On Divine Omniscience and Freewill
Trite, superfluous and mundane as internet chat room discussions usually are, there are occasionally flashes of real serious and interesting debate or dialogue. It is usually at times like that that I would start paying very close attention to what different people often say when they start waxing philosophical. It is usually at times like this that you would be truly impressed or disappointed at the astonishing depth or shallowness of arguments or viewpoints that one may not have bothered to contemplate closely.
One of such discussions was taking place recently, when a usually infrequent but popularly known regular of the chat room started a much-needed and thematic deconstruction of Christian Theism. If you asked him, he would deny that he was launching any personal attacks – as a matter of fact he simply maintained that he was just philosophically analyzing popular belief and pointing out the fatal flaws and inconsistencies of the positions advocated by Christians. This sort of critical analysis of faith-based or religious claims are usually seen by the majority Christian theists in the room as a premeditated attack on their faith, but I beg to differ. I welcome such philosophical ruminations, because it helps to strengthen and bolster theistic belief when it is properly understood and seen to be free of some self-referential incoherence.
At any rate, the young man – I’ll just call him Kendoll – made a statement to this effect:
God’s Omniscience negates Free will. They cannot both exist. It is either human beings have free will or God is not omniscient for both cannot exist at the same time.
That statement was very confusing to many people at the time, as I noticed. Indeed, it was of a sufficiently complex nature to many people that he actually had to stop typing his viewpoints in order to get on the room’s audio feature to speak on it. When he did, he seemed to be quite passionate about the topic that he set out to discuss.
Before he got up to speak though, I had been partially engaging him on the subject to get a feel for how he would actually explicate the position. I have to say, in retrospect, that his answers to me were unusually brief and curt, and lacked the enthusiasm which I had expected of one who had decided on a philosophical interjection in a room dominated by theological banter.
But if we examine the claim critically, is it really the case that God’s Omniscience negates human free will? Is it really true that if God knows everything in the past, present and future then it is not possible for human beings to exercise their choice as free moral agents?
I’ll beg to differ. I had wanted Kendoll to flesh out his position – not because I have not heard the argument before – but because I had wanted to see if there was any new angle that he might introduce to a raging philosophical debate that had already been tackled by considerably more astute Christian philosophers. But why think that Kendoll’s argument is true? It sounds deceptively plausible, but is this rudimentary elucidation of the Newcomb’s paradox of such compelling gravity? I am not so convinced it is.
For me to handle this objection, it may be necessary to define some terms and introduce others. The simple and proper Christian definition and understanding of Divine Omniscience is that “God knows all logically possible propositional truths or facts”.
This definition is actually more precise than many Christians recognize. Divine Omniscience for example, does not entail that God knows “everything” where “everything” might include things which are logically inconsistent or factually false. By saying that God knows everything, we cannot just assume that we can say or propose anything at all and have it be the case that God already knew that. If I say something like “John McCain is the president of the United States”, God’s omniscience does not require him to know this. For some skeptics, the fact that God cannot be said to know this absurd and false claim means that God obviously does not know everything, and for them, God would cease to exist or otherwise be divested of the attribute of Omniscience. This, as any theist would readily agree, is a poor objection.
Another objection is the skeptical thinking that since God is essentially morally perfect and cannot experientially know what it means to sin, then God’s knowledge is somewhat incomplete and thus, he is not omniscient. This objection fails to see that God’s Omniscience or knowledge of all things does not include things that are by their very nature antithetical or logically contrary to his character. God’s Omniscience simply informs us that God already has a logically and chronologically prior knowledge or awareness of ALL propositional truths of facts. In other words, anything which can be determined to be true is already known by God. Therefore, God does not know, by way of a shoddy example, that “1+1=4”. As you can see, these are rather underwhelming objections which palpably demonstrate a poor understanding of what theists understand by Divine Omniscience.
