One of the questions we invariably get from Determinists is “But HOW does God know the future??” Determinists often seize upon the difficulty of understanding God’s knowledge, and insist that if God didn’t cause the future, then He could not have known it. Besides being a rather silly stretch, this claim requires several unfounded assumptions about the nature of God.
The Basic Views
Now before I jump in any deeper, let’s define what the major views of God’s knowledge in relation to free will are (this is just a basic list, variations of these views exist):
1. Determinism: God determines absolutely all that will be, making absolute foreknowledge trivial. There is no such things as libertarian free will, and our choices cannot be otherwise.
Affirms foreknowledge, but has the very unfortunate side-effect of making absolutely everything that occurs the will of God, and possibly essential to His nature, as we’ll touch on below.
2. Open Theism: People make many choices that could have been otherwise, God has a good idea of what they will be, but is not absolutely sure until they come to pass.
This view rightly holds that things like sin don’t originate with God, but gets rid of complete foreknowledge. I reject this view for that reason.
3. Libertarianism: People make many choices that could have been otherwise, but God exhaustively knows what they will be. (also fitting loosely in this category is the Molinist ‘middle knowledge’ view)
This is the view I espouse. I believe specifically that God’s knowledge transcends time, so despite any contrary choices we are capable of making, God already knows what our choices will be.
Arguments by determinists against the libertarian, temporally transcendent view of God’s knowledge include the assertions that such knowledge attacks the independence of God, since God’s knowledge of what His creatures will do would be dependent upon the creatures rather than being inherent within Himself. Since a creature that has a libertarian free will of any kind makes choices that by definition cannot be directly and completely derived from another source (such as God’s knowledge), this is essentially arguing that God would somehow become less independent by choosing to create libertarian agents and knowing their actions (?). This makes little sense, and determinists have yet to explain exactly why God could not choose to create beings with free wills, or just how this would lessen His independence, since He being self-sustaining has no need of His creation, and could just as easily have chosen not to create them at all.
What they are trying to get at is that what God knows would be dependent upon what His creatures actually do (and hence they would say that the inherent quality of His foreknowledge would depend upon men), but their view raises some rather insurmountable difficulties: If knowledge of what we do specifically is essential to the nature of God, then we ourselves must be essential to the nature of God. If it’s inherently essential to the knowledge of God that I be born on X day of Y year, then it is also essential to the nature of God that He create me and I be born at that time, else His inherent knowledge would be false. This view of determinism in short amounts to the idea that God had to create me, and He could not have chosen to do otherwise because His nature compels Him.
This is plainly absurd, and attacks the sovereignty of God in an awful way, essentially stating that we are absolutely essential to God’s nature, and that He could not have chosen otherwise than to create and redeem specific men. And they call Synergists ‘man-centered?’ The key that these determinists miss is that the quality of God’s omniscience (i.e. the fact that He is all-knowing) is essential to His nature, the exact contents of His knowledge as it pertains to libertarian agents (who we are, what we will do) are not essential because we ourselves are not essential — He didn’t have to create us. So if, for example, God had not chosen to create me, but decided to make someone else in my place, then what He knows as factual would not consist of knowledge about me (as knowledge about me specifically isn’t essential to His nature), but rather about the agent that He had created (the contents of His knowledge of what is factual being dependent on who He chooses to create). Note however that the essential quality of His omniscience, i.e. the fact that He is omniscient, would be intact in either case, since He’d have exhaustive knowledge of whichever person He chose to create.
The main reason I adamantly reject exhaustive determinism however, can be summed up in one word: sin. God’s knowledge in relation to the world must be reconciled with the fact that there exists within that world abominations and sin that He hates.
These six things the LORD hates,
Yes, seven are an abomination to Him:
A proud look,
A lying tongue,
Hands that shed innocent blood,
A heart that devises wicked plans,
Feet that are swift in running to evil,
A false witness who speaks lies,
And one who sows discord among brethren.
Those who insist that ‘God’s foreknowledge must of necessity all proceed from within Himself or He’s not truly all knowing’ simply cannot account for the fact that God’s knowledge of what occurs within time includes things that He finds repulsive. God hates it when people commit such abominable acts, which if He exhaustively determined them would carry the bizarre and disturbing implication that the sum of all actions that God loathes proceed ultimately from within Himself, which is to put it in the terms employed by science and higher academia, ‘stupid.’ The scriptures state,
This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
The evil that pervades men’s hearts neither originates with nor comes from God; yet the inescapable conclusion of exhaustive determinism is that all darkness and wickedness that men manifest ultimately proceeds from within God.
