Human freedom is not compatible with divine omniscience. Discuss [40]

The tension between divine omniscience and free-will matters because without free-will God becomes responsible for the consequences of human actions and cannot justly use evil and suffering to punish “sinful” choices, to deter people from sinning or to teach them to make better choices in future, falsifying the both the theodicies of St Irenaeus and St Augustine and making the logical problem of evil seemingly insurmountable.  Both Boethius and St Anselm acknowledged the apparent contradiction between believing that God has omniscience and that humans have free will, at least sufficient to make them morally responsible for the consequences of their actions.  In Book V Part III of The Consolations of Philosophy, Boethius wrote “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”.  In De Concordia 1.1 St. Anselm wrote “for it is necessary that the things foreknown by God be going to occur, whereas the things done by free choice occur without any necessity.”  Nevertheless, both Boethius and St. Anselm believed that they had succeeded in reconciling divine omniscience and human free will and in showing that there is no contradiction between them.  As St. Anselm wrote “the foreknowledge from which necessity follows and the freedom of choice from which necessity is absent are here seen (for one who rightly understands it) to be not at all incompatible.” Nevertheless, while Boethius and Anselm succeed in showing that there is no necessary contradiction between God’s omniscience and human freedom, they do so only by highlighting the limited meaning that words like omniscience have when applied to God to such an extent that by attempting to solve one challenge to religious belief, they open up another. 

Boethius approached the task of reconciling divine omniscience and human freedom by arguing that God’s knowledge is timeless and therefore while God knows what free beings do, this in no way causes their actions because there is no sense of temporal progression or causation within in God’s knowledge.  Boethius wrote “[God’s] 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) For God therefore, knowledge of what (for us in time) precedes a free choice, of the choice itself and of its consequences are all concurrent and there is no sense of process, of one thing leading to or causing another.  Further, God’s knowledge does not in itself precede what God knows, since God exists timelessly and the whole creation exists in the simple, changeless present to God.  Because God’s knowledge doesn’t in fact exist before what happens, God’s knowledge can’t be said to make what happens logically necessary.  As Boethius explains, God’s knowledge of what happens is not simply necessary, but rather conditionally necessary.  Just as my sight of the bus arriving at its stop at 3.14pm does not make the bus arrive at that time, so God’s sight of what happens in His eternal present depends on what happens and does not necessitate what happens or take away from the freedom of those people who make it happen.  Boethius’ attempt to reconcile human freedom with divine omniscience casts some doubt on the assumption that God’s knowledge of what, to us, is in the future causes what happens and so dilutes human freedom.  Nevertheless, in practice the difference between it being logically necessary that something will happen and being only contingently necessary that something will happen is more of a technical and less of a pastorally satisfying argument.  Christians believe that God is omnipotent as well as omniscient, so the fact that God knows that suffering happens and does nothing to stop it is the heart of the matter.  For the free-will defense to work as a defense of God’s goodness and justice in allowing suffering, God’s creation of free-beings must be justified by this being part of the best possible world and yet Boethius’ argument only serves to make this more difficult to believe.  If God created the world containing free-beings simultaneously with knowing all the suffering this action would cause, there is no way that human freedom can justify God in creating at all.  There was never a possibility that human freedom could exist without the holocaust or the sorts of gratuitous innocent child or animal suffering outlined in papers by William Rowe and Gregory S. Paul, so the idea that God is justly punishing human beings for misusing free-will seems void and the Christian salvation narrative falls flat.  While Schleiermacher, drawing on St. Paul’s argument in Romans 5, argued that God would be justified in causing us to fall into sin, evil and suffering because this facilitates and enlarges God’s gift of grace in saving us, as John Hick pointed out in Evil and the God of Love (1966), a doctor would not be so justified by causing injuries to patients because this facilitates and enlarges their actions in healing these same injuries.  In this way it seems that Boethius’ attempt to reconcile human freedom with divine omniscience, while interesting on a technical level, only serves to open Christian belief to further challenges. 

