“But that which God foreknows, it needs must be,
So says the best opinion of the clerks.
Witness some cleric perfect for his works,
That in the schools there’s a great altercation
In this regard, and much high disputation…
Whether the fact of God’s great foreknowing
Makes it right needful that I do a thing –
By needful, I mean, of necessity
Or else, if a free choice he granted me,
To do that same thing, or to do it not,
Though God foreknew before the thing was wrought;
Or if his knowing constrains never at all,
Except by necessity conditional.”
– William Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales”

If God is omniscient, are our actions truly free? The Bible leaves no question of God’s omniscience or our free will. Yet if God’s knowledge is perfect, then it seems that He must know everything we will do before we do it. And if we have no alternative but to do what God already knows we will do, it looks like we have no choice in the matter. We are thus presented with a problem. The thesis that “infallible foreknowledge of a human act makes the act necessary and hence unfree” is known as theological fatalism.1,2

The argument for theological fatalism goes as follows:

1. God knows, with certainty, everything in the past, present, and future.

2. Therefore, at time t = -1, God knew that Jack would go up the hill at time t = 1.

3. Because the past is unchangeable, Jack cannot change God’s knowledge at t = -1 that he would go up the hill at t = 1.

4. If Jack cannot choose to behave in a different way, then he does not have the ability to freely exercise his will in the matter.

5. Therefore, Jack cannot go up the hill freely.

A typical response to this problem is to declare that God is timeless and thus not capable of being understood within our conception of time. As C.S. Lewis puts in Mere Christianity:

“Suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call ‘tomorrow’ is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call today. All the days are ‘Now’ for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday, He simply sees you doing them: because, though you have lost yesterday, He has not. He does not ‘foresee’ you doing things tomorrow, He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow’s actions in just the same way – because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already ‘Now’ for Him.”3

In the context of the above argument, it seems that Lewis denies the second premise because he believes that God’s timelessness means He cannot be described as being (or knowing) at a particular time t. Perhaps this response even seems reasonable considering that God created the universe of space-time and thus (we might think) must exist outside of it. Yet Lewis’s explanation of the nature of God’s timelessness fails to resolve the issue because it is based on an inadequate understanding of God’s perspective. It depends on the idea that God experiences everything in the present, in the now.

Yet if He is beyond the time-line, then He isn’t experiencing all events as “in the now”; He should instead be seeing all of the points on the time-line at once. And if He is observing all the points on the time-line, then the points must be fixed in place. If the points are fixed in place, then it seems that it is outside of our power to change them. God may not “foresee” our actions from his perspective, but he certainly “foresees” them from ours.

Although Lewis rejects premise 2 from God’s perspective, it is still true from Jack’s and our perspective. The claim is that because God is timeless, He cannot be characterized as knowing future events at a prior point in time. That is, God only knows what occurs at time t = 1 because he observes it happening at that time. Yet because He lies beyond the time-line and can observe the actions at all points on it, He should see the events at time t = 1 before they occur. A better characterization from our time-bound perspective is that God knows all the events at all points. At time = -1, God does know what Jack will do. At the point at which Jack is deliberating whether or not to go up the hill, God already knows the outcome he will choose. There are a few ways to try to escape this problem. Lewis could reject the first premise and claim that God chooses not to observe the time-line beyond the particular point in time that Jack is experiencing. He could claim that even if God knows all of our actions, He does not force us to choose the particular action that we take. Yet both of these solutions would require arguments beyond God’s timelessness. The argument by timelessness alone cannot resolve the apparent contradiction of foreknowledge and free will.

[1] Zabzebski, Linda. “Foreknowledge and Free Will.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Mar 13, 2008 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-willforeknowledge/#2.5>.

[2] It is important to note that the lack of free will stems from foreknowledge and not from causal determinism. God’s timeless nature implies that he should be aware of the future and what our actions will be, not that his infinite knowledge of the past enables him to predict by a causal chain what will occur. If it were the case that free will were denied because one’s actions are contingent solely upon one’s past experiences, then God would be entirely unnecessary to the discussion. Determinism alone would suffice. However, I am unaware of any passage in the Bible that would justify determinism, and therefore I will not discuss it here.