Granted the definition above, does it follow then that since God knows all past and present propositional truths, that he also knows future contingent truths? If in 2012, President Obama does not get re-elected as the president of the United States, does God at this time in 2010 already know that this will be the case? It does not necessarily and logically follow that God must possess this knowledge just by virtue of his all-encompassing knowledge of past and present propositional truths. At best, if we want to remain logical, we might grant that a any being with such a magnanimous scope of knowledge, may be able to accurately infer what could happen in the future. There is no logical constraint that demands that such a being has to also know future-tensed contingent propositions.
Nevertheless, Christians also believe that God also knows these future-tensed propositions. They believe that God also knows what will be; what will happen in the future. However, this is not part of his Divine Omniscience. This is more appropriately called his Divine Foreknowledge. The reason why Christians have to try and understand the difference in the meaning of these terms is so that they cannot be trapped in subtle or not-so-subtle skeptical rhetoric. This is because future tensed or future contingent propositions have no present reality, and cannot be described as facts. Granted, this distinction only makes sense with the more intuitive Tensed Theory of Time, but the point still stands. These future tensed propositions will merely become facts when the time finally arrives. God’s knowledge of all logically possible propositional truth (Divine Omniscience) should not be conflated with God’s knowledge of the future (Divine Foreknowledge).
It is plain to see from the above that neither God’s personal awareness of all truths nor his personal knowledge of future truths has any immediate and discernible bearing on the free will decisions and actions of human moral agents. That free moral creatures can and do act according to their wishes or as a response to external stimuli is and cannot be invalidated because God already foreknows it. His foreknowledge of free human actions may be chronologically prior to such actions but, and this is a huge distinction, it is not causally prior or causally determinative of these human actions.
As a simple example, if you are a dog owner, you will know, by constant interaction with your dog, certain ways in which your dog would react when placed in certain situations. You may know for example, that if you left some doggie treats in his doggie bowl when he is hungry, and he happened to pass by his doggie bowl, he would of his own accord choose to eat the contents of his bowl. You know your dog enough to say that you don’t even need to tell or instruct your dog to go and eat from the bowl – you just instinctively know that he will do this. Now, while you have a chronologically prior knowledge about your dog’s future action (a rudimentary foreknowledge at best), it cannot be effectively argued that you have robbed your dog of its own “free will”. It cannot be effectively argued that just because you knew what your dog would likely do then such an action on your dog’s part is now causally determined by you! For all we know, your dog still reserves the choice and may indeed, on occasion, contrary to any expectation, refuse to eat from his favorite doggie bowl!
This serves to illustrate the erroneous assumptions behind Kendoll’s claims. God’s Omniscience is a total non-starter in this discussion and should be dropped; I suspect that he is thinking of God’s Foreknowledge and how it might impact human freedom or human freewill. However, as I have argued, there is nothing about the proper meaning of God’s Foreknowledge that says that he intentionally acts to rob moral agents of their libertarian freewill. Indeed there is nothing about this divine attribute that suggests that his simple keen personal knowledge of future free human choices therefore causes or mandates that choice. It is indeed possible for anyone to choose any course of action, but of course, any such action would already be seamlessly and effortlessly known to God.
God’s Divine Foreknowledge therefore can be likened to impeccably accurate meteorological radar. The radar does not determine the weather; it does not dictate what sort of weather patterns will form. All it does is to simply and accurately foreknow or record what weather patterns will eventually form. This is but a crude human example, but it appropriately illuminates the misapprehension in Kendoll’s position. God’s foreknowledge does nothing to invalidate or negate human libertarian freewill choices and actions.
P.S: There is another divine attribute which is even more perplexing. It is called God’s Divine Middle Knowledge. It is popularly known as Molinism. I will not get into that topic now, but if the need comes for it in the future, we can flesh out the discussion, in the likely case that Kendoll’s possible reaction involves an expatiation of that term.
Posted on November 17, 2010, in Religion/Spirituality and tagged Christian, Christianity, Existence of God, God, God's Foreknowledge, Human, John McCain, Middle Knowledge, Molinism, Omniscience, Religion and Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.