Secondly, as William Lane Craig explains in his article “St. Anselm on Divine Foreknowledge and Future Contingency” (1986) St Anselm began by agreeing with Boethius, arguing that the proposition “If God foreknows something, necessarily this thing will occur” is logically equivalent to the proposition “If this thing will occur, necessarily it will occur.” Because the proposition contains an “if” the event is conditionally, not simply, necessary.  However, in his “De Concordia” St. Anselm went beyond Boethius with the result that he argued that God foreknowing that something will happen contingently (i.e. as a result of a free choice) actually ensures that human beings have a free choice rather than taking human freedom away.  As St Anselm wrote “Now, on the assumption that some action is going to occur without necessity, God foreknows this, since He foreknows all future events. And that which is foreknown by God is, necessarily, going to occur, as is foreknown. Therefore, it is necessary that something is going to occur without necessity. Hence, the foreknowledge from which necessity follows and the freedom of choice from which necessity is absent are here seen (for one who rightly understands it) to be not at all incompatible.”  Nevertheless, this argument is unconvincing because God’s timeless knowledge must be both of the fact that something happens contingently and of what actually happens.  To be meaningful, most people would demand that human freedom consists of being able to effect different outcomes – known as the Principle of Alternate Possibilities – but if God knows the outcome of a choice (whether or not that he also knows that that outcome is only contingently necessary) there is no alternate possibility, no freedom and no moral responsibility for that outcome.  Because God knows the outcome, that outcome will happen, whether or not it results from a choice that felt free.  Take an example; a person is offered a range of identical boxes and they are told that each contains something different.  They “freely” choose one box… but it then turns out that all the boxes contained the same thing, so the outcome of their action was in fact pre-determined.  Was the choice really a free choice?  Compatibilists like Harry Frankfurt try to argue that human freedom and moral responsibility do not in fact depend on the ability to effect different outcomes (the Principle of Alternate Possibilities).  Frankfurt uses the example of Jones, Smith and Black to show that Jones could still be free and morally responsible for shooting Smith even if Black had decided to make sure Smith died if Jones chickens out.  Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference between Frankfurt’s example and the case of human freedom and moral responsibility in relation to an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God; Black is not omnipotent, omniscient or omnibenevolent!  Black does not know what Jones will do or whether he will have to step in and shoot Smith… or even whether he will miss.  God, on the other hand, knows what Jones will do and what He will do and what will happen simultaneously as part of his timelessly simple knowledge of creation.  God is omnipotent and omniscient and needs to be omnibenevolent as well if freedom is going to work as a theodicy but because God, unlike Black, knows what Jones will “freely” choose, that Smith will die and what He will or won’t have to do to square those facts. Because there really are no alternate possibilities in God’s case (where there still are some in the case of Jones, Smith and Black) Human beings cannot be said to be morally responsible for what they do, leaving God’s goodness compromised.  It follows then that St. Anselm’s attempt to reconcile human freedom with divine omniscience, however sophisticated it is, gets us no closer to a resolution to this problem than did Boethius’. 

Nevertheless, using God’s eternity to reconcile omniscience and human freedom demands that God’s eternity is understood in the sense of God existing wholly simply, outside time, rather than eternally and aware of the passage of time as Theistic Personalists like Richard Swinburne would prefer.  As both Swinburne and Wolterstorff have argued, this model of God’s eternity is problematic because it renders God’s knowledge so different from human knowledge that it ceases to be recognizable as knowledge at all.  As Anthony Kenny observed, for a timeless eternal God, “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) If God really has no sense of progression or causation, then in what sense does he really know or better understand anything at all?  Swinburne points out that God can still have omniscience provided his knowledge extends to his knowing everything that it is logically possible that God can know.  If God exists timelessly-eternally, then what is logically possible for God to know is extremely limited, given that all sense of time as well as space must be removed.  Perhaps the best way to imagine it is that God’s knowledge of the universe can only extend to being aware of the singularity that gave rise to the Big Bang – within this infinitely small, infinitely dense particle the whole universe, all time and all space, all matter and all energy was contained, but in itself it would be far, far removed from the universe as it has ever existed since the beginning of time.  To use another analogy; a person’s genome is contained within the nucleus of a single cell, but knowing the genome is far removed from knowing the person (or people) the genetic instructions could give rise to.   If God’s attributes are so limited by his timeless-eternal nature, then the meaningfulness of religious language and of any religious claim about God is called into question.  Consequently, while Boethius and Anselm succeed in showing that there is no necessary contradiction between God’s omniscience and human freedom, they do so only by highlighting the limited meaning that words like omniscience have when applied to God to such an extent that by attempting to solve one challenge to religious belief, they open up another. 

