WCG #10: How can we have Free Will if God knows the Future?
- Our topic for today is an ancient discussion that’s been had by the earliest philosophers and theologians of nearly every religion. What is Free Will? Do we have it? How can God possibly be both omniscient and we also possesses genuine free will?
- Important Aside: This topic is often confused with a similar sounding discussion between Calvinism and Arminianism. That’s what we’ll be covering next week, and one of the main purposes of this week is to actually provide the necessary larger context so that next week makes more sense.
- What even is “Free Will?” How do you define it? Do we have it?
The Problem of Determinism
The Power of Human Freedom
The Unpredictable Future
The Trouble with Foreknowledge
The Predestination Paradox
The Impossible Psychic
- Philosophers have debated the nature and mechanisms of Free Will for a long time (I mean what else is new), and there are several different “camps” as to how our personal decisions as human beings interact with and/or are caused by the world around us.
- The central question is... are all of our desires, dispositions, thoughts, and actions totally determined by prior conditions which we have no control over... or do we possess some kind of inherent freedom to actually do as we please regardless of what comes prior?
- We need to step back for a moment to get an appreciation for why this is so important:
- Back in our discussion about contingency and causality, we showed how everything has an explanation for “why it is the way it is.” And that has an explanation... and that has an explanation... all the way back to some necessary default state which contained the explanation for everything. Something is caused by something else which is caused by something else...
- But if every possible state of affairs is fully explained by prior events and actions... then that includes everything about you as well. Everything that you are. Your every disposition and inclination and desire. All that you are and all that you could ever do traces is explained by prior circumstances.
- This seems to leave you in a position where no action you’ve ever taken was your own. Every brain state / thought / decision was determined entirely by factors beyond yourself. All things were determined completely and totally by the nature of the necessary being.
- This problem is exacerbated tremendously in any purely materialistic view of the world (one with no spirits, souls, or realms beyond this physical one). If we really are just blobs of matter, then everything in our brains is determined not by “us” but by the pre-programmed way our genetics were always going to react to any particular situation. We wouldn’t be making decisions. Our decisions aren’t decisions at all.
- This culmination of these ideas (that our every decision is mandated by prior conditions) is called “DETERMINISM” for within this view it is the past that unilaterally determines the future.
- There are some philosophers who have developed sophisticated and nuanced mechanisms by which they might reconcile Free Will with a deterministic view of the world, but that’s not we’ll be pursuing here. If you are sympathetic to one of those views, that's totally fine. Just know that for sake of time we won't be able to explore those nuances. For all extents and purposes, especially as it relates to theological matters, pure determinism is incompatible with genuine free will.
The Power of Human Freedom
- Since we are going to be approaching this from a theological perspective... there is something very important we have to keep in mind that makes determinism extremely unappealing:
- If we have absolutely no control over our decisions... then what sense is their in ascribing value or moral worth to any particular set of choices? Nobody is ever going to act contrary to the way they were always going to act. Nobody “makes decisions” that they would not have always done.
- In order for us to have true moral responsibility... we need to have genuine free will. Sin wouldn’t be sin if we didn’t ourselves choose it.
- The “type” of Free Will that is most relevant to our discussion is what you might call the “freest” version of Free Will. It is typically known as "libertarian" free will. (And no, its not connected to the political party.)
- The libertarian view of free will makes the extremely bold - but theologically almost necessary - proclamation that every individual action you’ve taken (while probably strongly influenced by external factors) is, at the end of the day, ENTIRELY YOUR DECISION.
- Regardless of your upbringing, your desires, your wishes, how you felt at the moment... you can always choose to act contrary to all external factors. Your human will has the power to break the shackles of determinism.
- This True Free Will means that at every moment of contemplation you can genuinely choose any path that is available to you (within the reasonable bounds of the laws of physics and your own capabilities). We may have strong hormones bouncing around in our brain compelling us to do one thing or to not do another and we may have powerful societal pressures, past trauma, and even our sinful nature (more on the later), but we can still CHOOSE to act in whatever way we desire.
