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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

CRITICS OF THEISM, along with some theists, often claim that divine foreknowledge contradicts human free will. “Since God already knew what actions you were going to take,” they argue, “it follows necessarily that you had no choice but to take those same actions.” Basically, the argument for theological fatalism holds God’s knowledge to be the ultimate causal agent of all future outcomes, hence the ultimate metaphysical outworking of the pragmatic principle that “knowledge is power.” It is my belief that properly understood, knowledge comprehends true states of affairs, but does not and cannot create them. (To put it another way: Even if God personally dictated our future, he would have to do so by means other than mere knowledge of our future.) There is accordingly no sound reason to believe that God’s prior knowledge of human decisions freely rendered should not represent a true state of affairs.
 
At stake here is much more than academic philosophy or theology. For Christian theists the issue of fatalism lies at the heart of our faith, for if the God we believe in is righteous, he will presumably only hold us accountable for decisions we make. As Davis and Manis state the problem, "If divine foreknowledge undermines human freedom, then it seems to follow that God is unjust in holding us responsible for our actions."[1] Somewhat like the argument from evil, the argument for fatalism seems designed to get humans "off the hook" for our behavior and to put God on the hook instead.
 
Zagzebski describes theological fatalism as "the thesis that infallible foreknowledge of a human act makes the act necessary and hence unfree. If there is a being who knows the entire future infallibly, then no human act is free."[2] There is certainly some intuitive appeal to this claim. Indeed, at a glance it appears obvious, if not entirely beyond dispute. Davis and Manis suggest, for example, that if God knew from all eternity past that Smith will call his wife tomorrow at noon then clearly Smith has no choice but to make that call. "God's foreknowledge is infallible — it cannot possibly be mistaken — so there is no chance that Smith will falsify God's past beliefs about him when he acts tomorrow."[3]
 
My contention is that this appeal to the necessary "rightness" of God's foreknowledge of events blurs the distinction between metaphysical causality and logical entailment. It is admittedly logically necessary that if God has perfect foreknowledge, he knows the outcomes of all future decisions. But the question is: Does God's knowledge determine the outcome, or is the outcome instead a passive source of God's knowledge? Experience suggests the latter. After all, I know that you are reading this right now, but I also know that I did not prevent you from doing something else instead.

Consider the following set of scenarios:
 
1. At 8:15 Harold will be free to order anything on the menu.
2. God has infallible foreknowledge.
3. God infallibly foreknew that at 8:15 Harold would be free to order anything on the menu.
 
This first scenario suggests that God's perfect foreknowledge does not necessarily restrict free will, at least not with respect to Harold's capacity to ponder a decision not yet made. In other words, it's a possible scenario. After all, the argument from fatalism specifically says that God's prior knowledge of a choice actually made must negate the free will to make any other choice. But on that argument there is no reason to think that free will should not be operative before any choice has actually been made. That is, even under the premises of fatalism foreknowledge does not negate free will to at least deliberate, i.e., to think over a choice. What then of God's prior knowledge of Harold's actualized decisions? Let's fast-forward fifteen minutes:
 
1. At 8:30 Harold will order a cheese omelet.[4]
2. God has infallible foreknowledge.
3. God infallibly foreknew that at 8:30 Harold would order a cheese omelet.
 
Again we have a possible scenario. But now the question presents itself, whether the free will Harold potentially enjoyed in the first scenario might have remained operative through the point of making a decision in scenario two. From scenario one it seems at least arguable that Harold will be free to order anything from the menu, but (arguably) only up to the point at which he will have already ordered a cheese omelet. Free will after that point admittedly will have been forfeited with respect to that particular decision. So:
 
1. At 8:31 Harold will no longer be free to not order a cheese omelet, because he will have already ordered one.
2. God has infallible foreknowledge.
3. God infallibly foreknew that at 8:31 Harold would no longer be free to not order a cheese omelet, having already ordered one. 
 
Free will with respect to Harold's decision thus becomes forfeited just at the point of Harold's having already made that decision. (This is not to say he can't "change his mind," call the waiter over and order something different, only that he has in fact ordered it. It's a very small part of human history at this point.) On the face of it, though, there is nothing in the forfeiture of Harold's free will with respect to a decision already made that would additionally preclude his free will prior to making the decision. All this would seem to yield the general conclusion: God's foreknowledge does not necessarily contradict human free will. Or alternatively: Theological fatalism is false. Once due attention is paid to the respective definitions and functions of free will and omniscience, the two are seen to be in harmony. Free will remains unrestricted in making decisions which result in unchangeable outcomes, and divine foreknowledge remains infallibly knowledgeable of everything knowable. In Harold's case what negates his freedom to not order a cheese omelet is precisely his prior act of having freely ordered one. There is no contradiction here, only a description of two states of being at two different times relative to the decison made. As Zagzebski suggests, “The necessity of the past and the contingency of the future are two sides of the same coin.”[5]
 
The curious part about all this is God's knowledge of human freedom to make a decision whose outcome God alone knows in advance. But in principle human freedom is a knowable state, and God’s knowledge necessarily corresponds exactly with any given knowable state. In the state of human free will prior to a decision event the decision outcome is less than certain for a human decider; God’s knowledge of that state remains certain, as does his knowledge of the future state of more restricted freedom created by the decision outcome. God’s knowledge of both states does not make his knowledge contradictory, but complete and comprehensive. This is precisely the sort of knowledge an omniscient God would be expected to have. 
 