Foreknowledge as it Relates to Libertarian Free Will
So now we get to the ‘how.’ One very tenable reconciliation between divine foreknowledge from eternity past and free will that has been proposed is that God’s knowledge transcends time (i.e. He perceives things atemporally). That’s not to say that God has no presence in time: God is both transcendent and immanent. Within our temporal framework, and yet also ‘above’ and ‘outside’ it, for neither His being nor His knowledge are limited in terms of space-time. So the exhaustive knowledge of free will choices for God is trivial, since His knowledge that transcends time already encompasses the entirety of libertarian choices.
There have been several challenges to this view, most of which attack the idea of ‘contrary choice,’ which is essential to libertarian free will. One of them is the idea that having contrary choice in the atemporal view of God’s foreknowledge would entail us having control over an unchangable realm (that of timelessness). Some quotes from one author of this opinion:
“In that case, if we had the power not to be here today, we had the power to change God’s timeless knowledge that we’d be here. The difficulty is that none of us has that power because that would involve changing a timeless realm where there is no change.”
“The idea again is that God’s seeing acts from His timeless present would be like our seeing acts in our present. And just as our seeing something happening before us doesn’t make it happen, so too, His seeing something happening before Him wouldn’t make it happen either.”
“The trouble for the Boethian view is that the problem re-appears (cf. Zagzebski, 60-61). If before, with God in time, the power to do otherwise depended on the power to change the past, now, with God outside of time, the power to do otherwise depends on the power to change a timeless realm.”
(Boethius on Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will, Gregory Rich)
Contrary to Mr. Rich’s reasoning, contrary choice has absolutely nothing to do with changing the timeless realm or God’s knowledge. Contrary choice doesn’t require changing what exists timelessly, it simply requires that self-determination exist on some level within timelessness, from which libertarian choices within time are derived. Determinists of course may raise the question as to how any choice “could have been otherwise” if they are “already present in timelessness.” The answer is that choices are “fixed, but contingent.” Contingent upon what? If I were to give it a name, I would call it the Integral Factors of Self-Determination (IFSD).
Picture if you will, God creating the universe, not just all the material in it, but the entirety of space-time, from beginning to end. He also creates entities within in it that are self-determining…now before I continue, I’ll point out that it need not be explained how God could create such a thing. It’s true that nothing in computational science so far is even truly random, much less self-determining, but then again, neither can any theory in any sort of science even begin to explain matter being created from nothing. Perhaps when someone explains such a phenomenon I’ll be in a better position to derive such an answer. Till then, I think it a safe assumption that God is capable of creating self-determined entities in His own image.
Now if said entities encompass the entirety of one’s self-determination, then it’s not unreasonable to assume that they would be of such a scope and magnitude that a highly intelligent being who understood their every nuance could fully comprehend every choice they would make given any range of situations. With God’s foreknowledge of men’s choices being based upon their IFSD and its interaction with His creation, and the choices within time themselves being derived from the same source, which by definition is libertarian, then the supposed conflicts between libertarian free will and foreknowledge are easily dispelled.
Note that ‘self-determined’ does not mean ‘non-quantifiable.’ Data that I didn’t directly or fully determine doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of understanding its value or properties. So likewise God has full and complete perception of all the nuances and properties of all IFSDs. The practical implications of this model are several:
1. Complete understanding of the IFSD would allow one to know not only individuals’ future actions in the real world, but their actions given any world (i.e. ‘how they would react;’ all counterfactuals, hypotheticals, etc.); hence God’s knowledge is greater than just that of what we know as reality, as He knows with certainty not only what you (temporally speaking) will do, but just as certainly knows what you would do if the situation were different (e.g. Christ’s statements about Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom in Matthew 11:21, 23). This of course easily renders naive arguments like the ‘grounding objection’ (which essentially states, ‘God can’t know for sure what you would have done if you make your own choices, because you didn’t make that choice to prove it to Him’) utterly toothless and irrelevant.
2. Our IFSD from God’s perspective is fixed, yet still being self-determined, the IFSD manifests itself within the framework of time as choices that are genuinely free.
3. Knowing all reactions from all possible scenarios, God is then able to create a continuum in which He obtains a specific result, which brings much meaning to the scripture,
“For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” (Romans 8:29)
His full understanding of the IFSDs and control over the circumstances in which they are placed very neatly reconciles the concepts of libertarian free will and predestination. This would also imply that self-determination doesn’t denote resultant actions that we completely determine, since God controls the context the IFSDs operate in. An IFSD only consists of what you would do given a context, and is by itself essentially nothing without the context. It’s also important to note that self-determination has inherent limits. So for instance, given a fallen nature, it isn’t within the range of human self-determination to live righteously before God, whereas if God pours out His Spirit in one’s hearts, he can freely choose between walking in the Spirit to avoid the works of the flesh and falling into sin.