- You can think of those external factors like strong currents in a massive river that is your stream of consciousness. Sometimes, in certain situations, they are very, very strong... to the point where it almost seems impossible to act otherwise.
- BUT you can always choose to FIGHT the current. You can always act against the external pressures and forge your own path. Sure, 99% of the time you might take the easy path and “go with the flow,” but you still possesses the ability to choose to go against the grain and act in a way that contradicts all surface level desires and inclinations.
- The idea is that there is something about us that is DEEPER than all of those surface-level desires and dispositions. There is a true you, hidden beneath the biology and the sociology, that is truly free to choose its course of action.
The Unpredictable Future
- If true free agents exist, then it shatters determinism:
- For now there exist billions of free individuals for whom all of their actions cannot in principle be predicted prior. Their actions are not all fully explained by the things upon which they are contingent. You cannot look to the past to know the future, for all of these agents are truly free to do whatever they want.
- All free agents, like the necessary being itself, possesses the power of self-motivation. While the fact of their existence is still contingent, not all of their actions are. We reflect our creator in our possession of the powerful ability defy all prior conditions and create entirely new causal chains.
- But here’s where we hit a snag... Another aspect of traditional christian doctrine is that God is “omniscient.” He knows all things, and included within that is that he knows the future.
- This can be deduced scripturally - from the many descriptions we get of God’s perfect understanding of all things, to the fact that “prophecy” is even a thing in the first place, to the many times it is described that God has a “perfect plan” for the world that will come to pass and cannot be thwarted. He knows - we are told over and over again - exactly what would be best for us in any possible situation.
- It can also be deduced logically and philosophically, from the nature of the “necessary being” who would (by necessity) transcend our very universe and look down upon the flow of time in a way we cannot even begin to describe with words. God as the necessary being and the progenitor of all things would logically not view "cause and effect" in the same way we do - as we are bound and limited within a world of cause and effect.
- But these situations which God "foreknows" and which he "wills"... how exactly is God supposed to ensure that they come to pass? How does he create the future he desires if the actions of billions of free agents are so intricately involved?
- And that’s the key here: If true free will exists, then it seems as if God cannot quite control or know the future.
- Can you imagine the complexity of the system... how impossible it would be to know the state of any future event when between now and then there are hundreds of trillions of potential combinations of fundamentally unpredictable free actions?
- You might be able to make an educated guess about what stuff could happen, but could you ever really proclaim that you know for sure what’s going to happen in the future?
The Trouble with Foreknowledge
- To maintain God’s perfect knowledge it is almost always posited that God doesn't just “know” the future in a probabilistic or predictive sense, but that he literally sees the future. This ties in (and here’s where things get really mind boggling) with the idea of God being “outside of time.”
- Psalm 90 contains a beautiful exhortation of this quality of God: “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.” There are repeated declarations throughout scripture of God as the one who “was, and is, and is to come.” The book of Jude ends with the proclamation that to God alone belongs all “glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forevermore. Amen.”
- Several verses say that God’s plan for the salvation of human beings was known to him before the foundation of the world. That means that before Adam and Eve made the free decision to rebel against him, God already knew not what he “might” have to do but what he WAS going to do.
- But can you see how this only exacerbates the problem?
- If God truly knows your future... he sees it clear as day in a way we cannot even describe... then he knows your future FOR CERTAIN (which he must if he was all-knowing) This means that means your future IS CERTAIN. If God “knew” the Future and it turned out he was wrong, he didn’t really know the future in the first place.
- This seems rather... limiting. After we broke the shackles of determinism to try and give ourselves some agency back... it looks like we’ve just fallen into another hole!
- Imagine you are trying to decide what flavor of ice cream to get at an ice cream shop. God, who sees the fullness of the future, knows that you will choose mint chocolate chip. This means that it is a FACT of reality that you are going to choose mint chocolate chip. There is no way you ever would have acted contrary.
