“Boethius proved that God’s omniscience is compatible with human free will.” Discuss (40)

Boethius’ discussion of Divine omniscience can be found in his Consolations of Philosophy, Book 5.  Facing his own death, Boethius reflects on the human condition and imagines a dialogue with Lady Philosophy, who points out the vast web of Aristotelian causation in which our lives are caught. In Part I Boethius asks…

“in this series of linked causes is there any freedom left to our will, or does the chain of fate bind also the very motions of our souls?’

pointing to a problem that has always dogged Classical Theism.  If God is Omnipotent, and if Omnipotence entails omniscience, then it is difficult to maintain any meaningful degree of human freedom.  Without freedom there seems to be no convincing way of defending God against charges of creating or at least allowing gratuitous suffering.  A God who is omniscient cannot also be benevolent.  Boethius proceeds to explore this problem and then attempts to resolve it by clarifying the very nature of God and therefore the nature of His foreknowledge, yet his resolution fails to show how Omniscience and human freedom are compatible in the end.

In Book 5 part III, Boethius sets out the paradox of omnipotence in some detail.  Drawing on Platonic philosophy, and the eternal model of God suggested to Christian Neoplatonists by the Timaeus, Boethius saw God’s eternal existence and nature as a necessary conclusion of rational reflection on a contingent world.  However, accepting God’s eternity comes with problems.  Boethius pointed out…

“if from eternity He foreknows not only what men will do, but also their designs and purposes, there can be no freedom of the will”

and explained how neither the suggestion that God’s knowledge of them makes future events necessary nor the suggestion that God’s knowledge is contingent on events in time are satisfactory.  J.M.E. McTaggart (1866–1925) differentiated between a God whose knowledge of events is from a perspective in time (A series eternity) and a God whose knowledge of events is from a perspective outside time whereby all events are simultaneous in the mind of God (B series eternity).  Boethius argued that putting God’s perspective in time, giving him A series eternity, makes God’s knowledge depend on time and the things that happen within it.  If I watch a bus arriving at its stop, my knowledge of it happening depends on the bus doing what it is doing and on time passing to facilitate what it is doing.  Clearly, in this scenario my knowledge of the bus does not determine the bus in doing what it does – I could not reasonably be held responsible for the bus being early, late or punctual – and yet it is also true that my knowledge of the future is limited because I cannot know what has not yet happened.  This sort of A series eternity fails to support the supreme knowledge and power that Classical Theists impute to God.  However there are also problems with B series eternity, as Boethius pointed out.  If God has a timeless perspective and knows all things and events simply and singly, then it seems to follow that future events happen necessarily because they are known by God before they happen and because they cannot not happen.  Consequently,

“what an upset of human affairs manifestly ensues! Vainly are rewards and punishments proposed for the good and bad, since no free and voluntary motion of the will has deserved either one or the other… And therefore neither virtue nor vice is anything, but rather good and ill desert are confounded together… Again, no ground is left for hope or prayer, since how can we hope for blessings, or pray for mercy, when every object of desire depends upon the links of an unalterable chain of causation?”

Boethius sets out how if God knows things that might not come to pass, then His knowledge is limited and if God’s knowledge depends on how things are in time, His power is limited.  He accepts that on the issue of omniscience rests the plausibility of Religion – for without genuine human freedom there can be no morality, no hope for meaningful salvation and no real communication with the Divine. In Part IV Boethius addresses this fundamental problem by attempting to show that God’s foreknowledge of events is not necessary by pointing out that God’s knowledge is not like human knowledge, and suggesting that freedom and foreknowledge could be compatible for God in a way that they do not seem to be to us. God’s knowledge, argues Boethius, is not due to physical senses, nor to imagination, nor to thought, but is instead the knowledge of pure intelligence which understands the very underpinnings of reality

“by surveying all things, so to speak, under the aspect of pure form by a single flash of intuition.” 

For Boethius,

“eternity is the possession of endless life whole and perfect at a single moment… since God abides for ever in an eternal present, His knowledge, also transcending all movement of time, dwells in the simplicity of its own changeless present, and, embracing the whole infinite sweep of the past and of the future, contemplates all that falls within its simple cognition as if it were now taking place. “ (Book 5, Part VI)

This is persuasive; St Augustine discussed something similar in The Confessions (354–430) and St. Thomas Aquinas extended and developed a very similar position in the Summa Theologica (1264).   However, the price of resolving the conflict between foreknowledge and free-will seems to push God far into timeless abstraction and seeming unknowability.  Arguably, this approach preserves the technical plausibility of Religion by sacrificing the practical plausibility of Religion and so achieves, at most, a pyrrhic victory.  Surely, it is no more meaningful to pray to “pure intelligence” – whose knowledge of individual circumstances is limited to part of a single flash of intuition unsullied by sight, imagination or thought – than it is to pray to a being who has determined the prayer, its cause and its outcome by His very existence?  Further, the meaning of the divine attributes would be severely restricted by pushing God outside the spatio-temporal framework that describes ordinary human language.  What can the words “benevolence” or “power” really mean in a timeless sense?  A timeless God cannot have choice – because choice implies a time before and after a choice is made and the possibility of things being other than they are.  A timeless God cannot act – because action implies a time before and after at the very least.  As Sir Anthony Kenny pointed out that the concept of a timeless God seems “radically incoherent.”  He wrote…

“my typing of this paper is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Again, on this view, the great fire of Rome is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Therefore, while I type these very words, Nero fiddles heartlessly on.” (Kenny, The God of the Philosophers (Oxford, Clarendon Press) 1979, 38–9)

The idea that a timeless God can do or be anything that is comprehensible through normal concepts and words is ridiculous.  There is no shared analogical meaning between words applied to God and the world, whatever Aquinas tried to argue.