Again, the question is not whether a choice, once made, results in an outcome which cannot be changed. Decisions result in certain outcomes, quite regardless of whether an omniscient being exists or not. The question is whether a choice whose certain outcome also happens to be known by an all-knowing entity could have been freely made. There is no a priori reason to think that knowledge of another's behavior determines that behavior; the behavior, rather, is the source of the knowledge. So, an external agent’s prior knowledge would have no bearing upon the fact that decisions already made are unchangeable. To see that this is so, let’s revisit our breakfast with Harold and this time assume there is no God: 
 
1. There is no God.
2. At 8:15 Harold will be free to order anything on the menu.
3. At 8:30 Harold will order a cheese omelet.
4. At 8:31 Harold will no longer be free to not order a cheese omelet, because he will have already ordered one.
 
Even with no God in existence, Harold remains just as free to order a cheese omelet at 8:15, and just as unable to not have already ordered one at 8:31. Harold's inability to not have already ordered one has, in a sense, been predetermined — not by God, who in this scenario does not exist — but by Harold's prior decision. Therefore whether God exists or not, every possible future is “predetermined” and free will does not operate, at least not with respect to prior decisions. Nonetheless, it remains logically possible that we are free to make decisions up to the point that we actually make them, just as we will be free to make new decisions in the future.
 
Now let’s add an omniscient God back into the mix. God knows with absolute certainty or perfect knowledge that Harold will order a cheese omelet at 8:30, and that afterward he cannot choose to have done otherwise. But how exactly does the additional fact of God knowing exactly what Harold will decide entail a necessary violation of Harold's free will in actually making the decision? We have just seen that without God’s or anyone else’s knowledge of it, Harold's inability to not have already ordered a cheese omelet after ordering one would be just as certain. God’s knowledge of the future, then, would not make it any more certain than it would be without his knowledge.
 
If it is the case that a decision event involves free will in the consideration of choices at some given point in time, resulting in an irreversible outcome that holds at all points future to it, then in principle an omniscient being knowledgeable of all points along the timeline of all events would know not only of the element of free will inherent in the process of making decisions, but of the unchangeable outcomes that result from those decisions. There would be nothing contradictory or illogical in this. 
 
_____________
 
[1] C. Stephen Davis and R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion. 2nd ed. Downer's Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity, p. 45.
 
[2] Linda Zagzebski, ed. E.N. Zalta,  “Foreknowledge and Free Will,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-will-foreknowledge/.
 
[3] Davis and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, p. 45.
 
[4] After completing this article including references to my real-life friend Harold, who really does enjoy cheese omelets for breakfast, I did a quick search for "theological fatalism" and came across a blog posting responding to an argument for fatalism by William Hasker. It turns out that in Hasker's version, the first premise is "It is now true that Clarence will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow (Premise)," and goes on from there. See http://ochuk.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/a-response-to-theological-fatalism/. The common "cheese omelet" element in my argument and Hasker's is purely coincidental... unless of course God preordained it.  
 
[5] Zagzebski, "Foreknowledge and Free Will."

6 comments:

The common "cheese omelet" element in my argument and Hasker's is purely coincidental... unless of course God preordained it.

Or you are prophetic. or great minds think alike ;-)

great article Don. That is the view I hold theone you expressed, well argued. I have had that argument on many message boards. one o the great philosophical classics of the church is by Boetheius, Consolation of Philosophy. Foreknowledge does not equal (//=)Predestination.

HAHA. Thanks Joe.

I don't deserve that compliment, but I'll happily take it anyway. :-)

Actually that essay is a modified version of an argument I presented years ago at the old FRDB discussion board. During that lively discussion Wayne Delia (an exceptionally bright atheist, in my opinion) had appealed to his own formal argument for fatalism, which led me to write this rebuttal.

So when God created the earth and set everything in motion, he must have controlled the course of events in order to guide the evolutionary path of humans. The implication of this is that God is in complete control of every single molecule and particle, and every single event that occurs for billions of years. But then, when humans are fully evolved, he releases control so that we can have free will.

So when God created the earth and set everything in motion, he must have controlled the course of events in order to guide the evolutionary path of humans. The implication of this is that God is in complete control of every single molecule and particle, and every single event that occurs for billions of years. But then, when humans are fully evolved, he releases control so that we can have free will.


that's what Laplace thought. Only he was an atheist so it wasn't God in control but determinism. MANY ATHEISTS ARE STILL DETERMINISTS. why does it have to mean that God really guide evolution to us? Why couldn't it he just let it produce whomever it produces?

Joe, I would argue that the Bible makes it very clear that God did not let evolution "produce whoever it produces." Ephesians 1:4 says that God knew before the creation of the world the plans that He chose you. He didn't choose whatever random creature evolution produced, but knew that it was you that would be created.

im-skeptical, just curious: What's your problem with what you wrote? Although I personally don't think it is accurately stated, are you asserting that God couldn't do it just the way that you wrote? Does it strike you as somehow illogical or merely incongruous?

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