Divine Predestination, Foreknowledge and Human Freedom

It may be the case that I live in Vietnam for the most of my life and the majority of the people in my country are free-thinkers. That means they don’t officially declare to be associated with  a certain religious organisation. That may be why the issue of religion is not well-known and people do not publicly discuss it. Or in fact, they just don’t care.

Until I move into Singapore for my higher education. Religion has always been driving me crazy. I am still perplexed about what is the behind force that motivates people to believe so firmly and strongly in an arguably invisible Deity.

I would like to dedicate this writing to my future wife. I may not know whether I may marry a religious wife. You cannot tell the future, can you? If that is the case, then this writing is for you, bae. You know why, because if you think about it, when I ask you, bae, why do you love me. My bae would probably say because” it was destined by God that I love you, that it was fate that brings me to you. No matter how much I try to do otherwise, it couldn’t help myself from falling for you” Isn’t that a romantic thing to say.

But wait for a second! If you are destined to love me, if you are fated to love me, then philosophically speaking, that wouldn’t be the thing that I emotionally desire to hear. Because it seems to me that you are actually forced to love me. There is no freedom in you, as a genuinely free agency, to make your own choice of choosing me as your romantic lover. Because, I would feel you do not actually love me, it is not your choice, you are pre-destined to love me. And who forces you to love me? God. If there was no God after all, will you ever love me? It seems to me that you are under some divine pressure that you have to love me, it is not that you freely choose to love me. If that is the case, that wouldn’t be something I really want to hear. Because it involves some sort of arbitrariness and authority in your decision. What I emotionally desire to hear is you love me because that is what you freely choose to love me. You love me because there is something inside you, at the same time, something within myself, that makes you love me. You are making the choice for your own sake. Not for the sake of any divine being.

This will lead us to a very notorious and persistent philosophical problem throughout the history of religion. The problem of divine predestination, divine foreknowledge and human freedom.

Divine Predestination 

God has pre-determined in advance how the world should be. The world will perform in a strict causal deterministic fashion. God has ordained in advanced that I would be in NUS before even I was born. God has ordained in advanced that my mum and dad would meet each other before they even knew each other. So there is something good about it, whenever I had to face with hardship, I would have reason to believe that God has planned for everything in advanced, and ultimately, everything should be fine. But that strikes me really badly as well because if I believe in God’s predestination, I have to give up my freedom of choice. Every single choice I have made, God has ordained in advanced. That’s not something I would be aspired to give in.

However, this view has no longer been popular among religious thinkers. Rather, the conversation is shifted a bit toward God has foreknowledge. Foreknowledge is necessary because God is not God anymore if he is not all-knowing. All-knowingness requires foreknowledge. Foreknowledge is a property of God.

Before we move on to see whether we grant that God’s foreknowledge will solve our problem of freedom and predestination, I will give you 2 concepts of freedom.

2 concept of freedom

Humean concept of freedom. Let’s say you are desiring to have steak for today dinner. You say you are free in deciding which food you want to have. This is the idea of Humean concept of freedom. As long as you are able to act according to your desire, you are said to be free.

Lokean concept of freedom. This is another philosophically deeper concept of freedom. John Locke, a brilliant political philosopher, think that the Humean concept of freedom is not philosophically deep enough to capture what we mean by freedom. Locke gives us this thought experiment and we will see right away, there is something more needed to sufficient capture the deeper sense of human freedom.

Let’s say while you are sleeping and having a good dream, there are a group of mad scientist sneaks into your room, and take you away. Unbeknownst to you, you are brought to a room, and the room is locked. The next morning when you wake up, you realise that you are inside a room where you see Jun Vu in the room, waiting for you. Jun Vu has been your dream girl since young. Now she is here, present to you as a real person. Jun Vu said, she has been waiting for you like forever until you come. There is a surplus supply of food inside the room, anything you need for a luxurious life is already inside the room. Without even a moment of thinking, you decide to stay. For now, you don’t know the room was locked. All you know is that Jun Vu is in the room and she said she loves you forever. You want to stay. You desire to stay.

Next morning, you receive a call from your beloved mother. She said she was so worried why you just suddenly disappear without informing her. She said she would want you to go back home for a dinner. You would love to go home and tell your mum how beautiful this has turned out to be. You cannot wait for that. But as it turns out, you cannot open the door.

Now Locke is asking us. The first condition of human freedom is satisfied. That means you love to stay in the room because of Jun Vu. You wouldn’t mind spending the rest of your life with her in that room, with a lot of good food and amazing people. But, are you really free? You would want to go back and visit your mum, but you can’t. the first condition of freedom is satisfied, but we are not free in a sense.

There is something that is missing. And this something is, according to Locke, for a human to be genuinely free, he has to have an ability to do otherwise.

