Outcomes, Foreknowledge, and Free Will

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Posted by Robert (submitted to SEA on 10-21-09).

I believe that I have come upon an insight that, though very simple to understand, does a great job of unlocking the supposed problem of the compatibility of exhaustive divine foreknowledge and free will as ordinarily understood (i.e. the libertarian conception – having both the ability and the opportunity to do otherwise in the same circumstances). This insight, if valid, proves that there is no incompatibility between foreknowledge and libertarian free will.

Many people believe these two things are incompatible. Some Atheists have argued that if God foreknows everything then free will as ordinarily understood (i.e., the libertarian sense, where a person can do otherwise) cannot exist. As it seems obvious to them that libertarian freedom exists, this means that a God who exhaustively foreknows all actions must not exist.

Open theists have argued that if we really have libertarian free will then God does not have foreknowledge of these freely chosen events. The open theist argues that if God foreknows a future action by a human person, then, since God foreknows that event, it must occur, and if it must occur, then the person could not have done otherwise, and so does not have libertarian free will.

Calvinists argue that God cannot have foreknowledge of freely chosen actions because we could then do otherwise, and make God’s belief about the future foreseen event false (since none of God’s beliefs, including those of the future, can be false), if we have libertarian free will. The common denominator between these strange bedfellows is that divine exhaustive foreknowledge and libertarian free will cannot simultaneously coexist.

I refer to an event in which a particular possibility is actualized as an “Outcome”. An outcome, once it occurs, becomes a fixed event (a past event which cannot be undone). Outcomes are fixed, irreversible, and immutable events, in that once they occur they cannot be changed and remain whatever they are. An outcome occurs at the transition time-period when the immediate present becomes the immediate past.

Free will, in the libertarian sense, is a phenomena which exists before an outcome occurs! The process of considering various alternative possibilities and then arriving at a choice of one alternative (and then actualizing that possibility while excluding others; the time period in which we have a choice between different possibilities up until a choice is made, actualizing one possibility and excluding others), exists only in the immediate present. Put simply: some outcomes are a result of the process of making a choice, and the realm in which this process takes place is in the moment(s) before the outcome.

Thus free will, if it exists, exists in the time-frame preceding the outcome of making a choice. With respect to a particular action, once the agent performs that action it becomes an outcome. The time-frame in which the agent is considering alternative possibilities before him, deciding which possibility to actualize, is the immediate present (i.e. the “realm of choice-making”) And this “realm of choices” exists in the time frame before an outcome occurs.

Skeptics of free will often write things such as, “If Curly is going to perform the action of mowing his lawn next Saturday, and if God knew via foreknowledge that Curly would perform that action next Saturday, then Curly did not have free will with regard to mowing or not mowing his lawn next Saturday. He could not have done otherwise than to mow the lawn next Saturday.” It should be carefully noted that whenever the skeptic of free will makes this point, their every reference to some future event (such as Curly performing [x] or refraining from performing [x] in each and every case) is reference to an actual OUTCOME.

Take Curly mowing the lawn, for example. If Curly mows the lawn, his mowing the lawn (or refraining from mowing the lawn), if it is an intentional and voluntary action, is an outcome. Curly will be deliberating between alternative possibilities open to him preceding the outcome of choosing to mow the lawn or the outcome of choosing not to mow the lawn. But free will, if it ever existed in regard to his mowing the lawn or not mowing the lawn, had to exist prior to the outcome – which was him actually mowing the lawn!

So, it is inaccurate and false to say that if God foreknew a particular outcome (say Curly mowing the lawn next Saturday), then Curly’s free will is eliminated and he did not act freely. If God foreknows all future outcomes (including choices) and does not tamper with the deliberative process which results in a particular outcome, then how does His foreknowledge eliminate free will? It doesn’t. And if God interferes in this area in such a way as to directly control the mind of the person so that they no longer have a choice, before the process of choice-making culminates in the actual choice made, then the person is not acting freely in the libertarian sense (and it must be kept in mind that the argument of the skeptic is that if God simply knows what the person will do – knows what outcome will obtain – God has simple foreknowledge of a future event, that this alone eliminates libertarian free will).

When skeptics of free will speak about future events, they invariably refer to OUTCOME. But by the time the outcome occurs, free will, if it existed in respect to a particular action, had already been present in the immediate-present before the outcome occurs. Skeptics will make statements such as, “If God knows Curly will mow the lawn next Saturday then Curly cannot do otherwise, and so he does not have free will.”