- Another way this problem crops up is in the way Christians regularly talk about things like “God’s plan.” How often have you heard the phrase “God put you here at this school for a reason.”
- But... think about that for a second. Indisputably, you made a free decision at some point to come to the school that you did. You could have rejected that decision. You could have made different decisions earlier on in school that prevented you from coming here. You could have chosen to go to a different school for entirely personal reasons.
- What’s going on here? How can this school be “exactly where God wants you” if it seems to be more primarily where you wanted to go? Did God alter or influence your desires? Did violate your free will and manipulate you like a puppet?
- What about “divine appointments?” How does God ensure that two free agents actually meet up?
- It’s all seems like a big mess. Some philosophers and theologians just give up and say that either we don’t have free will or that God doesn't have true or perfect foreknowledge.
The Predestination Paradox
- One of the most fascinating aspects of this conversation is how readily it overlaps with similar conversations that science fiction enthusiasts tend to have about the intricacies of time travel.
- If you think about it, the interaction between foreknowledge and free will is very similar to the implications of a time traveler witnessing the future and then going back to “fix” it. They are using their foreknowledge to affect the free decisions of individuals in the past. If one gains information about the future, are they able to actually change the future?
- This is the predestination paradox, because it seems that both answers to that questions result in a highly undesirable or even contradictory conclusion. Either the individual didn’t really have sight of the future in the first place, or they simply have no free will and “changing” the future was always a futile task.
- The tragic story of Oedipus Rex is a famous and ancient example of the latter option. In this story, Oedipus is told by an Oracle that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Disgusted, he flees his family and runs as far away as he can to avoid such a horrible fate. Unbeknownst to him, the family he grew up with were not his biological parents, and through a series of events he ends up inadvertently killing his father and falling in love with his mother. Upon learning of the true nature of his actions, he gouges his own eyes out.
- Oedipus realized that he was trapped by the consequences of fate. Upon learning of the future, he was powerless to change it. Even him gaining that information about the future was predestined. It's like the famous French quote: “One often meets his destiny on the path he takes to avoid it.”
- The difficulty of this "solution" to the paradox (if you can even call it that) is that it utterly destroys the existence of Free Will, which is what we are trying to reconcile in the first place. If you believe in the legitimacy of our freedom to choose, then we need to find a different solution.
- The other option is to say that, yes, you can change the future after learning about it. But that feeds back upon itself and destroys the legitimacy of the foreknowledge in the first place!
The Impossible Psychic
- Imagine a psychic individual who has the ability to see several minutes into the future. They are a true and perfect psychic, meaning that they have legitimate and comprehensive knowledge of exactly what will happen.
- While strolling through town, they realize that in about 2 minutes they are going to be hit by an ice cream truck while crossing the road. Terrified of that possibility, the psychic takes a different path and avoids death.
- But wait a minute, that means that what they saw as the future didn’t really happen. They were wrong about the Future!
- For a lot of people this doesn't seem like a problem, cause they can just say that the psychic’s view of the future isn’t a “certain” thing, it’s just a kind of "projection" of what could happen had the foreknowledge not been discerned.
- But we were careful to define this individual as a true and perfect psychic. This is someone who sees the future as it actually is, not as how it could be (the same way we believe God can see the future). However, they are now experiencing an outcome that is not what they saw. If a being has true foreknowledge, then the foreknown events will (by definition) come to pass. It’s not a probabilistic thing. They can see the true future, so that is what will happen.
- But doesn't that seem to just force us back to the same dilemma as Oedipus? True foreknowledge seems to almost "create" determinism. Any being with true knowledge of the future also seems to be incapable of preventing or altering it in any way.
- But think about how weird that is. If a psychic knows that they are going to to be hit by an ice cream truck while crossing the road in 2 minutes, what is stopping them from just standing standing still and waiting around for those 2 minutes?