This is with this idea of freedom that we will be working on when we consider the problem of divine foreknowledge.

Is divine foreknowledge compatible with Lockean concept of human freedom?

When you say X is compatible with Y, you are effectively saying X and Y can co-exist. When you say X is incompatible with Y, you are effectively saying X and Y cannot co-exist. So when you ask whether divine foreknowledge is compatible with human freedom, you are effectively asking whether the two of them are able to co-exist.

Some may say no. Why? Because when you say God is omniscient, that means he knows everything even before we were born. You move on to ask how can he know everything even before we were born. Some may say it is because he has ordained everything to be in a certain way, that is why he can know everything even before we were born.

The idea is this you will reduce the idea of divine foreknowledge to the idea of divine predestination. And when you do that, the idea of human free, as I have explained earlier, will be a delusion.

However, there is a better way to account for the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. Let’s take an example of a telescope. When you have a telescope, it helps you to see star in the distant galaxy. You don’t cause the star to move in a certain way, you just know, through the telescope, that the star move in a certain way. You just know how the star is going to move, but the movement of the star is not caused by you.

Similarly, God has this sort of “time” telescope, through which, he can know everything even before we were even born. So, God hasn’t caused anything to act in a certain deterministic framework, he just knows through his “time” telescope that you would love to have steak for today dinner or I would love to take Jun Vu out for a romantic talk.

So, does it mean that the problem of incompatibility between divine foreknowledge and human freedom has been solved?

No. If the problem is so easy to be solved, I will not be writing a lengthy post like this. So please bear with me, you will find this argument is really  interesting. This argument aims to show you that even if God knows everything but he doesn’t cause anything to happen in a deterministic way, he just knows it, human freedom is no more than delusional thinking. That means, if God has foreknowledge, it is not in our power to do otherwise (Lockean concept of human freedom)

Divine Foreknowledge is not compatible with human freedom

The argument goes something like this

Premise (1) God is omniscient, he knows before we were born everything we will do
Premise (2) If God knows before we were born everything we will do, it is not in our power to do otherwise
Premise (3) If it is not in our power to do otherwise, there is no human freedom
Premise (4)Therefore, there is no human freedom

Now let’s us examine every single premises.

Premise (1) is what we have already agreed on through the idea of “time” telescope. God is omniscient and he knows before we were born everything we will do. That is the idea of God’s foreknowledge. There is nothing to quarrel over here.

Premise (3) If it is not in our power to do otherwise, there is no human freedom. This is the implication of Lockean account of human freedom that we have already discussed above. The true, more philosophically loaded concept of freedom is our ability to do otherwise. If it is not in our power to do otherwise, clearly, we are not free in a philosophically significant sense. Foreknowledge can be thought to be compatible with our foreedom to do otherwise because God is not causing anything to happen. In order to derive at the conclusion, we need to defend premise (2)

Now, this is when the argument gets tricky. Why should we believe in premise (2). What reason can be given in supporting the truth of premise (2).

It is a bit tricky but it will be a bit easier if I give you an example.

Okay. Let’s say at 1.30PM this afternoon, you sitting outside in the canteen, wondering whether to go for this lecture on philosophy or go out to meet your dream girl Jun Vu. As a philosophically oriented person as you are, you value knowledge above romantic relationship. You think for a while. I can tell her to arrage the meet up a bit later, so I won’t miss my class on philosophy. As a matter of fact, you go for the class on philosophy. Now at 2.00 PM, you are already inside the class. You have already regretted your decision. You miss your bae so much. The class is boring. You wish you could run out and see bae.

Now, can you say, God, before we were even born knows that I will be in class at 2.00? Yes, of course you can. Because that is the idea of God’s foreknowledge applying to this particular case. From the beginning of time, God has already known for sure that I will be in class at 2.00PM this afternoon. God knows that, from the beginning of time, I would not skip my class and see my bae.

One thing that needs to be illuminated in order to see how this argument goes is the idea that the future is open but the past is close. Basically it means you cannot change the past. Because the past is the past, no matter how much you want, you are helpless over the past.

 Now at 2.30 PM in the afternoon, you are thinking back, you ask yourself, can I choose to go to meet my bae instead of sitting in this boring room? Obviously now at 2.30 PM, now matter how suffering you are with the boring lecture, you can never do anything about to change the situation you are in now. But presumbably, at 1.30 PM, if you have freedom, you can choose for yourself whether you can go to see bae or you can go for the lecture.

Okay, let’s put it this way. There are two statement

(A) God knows before I was born that I will be in class at 2.30 PM

(B) It was in my power at 1.30 PM to choose for myself whether I can go out and see my bae or I can go for the philosophy class

Can (A) and (B) compatible with each other? I mean can (A) and (B) both be true?

