I remember talking with a guy at my church a while back who expressed a similar question. Paraphrasing him, he said, “How can we act a certain way if God already knew and that’s how He created us?” What was interesting about this exchange is that even though he wasn’t articulating his question the way I have above, I could tell that’s ultimately what he was getting at. It’s a question that a lot of people have thought about even if they can’t really articulate it. Does divine foreknowledge preclude human freedom?
Knowledge and Freedom
In answering this question, I’ve found it helpful to ask if all knowledge of future events precludes free will. The answer to this question, in my view, is clearly no. I know, for instance, that I will finish writing this post. Does that mean I’m not free to stop writing it? Clearly not. I could throw it in the trash or lose interest and move on to something else–alternate possibilities abound. Even though I know I’ll continue writing it and eventually post it, it’s possible I don’t. Here’s another example: I know that I will eat food today. Does that mean I’m determined to eat? No; I could go on a spontaneous fast; that’s clearly within the realm of possibility.
In these two cases, I know some future event will occur, but that doesn’t do away with or preclude freedom. Why? Well, notice that my knowledge isn’t actually causing anything to happen. Suppose I had no beliefs about whether I would finish writing this post. If my foreknowledge did away with my free will, then taking it away should give it back. But that’s a little weird, isn’t it? I either have free will or I don’t.
What’s going on is that my knowledge is causally unconnected from the event. What actually causes the event is my free choice as a rational agent. The knowledge isn’t doing anything. So, it’s false that knowledge precludes free will.
Knowledge and Certainty
Some might object here and say that I don’t really know I’ll continue writing this post or that I’ll eat food today. Knowledge requires certainty. If it’s possible that these statements are false, then I don’t know they are true. This objection says that genuine knowledge requires being absolutely certain.
Three problems are worth noting. First, are we certain that knowledge requires certainty? If we aren’t, then we don’t know it. Already, we’ve located an issue. Some might say that we don’t have to know that knowledge requires certainty, we just need to be justified or rational in believing it. However, the same exercise could be applied to justification/rationality. Are we certain that we are justified in believing that knowledge requires certainty? If not, we don’t know it. This is a serious worry.
Second, very few epistemologists today believe that certainty is a criterion of knowledge. In other words, most professionals believe that our knowledge can be fallible. Check out this excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Fallibilism:
In other words, most experts in the field of epistemology think that knowledge doesn’t have to be certain. So I can know that I will eat food today even though I’m not absolutely certain I will.
Third, if knowledge requires certainty, we would be forced to say, actually, we don’t know much of anything. On this view, I wouldn’t know my wife loves me. Even though we’ve been married 7.5 years and she even told me this morning she loves me, it’s possible that she’s been pretending. Heck, I wouldn’t even know I have two hands! It’s possible we are living in the Matrix. The hands I think I have could be the result of a computer simulation. This view of knowledge requires giving up nearly everything we think we know; as such, it carries quite the intellectual price tag.
In my view, this objection doesn’t work. I agree with most epistemologists that I don’t have to be absolutely certain I’ll finish writing this post in order to know that I will. And if that’s the case, then foreknowledge doesn’t preclude freedom.
God and Freedom
“Alright,” the questioner says, “knowledge of future events doesn’t preclude human freedom. However, there’s a relevant difference between my knowledge and God’s knowledge. I can grant that my knowledge can be, and often is, fallible, but God’s knowledge is infallible. He can’t be wrong. So if He knows that I will do something, it has to come to pass whether I like it or not. If God knows what I’m going to do, it’s impossible that I act otherwise.”
Fair enough, there is a relevant difference here. Our knowledge is fallible in most cases. We don’t know much of anything with absolute certainty. But God, being the Maximally Great Being that He is, can’t possibly be wrong about anything He knows. Does this mean we aren’t free to do otherwise? No.
The inference from ‘God’s knowing without error’ to ‘our not being free’ actually commits a fallacy in modal logic. To see why, let’s spell out the actual premises of the argument.
(2) God foreknows that X will happen.
(3) Necessarily, X will happen.
X above can just be any future event you want to imagine. In his work, Dr. Craig uses the helpful biblical example of Peter denying Jesus three times (Luke 22:54-62). Since God’s knowledge is infallible, premise (1) is obviously true. Necessarily, if God knows that Peter denies Jesus three times, then Peter denies Jesus three times. However, this does not imply that Peter necessarily denies Jesus three times. That conclusion doesn’t follow. To see why this doesn’t follow logically, let’s apply the same logic in a different context. Consider the following argument:
(5) I have two prime lenses and two zoom lenses.
(6) Necessarily, I have at least four lenses.
Does (6) follow from the previous two premises? Not at all. That I have two prime and two zoom lenses doesn’t mean that I necessarily have at least four lenses. Even though the conditional statement in premise (4) is absolutely true, it’s clearly possible I have only one prime lens. In fact, it’s possible I have no lenses at all! So it doesn’t follow as a matter of necessity that I have at least four lenses. In order for that conclusion to follow, it must be a necessary fact that I have four or more lenses. But that is not a necessary fact (e.g., there was a time in my life I didn’t own any lenses). The argument, as I say, commits a fallacy in modal logic.