But his ability and opportunity to do otherwise (i.e., having a choice in a particular situation) had to exist before the outcome of him mowing the lawn. Once he engages in the action of mowing the lawn, it is true that he could not do otherwise than mow the lawn (he cannot mow the lawn and not mow the lawn at the same time, for recall that outcomes are irreversible and immutable events).

Say that Curly, instead of deciding to mow the lawn next Saturday, deliberates and decides to read the Saturday paper and not mow the lawn. In this case his action of reading the paper becomes the OUTCOME. And God via his foreknowledge would have foreknown that Curly would be reading the paper next Saturday and not mowing the lawn.

What this means is, that in the case of Curly, he had the ability and the opportunity to mow the lawn or to read the paper. Those were the choices that he had before him, that would be present next Saturday. He does not have to do either action (if he is acting with libertarian freedom then neither action/choice is necessitated). And yet whichever action he does in fact do, whichever choice he makes – whichever possibility he actualizes – is the actual outcome that God via his foreknowledge knows that he will do.

It appears that the error that many folks are making is to conflate or confuse outcomes and the choice-making process that precedes them in time. Once the two distinct time-frames are conflated, confusion results and the argument against the compatibility of foreknowledge and free will results. As long as these two distinct time frames are kept separate, we see that the realm of choices, the immediate present – the time frame in which agents plan and then begin to actualize a possibility that they choose to actualize – precedes, and so is distinct from the actual outcome that results. When people make the conflation error, statements like this result: Since Curly will mow the lawn next Saturday and God foreknows that he will do so, Curly cannot do otherwise than to mow the lawn next Saturday.

Let’s analyze these statements in order to clearly see the conflation error at work. Before Curly actually mows the lawn (chooses to actualize that possibility), it is still open to him whether or not he will or will not mow the lawn, if he has libertarian free will. He may even vacillate back and forth between the two options up until the point when he makes the choice/actualizes an outcome. And this libertarian free will exists within the realm of choice-making, the immediate present.

Once he makes the choice/does the action, he is no longer in the realm of choice with respect to that action, because the process of choice making has culminated in the choice which he makes. His action of actualizing one possibility rather than other possibilities, by making the choice, has instantiated an irreversible outcome. Once an outcome/choice occurs it is true that we cannot do otherwise then what we did in fact do. But to argue from this fact about the nature of making choices (i.e., a choice made is an irreversible actual outcome; we cannot do otherwise than we did in fact do) to the conclusion that free will does not exist, does not logically follow; in fact, it demonstrates not that free will does not exist, but that the skeptic of free will is conflating outcomes (i.e. the making of the choice), and the free will (i.e. having a choice) involving the choice-making process, that precedes the making of the choice.

The distant past consists of a series of consecutive outcomes (including choices that have been made) that have already occurred (so these events cannot be changed or be otherwise, because outcomes/choices made are irreversible and immutable, thus the “fixity” of the past). Similarly, the distant future also consists of a series of consecutive outcomes (including choices that have not yet been made but will be made) that will occur (so these events cannot be changed or be otherwise if they will in fact occur).

Free will in the libertarian sense, if it exists, must exist prior to these outcomes – prior to the making of a particular choice. Free will exists in the immediate present within the realm of choice-making. If God does not interfere with the choice-making process involved, in which we actualize a particular possibility, the process which culminates in the making of a choice, then his simply foreknowing this outcome/choice which is made does not eliminate or preclude libertarian free will as free will (having a choice/being able to do otherwise) which already existed in the immediate present, during the choice-making process, prior to the instantiation of the outcome/choice.

God foreknew what choice we would make and what deliberations we would go through before we make a choice. And yet, just because he knows what we will in fact do (the outcome), and what choices we will in fact have (the choice making process), does not mean that we did not have a genuine choice previous to our making the choice – or that we did not have the ability to actualize one possibility or another when we made the choice. And yet, even though we had a choice and the ability to actualize one possible outcome or another possible outcome as the actual outcome, God also knows how we will in fact choose (i.e. what actual outcome will occur).

And these choices that we will make in the future partly make up the one actual future that God foreknows will come to pass (partly because, though all choices are outcomes, not all outcomes involve choices). He sees it all, and yet He does not bring it all to pass. In some cases, we, by our actualizing of one possibility and not another (our making a choice), bring the outcome to pass. God’s knowledge that we will make a particular choice is not what causes the choice or actualizes the outcome. Rather, we will actualize the outcome, bring the event to pass, when we make our choice.