Of course, you don’t want to say (B) is not correct. Because it is obviously in my power at 1.30 PM to decide whatever it is that I want. That is the idea of freedom. You obviously cannot do anyting now at 2.30 PM because the past is close but surely, at 1.30 PM, you can choose to come for the movie because of the ability to do otherwise. If you believe in freedom, (B) must be the case.

So if (B) is true, how can (A) also true? Because if it was in my power at 1.30 to choose to go out and see bae instead of going to the class, must (A) be false? Let’s say counter-factual. At 1.30 I have decided to go out to see bae instead of going to class, now at 2.30 PM, I am now holding hands with my bae in a shoping mall elsewhere in Vietnam. But note (A) is saying that from the beginning of time, God knows that I will be in class at 2.30. If (B) is true, Am not I saying that God is wrong because I am now in the mall but not in the class. But God can never be wrong because he is omniscient. Now what you should say is that God knows from the beginning of time that I will be seeing my bae. So what have you done? You have changed a fact about the past. In God’s mind, the fact that I will be in class at 2.30 PM is a fact about the past. Why? Because from the beginning of time, he has already known that I will be in class at 2.30 PM.

But my friend, I have thought earlier that you and I we all agree that no matter what, we can never change the past. Because the past is close. That is common sense. So because we cannot change the past, then it was never in my power at 1.30 PM to choose for myself whether I can go out and see my bae or I can go for the philosophy class. If that is the case, then there is no human freedom.

Respond to the argument 

One way you can respond to this argument is to reject premise (3) by appealing back to our first concept of freedom. But it is not the thing that we want. It is not philosophically significant enough to capture what we mean by freedom.

First response by Ockham

There is another way to respond to this argument. and this response was developed by Ockham. He is rejecting the premise (2). He is not claiming that premise (2) is false, he is just claiming that the reasoning that supports the truth of premise (2) is mistaken. What is the supporting reasoning behind premise (2)? This reasoning is something like this. If God knows everything before we were even born, we are not free because we can never have power over the past. But Ockham argues there is certain fact about the past that you can change.

To exlain his line of argument, let us consider 3 following statements

(f1) In 1941 Japan attacks Pearl Habour
(f2) In 1941 the war between Japan and American lasted for 4 years
(f3) In 1944 Japan and United States are at war.

Obviously, relative to 2016, (f1) (f2) (f3) are all facts about the past. That means there is nothing that we can do to change (f1) and (f2).

The question in 1943, could we do anything regards to (f1) and (f2)? Surely, in 1943, (f1) is a certainly a fact about the past. In 1943, there is nothing that we could do to change (f1). The past was close?

But in 1943, could we do anyting that can change (f2)? I mean in 1943, Japan and American could do something that stops the war, and made the war to stop in 1943. So relatively to 2016, (f2) is a fact simply about the past. But relatively to 1943, (f2) is not simply a fact about the past because surely, in 1943, you could do something to change (f2). American and Japan could make it stop. Why? Because (f2) is a fact not simply a past when it concerns with the future of 1944.

Ockham has argued that there are two kinds of fact about the past. A fact simply about the past. A fact not simply about the past. And if it is a fact not simply about the past, even if God knows everything before we were born what we will do, there is certain fact about the past that you can change. That is the fact not simply about the past because it concerns with the future of the time that you are talking about. (f2) concerns with the future of (f3). Therefore, according to Ockham, there is certain fact about the past that you can change.

However, it is not so clear that even if there is certain fact about the past that we can change, how this will solve the problem of divine foreknoweldge and human freedom.

Second response

The proposition that concerns the future is neither true or false. For example, when I say something like Jun Vu is going to be my future wife. This proposition is neither true or false. In the future, if it turns out that Jun Vu is my wife, then this proposition becomes true. But if it turns out that I am being paranoid and overconfident, then this proposition becomes false. So the fact about the world has to be obtained before it is considered to be true or false. So if this epistemic view about the world is correct, God is omnisicent but has no fore-knowledge. Eventhough he is omniscient, he cannot tell anything about the proposition that can neither be true or false. He cannot tell anything about the proposition that has no truth value. If God is omniscient without having foreknowledge, the incompatibilism issue can no longer exist.

Third Response

God transends the timeline. God is outside the timeline. Our timeline is something presenting to him all at once. But there is one problem, you have to make sense of the fact that how can we become to have contact with the timeline. If not, you cannot make sense of the prophet. There are at least two problems with this view. First, whether the fact that God transcends the timeline, he has no past, present and future can actually solve the problem of incompatibilism. Second, whether or not this view of divine consciousness makes sense. In what sense can an entire temporal span be present to a consicousness.

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