Saturday, April 16, 2005

Is free will compatible with God's perfect foreknowledge?

My hero, Jonathan Edwards, denies that we have free will on the basis that God has perfect foreknowledge. This is one part of The Freedom of the Will that I disagree with. Although I do not believe we have libertarian free will (I'm a compatibilist), I don’t think the idea of having libertarian free will is inconsistent with the idea that God has perfect foreknowledge.

Suppose that God knows tomorrow, Ethel will boil some peas. “God knows Ethel will boil some peas tomorrow” implies that “Ethel will boil some peas tomorrow” is true. You can’t know something that isn’t true, so if God knows something, then it’s true. But the question is this: Is it true because God knows it, or does God know it because it’s true?

If it’s true because God knows it, then God knowing it is what causes it to be true. If God knowing what Ethel will do tomorrow is what causes her to boil peas, then she is determined to boil peas by God’s foreknowledge. In that case, she doesn’t have free will.

But if God knows it because it’s true, then it being true is what causes God to know it. This is the common sense understanding of the way knowledge works. Nothing is true because somebody knows it. Rather, the only way anybody can know anything is if it’s true already. In this case, Ethel can have free will with respect to boiling peas.

By the law of excluded middle, Ethel will boil peas tomorrow, or she will not boil peas tomorrow. One of the following two propositions is true:

1. Ethel will boil peas tomorrow.

2. Ethel will not boil peas tomorrow.

Regardless of which one happens to be true, the thing that makes it true is that it corresponds to what Ethel will actually do tomorrow. Let’s suppose that (1) is true. In that case, Ethel will boil peas tomorrow. Now we can form the following argument:

4. God knows (1) because it’s true.
5. (1) is true, because in reality Ethel will boil peas tomorrow.
6. Therefore, God knows (1) because Ethel will boil peas tomorrow.

See? It’s all up to Ethel. She has free will. But her having free will is perfectly consistent with God having foreknowledge.

Now if we suppose it’s the other way around, the argument would look odd.

7. Ethel will boil peas tomorrow, because (1) is true.
8. (1) is true, because God knows it.
9. Therefore, Ethel will boil peas tomorrow, because God knows it.

Even the things God causes to be true aren't true because he knows it. Rather, he knows it, because he causes it. The knowing itself doesn't cause anything, so God's foreknowledge is perfectly consistent with the idea that we have libertarian free will.

Look at it another way. Let’s suppose there is no God at all, and nobody knows the future. Even so, (1) or (2) is necessarily true by the law of excluded middle. Suppose it’s (1) again. Well, Ethel isn’t caused to boil peas simply because (1) happens to be true. Rather, (1) is true, because that’s what Ethel is going to do. So Ethel can have free will. Now let’s say that somebody comes along and stumbles upon this information. He discovers somehow that (1) is true. Does his discovery have any affect on Ethel’s freedom? No. Even if he knows what Ethel is going to do, that doesn’t diminish her freedom. In the same way, just because God knows what Ethel is going to do, that doesn’t diminish her freedom.


At 4/16/2005 5:24 AM , Blogger daleliop said...

you have an interesting blog. keep it up :)

At 4/16/2005 5:28 AM , Blogger daleliop said...

btw, I just made an account so I could comment, not intending to write any blog ;)

anyway, thx for ur e-mail responses

At 4/17/2005 3:35 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Hey Dale! I don't know how managed to find my blog, but thanks for the encouragement.

At 4/17/2005 10:20 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

lol I found your blog through one of your old message board accounts.

Anyway, I've been reading a lot of your posts lately, but can I ask you a question?

Do you belief that God interferes with this world (beyond sustaining it) and if so, how? e.g. Do you think God answers prayers and if so, how? Do you see a problem believing this is the case?

Similarly, if God does answer prayers or help others, what criteria do you think He uses to decide whom to rescue and whom not to help at the time?

At 4/18/2005 9:27 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


Your questions warrant a blog entry of their own, but I'll give you a quick answer here anyway.

Yes, I believe God does interfere in this world. One way is by changing people's hearts, which results in them coming to Christ for salvation.

Yes, I believe God answers prayers, but how he does so, I supposed, depends on the prayer. It's kind of hard to answer this one.

Do I see a problem believing God answers prayer? Yes. I think that in most cases, it's far from obvious that God does answer prayers.

I think God's decision to answer a prayer (or answer it the way the person wants him to) depends on the prayer and the circumstances. I guess in general, I'd say his criteria is whether the prayer is consistent with his overall plan for the universe and everything.

These questions are relevent to the problem of evil. After all, many of our prayers consist in asking God to prevent some evil, either to us or to somebody else. But evil seems to be an inevitable part of living.

Since I believe that God exists and is wholly good, I'm forced to also believe that God has a good reason for letting things go on the way they do, and I simply trust him. I trust that he knows what's best, even if I don't get it.

At 5/07/2008 8:51 PM , Blogger Randolph C said...

Free will is a concept that applies only to our physical reality and the necessity of Newtonian time. God's reality is without such bounds and hopefully when we become freed of our physical reality it will become apparent if our choices mattered. It is indeed a futile task for the finite to contemplate the infinite, but in attempting to do so we can help to make sense of our current reality and quench a strange thirst for knowledge of the divine.

At 4/13/2012 1:12 PM , Anonymous Northern Neighbor said...

I agree with Randolph
-God is not limited by 'Newtonian' time. You need to add - God knows it is true because He is in the future, the present and the past.
Freewill and predetermination concepts only apply to those of us limited by time.

At 10/28/2012 1:34 AM , Anonymous Pozessed said...

Good post mate, I agree completely.


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