[3] Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. HarperCollins Edition 2001. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.

____________________________________________________________________________<em>
Jordan Monge ‘12, a Philosophy and Religious Studies concentrator living in Currier House, is the Opinions Editor of </em>The Ichthus.

If God is omniscient, are our actions truly free? The Bible leaves no question of God’s omniscience or our free will. Yet if God’s knowledge is perfect, then it seems that He must know everything we will do before we do it. And if we have no alternative but to do what God already knows we will do, it looks like we have no choice in the matter. We are thus presented with a problem. The thesis that “infallible foreknowledge of a human act makes the act necessary and hence unfree” is known as theological fatalism.1,2

The argument for theological fatalism goes as follows:
1. God knows, with certainty, everything in the past, present, and future.
2. Therefore, at time t = -1, God knew that Jack would go up the hill at time t = 1.
3. Because the past is unchangeable, Jack cannot change God’s knowledge at t = -1 that he would go up the hill at t = 1.
4. If Jack cannot choose to behave in a different way, then he does not have the ability to freely exercise his will in the matter.
5. Therefore, Jack cannot go up the hill freely.

A typical response to this problem is to declare that God is timeless and thus not capable of being understood within our conception of time. As C.S. Lewis puts in Mere Christianity:
“Suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call ‘tomorrow’ is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call today. All the days are ‘Now’ for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday, He simply sees you doing them: because, though you have lost yesterday, He has not. He does not ‘foresee’ you doing things tomorrow, He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow’s actions in just the same way – because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already ‘Now’ for Him.”3
In the context of the above argument, it seems that Lewis denies the second premise because he believes that God’s timelessness means He cannot be described as being (or knowing) at a particular time t. Perhaps this response even seems reasonable considering that God created the universe of space-time and thus (we might think) must exist outside of it. Yet Lewis’s explanation of the nature of God’s timelessness fails to resolve the issue because it is based on an inadequate understanding of God’s perspective. It depends on the idea that God experiences everything in the present, in the now.

Yet if He is beyond the time-line, then He isn’t experiencing all events as “in the now”; He should instead be seeing all of the points on the time-line at once. And if He is observing all the points on the time-line, then the points must be fixed in place. If the points are fixed in place, then it seems that it is outside of our power to change them. God may not “foresee” our actions from his perspective, but he certainly “foresees” them from ours.
Although Lewis rejects premise 2 from God’s perspective, it is still true from Jack’s and our perspective. The claim is that because God is timeless, He cannot be characterized as knowing future events at a prior point in time. That is, God only knows what occurs at time t = 1 because he observes it happening at that time. Yet because He lies beyond the time-line and can observe the actions at all points on it, He should see the events at time t = 1 before they occur. A better characterization from our time-bound perspective is that God knows all the events at all points. At time = -1, God does know what Jack will do. At the point at which Jack is deliberating whether or not to go up the hill, God already knows the outcome he will choose. There are a few ways to try to escape this problem. Lewis could reject the first premise and claim that God chooses not to observe the time-line beyond the particular point in time that Jack is experiencing. He could claim that even if God knows all of our actions, He does not force us to choose the particular action that we take. Yet both of these solutions would require arguments beyond God’s timelessness. The argument by timelessness alone cannot resolve the apparent contradiction of foreknowledge and free will.

[1] Zabzebski, Linda. “Foreknowledge and Free Will.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Mar 13, 2008 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-willforeknowledge/#2.5>.
[2] It is important to note that the lack of free will stems from foreknowledge and not from causal determinism. God’s timeless nature implies that he should be aware of the future and what our actions will be, not that his infinite knowledge of the past enables him to predict by a causal chain what will occur. If it were the case that free will were denied because one’s actions are contingent solely upon one’s past experiences, then God would be entirely unnecessary to the discussion. Determinism alone would suffice. However, I am unaware of any passage in the Bible that would justify determinism, and therefore I will not discuss it here.
[3] Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. HarperCollins Edition 2001. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.

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