Saturday, July 21, 2007

if God knows the future... are we free?

You might object that while God knows what choices you will make, he doesn't make those choices for you. That may well be true, but it's irrelevant because you are free to do something only if you can refrain from doing it. If your doing something is inevitable-- as it must be if God foresees it-- then your doing it cannot be a free act.

--Theodore Schick, Jr., Professor of Philosophy at Muhlenberg College, in the chapter "Fate, Freedom, and Foreknowledge" of The Matrix and Philosophy

I've actually been through this before several times on this blog, but a very lengthy comment exchange between myself and blogger USinKorea (check out his fine blog here) has convinced me that I need once again to set out the logical problem of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. It's an interesting topic to explore.

Please note, from the outset, that this argument focuses purely on the logical aspects of the question of divine foreknowledge. Believers who are secure in their faith won't be bothered by a logical attack on God, because their faith will be rooted in something deeper than logic. So I'm not trying to tear God down so much as I'm trying to deconstruct a faulty and self-contradictory conception of God.

At issue is whether human beings are free if God knows the future down to the minutest detail. The answer is no: humans are not free if God has such knowledge. Why? Because if God knows that event A is going to happen, then event A will happen exactly as God knows it will.

Before we go further, we need to clear up what "freedom" means. Most (not all) philosophers take human freedom to mean the ability to do other than what one has done. In other words, a situation might play out one way, but if we rewound to a crucial moment and hit "play" again, the situation might play out differently. Freedom entails openness and possibility.

Let's say I'm agonizing over whether I will order pizza or Chinese food tonight. God, who knows all, knows that I'll order pizza (he also knows I'll agonize over the menu). If God's knowledge is infallible, then I will indeed order pizza. Can I have done otherwise? No: God knew I was going to go for the pizza. He knew this five billion years ago. Or he knew it while "outside of time." It matters little; the point is that God's knowledge is infallible. I will order a pizza. I will not do otherwise. I cannot do otherwise. Why? Because if I could do otherwise, then God couldn't be said to have infallible knowledge of the future.

Did God cause me to order the pizza? Is God's knowledge somehow causal? That's an interesting question, but not really relevant here. The reason God knows event A (my ordering the pizza) will happen is that event A is somehow there to be known. You cannot know what is not there to be known. This is the only fact that counts.

When talking about knowing, we can divide the act/event into (1) the knower, (2) the act of knowing, and (3) the thing known. If God knows the future, then the future exists from God's point of view: it is there to be known. We should also note that knowing has two senses: a strict sense and a loose sense. If I say, for example, that "I know my dog will beg for food tonight," that's knowing in the loose sense. It is not the same as infallible knowledge, and therefore not relevant to this discussion.

Why isn't it relevant? Because I don't really know for a 100% certainty that my dog will beg for food tonight. I base my guess (and that's what this is: a guess) on previous experience. If my dog gets shot before dinner, this invalidates my claim to knowledge. If my dog gets sick or gets distracted by the bitch in the next yard, this also invalidates my claim to knowledge. If the future is not predictable, I cannot claim to know it. If the future is predictable, then its inevitability (true predictability implies true inevitability) justifies my claim to knowledge.

If I know for a moral certainty that my friend Jack always buys a Cherry Coke whenever we go to a convenience store, then I haven't demonstrated how Jack is free. If anything, my ability to predict his behavior is evidence of his lack of freedom. If you counter that Jack might someday choose a different drink, then I obviously didn't know what I thought I knew about Jack.

So: freedom precludes foreknowledge, because if we are truly, objectively free, then the future is not written. If the future is not written, it is not there for God to know it. If it's not there to be known, God doesn't know the future.

By the same token: if God truly knows the future, this can only be because the future is there to be known-- i.e., it is already written, already actual to God. Infallible knowledge is tied to inevitability, otherwise it isn't infallible knowledge. Causality isn't relevant.

All of which is to say: you can have one or the other, but not both. If you take freedom seriously, then there's no divine foreknowledge. The future is open, unwritten. If you take divine foreknowledge seriously, then there's no freedom. If God knows the future in intimate detail, you're not free. This line of thinking quickly becomes uncomfortable: if you're not free, you're not responsible for your actions. If you're not responsible for your actions, it is unjust for God to reward or punish you for what you could not help doing. In this worldview, the one where God knows the future, choice is an illusion.

