Destiny; or, Were You Meant to Read This Post?
Aside from the title, the video above doesn’t have much to do with the post, but that’s never stopped me before. This post, in fact, is the latest installment in my series on free will. The main focus of that series hasn’t been on examining free will as such. Rather, the main thrust has been to see if a finite but immortal being could make an irrevocable choice. This is relevant to the idea of universalism. This is because the concept of the eternity of Hell is that the damned have in effect chosen their state and, so it is asserted, will never change their minds. Aside from merely asserting this to be the case, there didn’t seem to be any logical reason for this to be. After looking at several aspects of the problem, my final conclusion was that there’s no clear answer either way.
This post goes off on another tangent, though, and is more connected with my series on the Fall. For reasons that will become clear in posts that I’m planning as a continuation and (possible!) completion of that series–the longest-running series on this blog–I think it’s necessary to look at another aspect of free will. What I want to do is to ask the question: Is our free will compatible with the foreknowledge of God? In short, if God knows what we’re going to do before we do it–from all eternity, in fact–are we truly free?
Let’s begin with groundwork. First, even without bringing God into the picture, there is debate as to whether free will exists. The basic views are libertarianism (not to be confused with the political philosophy), which asserts that we do indeed have free will; hard determinism, which asserts that all our choices are predetermined and that we bear no moral responsibility for our actions; and soft determinism (compatibilism) which says that while our actions are determined, we do bear moral responsibility for what we do. A longer discussion of all this is here. I’m not interested in that debate in this context. My operating assumption is that we do have free will. What I want to look at is how this co-exists with an omniscient God.
Second, we have to define “omniscient”. God is said to be omnipotent–He is able to do anything–and omniscient–He knows everything. However, as I’ve discussed before, we have to be very careful with the term “omnipotent”. Philosophically, “omnipotent” does not mean “able to do anything“, but “able to do anything that can be done. Not even God could create a married bachelor or make 2 + 2 equal to 78,000 or make a rock so large even He could not lift it. Likewise, “omniscient” means “knowing everything that is knowable”. If something is unknowable in principle, even God could not know it.
Whether there is anything unknowable in principle is less clear than the issue of omnipotence, in which there are clearly things that are undoable in principle. Quantum events might be unknowable even in principle, but there is still debate on this, to say nothing of possible deterministic models. More relevant to our investigation here, some have asserted that truly free choices of truly free beings are unknowable in principle. It’s not clear to me that this assertion can be proved or disproved. In any case, it is certainly true that the choices of free beings can very often be predicted with high accuracy: I often know exactly what my wife or daughter will do in a given situation, and they no doubt know the same in regard to me. One would have to restate the assertion as “The truly free choices of a truly free being cannot be predicted or foreknown with one hundred percent certainty, even by God.” That’s better, but I don’t see any way to prove or disprove this assertion. Even if it’s true, there are still problems involved.
Boethius, in The Consolation of Philosophy, gives a famous argument for the compatibility of God’s omniscience with our free will. He argues that God’s knowledge of our actions does not cause them. In short, God may have known for all eternity that I’d be writing this post today, but I chose to write it. Analogy: I know with high likelihood that my daughter will want me to stop and get her an ice cream when I pick her up from school; but I don’t cause her to ask for it. Thus, though I know what she’ll do, that in no way compromises her freedom, even if I’m one hundred percent accurate in my predictions.
The weakness with Boethius’ argument, in my view, is that while elsewhere in the book he shows an awareness of God’s atemporality, he doesn’t apply it to his discussion of free will. God transcends time and space. He doesn’t know the future, really, because to Him everything–what we call past, present, and future–are all simultaneous. It is all an eternal Now for Him. Given this, it seems to be the case that when He creates the cosmos, He makes all of space-time, past, present, and future all at once. He creates all of us in the very midst of our choices. It’s hard to see, then, how we are free. If God were atemporal but did not create the world, or if He were not atemporal, Boethius’ argument would work. Given His atemporality and His creation of the world, I don’t see how Boethius can be right. I do accept the assertions of classical theology that God indeed is atemporal and that He did create the cosmos. I’m not sure how freedom is possible, given this; but later on I’ll give an informal speculation on this matter.
Even if God were not atemporal, the problem would remain if He knew our future actions with perfect certainty. That would bring us back to Aristotle’s discussion of sea battles. In short, if God, in, say 1800 knew with one hundred percent certainty that I’d be writing this today in 2015, then from the very definition of “certainty”, it would have been true in 1800 that I’d be writing this now. But “true”, by definition, means that the thing which is true cannot be other than it is. If it’s true that 2 + 2 = 4, then it can never be so that 2 + 2 is anything other than 4. If it was true in 1800–or 1700 or 2500 BC, in fact–that I would write this now in 2015, then by definition it couldn’t be otherwise. It was necessary that I write this. If that’s the case, though, I could not have done otherwise; but “able to do otherwise” is what “free will” means. Thus, if even an non-atemporal God–or for that matter, a human with a time-viewing machine–knows the future with absolute certainty, free will once more seems impossible.
So what do we do from here?
First, I reject the notion of a temporal God. That is, I embrace classical theology in asserting that God transcends space and time. To posit a God limited by time seems contradictory, and it seems to indicate that God would not necessarily be sure that His plans would work, since He couldn’t know the future with certainty. This seems to me a bug, not a feature, and too close to process theology and open theology, both of which I reject. A temporal God with completely certain knowledge of the future doesn’t solve the problem, anyway.
