Theistic Notebook

February 21, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 2

Intro to the Philosophy of ReligionIntro
Given how much time and effort we spend deliberating over future choices and decisions, the claim that the future isn’t settled is seductive.  But what kind of knowledge would an God have if the future isn’t settled?  On the other hand, if God does have perfect knowledge of future events, does this imply that our free choices are illusory–that we couldn’t have chosen otherwise?  Even if we bracket concerns about the ontology of time, the proposal that God is omniscient (knows all past, present and future facts) generates plenty of puzzles for philosophical theologians to work out.

Past, present, and future
Some scientific theories (e.g., special and general relativity) suggest that past and future events really exist at some “spatio-temporal distance from here and now.”  According to this view of time, known as eternalism,  Elvis is as real as your left foot.  There is also presentism, the view that only the present exists (sorry, Elvis).  Presentism maintains that the future is not settled, and our experience of the passage of time is real.  Why are these theories of time relevant to the philosophy of religion?  Because one’s view of divine foreknowledge and providence will hinge heavily on whether or not future events are real.  If the future is real, then it’s hard to deny that an omniscient being has exhaustive knowledge of it.

Eternal and everlasting
Rea and Murray distinguish between being eternal and being everlasting.  An eternal being is timeless, while an everlasting being exists for all time.  They move on to discuss the doctrine of eternity, which implies that every aspect of an eternal being’s life is immediately present.  But consider how this affects our broader picture of God.  What if other great-making properties require change, such as being an agent?  Perfect-being theology aims at conceptualizing the greatest conceivable being, so if being eternal and being an agent are both great-making properties, then they aren’t compossible if agency requires change and eternality precludes change.  Why does agency require change?  Agency seems to entail that an intention to act precedes an act.  Furthermore, “to act” seems imply a time before the act.  Could an eternal agent’s intention merely accompany the act (rather than temporally precede the act)?  William Lane Craig often illustrates a simultaneous cause and effect by asking us to imagine a bowling ball sitting on a pillow. The bowling ball causes the pillow to assume a curved shape.  Now, imagine that the bowling ball and pillow exist like this timelessly.  Although they don’t use this illustration, Murray and Rea think some explanatory relations could be atemporal.[1]  They move on to briefly consider if an omniscient being could be accompanied by a temporal world without undergoing any change.  The answer lies too deep beneath theories of the ontology of time, but we are left with a winking suspicion that they reject the reality of temporal passage.

Rea and Murray begin this section by offering a simple definition of omniscience (knowing every truth) and summarizing some philosophical objections (e.g., the impossibility of a set of all propositions).  They conclude that none of these objections are obviously fatal for the common-sense view of omniscience.  A more serious revision of omniscience is required if one denies that God can know facts about what humans will freely choose in the future.  On the other hand, an omniscient being might be excused for not knowing what we will freely choose if those facts were logically impossible to know.  To help sort this out, Rea and Murray construct an argument for theological fatalism.

Suppose that Sally is now reading a book.  Let t be the present time; let t* be a time 1,000 years before now; and let Ps be the proposition that Sally will read a book 1,000 years hence.  Furthermore, let us assume (as seems obviously true) that one is free with respect to an action only if one has a choice about whether one performs it.  Then we may reason as follows:

  1. Ps was true at t*.
  2. God is omniscient.
  3. An omniscient being believes every true proposition and has no false beliefs.
  4. Therefore, at t*, God believed that Ps was true.
  5. Premise 4 entails that Sally reads a book at t. (That is, it is impossible that premise 4 be true and Sally not read a book at t.)
  6. No human being has ever had a choice about the truth of premise 4.
  7. For any proposition p and q, if p is true and p entails q, and if no human being has ever had a choice about the truth of p, then no human being has ever had a choice about the truth of q.
  8. No human being–and so not even Sally–has ever had a choice about whether Sally reads a book at t. [From 5, 6, 7]
  9. A person is free with respect to an action only if that person has a choice about whether or not to perform the action.
  10. Therefore: though Sally reads a book at t, she does not do so freely. [From 8, 9]

