Saturday, August 15, 2009

Foreknowledge and Free Will

I recently posed the following question: Assuming for argument's sake that divine foreknowledge exists, does it meaningfully preclude the free exercise of the will? If not, why?. The responses were thoughtful and reflect a deeply-held intuition, namely that free will is a given, divine omniscience notwithstanding. The impetus for the question was my reading of an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entitled Foreknowledge and Free Will. In it, fatalism is summarized this way:
For any future act you will perform, if some being infallibly believed in the past that the act would occur, there is nothing you can do now about the fact that he believed what he believed since nobody has any control over past events; nor can you make him mistaken in his belief, given that he is infallible. Therefore, there is nothing you can do now about the fact that he believed in a way that cannot be mistaken that you would do what you will do. But if so, you cannot do otherwise than what he believed you would do. And if you cannot do otherwise, you will not perform the act freely.
[Since "fatalism" is such a such a fraught term, I'd prefer to use "determinism" instead, although they essentially mean the same thing.]

There are three major theories that fall under the umbrella of determinism: Causal determinism, Logical determinism, and Theological determinism. I'm particularly concerned with Theological determinism here, so I'll just give a thumbnail sketch of the other two.

Causal Determinism is the view that, a proposition P that encompasses every true fact about the actual world at some point in the past (the very distant past, say one second after the Big Bang), in conjunction with a proposition L that encompasses all known (and unknown) Laws of Nature, entails that only one unique future F is possible. (P & L) -> F).

Logical Determinism is the view that, if a proposition P is true today that a future event E will occur, then it logically follows that E must occur, or else P is false today. For example, take Aristotle's famous Sea Battle scenario: if it is true today that a sea battle will occur tomorrow, then the sea battle cannot fail to occur tomorrow because otherwise it would be false today that a sea battle will occur tomorrow, which is consistent with the law of excluded middle (i.e., that all propositions are either true or false, but not both).

Theological determinism differs with the other two in one important respect: it posits the existence of an omniscient God whose knowledge is not only complete, but also infallible. The basic argument, as described in the SEP, goes like this:
(1) Yesterday God infallibly believed T. [Supposition of infallible foreknowledge]
(2) If E occurred in the past, it is now-necessary that E occurred then. (Principle of the Necessity of the Past]
(3) It is now-necessary that yesterday God believed T. [1,2]
(4) Necessarily, if yesterday God believed T, then T. [Definition of "infallibility"]
(5) If p is now-necessary, and necessarily (p -> q), then q is now-necessary. [Transfer of Necessity Principle]
(6) So it is now-necessary that T. [3,4,5]
(7) If it is now-necessary that T, then you cannot do otherwise than you in fact do (/ have done). [Definition of Necessary]
(8) Therefore, you cannot do otherwise than you in fact do (/ have done). [6,7]
(9) Therefore, when you do that which you in fact do (/ have done), you will not do (/ have not done) it freely. [8,9]
To summarize, if (a) there is a God, (b) God is omniscient (c) God's complete knowledge is infinite (< past - future >) and (d) God's infinite knowledge is infallible, then the inescapable conclusion is that so-called future contingents are actually no such thing; rather, God's past knowledge of specific future events entails that those future events are immutable (i.e. constrained by God's foreknowledge).

Now, there are counterarguments, and most of them deny one or more of the premises above. One such argument, from the 6th century philosopher Boethius, suggests that God is "outside of time" and therefore His perfect knowledge is timeless. But this argument is also susceptible to the basic argument for Theological determinism, albeit in a slightly modified form:
(1t) God timelessly knows T.
(2t) If E is in the timeless realm, then it is now-necessary that E.
(3t) It is now-necessary that T.
Generally speaking, there are two camps: compatibilists and incompatibilists. As the labels suggest, the former argues that free will and determinism are compatible and the latter dissents. And each can be roughly divided further into two additional camps: theist and non-theist.

I tend toward the theist incompatibilist camp, but not only because I'm persuaded by the basic argument for Theological determinism. Actually, I think that the appeal to God's omniscience is weaker than--and subordinate to--God's sovereignty (the idea that God's will is supreme and therefore takes precedence over any other will, human or otherwise). That said, however, the conjunction of these two attributes, in my view, does in fact preclude the free exercise of the human will in a meaningful way. So, while what God knows and when He knew it certainly has implications for the human will, it seems to me that what God wills and when he willed it is of more consequence. In fact, the content of God's foreknowledge is the direct result of His sovereign will: the facts that God knows were, are, or will be the very facts that God has willed to be...before time began.

Suppose that, when God contemplated actualizing the material universe, He envisioned the totality of its history...from beginning to end. Further suppose, as many do, that God's desire is that humans, who were created in His image (Gen 1:27), live a life consonant with His, that is to say, sinless. But as each one of can personally attest, a sinless life is impossible (Rom 3:23). According to the supposition, God was fully aware of this eventuality...before the universe existed. In order to redeem His creatures, He sent His son Jesus (John 1:14) to be brutally killed as a sacrifice, which, once and for all, cleaned the slate of those who would be regenerated (Acts 26:18). But again, according to the supposition, God would have foreseen this as well. So, how can we reconcile God's supposed desires with the reality of human sinfulness?

It would be a mistake to conclude that God, having the future sinfulness of His self-styled creatures in full view, nevertheless desired in vain that they remain pure, because this is to assume that God is irrational. Likewise, the thesis that Jesus's incarnation is somehow "Plan B" is ill-conceived, in that it would effectively make God's will subordinate to the human will. That is, God would have had to mitigate His perfect will in order to accommodate the obviously imperfect will of innumerable human beings...who at the time didn't yet exist, but were merely potential objects of God's desire. But even if we suppose that God theoretically considered the future actions of future humans, free will is still problematic because those future actions would have to be objects of thought in the mind of God, and therefore beyond the control of the supposed actors (see the argument for determinism above).

Finally, I'll mention a couple of passages of Scripture that seem to support determinism and undermine human freedom. The first is Job 38:4..."Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand." (the entirety of Job, and especially the opening verses, speak to God's sovereignty). The other is Romans 9:14-21...
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?