#401

December 21, 2014

How Does God Foreknow Free Choices?

Greetings,

I have been listening to and reading a lot of your material over the last year, and have been learning a lot - not least from the Defenders podcast. I've been searching in your material for the answer to a specific question, but haven't found it - and therefore I write you now.

I'm trying to sort out the matter of free will and God's foreknowledge, and I've come to understand that there is no contradiction between God's foreknowing a free choice, and that choice being truly free. Foreknowing doesn't equal determining.

But - here is my question: How? How does God foreknow what I would freely choose? I can see how he could foresee my choices if I was determined to make a specific choice, based on my genetics/upbringing/situation. But then the will isn't free - is it?

If God knows the position and speed of every particle in the universe - then he could foresee every future event, where the cause/effect is within the realm of materia. But our free choice isn't.

So - in short: By what means can God know what I would freely choose?

Thanks for your time, and for your great work in the Lord.

Paulus


Norway

I’ve addressed this question, Paulus, in Part 3 of my book The Only Wise God (rep.ed.: Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2000). I refer you to the discussion there.

Your question presupposes that God exists in time, as we do. But if God exists timelessly, He does not have literal foreknowledge. For what is future for us is not future for Him. So He knows what is future for us, but He does not foreknow it. Defenders of divine timelessness, then, have no difficulty with your question, since it presupposes a temporal deity.

But suppose we think, as I do, that God does exist at every time that there is and so does literally foreknow the future. As you rightly point out, foreknowledge of free choices cannot be based upon inference from present causes, for that would imply determinism and annihilate free choice. So God must know future free choices in some other way.

In getting at this question, it is useful to distinguish two models of divine cognition: a perceptualist model and a conceptualist model. The perceptualist model thinks of God’s cognition on the analogy of sense perception. This model is implicitly presupposed when people talk, as you do, of God’s “foreseeing future events.” He somehow looks ahead in time and “sees” what is there. The language is metaphorical, but I can think of at least two ways to make a perceptualist model of divine foreknowledge work, though they both involve ontological commitments which I am not willing to make.

One way would be to adopt a tenseless theory of time, according to which all events, past, present, and future, are equally real and temporal becoming is just a subjective illusion of human consciousness. The perceptualist model runs into trouble only if time is tensed, for then there is nothing in the future to see. But if all events in time are equally existent, then there is something there for God to perceive. He can just look and see what actually lies ahead.

Another way would be to hold that there are abstract objects (propositions) which bear the values true or false. On a realist view of such objects, there is no need for God to look into the future in order to know what will happen. Rather He can know the future simply by inspecting future-tense propositions (or tenseless propositions about future events) which presently exist and bear the properties true or false. An omniscient God cannot be ignorant of the properties which presently inhere in things. If we are reluctant, as I am, to ascribe reality to abstract objects like propositions, perhaps we could substitute for propositions God’s own belief states or thoughts and the truth values inhering in them.

But there is no reason to adopt a perceptualist model of divine cognition, which is a terribly anthropomorphic way of thinking of God’s cognition—God certainly doesn’t know mathematical or ethical truths, for example, on the basis of anything like sense perception. Rather we can adopt a conceptualist model, which thinks of God’s knowledge more on the analogy of innate ideas. Plato thought that human knowledge is innate and that education consists in simply helping us to recollect the knowledge that we have forgotten. However implausible such a model might be for human cognition, it seems perfectly suited to divine cognition. As an essentially omniscient being God has the property of believing only and all truths. He didn’t get this knowledge from anywhere; He just has it innately. Compare other divine attributes like omnipotence. It makes no sense to ask how God is omnipotent. Exercise? Practice? No, God simply has the essential property of being omnipotent. In the same way He simply has the essential attribute of being omniscient. But then it follows that He must know all future-tense truths, which gives Him complete knowledge of the future.

I am perfectly satisfied with such a simple conceptualist model of divine cognition, but we can push the analysis a notch further. For if God has what theologians call “middle knowledge,” then foreknowledge immediately follows as a consequence. By His middle knowledge God knows what every free person He could have created would freely do in any set of circumstances in which God might place him. So by creating certain persons and placing them in certain circumstances, God knows exactly what they will do, and that without abridging their freedom in any way. God knows the future simply on the basis of His middle knowledge and His knowledge of His choice of which persons and circumstances to create, without any sort of perception of the world.

Of course, this raises the question of the basis of God’s middle knowledge, and here the same sort of answers will be replayed. For example, if individual essences exist (e.g., your essential properties), then God can simply inspect them to see what contingent counterfactual properties inhere in them concerning what the relevant persons would do in various circumstances, were those essences to be instantiated. I’m inclined to regard God’s middle knowledge simply as innate knowledge, which is His in virtue of being an omniscient being.