Let’s go back to Peter denying Jesus. It’s clearly not necessary that Peter deny Jesus exactly three times. He could have only denied Jesus twice. He could have denied him five times. But then the conclusion this objection needs can’t be reached (without committing a fallacy). In practical terms, if Peter denied Jesus twice instead of three times, then, very simply, that’s what God would have known instead. If Peter denied Jesus once, then God would have known that. But since he denied Jesus three times, that’s what God foreknew. And again, this knowledge isn’t causing Peter to do what he does, just like my knowledge that I’ll finish writing this post isn’t causing me to finish it.
Chronological vs Logical Priority
If you’re still unsure about all this, here’s another way of looking at it. God’s foreknowledge is chronologically prior to the event (in time), but the event is logically prior to the foreknowledge. In other words, the knowledge doesn’t cause the event, the event causes the knowledge. God knew before it happened that I would eat dinner last night. But that knowledge didn’t cause me to eat. I could have just gone to bed. And if I simply went to bed, then God would have foreknown that instead.
Part of why the mix up happens is because we have a hard time wrapping our minds around what on the surface looks like backwards causation. But if we can keep this chronological/logical distinction clear in our minds, the problem disappears. The event causes the knowledge even though the knowledge is chronologically prior to the event.
In God, Freedom, and Evil, Alvin Plantinga makes a really interesting point:
There’s more to be said here, but I hope this is at least a start in the right direction. Feel free to comment below with any further worries or objections.
Cameron, Thanks for the post, good stuff! One possible objection that comes to mind is from Hasker’s book on Metaphysics in which he lays out a similar argument but which is slightly different. Essentially, if God knows true beliefs about what we will do, and the past is inalterable, then we cannot act otherwise as that would contradict God’s knowledge. I know this seems to falls into logical fallacy you laid out, but if one agrees that God’s foreknowledge does not causally determine us, but reveals a deterministic framework (because he knows we can only do one action in a… Read more »
That’s the question though, isn’t it? Whether God’s foreknowledge actually implies theological fatalism. The answer to this, as I argue in the post, is no.
Side note: I’m inclined to reject the PAP.
I think Hasker’s version does avoid the modal objection, but your thoughts related to chronological and logical priority do affect his argument.
Interesting! I’d love to discuss that with you sometime!
Why does exhaustive divine foreknowledge otherwise entail a view of determinism that is necessarily fatalistic as if some form of omni-casualism is true? Have you never heard of compatibilism (i.e. primary and secondary causation)?
You do make a good point, and I haven’t heard of primary or secondary causes but I have heard of Compatabilism. In the book I mentioned above, Hasker seems to think compatabilism doesn’t entail human freedom because one could not have chosen otherwise. But I haven’t investigated into arguments for compatabilism either. Do you have an papers/books you could recommend to a lay person interested in philosophy?
Brett, I wrote a book in which I defend compatibilism. It is called, “What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty” (P&R, 2016). The book is geared toward an educated lay reader. It avoids as much jargon as possible, even though that is difficult in these kinds of discussions. Nonetheless, I provide a comprehensive glossary of terms to help the reader.
Thanks you! I’ll check that out.
If God knew infallibly that Peter would deny him 3 times, then this knowledge also indicates that God knew infallibly that Peter would not deny Christ 2 times. If Peter has agent casual libertarian free will (LFW) then he must be equally able to choose A or not choose A at the moment of choosing, and if that is the case, then God could not possibly know infallibly beforehand which choice Peter would make. However, if it is known infallibly beforehand that Peter would deny Christ only 3 times, then it is not possible he could deny him less or… Read more »
This objection is covered already in the section called “Modal Fallacy.”
Yeah, your section on the modal fallacy made no sense to me. I don’t see how it answers the dilemma between divine exhaustive foreknowledge and LFW.
It doesn’t make sense. There is no such thing as the modal fallacy. Cameron doesn’t understand how elementary addition works. Cameron thinks that if I have two apples and two oranges it is not necessarily the case that I have four pieces of fruit. That isn’t how addition works Cameron.
Cameron, with regards to backwards causation, do you think a special problem arises for those who endorse a presentist view of time? Take the first moment of time. God knew what I would do today because what I did today caused his knowing it back at the first moment of time. But back then, I didn’t exist; so something that didn’t exist has causal powers, which is counterintuitive.
I don’t get the Modal Fallacy part. Can’t one just take out all the modal language and make a sound argument without it? I.e.
(1) If God knows that I will perform some action X tomorrow at 5pm, then I will perform action X tomorrow at 5 pm. (infallibility of God’s knowledge)
(2) God knows that I will perform the particular action Y tomorrow at 5pm. (omniscience)
(3) Therefore, I will perform the particular action Y at 5pm tomorrow.
What’s wrong with that?
Chronological vs Logical Priority, “the knowledge doesn’t cause the event, the event causes the knowledge.” – I agree, but the knowledge doesn’t have to cause the event, It just means the whatever causes the event cannot be different than what is already known( else it would not be known). Also, you equivocate our belief about the future with Gods knowledge of the future.