Does God’s Omniscience Mean There Is No Free Will?

How can God know the future, and there be freewill? Doesn’t God’s foreknowledge mean that our actions are all predetermined?

This is a problem in philosophy that goes back to a time before people generally thought about God, or Him being omniscient or all knowing.

From ancient times, philosophers have been grappling with the fact that knowledge seems to be eternal and necessary. Knowledge is the mind’s grasp, or apprehension of truth, or conformity to reality.

(You could say that philosophy is (or at least began with) the search for a way to hold both that knowledge is unchanging, eternal and necessary; while material things are changing, temporal and fallible.)

Aristotle in his work On Interpretation thought of the conflict in terms of, on the one hand, propositions being either true or false, and necessarily or eternally so, and, on the other hand, future contingent events (like a king winning a battle, or a free choice) being open to different possibilities. This paradox or problem fundamentally stems from the nature of knowledge:

Given that when something is known, what is known is true, and reality is, and indeed must be, as the mind knows it. If reality is other than how the mind grasps it, the mind does not have knowledge. It would have a false opinion, and the mind would not be in conformity to reality. So, if x is known, x is, and moreover, x must necessarily be the way it is known.

This presents a problem when considering the future, and whether it can be known (or even represented in a proposition, as Aristotle conceived it). It is especially a problem for theists, especially Christians, who claim that God is omniscient or all-knowing, and that He knows all things, even the future, even our future free choices.

Indeed, Psalm 139, verse 16 says, “Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be. And the book of Sirach 39:19-20 says, “The works of all mankind are present to him; not a thing escapes his eye. His gaze spans all the ages; to him there is nothing unexpected. God’s omniscience is attested to in many other passages in Scripture, so it is not easily dismissed by Christians.

So, if God knows the future, the future must be (or be going to be) as God knows it. If it is was not, God would not have knowledge of it. Or the other way around, since God knows something in the future, and His knowledge cannot be mistaken (because nothing that is knowledge is mistaken), so what He knows will be, and it must necessarily be as He knows it will be.

But human free choices cannot be necessary or predetermined, since part of what we mean by ‘free’ is that a free choice could have been otherwise. Hence the dilemma: if a future human action is known by God, it must be as He knows it – it cannot be otherwise – and so cannot be free. But if an action is freely chosen, it could have been otherwise than as it is – and, apparently, it cannot have been known (as coming to be of necessity).

The first, best treatment and attempt at a solution of this problem comes from the Christian philosopher Boethius (who died in 524 AD), in his Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius distinguishes between two senses of necessity: natural and conditional. If one knows the causes of the nature of a thing, because natural causes bring about their effects of necessity, one can know with necessity the effect, and that the effect will occur in the future. So, his example is that the sun will rise tomorrow. We can know this with certainty because we know the cause (the nature of the sun (and since Copernicus, the nature of the earth as rotating)) will necessarily bring about this effect. God does know some future events this way, Boethius says, but they are what comes about by natural necessity; they are not future contingent events. Such knowledge is not foreknowledge, though, so much as predictions, and to the extent we know natural causes, we are capable of such necessary knowledge of the future.

But there is another kind of necessity, Boethius says, that it at work in knowledge: conditional necessity, which is really a function of logic. If a thing is x, it cannot be other than x (a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect). So, if it is raining, it cannot be not raining (at the same time . . . etc.).

Now, this applies to every event in the world, even free choices: if a person, Socrates, is sitting, he cannot be in any other posture, and his sitting is necessary. His sitting is necessary on the condition that he is doing it. Whether he is sitting as a result of a free choice or by compulsion, if he is sitting, it is necessary that he be sitting.

But, in the case of Socrates’ sitting as a free act, it is also a contingent, that is, a freely chosen event. Socrates made a choice to sit, and his sitting is free – he could have done otherwise. But having chosen to sit, he cannot not be sitting – his sitting is necessary with conditional necessity according to Boethius. And it is not only that a free choice led to the necessary event; as long as he continues to sit, Socrates’ sitting is both free and necessary (in a simultaneous now).

Conditional necessity is the kind of necessity our knowledge has when we observe, and so know, things in the present (it also applies to things in the past – if a thing happened in the past, even a free choice, it is necessary that it happened). So, if I know Socrates is sitting, it is because he is, in fact, sitting, but with conditional, not natural, necessity. This is why, when I know Socrates sits, his sitting is necessary. My knowledge of his sitting is necessary (he cannot be otherwise than as sitting), yet his sitting is also freely chosen (both as a result of a temporally prior choice to sit, and concurrent with a simultaneous decision to keep sitting). Knowing a free act means the act is necessary, but it does not impose necessity, or determine the act to not be free.

In coming to the question of God’s omniscience or foreknowledge of future contingent events (free choices), Boethius’ big advance was to say that God, because He is perfect, He is unchanging, and being unchanging, he is eternal. (Following Aristotle, he saw time as a function of change.) God, being eternal, is outside of time, but as creator, He is equally related to all moments of time. Thus, according to Boethius, all times are present to Him in an eternal now.

