Monday, June 06, 2011

Free Will, Advance Knowledge, and God

At Triablogue, Paul has posted an item on free will and God's advance knowledge including an answer to the popular non-Calvinist argument: "Just because God knows in advance that X will happen doesn't mean God causes or controls that X to happen." (my paraphrase)

As Paul points out, that argument misses the point. While I like aspects of what Paul wrote, let me put my own spin on this, namely - how can you respond to your friend who uses this argument with you?

First, you can provide some disclaimers. These disclaimers can help remove any straw men that may exist between the two of you. Those disclaimer can be, for example:

1) God's knowledge of future event X is not itself the cause of the future event X. If God's knowledge of the future caused the future to be, then God's knowledge of the future would necessarily entail the future existing as known. We don't allege this. We don't claim God's knowledge causes the future to be.

2) Simply person A knowing the future doesn't entail person A causing the future to be. We know this, because sometimes God tells men what the future will be. At that point, the men know the future, but - of course - this doesn't mean that the men cause the future event of which they have advance knowledge.

Once these disclaimers have been provided, you can go on to explain the force of the argument.

1) God's infallible knowledge of future event X implies that future event X will happen with absolute certainty. God can't be wrong. Thus, God's infallible knowledge of future event X means that future event X is guaranteed to happen.

2) If an event is absolutely certain to happen, it cannot be otherwise. This may seem trivial, but it is an important point. If God knows that X will happen, it is certain to happen, and thus cannot be otherwise.

3) An event's absolute certainty implies an inability of actors to do otherwise. If an event cannot be otherwise, a person cannot bring about the event being otherwise; for if a person could bring about the event being otherwise, then the event could be otherwise. But the event cannot be otherwise, because the event is absolutely certain to be as foreseen.

4) An event's absolute certainty implies an absence of "Libertarian" Free Will with respect to the event. If we take as an example a particular choice of a free agent, such as man, and if we say this particular choice is known in advance to God and consequently is absolutely certain to happen, then - as we have shown above - the person making this choice will not be able to choose otherwise. But this absence of ability to choose otherwise contradicts the "Libertarian" account of free will. In other words, such a choice is not "free" according to the "Libertarian" model.

Some Immediate Conclusion

1) Because God's knowledge of the future is absolutely complete, we know that there is no such thing as Libertarian Free Will. There may be free will of some kind, but not of the Libertarian kind, because people are not able to do otherwise than has been foreseen.

2) But, per our earlier disclaimer, God's knowledge is not itself the cause of the absence of Libertarian Free Will. In other words, what ensures that people cannot do otherwise is not simply God's knowledge of what will happen. After all, we can have advance knowledge, but no one would reasonably say that our advance knowledge is the cause.

Larger Conclusions

1) Whatever kind of free will we have, it cannot be "Libertarian" free will. There's no reason that the term "free will" has to be thrown out, just because we can demonstrate that we lack an ability to do otherwise. There's still a very real sense in which some human acts are "free will" acts, and others are either involuntary or coerced. This would be a definition of "free will" that is compatible with extensive Divine sovereignty, not one that is opposed to it.

2) There is a larger explanation for both God's knowledge and our actions. Since God's knowledge itself does not explain why we choose X and not Y, we should look to a larger explanation. The larger explanation is one that explains both God's knowledge and our actions. The correct explanation to this is God's Providence, his most holy and wise and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures and all their actions.



Dan said...

Hi TF,
I agree with your four immediate and larger conclusions, but I'm not clear on the argument for the first immediate conclusion (roughly, that exhaustive divine foreknowledge rules out libertarian freedom). I take it that this is a crucial step:

If God knows that X will happen, it is certain to happen, and thus cannot be otherwise.

The libertarian (who thinks such freedom is compatible with divine foreknowledge) may respond that God's infallibly knowing (with absolute certainty) that X will happen does not imply that X could not fail to happen (could not be otherwise), strictly speaking. For there is nothing incoherent about holding these four claims:

A) John will choose X.

B) God knows that John will choose X.

C) Although John will choose X, he has the power to refrain from choosing X (securing a key libertarian condition for freedom).

D) If John were going to refrain from choosing X, then God would have always known that John will refrain from choosing X (instead of knowing that John will choose X, as he in fact does).

There is a sense of "cannot be otherwise" that this set of claims does not dispute: it is necessary that, if God knows that John will choose X, then John will choose X. But the issue is whether John "cannot do otherwise" in a sense that rules out libertarian freedom, and it is not clear from your argument (to me at least) that that is so. Why can't the libertarian hold that John can do otherwise; and if he were going to do so, God's foreknowledge would have been different?

I've tried to present here a historically salient line of thought that's been used to defend the compatibility of libertarian freedom and divine foreknowledge; though (again) I agree with your conclusions.

(Regarding the first "1)," the brief argument is not clear to me. Truth is constitutive of knowledge; that is, knowing that something will occur logically implies that it will occur. So shouldn't we allege that God's knowledge of the future "necessarily entail[s] the future existing as known"?)

Godismyjudge said...