Another possibility, as noted, is that God cannot know with certainty the actions of truly free creatures, whether He’s atemporal or not. It’s actually hard to see how an atemporal God could not know the choices of free creatures, since the future is present to Him. This is why many have advocated for a temporal God in the first place. As I said above, I reject the temporal God, and accept the classic view of God as atemporal. As to whether He knows the actions of truly free creatures–us and the angels–I don’t know. It seems hard to argue that He doesn’t; but it doesn’t seem possible to prove that, as opposed to merely asserting it. I would argue, in line with my general approach of preferring the approach most difficult to reconcile with my position, that since we’re in a gray area here, we should assume the He does, in fact, know the future actions of all beings, human, angelic, and any others that may exist.
Given this, I certainly reject Boethius’ argument. As I noted above, it just doesn’t hold up if we assume–as orthodox Christianity does–that God is the creator of the universe.
Finally, against all the difficulties, I do believe that we have true free will. I can’t prove that; but I don’t think it can be definitively disproved, either. As I’ve said more than once in various places, even the most hardcore determinists act as if they had free will. Moreover, the idea that I can do what I choose, and that this is a real choice, is one of the most fundamental intuitions that I have or that anyone has. Metaphysical problems there may be; but at the end of the day, I choose to believe in free will. How can I support this assertion, though?
This is more speculative, and not a rigorous argument. I would start by arguing that our relationship to God is much like that of the beings in a dream to the dreamer. We do not exist independently of God but are rather held in being by Him instant to instant. This, I’d argue, means we are not existentially separate from Him. This is very similar to the Hindu view of God, which I discussed here:
The Sanskrit word ātman means “soul” or “self”. For a human, this is his consciousness, self-awareness, mind, and personality–pretty much what we mean by “self” or “soul”. However, when capitalized (in English–Sanskrit makes no distinction of capital and lower case), Ātman means the ultimate, transcendent Soul or Self, that is, God. In Hindu thought, each of us–each individual ātman–is a fragment, a spark, a tiny part of the Ātman. Just as the beings in a dream are ultimately not separate from the dreamer, none of us is separate from God. We have merely forgotten and live in māyā, the illusion that we and everything around us are separate from God. The goal of Hinduism is thus to end this illusion, achieving liberation (moksha or mukti, in Sanskrit) with resultant re-union with God. This is the idea behind the Hindu saying “Tat tvam asi” (remember, the “a’s” here sound like the “u” in “but”!), “Thou art that.” That is, “thou”–the individual self–is ultimately “that”–God.
So I’d argue that as our existence derives from God’s existence, and as our mind derives from His mind, likewise our freedom derives from His. As I’ve discussed here, here, and here, God, being infinite and not bound by space and time, has pure, perfect, and total sovereign freedom. He (and He alone) can make choices in perfect freedom, constrained by nothing but logical necessity. To the extent that we participate in His being, we participate–in however limited a fashion–in His freedom, too.
Consider the dream analogy again. In a dream, my dream self is conscious of making choices, thinking, etc. It is not conscious of the thoughts of other characters in the dream, nor does it have any control over their actions. In a nightmare, if I’m being pursued by an axe murderer, as nice as it would be, I can’t control the malefactor and instead must run! The axe murderer behaves in all ways as an independent being with its own will. The same is true for beings in pleasant dreams (say one about Scarlett Johansson), and neutral dream bystanders (maybe the birds in the trees). Now in a sense the axe murderer, the dream version of Scarlett Johansson, the birds, and any other entities in the dream are extensions of myself. I “make” them do whatever they do. I even “make” the axe murderer chase my terrified dream self. Despite this (with the rare exception of lucid dreams), I am not aware of any control over the other dream beings, maleficent, beneficent, or neutral. They give every indication of having free will. I would argue, in fact, that in a sense they do.
Though the dream entities are part of me, or creations of my mind, in the dream state they are functioning separately. To use a computer analogy, it is like separate programs running on the same multitasking mainframe. They all share the common computational power to do different things. Likewise, the dream characters are all using the computational resources of my mind, but each is doing its own thing. Thus, while they are all part of me–they’re all literally in my mind–they have a certain individuality, too. They are separate from me and the same at the same time.
This is how I propose our free will works with regard to God’s omniscience. Each of us is a teeny subroutine running within the infinite mainframe of God. Among the computational resources we get from the Divine mainframe is free will. We do whatever we damn well please because God can do whatever He damn well pleases. Ultimately, in a sense, it is God who is doing what we do, in that He provides the resources and we are running our subroutines within Him. Just as there is a real, though subordinate, separation of dream characters from the dreamer, there is a real separation of us from God. Thus our teeny ātman is both the same as and different from the great Ātman, i.e. God. As to whether, in this model, God knows our future doings, that possibility is less of an issue. I would argue that the dream analogy breaks down in that unlike a dreamer, God is fully conscious–His dream is a lucid dream. Thus, He does know the outcome. However, the freedom of our foreknown choices is real, not illusory, since they are made, in a sense, by God Himself, who is totally free. Thus our freedom and God’s foreknowledge can co-exist peacefully.
It might be objected that this is incompatible with the usual Christian (and more broadly, Abrahamic) conception of human nature. I would reply that at least in the Scholastic tradition it is always clear that we do not exist separately from God. We are held in existence instant to instant by God’s ongoing act of creation. Creation is never a one-time-only event. Given this, as I’ve already noted, it seems hard to reject a Hindu-like view of ourselves as aspects of God. Any difference between creation and emanation seems to be purely semantic. In any case, this seems to me the best way of squaring the circle of our freedom and God’s infinite knowledge.
Part of the series “You Pays Your Money and Takes Your Chances: Free Will“
Posted on 01/02/2015, in Christianity, music, music videos, Paul McCartney, philosophy, pop, religion, theology and tagged Boethius, Christianity, Destiny, fatalism, free will, Paul McCartney, philosophy, predestination, religion, The Consolation of Philosophy, theology. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.