NB: In Christian theology, there is a theological notion called "middle knowledge" that attempts to reconcile the above contradiction. In my opinion, it fails to accomplish its goal. I've written on it a couple times, and have to thank Dr. Hodges (and William Lane Craig!) for initially providing me with readings on the topic.

Middle knowledge is a fascinating concept, but in my opinion it merely pushes the logical problem back a step because it deals with conditionals-- the "ifs" of a situation. It is impossible to allow for conditionals and counterfactuals while still claiming that God knows the actual future.

While we're on the subject of theism and theology, I should also note that many theists have no trouble with the idea that we are all somehow predestined. Strict Calvinism holds to this notion. Most Muslims also affirm that all that happens, including human action, is the will of Allah. The "problem" of human freedom is not a problem for all believers.

In the comments to that previous post, USinKorea made an interesting remark: "I wonder, if [the critique of divine foreknowledge] is a matter of simple logic, why I have not heard before that everyone generally agrees that logic dicates there can be no God as defined by the [Judeo-]Christian and Islamic tradition and free will at the same time. If logic has proven the two cannot exist at the same time, I would have thought those three religions would have taken a much bigger hit in the world than they have as of yet."

First, we should note that the problem of freedom and foreknowledge is an ancient one, and is well known. Second, we should note that religion is more about faith than logic, so there's little reason for the faithful to feel threatened by logical argument. Religion is, for many, a deep-rooted conviction or orientation; reasoned arguments against religion are rarely persuasive for most believers, so it's unsurprising that certain religions have flourished in the face of blistering logical critique.

I don't want to sound condescending with the above. My point is not that religious folks are all benighted, irrational fruit loops. Most of my closest friends have some sort of religious conviction. My point is that logical arguments can only deal with the logical elements in a person's religious worldview, and that's it. I can't use logic to prove or disprove the existence of God, for example, but if people insist on making specific claims about God's nature, I can subject those claims to logical critique. That seems only natural.



Anonymous said...

I have three comments - please bear with me: 2 long, 1 short - this is the initial long one...

Thanks for the long formal response (and thanks for the commenting exchange). Things like this provoke thought --- even if they are unwieldy as conversations and blog commenting often are.

On my comment noted near the end, I made it during the exchange and after having done just a quick spot checking on free will and determinism via google. Like with most things of this nature, I figured there were at least two schools of thought that had probably had horns locked for awhile.

Now, I have taken a few books on the issues from the library, turned my brain to mush, but also seen that the horns have been locked for a few centuries - and are still locked.

That is a small item I would attached this current post. It isn't just a matter of switching to faith to counter the logic argument on why free will and an all-knowing God can't go together. The logic is still being debated (in what I can only described is a terribly convoluted way....and how...)

I don't mind resting just on faith, because one of my main thoughts is that mankind likes to kid itself into believing it can gain fundamental understanding of an unknowable universe - and this is not a religious position of mine but one based on the complexity of the universe we can only increasingly understand by destroying its reality.

Anonymous said...

"the ability to do other than what one has done. In other words, a situation might play out one way, but if we rewound to a crucial moment and hit "play" again, the situation might play out differently. Freedom entails openness and possibility."

As you can tell, I'm hard headed. But, I can only understand what I understand. For example, I don't believe numbers exist outside of a system mankind created - because - there are no 2 of anything.

My thoughts on the definition of freedom are pretty much what my initial reaction was in the comments:

How can I even do what has already been done?

I am a temporal creature. I cannot even redo what I just did - much less pick an alternative choice. I have absolutely no freedom to replay the past, so if the common definition of freedom in philosophy is based on a conflating of the present with the past, it must be another one of those moments where my brain will not allow me to go along with what everyone else sees.

There is zero chance I can do other than what I have done.

However, that does not mean I could not have done differently that what I was about to do - whether God knew what I was going to do all along or not --- but that is for the next comment...

Anonymous said...

Temporal and Timeless Actors

I got a few books on Free Will and Determinism from the library, and they did more to turn my brain to mush than clarify anything.

But, after going back over the comments here and at Gypsy Scholar's, and checking the links at his blog, I tentatively believe I have been arguing the Middle Knowledge point of view...