- Some might be tempting to suggested that something else will occur... some event that will conspire to force the psychic out onto the crosswalk at the right time. But the only reason this might work is because you can utilize the kind of “gray areas” in the psychic’s vision - the parts of the future the psychic didn’t know for sure (like what happened with Oedipus).
- But once again we turn to the idea that this is a psychic who has full and comprehensive sight of the future (the same way God would). They see everything between that exact moment and the time of their death, and it involved them walking calmly to the crosswalk without stopping. This means that, if at any point between now and then they in hesitate or slow down... they have violated their vision of the future.
- For God, who sits beyond all of this and sees all points of time, that kind of vision is what we’re dealing with. He doesn't just see snippets of the future. He sees all of it. There are no gray areas in which fate can conspire. He sees it all. He is the true and perfect psychic. This seems to create some tremendous and terrifying problems. If all is known for certain by God, how can we possibly act contrary to what he sees?
- If Free Will exists, do you think it’s even possible for someone to know the future? Can a “true” psychic really exist?
Seeing the Beginning from the End
Summing Up the Three Main Approaches to God's Causal Power
- When trying to resolve this paradox, its important to keep in mind what makes God fundamentally different from any kind of human psychic or time traveler: perspective.
- A human psychic is trapped within time, looking forwards into the future. They are a part of the system itself, and it is precisely the way in which their foreknowledge is able to feed back upon her ability to choose the creates all of these crazy paradoxes.
- But... it's not that hard to imagine a situation in which knowledge of a person's actions does not have causal power:
- Imagine a dude who was busy during a major football game and sits down hours later to watch a recording. Prior to this, he has already learned from an over-exited friend who won the game. (It already happened, after all.) So now, while watching the game, he understands exactly where everything is going to end. He can fast-forward and rewind to whatever point in the game he wants, playing and replaying bits to take note of important details. He can have full and intimate knowledge of everything that happens in the football game. The question that should strike you is this: Did any of this knowledge affect the players on the field?
- The obvious objection to this scenario is that it's not really foreknowledge, since the information he gained from his friend and from watching the recording were gleaned after the football game actually occurred. The players had already made their decisions on the field and this was now just being viewed and learned about by the viewer after the fact.
- But that's exactly my point! It's possible for someone non-fatalistic knowledge of a person's free choice so long as the acquiring of this knowledge occurs after the free choice in question. Mere knowledge of a person's actions is not, in and of itself, causation.
- So here's where the rubber hits the road. If we take seriously the idea that God is outside of time, then we are not merely saying that he is some kind of ethereal spirit floating above the timeline right where we happen to be - we mean that he is equally present and aware of the past, present, and future. He is not limited to standing before time and "foreknowing" the future, he is actually in the future right now (wrap your head around that statement) looking back across the entire timeline.
- God is not a psychic with "foresight" of the future. He is in the future, looking back across at the present.
- God can step across, around, and up and down the river of time. It is like the recording of the football game. He can move across the timeline while himself remaining totally aware of where everything goes.
- For God - and this is really the crazy thing - his foreknowledge is philosophically indistinguishable from his hindsight. They are, to him, the same thing. He is aware of everything that is going to happen before the foundation of the world not because he is "looking forwards" into the future but because he is simultaneously present at the end of history looking back across the entire timeline.
Summing Up the Three Main Approaches to God's Causal Power
- The question now is - even with a logical way for God to have full knowledge of a person's future actions in a way that isn't determinative - how do we account for the many times in scripture in which God does step into the world to cause particular things and guide history to a particular end? While we can account for how God can "know" the future without causing it, how do we allow for God to (at least in certain instances) cause particular things to come to pass?
- After all, if God merely has "knowledge" of what we freely did / will do... it seems like he has very little helpful control over the trajectory of history itself (a massively complex entity composed of trillions of free decisions). He has to have some way of interacting with the players on the field and to not just be stuck watching a recording.
