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God Knows What I’m Going to Do

If there is one thing people understand by the term God, it’s that he’s a perfect being. The medieval philosophers thought the same thing. Anselm of Canterbury described God as that than which nothing greater can be thought (Proslogion, ch.2). St. Thomas Aquinas concluded God was ipsum esse subsistens—subsistent being itself (Summa Theologiae, I:4:2).

Both definitions necessarily involve absolute perfection. That than which nothing greater can be thought does not allow imperfection, since for whatever is imperfect something more perfect can be thought. Subsistent being itself does not allow for imperfection because if something was only a being and not pure being, then it would lack some aspect of being and thus would not be perfect.

Now, if God is perfect, it necessarily follows he must have intelligence, for intelligence is a perfection. But his intelligence itself must be absolutely perfect—that’s to say, he must know all things, including future events and actions.

The First Vatican Council dogmatically defined, “All things are open and laid bare to his eyes” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, ch. 1, sec. 4). The Bible teaches this as well: “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:13). God cannot become aware of anything not already known to him lest he be imperfect.

So, one must conclude God knows the future. But for many thinkers throughout the centuries, God’s knowledge of the future, commonly called foreknowledge, has seemed irreconcilable with future free actions—called contingent acts since they could be or not be. As Boethius explains to Lady Philosophy, “There seems to me to be such incompatibility between the existence of God’s universal foreknowledge and that of any freedom of judgment” (The Consolation of Philosophy, bk. V).

Is such incompatibility real or apparent? Must one make a choice between God’s knowledge of the future and human freedom? I argue that the dilemma is only apparent and that, with a proper understanding of God’s knowledge as put forth by Boethius and St. Thomas Aquinas, human freedom is reconcilable with God’s knowledge of the future.

Let’s start with the so-called problem.

Understanding the problem

It arises when one considers the necessity of man’s future actions when known infallibly by God. If God has infallible knowledge that Socrates will sit in a chair tomorrow afternoon, then that action must necessarily take place—that’s to say, it can’t happen otherwise. If Socrates could act otherwise than what God knows, then Socrates’ action would make God’s knowledge fallible, since what can be or not be (what is contingent) cannot be known with certainty. But that’s absurd. Therefore, Socrates must act of necessity, as God knows it.

But, as the late Bernard Boedder explains, “[A]ctions which of necessity agree with the judgment God has formed of them from eternity, cannot be free actions” (Natural Theology, ch. 3, sec. 3). In other words, any act that necessarily takes place cannot be contingent. D.Q. McInerny puts the problem simply when he writes, “If God already knows what you are going to do tomorrow, then it would seem that you really do not have any choice in the matter, any truly free choice, that is” (Natural Theology, 238).

It seems one either has to give up God’s infallible knowledge of man’s future actions in order to affirm man’s free will or else deny man’s free will in order to affirm God’s infallible knowledge of man’s future actions. But this is a problem for the traditional theist, since he cannot deny God’s infallible knowledge of man’s future actions, nor can he deny man’s free will.

So what is a theist to do? The resolution lies in showing how the argument is a false dilemma. There is a third option, namely: God can infallibly know man’s future actions without violating man’s freedom and without denying the necessity required for infallible knowledge.

Knowledge of the present

Aquinas writes, “The contingent is opposed to the certitude of knowledge only so far as it is future, not so far as it is present” (Summa Contra Gentiles, I:67; emphasis added). When we consider a contingent event as future, it is reasonable to conclude certain knowledge cannot be had, since the event could be or not be. How could we have certain knowledge if we don’t know whether an event will turn out one way or the other? It’s impossible. Without necessity there can be no certain knowledge.

But if we consider a contingent event in the present, its contingency (to be or not to be) is not incompatible with certain knowledge. Consider the following illustration.

Imagine Euthyphro, the character who Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro was named after, has an appointment with Socrates. He makes a guess based on past experiences that when their meeting takes place, Socrates will sit in a particular chair he likes. Prior to the meeting, Socrates’ act of sitting is a contingent future—Socrates could decide to sit or not. As such, Euthyphro cannot have certain knowledge of Socrates’ choice.

But once the meeting takes place, when they are sitting face to face, and Socrates’s choice to sit is no longer considered as a future event but a present one, Euthyphro’s knowledge of Socrates’ choice to sit is infallible—that’s to say, his knowledge is without error. In as much as Socrates is sitting, Euthyphro’s knowledge of Socrates’ choice cannot be other than what it is.

Now, does Euthyphro’s infallible knowledge of Socrates’ choice to sit mean Socrates is not free to do otherwise, like stand up and stretch? The answer is no. Socrates is free to stand at any moment during the conversation. Therefore, infallible knowledge does not necessarily preclude the contingent nature of an event when it is considered in its presentiality—that’s to say, when it’s considered as a present event and not as a future one.

The necessary things

But what do we make of the need for necessity when certain knowledge is had? If Euthyphro has certain knowledge that Socrates is sitting, then Socrates’ act of sitting cannot be otherwise—it must be necessary. So, how can Socrates’ act of sitting be contingent but yet necessary? Here’s where we get a bit metaphysical (as if we haven’t already). Hang on tight!

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas solves this problem by distinguishing two kinds of necessities: absolute and conditional (I:67). Absolute necessity, or simple necessity as Lady Philosophy calls it in book V of The Consolation of Philosophy, is linked to nature. For example, it must be the case that Socrates is rational, since rationality belongs to the essence or nature of man. Conditional necessity, however, is not bound up with nature, but rather is bound to some contingent state of affairs at a particular time.