"God's infallibly knowing (with absolute certainty)"

TF isn't saying (or at least not just saying) that God's mind or knowledge is certain. He is saying the event (or it's happening) is certain. He said: "it is certain to happen".

Weather or not he has given good reason to think that the event is certain is another question.

God be with you,

Turretinfan said...

God knows it certainly, and it is certain to happen.

Turretinfan said...

Dan the first:

A response to your proposed objection has been presented in a new post:


natamllc said...

For what it is worth, this sort of discussion just knocks the wind out of my sails. It takes the adventure of God's life and godliness out of living the life of Faith when living out His Faith as an adventure in a darkened fallen world.

My church people have been discovering just how exciting it is to have God govern our affairs and fulfill His promises even to the point of pleasing us, His children.

Here's a story.

Some years ago several of us started reading a book together by a particular theologian. We were getting it, what he was teaching so we wanted to read more of this person's books. We started ordering more books written by him and began connecting together his works with others in his circle.

One day, one of our Minister's stopped at a shop in downtown Portland, Ore. to buy some communion wine. He parked his car right outside the shop, went in and was inside for about 15 minutes. He came out and found on the windshield of his car that someone had put a note between the windshield and wipers. He read the note which said something about a bumper sticker he had on his car. The bumper sticker proclaimed that "so and so" lives.

About two years later my friend contacted another person in that circle of men about one of their writings to see if his teaching could be printed in one of our quarterlies. That man said yes.

It just so happens that that man lived down near the coast of Oregon west of Portland. The relationship developed with the man so much so that my friend and several others decided to take a day trip to the coast from Portland and called to see if they could stop by for a personal get acquainted visit with him seeing our group of churches were contemplating asking him to come and teach us directly because his writings were being so well received by many of us.

He agreed they could stop by. They went off on their day trip. They stopped by to visit this man and while visiting a conversation began about this other man who my friend referred to by putting a bumper sticker on his car bumper that he lives even though he knew he had died. It turned out this other man was this man's mentor and they had ministered together teaching in seminary for a number of years. He shared that he was heartsick somewhat for awhile because his mentor had died about two years ago. He then told a story about going through a period of depression. He said his wife encouraged him one day to drive to Portland and go to a particular used bookstore he liked and buy books. So he did. He said as he was leaving the bookstore he noticed this car parked outside which had a bumper sticker on it proclaiming that his mentor lives. He, knowing his mentor had just died, decided to pull a prank just for fun and amusement and write a note as if it was the mentor, not him, saying he couldn't wait to see him. As he told the story, my friend realized he was the man who put the note on his car and told him it was he and it was his car. Both had wondered about who each other was after that incident.

This man got so excited because he said that day was so depressing to him until he came and saw the bumper sticker and then after writing the note he got better but wondered who it might be that would know his mentor knowing of no one in the Portland area that knew anything about him.

There was such joy between them in this discovery that they did indeed invite him to come and teach us things from God's Word.


Dan said...

I admit that I used 'certain' differently than TF did. Certainty is a feature of an agent, or of a belief state of an agent. In believing a proposition, one believes with more or less certainty (conversely, with less or more doubt). What does it mean to say that it is "certain" that some event will happen? It seems that it could either be (1) an abbreviated way of saying that some agent (God, in the present case) is certain that the event will happen; or it could be (2) a way of saying that it is necessary for the event to happen, or that things cannot be otherwise (or both 1 and 2).

I think TF meant it in way (2). I don't know what it means to say that an event is "certain," if it doesn't mean something statable in terms of either (1) or (2).

I used "cannot be otherwise" for what I took him to mean by 'certain', and I re-employed 'certain' as a property of God's belief state (rather than of the state of affairs about which he has the belief) My aim was perspicuity; I was trying to convey the thought behind the argument more clearly. However, I can see now how it might have the opposite effect.

natamllc said...


Well, it only gets better in that this man was just with us here at my Church a couple of weeks ago and during one of the morning sessions he started telling a bit about himself personally, where he was from and what he did growing up. Well, sitting there in the meeting was one of our ministers who just happened to live in that very town and knew about his family.

During the Sunday picnic lunch for him these two got together and shared stories from their childhood finding out that they knew each other slightly during their childhood days, even attending the same schools, having the same teachers and so on.

I sit back and just praise the Lord for His goodness in how He governs the affairs of men and brings together the lives of His people in unplanned events such as what I just shared.

Then I stop and think about all the debates about libertarian free will and free will and who knows what when and I get disappointed, because my experience teaches me my God wants me to enjoy His Life full of high drama and excitement at times; and take opportunity so that I can declare the Word of the Lord proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom in this darkened fallen world and spontaneously declare that Jesus Christ is the Resurrection and the Life whenever I can!

Godismyjudge said...


"I think TF meant it in way (2)[a way of saying that it is necessary for the event to happen, or that things cannot be otherwise]."

That's how I took him. At least he moved directly from certainty to necessity without intermediate steps when he said: "it is certain to happen, and thus cannot be otherwise".

"I used "cannot be otherwise" for what I took him to mean by 'certain'"

Sure. So then he asserts the event is certain and you assert it is not. Neither side has presented much if any reason to hold either view. But I suppose the burden of proof is on TF.