Clearly, Classical Theists from Boethius through Anselm to Aquinas and later Thomists would disagree, arguing that seeing God’s eternity in terms of His existing timelessly and wholly simply is the only possible model of God.  A God who exists eternally in the sense of being everlasting and aware of the passage of the present moment cannot be said to be immutable, because even if God knows past present and future, if God’s knowledge is changed from being knowledge of the future into being knowledge of the present and then into being knowledge of the past by the passage of the present moment, then God’s knowledge is changed by and must depend on time to some extent.  While Classical Theists would accept that the content of religious claims such as “God is omniscient” is limited and certainly that the word knowledge cannot be used univocally, they deny that there is no content such claims.  St Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy attempted to demonstrate how claims about God contain meaning because concepts take their primary meaning in the being of God and only their secondary, analogical meaning from things in the world. For Classical Theists like Boethius and St Anselm then, using God’s timeless-eternity to reconcile divine omniscience and human freedom is rational and presents no insurmountable problems to religious believers.  Nevertheless, God’s immutability is hardly the most important attribute of God for Christians.  Immutability is in itself difficult to reconcile with Christian beliefs about the Fall, the Incarnation, the action of the Holy Spirit in the world and life after death.  As Nelson Pike pointed out, the scriptures are “unavoidably tensed” and so it is difficult to conceive of how they could retain the meaning and authority that Christian doctrines imbue them with while making so many claims about God that cannot be true if God is timelessly-eternal.  As Oscar Cullman observed in 1950 “in the biblical picture, God’s eternity is not qualitatively different from our temporality.” For Theistic Personalists like Richard Swinburne and Nicholas Wolterstorff, Scripture and the Good News that it contains must be the starting point for and not a potential embarrassment to Christian faith in an eternal, omniscient God.  It follows then that the attempt to use God’s eternity to reconcile God’s omniscience with human freedom comes at too high a price… and yet there is no other satisfactory way to reconcile God’s omniscience with human freedom.  Putting God as everlasting-in-time preserves God’s goodness – as well as essential Christian doctrines – but doing this in effect limits what God knows, compromising His omniscience and through that His omnipotence as well.  The passage of the present moment would at the very least change what God knows from future to present and present to past, making God’s knowledge depend on time, changable and not immutable or perfect. Arguing that God’s knowledge in time is further limited by logic, so that God can’t know the future insofar it is effected by free-choices compromises God’s knowledge even further. Realistically, what could God know about the future if all the ways in which free choices might effect that future are removed? In the nuclear age, God’s knowledge of the future couldn’t extend to knowing the world will exist tomorrow, and a God who doesn’t know whether tomorrow come is hardly more omniscient than I am! In the end it comes down to a choice – preserve God’s omniscience (and omnipotence) at the expense of human freedom, God’s goodness and essential Christian doctrines or preserve God’s goodness and essential Christian doctrines at the expense of his omniscience (and omnipotence).  There is no way to make logical sense of the “inconsistent triad” of Christian beliefs about God or to make human freedom compatible with God’s omniscience.

In conclusion, human freedom is not compatible with divine omniscience… unless freedom isn’t really freedom or omniscience isn’t really omniscience.  Indeed, there is no way to reconcile real freedom to effect alternate possibilities with timeless-eternal-omniscience, while everlasting-in-time omniscience is not really omniscience, because time at the very least changes what is known.  The implications of this are significant and show that there is no way to really resolve the logical problem of evil and that classical theodicies yield nothing.  Christians are left with an inconsistent set of beliefs about God, which they may well be willing to live with on an individual level… but which inconsistency can only cast doubt on the role of reason and philosophy in faith. 

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