespective of whether people are good or bad. We could tell that by just observing the world. Why would this be? One reason is that if only good people got it, then people would begin to expect such gifts from God, and that involves seeing worldly power as important. Augustine says it's not of any real importance, so it wouldn't do for God to promote it as if it is. So it gets distributed among people of various sorts to diminish the likelihood of people drawing that kind of conclusion.

Augustine thinks the Old Testament promises of land and other physical things to Israel have a hidden meaning of a spiritual reality, i.e. to be in the spiritual land is to be in God's kingdom as a citizen of a higher reality, etc. Those in the City of God, i.e. Christians, are not citizens of the earthly kingdom and do not primarily identify with it in terms of its mindset or desires (as I discussed in the last post).

After Augustine discusses the material I'm going to turn to in the next post, he looks at one issue that I wanted to have in front of us at the outset. In City of God 19.24, he looks at the expression "a people" (or at least the Latin expression translated as "a people"). He defines 'a people' as a group united by common goals, purposes, and loves. In part, he's responding to Cicero's definition that a society is a group united for the sake of serving justice. Augustine doesn't want to define it that way, because you can evaluate a people based on what its goals, purposes, and loves are. If it loves good things, it makes it a good people. If it loves bad things, it is a bad people. So you can't define a society as a group with good goals, as if other groups aren't societies. Any group with shared interests is a society. It's just that some societies are united by justice, while others are not.

Rome in its most corrupt state was still a people. True justice isn't present unless reason triumphs over what's not excellent. Ultimately for the best sort of justice, a people must love God, but it might make sense to speak of lesser forms of justice that involve something more virtuous than another people, even if neither truly loves God. So his distinction between (a) true peace that only the City of God looks forward to and (b) a semblance of peace in the earthly city corresponds to a distinction between (c) true justice that can occur only when fully and completely motivated by love for God (and won't appear fully even in the still-sinning members of the City of God here and now) and (d) a semblance of justice in the earthly city.

In City of God 4.4, Augustine defended the claim that unjust regimes are no more than criminal gangs on a large scale, and this account of what it is to be a people helps shed some light on that earlier passage. As Augustine sees it, an unjust government is nothing more than a bunch of criminals. The fact that they have much power and get to be called an empire makes no difference. The thing they have in common is that they are both groups organized around a common purpose, and in these two cases it's a bad purpose. His emphasis here is that empires can be no better than gangs. But the assumption behind this also means that gangs are like small scale societies, because they have the kind of common association that a society has. Just because the organizing principle doesn't line up with what's right doesn't mean that it's not a society. It's just a bad society.

So enough of the preliminaries. In the next post, I'll move to his main discussion of this issue in City of God 19.14-17.

Posted by Jeremy Pierce on July 16, 2007 6:41 PM

[This post had no comments at the original Right Reason posting, so there are none to reproduce here.]

[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

I'm working on a chapter for the forthcoming Blackwell Philosophy and Harry Potter on the topic of destiny, and one of the things I'm trying to do in the chapter is distinguish between different metaphysical analyses of prophecy. I've come up with three, and I'm inclined to think that it might be exhaustive enough for the purposes of a popular-level work like this, but I'm curious if anyone here can think of any others.

Here's what I've got (and how I'm presenting it in the draft I'm writing):

1. They involve mere likelihoods. No one has access to the actual future, but someone might have magical access to information that's derived from what's likely. Given what's true about the various people involved, it's very likely that a certain outcome will happen. That means prophecies, even the ones Dumbledore is inclined to call genuine, are not infallible. They can turn out get it wrong.

2. They do not derive their content from the actual future. Rather, they make the future happen. When a genuine prophecy occurs, it influences those who hear it in such a way that they end up doing things that will fulfill the prophecy. This kind of prophecy is self-fulfilling in a very literal sense.

3. The seer has some intuitive connection with the way things will really happen, such that the words of the prophecy are true about a future that really will be that way. If it's a genuine prophecy, it can't be wrong, because its origin lies in the very future events that it tells about. In the same way that a report about the past can bring knowledge about the past only if there's some reliable connection with the actual events in the past, a genuine prophecy in this sense must derive its truth from a reliable method of getting facts about the future.

My understanding of J.K. Rowling's view of prophecy, judging by this interview and my sense that the Albus Dumbledore character represents her views when he discusses this issue with Harry Potter, is that she wants to treat Professor Trelawney's two genuine prophecies as the first kind, a kind of prophecy an open theist could accept.

There are hints in at least two of Dumbledore's conversations with Harry that he thinks something like the second kind is going on, but it's clearly not a reduction of prophecy to what happens in #2, because the characters in question (mostly Lord Voldemort) still make free choices and aren't simply caused by the prophecy to do anything the way some ancients thought Laius was caused by Apollo's prophecy to do what he did that led to Oedipus eventually killing him.

My argument at this point is that there isn't really a way for Dumbledore to distinguish between Trelawney's two genuine prophecies and all her vague predictions that can often be interpreted as coming true unless the genuine ones are of the third kind (because the pseudo-prophecies are of the first kind, and the genuine ones can't be completely explained by the second kind). Rowling doesn't seem to want to accept that, and Dumbledore is clearly with her, so there's a consistency issue here both for the character and the author. But my argument depends on the options I've listed being exhaustive. Is that true?

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