- There are three main ways that people have approached this, and the first two are things we've already discussed / hinted at.
- The first way to "resolve" this is to just flip the table and regress all the way back to Hard Determinism.
- This position is also sometimes called "Theistic Fatalism," and it distinguishes itself from the normal "materialistic" determinism in the sense that, instead of impersonal biological and physical forces determining all possible human actions, it is God's divine sovereign will that ensures that exactly what God desires will come to pass in all scenarios.
- A Fatalist might argue that any variable beyond God's direct control cannot in principle be ensured to occur in a certain way (given the nature of free will), meaning that God needs to control all things. Yes, God can KNOW what WILL happen (as we already discussed), but he cannot ENSURE a particular end. This would seem to quite strongly infringe upon his sovereignty.
- To a hard determinist / theistic fatalist, all human actions and decisions were determined in eternity past by God's will.
- The major issue with this is that it really is just "solving the problem" by entirely doing away with Free Will. Once again, this creates tremendous problems for our moral agency.
- In Hard Determinism, you are literally saying that God directly causes all evil decisions made by humans - including the original fall to sin. We're all just chess pieces in a vast scenario that could only ever play out in one predetermined way.
- The second way people have tried to "resolve" this is by saying that God intentionally limited his knowledge of the future so that he could reside within time and progresses alongside human history with us. This is usually called 'Open Theism.'
- This position describes a God who is presently weaving in and out of human decisions to produce the best result. By willingly placing himself within the system, he has removed the possibility of a predestination paradox.
- In Open Theism God does not see or know the future with 100% certainty. He is still omniscient in every other way, and he has intimate knowledge of the dispositions of every individual. Essentially, he is the world's best gambler. He cannot ensure a particular future, but you can bet that there is no one better than God in directing history to the ends that he wants.
- Open Theists will generally be accused of saying that God has "changed" or "learned" things across history, but well-studied adherents to this position will deny such a claim. Open Theists merely believe that God has willingly stepped down within time such that he could intimately relate to humanity.
- The primary issue with this is the fact that it does reduce God to a gambler. He is now utterly beholden to human freedom, and, at the end of the day, can't really make statements about what "will" happen with certainty. It does also seem quite difficult to reconcile this view of God with the plentiful statements throughout scripture of God's promises of what will come to pass.
- So if determinism denies free will, and open theism denies divine foreknowledge... is there really a possible third solution?
- The third idea has developed a lot of attention in recent years, and is currently being advocated for by popular Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig. It's called "Molinism," as it was originally conceived by Spanish theologian Luis de Molina in the 16th century.
- Molinism posits that God not only has full understanding of what will happen, but he also has full understanding of what could happen given alternative situations.
- These "alternative possibilities" are usually called counterfactuals by philosophers. They are states of affairs that are not true of the actual world, but they would be true if something different had happened. There are, in fact, instances in scripture where God claims to have such knowledge (e.g. "if they had not done this, they would have experienced this).
- Proponents of Molinism call this special divine understanding "middle knowledge." It's not that we are deterministic computers that are just reacting to variables differently, it's that God has the mind-blowing ability to perceive a potential world of free decisions without actualizing it.
- You can imagine it like a massive branching web of possibilities, in which God can see exactly the consequences of his free actions in relationship with humanity's free actions. In this way, he can cull off every world except for the one he wants. He can see where the river of time would flow, so he makes sure to place rocks in key locations to divert the flow as necessary. In this sense, one can say that God has intervened exactly as much is necessary to produce the world he desires.
- While quite elegant for a lot of people, some philosophers and theologians have taken issue with the idea of how God is actually able to know these counterfactual. How is it even possible to actually see a world of free decisions that isn't actualized? If it "doesn't exist yet" then how can you know what people will do?