The Wiki link GS gave for Middle Knowledge defines it as:

The second kind of knowledge is middle knowledge (or scientia media) and describes things that are contingently true, but are independent of God's will. These are truths that do not have to be true, but are true of without God being the primary cause of them.

I believe that is what I have been saying in this thread:

The fact (truth) that Alfred is going to blow Bruce Wayne's head off was always known by God beforehand, because God knows everything, but Alfred making the decision to pull the trigger is not contingent on God's knowledge or God's will.

God's foreknowledge does not erase the alternatives present the moment in time Alfred has the gun to Bruce's head.

Alfred has to pull the trigger for God to be right, but the option of not pulling the trigger is still there.

God being right is dependent on what choice Alfred makes.

Alfred's choice is not dependent on what God knew about it eons ago.

The fact God is never wrong makes that choice inevitable, but it does not erase the moment of decision ---- it does not erase the fact a decision will actually take place.

The whole sequence of history is known to God - as you say it is actual to God, but Alfred is a temporal being as is the universe God created.

God knows Alfred is going to pull the trigger - but that does not mean the trigger has already been pulled. Alfred still has to do the physical act of pulling the trigger and just before that he still has to make the choice to do it rather than do something else.

I venture a rough guess that this is what Gypsy Scholar had in mind (at least in part) when he wrote about the "decisional" going to.

Alfred must make his choice before God's knowledge becomes established fact.

God's knowledge does not obliterate the very decision itself.

...Whether God is never wrong or not.

Anonymous said...

I just found this source on Middle Knowledge via Google's wonderful book search:,M1

It is found in Outlines of Theology ed by W.H. Goold in 1879.

I cannot find much directly by Molina in English on Google (and my former college's library has nothing on him).

If I find some useful texts on Middle Knowledge and/or the Free Will vs Determinism debate at Google (which the free texts will be these pre-early 20th century ones), I'll post them here....I'll probably be collecting them over a day or two or so and then just post them altogether...

Anonymous said...

If you don't mind, please change the link for my blog to

The base is pretty much a separate thing from the blog.

One is totally focused on anti-US in Korea issues (and is rarely updated), and the other is my blogging of whatever strikes my fancy...

I don't think I even cross-link between them in the sidebar...

Anonymous said...

I came back here to see what I had written, because I just read an article published in 2007 that says science has finally caught up with my theory of time...(I'm joking here...)

After I read that article, I went back to Wikipedia relativity and spacetime and such. The reason that reading brought me back to this thread and discussion is that a key component is observation or point of view.

To my laymen's mathematically weak brain, it seems to me the physics guys have gotten so carried away with the fact different observers see things differently that they have destroyed or forgotten the concept of an objective reality, and in doing so they have made a mockery of the universe.

Science seems to say that two men separated by locations in space traveling at widely different velocities will "age" faster or slower. So that, in theory, a man on Ship A could have advanced 10 years in age while the other on Ship B 20 - but if Ship B turns around and rejoins A in location and velocity, those 10 extra years will have vanished.


I don't care what mathematics they use to justify that idea, it's ludicrous. Why? Because too much depends on observation and the measuring of it - particularly the use of Time as if it is a 4th dimension in reality - that it exists instead of being a concept to measure observation.

And this was loosely the idea I had back here at this blog when we were discussing foreknowledge:

That there were two different vantage points at play in the scenarios we used. God's point of view and mine.

My point of view is limited. So, if I have three items to choose from, I have no idea which one God already knows I'm going to choose. So, for me, there is freedom of choice.

From the perspective of someone who has perfect foreknowledge, only one outcome is possible. But, that doesn't mean my brain did not make a choice between three possible options.

Until I have perfect knowledge of the future, I maintain freedom as defined by my limited point of view.

Someone might say that that "freedom" is a delusion, because there is only one way I'm going to turn out - the way God knew ahead of time - but I can live with that . Whether I have "true" freedom or not means nothing to me, because I, myself, will never have enough knowledge of the future to recognize I'm not "truly" free. It would get to the point we might need to have a new definition of freedom or a similar word that takes in to account the concept of perspective. For example, if there is a banana, orange, and apple on the table, and I have to pick one, it will always seem to me that I have a choice - even if God already knows I'm going to pick the apple. If God removes the banana and orange, then I truly have no choice or freedom to choose.