Premise 1 could be circumvented if one maintains that Ps had no truth value (neither true nor false) at t*.  But what kind of proposition is neither true or false?  Furthermore, denying premise 1 would force us to reject eternalism in favor of presentism (which may or may not be problematic).  What other premise can we challenge?  Premise 6 might be contested on the grounds that our free actions actually “update” God’s past beliefs–the present changes the past.  Rea and Murray find this to be as absurd as it sounds, but they do entertain the possibility that premise 6 could be rejected on other grounds.  Counterfactual power is the power to do something that one didn’t in fact do, such that if had one exerecised that power, the past would have been different.  In that sense, Sally could have a choice about the truth of Ps.  Had she freely chosen not to read a book, the past would have been different (important: this is not the same as saying that Sally changed the past.)  Rea and Murray think this objection might work, and would be especially attractive to compatibilists and Ockhamists.

Four Views on Divine Providence

  1. Open Theism: many future facts (particularly those involving free agents) are unknown to God, but he is still able to accomplish his goals by anticipating our choices with a high probability of success.  The theodician value of this position is overrated.  Since God is able to intervene during the gap of time between the intention to act and the physical act itself, he could still be charged with culpability for many evils.  Given open theism. God can’t see that we’ll act a certain way 1,000 years in advance; but he still “sees” it as soon as he knows our intention to act.  Thus, he could prevent many evils that humans have intentionally brought about.
  2. Responsivism: God makes providential decisions based on his foreknowledge.  For instance, he knows you will die in a car crash and intervenes by giving you a flat tire.  Sounds simple, but wouldn’t God also know about his own intervention?  That causes a problem for explaining  his intervention.  We are stuck with two options: a) God has incomplete foreknowledge or b) his divine interventions explain and are explained by his foreknowledge.
  3. Molinism: the idea is that God has middle knowledge of counterfactual truths.  In the middle of what?  Necessary truths are independent of His will (natural knowledge).  Contingent truths, for the most part, are dependent on His will (free knowledge).  A third category, middle knowledge, falls in between; it contains truths that are contingent but nevertheless independent of God’s will.  For instance, “If Tyson punched Gandhi, he would punch back.”  This may be false in the actual world, but there is also a possible world where this counterfactual is true.  God doesn’t decide which counterfactuals obtain (though he knows).  His free creatures decide which counterfactuals obtain.  God knows what his free creatures would do in a variety of situations, and uses this middle knowledge to make decisions.  Thus, God exercises a great deal of control, but there may be situations where no amount of divine intervention could bring about certain free responses from us–for instance, freely choosing to trust in God for salvation.  “Nevertheless, God could at least guarantee that everyone who would, under some possible set of circumstances, freely choose a relationship with him finds themselves in just such circumstances.”  Of course, I can think of objections to that.  Perhaps placing John in the circumstances to freely choose precludes placing Sally in such circumstances.  What if there is no possible configuration of circumstance where all who would freely choose do freely choose?  This view affords some interesting responses to the problem of evil (why God allows suffering) as well as the question of hell.  But there are also problems.  It’s difficult to explain how counterfactuals of freedom are guaranteed to be true, if they are indeed free choices.
  4. Calvinism (also Thomism and Augustinianism): all truths are dependent on God, but human freedom is compatible with determinism.  Calvinists take quite literally verses like Prov 16:33.  It is impossible for creatures to thwart the will of God.  This makes the problem of evil a greater obstacle, since God ordained all events.  But nevertheless, humans are morally accountable despite their actions being fully determined–the crucial Calvinist claim that Rea and Murray find to be implausible despite the history of great philosophers and theologians who have affirmed it.[2]

1 An example of Craig using this illustration in a debate.
2 The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry goes into lengthy detail, but readers without a degree in philosophy may struggle.  I would recommend reading the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry first.


1 Comment »

  1. […] An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 2 ( […]

    Pingback by Brainstorming Questions Regarding God’s Timeless Omniscience + Human Free Will « Eschew Verbosity — April 16, 2011 @ 8:15 pm | Reply

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