As with us who, in time, can know necessarily that Socrates sits while his sitting is still truly free and without (natural) necessity, so it is with God from an eternal now.

From God’s perspective, every free act is contingent and could be otherwise, yet also necessary as known (timelessly) or foreknown (relative to a later time). In recognizing the kind of necessity which knowledge has, we can accept as reasonable that a future free act is both contingent and able to be otherwise, yet known by God and necessarily will be with conditional necessity. As with us, God’s knowledge of a free act does not impose necessity on it, does not determine the act to not be free.

In this way of viewing the problem, God always knows what we will freely choose. His knowledge of our future free choice means they could not be other than as they will be, but this is because our choosing makes them what they are, and God then is aware (in our now) of our future choosing. But to Him, all choosings throughout time are related to His eternal now, and necessary as known by Him, but with the conditional necessity of having been chosen, or self-determined, by us. Again, His knowing a free act does not impose, but recognized, the conditional necessity it has as being self-determined.

Problem solved. Apparently. Except there is one wrinkle which Boethius recognizes but does not resolve.

It is this: this explanation understands God’s knowledge on the model of our knowledge, and our knowledge is passive and receptive to what we know. When I see Socrates sit, my knowledge of his sitting is necessary (with conditional necessity), but it is also caused by what he has chosen to do. If Socrates were to do otherwise, so would my knowledge have been different. My knowledge of Socrates’ posture depends on, and is caused by, Socrates’ choice to sit or not.

Well, part of God’s perfection is that He is unaffected by anything. Moreover, if He were to know in this way, He would be potential to being conformed to what He knows (even though that potential for knowledge is realized simultaneously with its object). He would stand in need of creatures to actualize the knowledge He has of them eternally. Some have decided that this is just the nature of knowledge and cannot be avoided, and since knowledge is itself a perfection, it is no threat to the perfection and impassibility of God. Boethius just declares “it’s a mystery!” and moves on.

Thomas Aquinas is not content with this consequence of Boethius’ insights. Aquinas instead incorporates his own views on God’s actuality as First Cause with Boethius’ the distinction between natural and conditional necessity, along with seeing a free act as being compatible with the necessity of knowledge.

Aquinas denies, however, that God knows as we know. God’s knowledge is not passive to or receptive of its objects. Instead, God, being Pure Act, is identical with every perfection He “has”. Rather, He is His perfections, so He is His goodness, power, etc., and His knowledge. Indeed, all He knows is Himself, and part of that knowledge of Himself (which is Himself) is what He has willed to create. Thus, according to Aquinas, God knows creatures by creating them (i.e., by knowing the extent of His creative power, His will to create).

And since God is the cause of every actuality, He causes actuality in creatures according to the natures He assigns for them. He knows frogs leap and croak by causing them to exist with a leaping and croaking nature, and every instance when they actualize this nature with actual leaps and croaks. These proceed by natural necessity, but are caused by the First Cause of Actuality, and so these frog-acts are known by God in His causing of them.

But, the activity of free creatures is also caused by the First Cause, and these free creatures are free because they are given a free nature. Yet they exercise their free choices as final effects also of the First Cause. And so, as God knows every act as an effect of Himself, He knows with conditional necessity these free acts (which, in themselves, are self-determined by the free agent), but such acts are not made necessary or determined by God. Again, free acts are self-determined, and could have been otherwise. But they are caused by God (from all eternity) and are necessary with conditional necessity (as Socrates’ sitting is once he sits and for as long as he sits).

Aquinas recognizes that this sounds contradictory, but he thinks this is because we think of causes as things acting in the material world, and so having natural necessity. If x causes y, y comes about necessarily, as one billiard ball necessarily causes another to move when it impacts it, or when Socrates is compelled to sit. Again, part of what we mean by saying that an act is free is that it is done apart from compulsion, but this means it is done without natural necessity.

If God causes free acts, that sounds like a contradiction because natural, material causes bring about necessary effects, yet no free act can be causes in this way, with natural necessity. But Aquinas says that God is a “transcendent cause” which acts, not within nature, but across/beyond/from outside of the natural, material world. He gives things their natures and the actuality to act according to their nature, and so he causes free agents to act freely.

Their acts are self-determined, but being determined, they are conditionally necessary. And God knows these acts in an eternal now (even if future to us) with necessity by causing them to be self-determined by the free agent. If the free agent had acted differently, God would have caused (transcendentally) their free act to have been different, and so would have had necessary eternal knowledge of this different act.

I think this makes sense.

But, honestly, some days it makes more sense than others. What Aquinas means by a transcendent cause is a bit tough to hold on to, but I tend to think it is a bit of negative theology: it tells us more of what God is not and how He is not like a natural cause, that what God is.

That God is the First Cause of all acts, even free acts, and that He knows by causing, are, Aquinas thinks, sure and true conclusions. And so do I. So, God’s knowledge of future free acts must be necessary, and must not destroy human freedom.

So that is Aquinas’ solution. I hope it makes sense to you.

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