- So while not perfect, Molinism is considered by many to be a substantial step in the right direction in understanding how God can interact with human freedom. Instead of limiting God or limiting humanity, it posits that God is so big and so knowledgeable that he actually understands potential worlds in a way that we cannot even conceive or expresses with words.
- What do you like / not like about each view? Do you have any other ideas for how free will might interact with God’s foreknowledge?
The Perfect Harmony
The Unknowable Nature of Our Agency
- There is a great analogy that I hope will bring some of this together:
- Imagine a young girl playing a piano but, since she doesn't have much experience, isn't playing very well. She is pressing all the wrong keys and creating a lot of disharmony.
- Then, imagine her father (a professional composer and pianist) comes along next to her and he begins to play between all the different notes. Suddenly the horrible disharmony melds together into beautiful harmony and melody.
- When viewed in this way, it becomes at least a little bit clear how God can actually work through our Free Will. Knowing exactly how we will or would act, God alters the situations (not our actions or the actions of others) to bring things to how he wants them to be. In and between all of your free decisions (the harmony between the disharmony) was God, picking up after you and adjusting making sure all things work together towards his end.
- Maybe you really are where you are in your life right now because you choose to be here. But God, knowing you’d choose to be here and knowing how you could best serve here, made sure it was the best place for you to be. He didn't change you. He changed the world around you. Instead of infringing on your free will, God essentially did everything BUT that to make his will come to pass.
- Some people, after going through all of this material and thinking deeply about all the different ways “free will” and “divine foreknowledge” might coexist... just get frustrated and give up. There are some nice useful models - like Molinism or other similar things, but they aren’t without their holes.
- If Free Will is so straightforward and fundamental to who we are and so essential to us being responsible moral agents... then why is it so hard to reconcile with such a straightforward attribute of God?
The Unknowable Nature of Our Agency
- Well... wait a second here. Is Free Will even straightforward? If you were paying attention at the beginning of this discussion, you’ll have noticed something very interesting that happened. We described the consequences of a world “without” free will (everything is deterministic). To avoid the ramifications of such a world we defined free will into the system as the “genuine ability to act contrary to all outside influences.”
- But hold on... how is that possible, exactly? How does a Free Agent... work? What is Free Will? What allows it to exist in the first place?
- Well let's think... could we create Free Will?
- Despite the optimism of much of science fiction, it is almost certainly impossible for a real life artificial intelligence to ever develop a genuine personal agency. Every action they can possibly take is predetermined by its base code - in some cases by a vast and evolving network of information - but determined nonetheless. At any given state of a robot’s software, if you put it in the same situation ad infinitum it will always do the same thing. That’s what makes computers so reliable.
- Naturalists and materialists, then, also view humans in this same way. We are just biological robots. We also, at any given brain state, would make exactly the same decision if we were placed into the same situation ad infinitum.
- The further you dive into this, the more and more it becomes apparent that... regardless of how necessary free will is for true rationality and moral responsibility... there seems to be no way we can even comprehend how or by what mechanism such a thing can even exist. All of our laws of physics are deterministic. All of our computational algorithms are fully contingent on prior conditions.
- This humbling realizing means that we’ve been embarking on this whole discussion with the presupposition that we are even able to understand how Free Will interacts with divine sovereignty. The truth of the matter is that we can’t even begin to articulate how Free Will interacts with itself!
- Free Will, in and of itself, is almost certainly the result of some deeper spiritual reality which we do not even have the words to accurately describe. It is not the product of physics or biology. It must find its root in a more fundamental quality of reality.
- With this in mind, it should be no surprise that we’re having trouble reconciling our freedom with God’s perfect knowledge.
- I’ll leave you with this: Some people like to say that the existence of truly free agents would necessarily limit God’s power or knowledge in some way. I couldn’t disagree more. It seems to me that only a truly sovereign, powerful, and all-knowing God could even create something like Free Will (a truly independent causal agent apart from himself) in the first place.
- As far as I’m concerned, the existence of Free Will is the greatest exhortation of God’s power imaginable.