4. Objections such as ‘if you were placed in the exact same circumstance in the past, could you do differently?’, based upon the immutability of the past are non-issues, since one’s actions and choices are based on the IFSD, then it produces the following solutions:
4a. If one’s IFSD were self-determined differently, one could have made different choices in the past (again, contary choice based upon self-determination).
4b. Since one’s self-determination from an atemporal perspective is fixed, if one were hypothetically to be placed in the past with nothing else changed with the IFSD unaltered, it would produce the exact same result; the choice would still be free since it was self-determined, but since the self-determination is the same, the hypothetical, repeated choice would also be the same. Hence past, present, and future can simultaneously be both fixed and contingent.
If God perceives things atemporally, then all He perceives, including free will, must exist on an atemporal level as well, which is what the IFSD could be defined as. It also allows for God’s certain and exhaustive knowledge of reality and all possible counterfactuals. In other words, contrary choices don’t involve changing timelessness, but rather our choices are the inevitable, logical result of the factors of self-determination which God timelessly perceives — fixed from God’s perspective, yet libertarian by virtue of being self-determined. The IFSD is libertarian free will’s atemporal counterpart.
Let’s examine this model of the atemporality of God’s knowledge next to a general criticism of the atemporal model by Dr. Linda Zagzebski:
If God is not in time, the key issue would not be the necessity of the past, but the necessity of the timeless realm. So the first three steps of the argument would be reformulated as follows:
(1t) God timelessly knows T.
(2t) If E is in the timeless realm, then it is now-necessary that E.
(3t) It is now-necessary that T.
Dr. Zagzebski seems to base her arguments on the assumption that contrary choices within time cannot be rooted in anything outside of time; this is an error in her logic, since God perceiving something outside of time does not necessarily denote that it isn’t self-determined.
Perhaps it is inappropriate to say that timeless events such as God’s timeless knowing are now-necessary, yet we have no more reason to think we can do anything about God’s timeless knowing than about God’s past knowing. The timeless realm is as much out of our reach as the past.
Here’s where Dr. Zagzebski’s argument breaks down completely, if our IFSDs in fact ‘exist in the timeless realm,’ but are innately self-determined, then there needn’t be any magical means of temporal access to alter an atemporal realm for there to be contrary choice, since the IFSD, being self-determined, ‘could have self-determined otherwise,’ which would have produced a contrary choice.
So the point of (3t) is that we cannot now do anything about the fact that God timelessly knows T.
Agreed, though this changes nothing in relation to self-determination, since the choice now could be different if our self-determination were different, in which case God would know the outcome of that with absolute certainty instead.
The rest of the steps in the timeless dilemma argument are parallel to the basic argument. Step (5t) says that if there is nothing we can do about a timeless state, there is nothing we can do about what such a state entails. It follows that we cannot do anything about the future.
(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Foreknowledge and Free Will, Linda Zagzebski)
While I don’t think human speech can adequately convey atemporality, speaking of God’s atemporal perspective as a past phenomenon for convenience of expression’s sake, the makeup of the IFSD would in fact constitute something we ‘did’ about what is temporal within timelessness. The self-determination for each individual existent within timelessness manifests itself within time as genuine contrary choice. In other words, the choice itself is based upon and subordinate to the IFSD, but no one imperatively caused the IFSD to form into what it is, hence the essence of the libertarian choices we make, ‘already exist timelessly’ from God’s perspective while remaining libertarian. The question then is not “Can you do differently from what exists in timelessness?” (obviously false), but, speaking of timelessness in past tense again, “Could your self-determination which drives your choices have been different?” (true, otherwise it could not truly be called ‘self-determination’).
In summary, if God’s perspective is atemporal and He perceives the entirety of space-time, and He has created self-determining agents, then it follows that He perceives the entirety of their self-determination. And if God can fully comprehend and quantify each and every aspect of that self-determination (which He doubtless can, since nothing is beyond Him), then it is indeed possible for Him to not only fully know the results that each IFSD within the continuum He creates will produce, but also to know what the result would be if He had created space-time differently.
To conclude, making these determinist claims that God couldn’t know future decisions if He didn’t determine them assumes a god incapable of truly fathoming the human will, and who, from its sum-total state across time, cannot determine how it would react in a given circumstance; a short-sighted god incapable of deep prognostication, who must rely on either brute-force causation or seeing the events actually occur to be sure of them. The God I serve is infinitely more intelligent and wise than that.
I don’t expect my thoughts to settle this issue for good, nor do I think they encompass the entirety of how the infinite God works; perhaps His knowledge functions on an even deeper level that no human is capable of coming close to fathoming; my point here is simply that it’s not illogical to assume that God is capable of knowing future choices and actions that He didn’t exhaustively determine. If this model I present has any accuracy, it’s doubtless but a crude and childishly deficient understanding of the magnificent and wonderful ways of God. At best, we’ve just barely spotted the tip of the iceberg from a very vast distance.