More importantly.... why do you agree with TF's conclusions (given you question his arguments)?

God be with you,

Dan said...

The issue is whether John has the power to do other than what God knows he will do. The main philosophical reason for which I think that divine foreknowledge precludes John's having such a power is, roughly, that the future tensed truth that John will choose X and John's choosing X have a "common cause:" the truth is an "effect" of something that, in addition to grounding the truth, causes the choice. I think that God's will is the common ground/cause. John lacks the power to do otherwise because (ultimately) God causes him to do what he does, and it is this divine will that also grounds the future-tensed truth and God's knowledge of it.

The key premise of this kind of argument is that a future-tensed truth needs a "cause" or ground. It is a controversial philosophical issue whether this is so. But suppose it is. Then the truth of the future-tensed proposition about John's choice is made true by something, and whatever this is, by virtue of ensuring the truth of the proposition it also ensures the occurrence of the event it represents (John's choosing what he does). (Another important premise is that the truth can't be made true by something that only comes to exist after it has already been true, such as by John himself in the future.)

Another argument goes like this. Suppose that the current time is time "t2" (t1 being earlier, t3 being later).

1) God knows at t1 that John will choose X at t3.
2) Necessarily, if God knows at t1 that John will choose X at t3 then John will choose X at t3.
3) transfer of necessity principle: If state of affairs A is necessary, and the conditional "If A then B" is necessary, then state of affairs B is necessary.
4) Now, at t2, God's knowing at t1 that Jon will choose X at t3 is necessary (this can be motivated by supposing that the past, once it is past, acquires a kind of necessity in virtue of being fixed).
5) Therefore, it is now necessary (at 2) that John will choose X at t3.
6) If it is now necessary that John will choose X at t3, then at t3, John lacks the power to do otherwise than choose X.

I don't find this second argument as persuasive as the first one I sketched, but I think it's more popular. The basic difference is that the second one tries to transfer a power-precluding necessity from a past divine belief to a future state of affairs (through a transfer of necessity principle), whereas the first one locates the source of the necessity of the future choice, not in the divine belief per se but in a common cause of the belief and the future choice (indirectly implied by the belief).

Turretinfan said...

"So then he asserts the event is certain and you assert it is not. Neither side has presented much if any reason to hold either view."

The reason to think the event is certain is that God's knowledge is infallible.


Godismyjudge said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. In a way you really are saying “God’s knowledge in advance that X will happen means God causes or controls that X to happen”. :-)

I disagree, but I am not really looking for a combox war. But if you would like to continue discussing, my email is available on my profile.

TF, same offer.

God be with you,

Dan said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. In a way you really are saying “God’s knowledge in advance that X will happen means God causes or controls that X to happen”. :-)

If by "means" you mean implies, then of course. But I'm not saying that foreknowledge itself causes or controls anything, and the inference from the foreknowledge to the divine control is indirect, relying on various premises. I don't think any immediate, intuitive leap from foreknowledge of X to divine control over X (or, for that matter, to a creature's lack of power with respect to X and not-X) is warranted.

Dan said...

I've typed a response to the newer thread to which you linked (thanks for writing a response to me); though I think I'll hold off a bit before posting it; as I can probably find a way to condense it.

Fredericka said...

Dan wrote, "1) God knows at t1 that John will choose X at t3."

Dan, I don't understand what you mean when you attach date-stamps to God's knowledge. Does God ever say, as we say, 'It is 2 p.m.'[t1]? God created time:

"The day is thine, the night also is thine: thou hast prepared the light and the sun. Thou hast set all the borders of the earth: thou hast made summer and winter." (Psalm 74:16-17). "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge." (Psalm 19:1-2).

Not only the most convenient time-clocks, such as day and night, but what they measure out, is a created thing. How can God then be subject to it? This is as if to say, God created a box, then climbed into the box and slammed the lid shut, and then cried, 'Help, let me out!'

It is our limitation that we remember, or forget, the past, clutch at a passing atom 'the present,' and guess about the future. This always-losing way of apprehension does not characterize God's knowledge. Do you mean to say only that God communicated to a man, who is subject to time, a certain piece of information at a clock-reading that would be a meaningful part of that man's biography?

Dan said...

I agree that God is outside time (timeless). However, God only has foreknowledge (knowledge beforehand), strictly speaking, if He is in time. Many Christians, for better or worse, think of God as in time; and such people should not have problems with date-stamping divine beliefs (if God exists at times then He has beliefs at times). For such people, the argument can give a reason to think that exhaustive divine foreknowledge is inconsistent with creaturely libertarian agency.

But even if one denies that God is in time (as I do), one can consider the argument as giving a reason to think that, were God in time (and thus literally possessed beliefs about things before they happened), the foreknowledge would rule out creaturely libertarian agency. This would not be a purely hypothetical concern: some Christians have embraced divine timelessness precisely because they think that the foreknowledge of a time-bound God would undermine libertarian freedom. By placing God outside time, an obstacle to freedom has been removed (so some may think).

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Only God knows in advance who is Elect and who is not Elect.

Don't Arminians agree with that? Or is there a growing faction of LFW Arminians who are Open Theist heretics?