[Topics: Determinism, Foreknowledge, Free Will, Omniscience]
The Foreseeable Future:

The Implications of Infallible Divine Foreknowledge with Respect to Free Will


Boethius from medieval edition of Consolation of Philosophy - infallible foreknowledge - free will - determinismAs promised at the end of my last article, this article explores a persistent problem which has plagued philosophers of metaphysics, epistemology, and religion over the millennia: is it possible for an omniscient being to coexist with free will? Omniscient beings, after all, have infallible divine foreknowledge of all future events. Thus, it is literally impossible for them to be wrong about what (for instance) you will do in the moment following this one—which seems to indicate that you have no choice in the matter.

There are mountains of highly technical literature on this and related questions—with infinitely debatable minutiae (and this question’s own camps of more esoteric compatibilists and incompatibilists). But I will merely be skimming the surface to provide a brief tour of this topic. In the interest of that brevity, I would like to note that any use of the words ‘compatibilism’ and ‘incompatibilism’ below refer strictly to the sense in which they were used last week, concerning determinism and free will (rather than concerning infallible foreknowledge and free will).

My reason for providing this tour is in the interest of further clarifying the perceptual model of free will (employed by some compatibilists) which was introduced in the prior post, and to come at my notion of the ‘inescapable practical illusion of free will’ from another angle.

The Problem of Divine Foreknowledge, and Two Influential Responses:

On the face of it, there does seem to be a basic contradiction between incompatibilist or libertarian free will and infallible divine foreknowledge. After all, if knowledge of future events exists in reality, and that knowledge is possessed by a being who is infallible (can not be wrong), then events could never have been otherwise than they eventually are.

An early response to this problem was offered by the 6th-century philosopher Boethius (the favorite philosopher of Ignatius J. Reilly), and it remained a popular potential solution up through the period of medieval scholastic philosophy—surfacing in a functionally identical incarnation, for instance, in the writing of Thomas Aquinas. Basically, Boethius advanced the idea that it is inaccurate to use the word ‘foreknowledge’ in this situation. A being whom one may want to say has divine infallible foreknowledge, such as any posited omniscient deity, is conventionally considered to be eternal, entirely outside of the flow of time. For them, Boethius stresses, the events that we consider to be in the future (or in the past, for that matter) are as simultaneous with their perception as are the events that we consider to be in the present. Therefore, the being does not foreknow anything. This, he felt, dissolves the problem.

In fact, of course, it doesn’t. One can accept Boethius’ clarification, after all, and simply state the problem using his terms: an infallible eternal being’s fourth-dimensional knowledge of events which are differently located on a timeline still concerns certain knowledge of events that are, from a human perspective, in the future. Thus, the notion of incompatibilist or libertarian free will for humanity continues to face the same threat.

Luis de Molina - infallible foreknowledge - free will - determinismA better response came along later, and is most closely associated with the 16th-century theologian Luis de Molina. As such, it falls under the heading of ‘Molinism.’ The gist of Molinism as it pertains to this issue is that infallible divine knowledge extends not only to the events that actually do ultimately occur, but also to all of the things which might have occurred if free choices and contingent circumstances had been otherwise. Basically, this knowledge (sometimes called ‘middle knowledge‘) is a catalogue of possible chains of events rather than knowledge of the chain of events.

Again, however, the response falls short of solving the problem. After all, if the being who possesses this counterfactual knowledge of all possible futures and related chains of causation is indeed omniscient, then one of the things that the being would know is which of those possible futures will in fact occur. Despite the additional complexity of its admirable attempt, this response ends up just as useless for resolving the problem as was that of Boethius.

In fact, when factoring in that earlier temporal and linguistic clarification from Boethius, the status of Molinism slides yet further into disrepair. As Boethius clarified, for an eternal being all of time is simultaneous. Thus, not only would it be the case that an infallible divine being would know which possible world is the actual world, but the actualization of that world would (for them) already be occurring at all instances.

A Phenomenological Response to the Problem:

Some particularly gifted metaphysicians and logicians (like John Duns Scotus, for instance) have managed to salvage the contingency of decisions in the face of omniscience, but never the libertarian freedom of decisions. Thus, in the end, this is a philosophical problem which has never been satisfactorily settled. It still seems forcefully to be true that the type of metaphysical, libertarian free will described by incompatibilists is not only incompatible with determinism, but also incompatible with infallible divine knowledge (which implies a form of determinism).

But if you’ve recently read the previous entry in this series, then a further response of equal force should already be welling up in your mind: ‘So what? You said in the last article that you don’t subscribe to the description of free will offered by incompatibilists.’ Well, that’s very astute of you; you’re exactly right.

In actuality, I believe that whether this problem ultimately stands or falls is a matter of total irrelevance to a meaningful discussion of free will and determinism. Phenomenologically, from within, from our first-person perspectives, we are unable to escape our perception of free will, which means that we will always feel (and, in the same sense, act) free.

Harry Frankfurt - infallible foreknowledge - free will - determinismVolumes of considerable size have been penned throughout the centuries to explain how humans may retain free will alongside the existence, omniscience, and infallibility of the author’s preferred deity.

But these volumes have in some ways been a considerable waste of effort. For even in the presence of demonstrable and conclusive proof of hard determinism, proffered directly to humanity by any omniscient being in possession of infallibility, the perception of freedom that humans currently possess would be minimally affected. And in that perception lies the truth of compatibilism: that humans are as free as they want to be, provided that they continue to be able to match their wills to their actions.


Even in a hypothetical world where determinism is an accepted fact—whether due to demonstrable infallible foreknowledge, a new scientific paradigm, or some other reason—it would still seem to every human individual that whether they do one thing or another (read one book versus another, do or do not try to adopt a child, raise their arm or keep it lowered, et cetera) is within their control. This is essentially what many compatibilists mean they say that free will and determinism are compatible.

That is, it would nevertheless seem to even hypothetically-aware-of-being-determined humans that the vast majority of their decisions moment-to-moment are neither coerced nor prevented. And, as Harry Frankfurt has illustrated, the morality of their unfree decisions may not even be nullified. As the perception of freedom (from the phenomena accompanying the mental act of deciding pursuant to one’s will) is inescapable, it continues to be where my consideration of the subject concludes.

[Topics: Determinism, Foreknowledge, Free Will, Omniscience]
The Foreseeable Future:

The Implications of Infallible Divine Foreknowledge with Respect to Free Will

was last modified: September 15th, 2023 by Daniel Podgorski
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