Boethius was aware of this problem in positing a completely timeless God and tried to reconcile his claim that God exists in a timeless eternity with God having the ability to know events as they happen and a degree of freedom or openness in the future.  In Part VI he argued that while God sees events an eternal present, God’s knowledge cannot be understood to cause them to happen.  God can know an event or action that is genuinely free because his knowledge is of an eternal present rather than a future as we would understand it…  Taking the bus analogy again, God witnesses its journey like a single stack of still photographs.  Every step of the journey is known as if in the present – God’s knowledge is not constrained by time because he sees everything now, but God’s knowledge still depends on the way things are rather than making them the way that they are and removing all freedom. God’s knowledge is neither conditional (as ours usually is) nor simply necessary (as would be the case with a completely timeless God who would be unaware of any present).  God’s knowledge is unlike any form of human knowledge in that it is conditionally necessary.  The very categories “contingent” and “simply necessary” suggest temporal and logical frameworks that do not apply to God who creates these frameworks and exists outside them.  While this is persuasive, God’s conditionally necessary knowledge of events seems little more religiously satisfying than God’s timeless knowledge of events.  God’s experience of an eternal present is almost as different from human experience as a genuinely timeless experience would be.  The preservation of free will, moral responsibility and divine benevolence is by no means clear either.  If God knows future events now and they cannot be other than how they are, then whether God knows them as if in an eternal present or otherwise, it is difficult to see how anything can really change by human agency.

EL Mascall tried to suggest that quantum science could provide a model for understanding how God’s actions could both be timeless and have an appearance of being in time if each action could be conceived to have a timeless and a temporal pole which are interrelated, this does not advance the discussion by much.  Mascall is just restating the assertion that things would look different from God’s point of view in different language.  He doesn’t seem to do more explain how God can both know the future in a way that God ensures that nothing but what God knows can happen and not be responsible for what happens.  Other contemporary writers, such as Eleonore Stump, Norman Kretzmann, and Brian Leftow, have also tried to modify the timeless model of God by insisting that God’s timeless eternity has some of the features of temporal duration.  The project that Boethius started retains its interest because arguably, the plausibility of religion depends on its success.  However, the project has yet to yield conclusive results.

In addition, Protestant scholars Nelson Pike and Richard Swinburne have developed related arguments.  For Nelson Pike the idea that God’s knowledge can be that of pure intelligence taking in the whole of reality in a single flash of intuition is incompatible with the God revealed through the Bible.  The God of the Bible – of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to borrow Pascal’s phrase – is active and responsive and seemingly possessed of the ability to see, hear, imagine, think and even feel.  In his essay “Divine Omniscience and Voluntary Action” (1965) Pike points out that whatever metaphorical interpretations are put on Biblical accounts of God wrestling Jacob or speaking with Moses or acknowledging Jesus at His Baptism, God’s knowledge is inescapably tensed.  If this is true, then it is difficult to see how Boethius model of a God experiencing an eternal present could be acceptable to people of mainstream Christian faith. A timeless model of God – even the modified timeless model proposed by Boethius – conflicts with the Biblical account of His creative action and nature.  Swinburne agreed, pointing out that…

“The God of the Hebrew Bible… is pictured as being in continual interaction with humans – humans sin, then God is angry, then humans repent, then God forgives them…” (The Coherence of Theism 2nd ed. 2016 p233)

Without the idea of God responding to human sin and human repentance, there is no obvious way to preserve what is meaningful about Christianity.  Swinburne adds that…

“The Hebrew Bible shows no knowledge of the doctrine of divine timelessness… God is represented as saying “I am the Alpha and the Omega…”  … but it seems to me to be reading far too much into such phrases to interpret them as implying the doctrine of divine timelessness.”  (Ibid. p230)

Although the ideas of God’s timelessness or eternity are philosophically useful in that they provide possible means of defending God against responsibility for suffering – including inflicting endless fiery punishment arbitrarily – the ideas find no support in Scripture and conflict with essential Christian beliefs and teachings.

There seems to be a contradiction between the Philosophical model of God suggested by Boethius, developed by Aquinas and enshrined in Catholic doctrine and the everlasting God described by the Bible and proposed by Theistic Personalists, many of whom are Protestant.  Further, neither model of God really avoids the problem of Omniscience outlined by Boethius in Book 5 of The Consolations of Philosophy.  The God of Theistic Personalists must either be limited in knowledge or power (and so is Philosophically unsatisfying) and the Timeless God is limited in terms of not being able to witness, experience, respond or act in any recognizable sense (and so is religiously unsatisfying.)  Boethius failed to prove that God’s omniscience is compatible with human free will, but he succeeded in outlining the inescapability of the problem and the importance of addressing and ultimately resolving it.  While Nelson Pike was careful to open his 1965 essay Divine Omniscience and Voluntary Action by disassociating himself from the implications of his contribution to the project Boethius started, it is difficult to ignore these implications for long.  Either God is limited (i.e. not Omnipotent, Omniscient or Benevolent) or human beings are determined… but in any case Classical Theism is incoherent.