Recall again Euthyphro’s knowledge of Socrates sitting while they are meeting. When Euthyphro knows Socrates is sitting, it is necessarily true that Socrates is sitting. As Lady Philosophy says, “[W]hat each man knows cannot be otherwise than it is known to be” (bk. V).

But this necessity is not absolute, for Socrates can decide to stand if he chooses. He is not determined by nature to sit. The necessity with which Socrates sits is conditional—that is to say, if he sits then it must be the case that he is sitting. He cannot be sitting and not sitting in the same respect at the same place and time. This conditional necessity is sufficient for Euthyphro to have certain knowledge that Socrates is sitting.

So, it’s the consideration of a contingent event in its presentiality (an event as present and not as future) that reconciles infallible knowledge with the contingent nature of an event and preserves the necessity of the event that is intrinsic to infallible knowledge. This is the key to solving the dilemma about God’s infallible knowledge of man’s future free actions.

God’s eternal knowledge

God’s knowledge, as distinct from human knowledge, is based on his eternal nature—agere sequitur esse (action follows being). This is why in The Consolation of Philosophy Boethius has Lady Philosophy begin the reflection on God’s knowledge by first defining eternity: “[T]he simultaneous and complete possession of eternal life” (bk. V).

Whereas a temporal being no longer has what it had in the past and lacks what it will have in the future, eternal being “lacks naught of the future, and has lost naught of the fleeting past” (bk. V). It grasps and possesses the whole of life entirely at once.

This understanding of eternal being must apply to God, since God by definition is an uncaused cause. As an uncaused reality, he is immutable. He cannot change, because anything that changes requires a changer.

But all things bound by time are subject to change. The flow of time necessarily involves the actualization of that which was not and the passing of that which is. Therefore, God, who is unchangeable, cannot be conditioned by the flow of time, and thus must be eternal.

Boethius argues that all intelligent things apprehend the subjects of their thought according to their nature. Since God’s nature is eternal, it follows God knows things eternally. But what does it mean to know things eternally? Boethius explains:

His [God] knowledge, which passes over every change of time, embracing infinite lengths of past and future, views in its own direct comprehension everything as though it were taking place in the present (bk. V).

To understand what Boethius means, it is helpful to contrast eternal knowledge with temporal knowledge. For intelligent beings subject to the flow of time, events stand in different epistemic relations according to their place in the time-series. Because I am embedded in the present, I can know events only that have already been actualized as the past and events that have not yet been actualized as the future.

But for God, who is outside the time-series all together, past, present, and future events are epistemologically present to his divine intellect simultaneously—in other words, he knows them all at the same time.

The mountaintop and the circle

St. Thomas Aquinas, borrowing from Boethius, illustrates this simultaneity with the image of someone situated at a height (a mountaintop or watchtower) having a panoramic view of a procession of people passing underneath (ST I:14:13). The individual traveling along the road does not see the people that come after him. But the one who sees the entire road of people from a height sees all the people at once.

God’s eternal knowledge of temporal events is analogous to the person’s sight from a top the mountain, seeing all things at once, whereas human knowledge of temporal events is analogous to the people walking on the road, not knowing who will come in the future.

Another heuristic device Aquinas uses is that of a circle. Every point on the circumference of the circle cannot exist in the same place simultaneously since, as Aquinas says, “it is the order of position that constitutes the continuity of the circumference” (SG I:66). But the center of the circle, Aquinas argues, can coexist with every point on the circumference since it is outside the circumference.

Similarly, every part of time, which is either past or future to other parts of time, is simultaneously present to God’s knowledge, since God is outside the succession of time. Aquinas concludes, “Accordingly the divine intellect sees whatever occurs during the entire course of time as present.” He elsewhere writes, “[God’s] glance is carried from eternity over all things as they are in their presentiality” (ST I:14:13).

The word presentiality is important because, as philosopher Norris Clarke puts it, “All true knowledge must be founded somehow on something real, actually existent . . . it cannot just float somewhere on its own, independent of all real existence” (The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics, 240). So, in order to have true knowledge of the future, which God does, the future must somehow exist.

But the future as future does not yet have real existence in itself. Therefore, future events cannot be present to the divine mind as future, but must be present, as Aquinas says, “in their presentiality.”

Recall the example of Euthyphro seeing Socrates sitting in a chair. When Euthyphro is guessing whether or not Socrates is going to sit in his chair, the event is present to his mind as a future event. But when the meeting takes place, and Euthyphro sees Socrates sitting in the chair in that present moment, Socrates’ act of sitting is no longer considered as what will happen but what is happening.

God’s eternal knowledge of future events, including free actions, is like Euthyphro’s knowledge of Socrates’ act of sitting while they are meeting. While, for Euthyphro, Socrates’ act of sitting the day before the meeting is a matter of what will happen, for God it is a matter of what is happening. What is a future event for Euthyphro is a present reality for God.

No “fore-“ in God’s knowledge

We can conclude God’s eternal knowledge of future events is not accurately portrayed with the term foreknowledge. Foreknowledge implies God knows future events as future, which, as we have seen, is impossible. The correct term for God’s knowledge of future events is simply knowledge. Boethius has Lady Philosophy make the same conclusion:

If you would weigh the foreknowledge by which God distinguishes all things, you will more rightly hold it to be a knowledge of a never failing constancy in the present, than a foreknowledge of the future. Whence Providence is more rightly to be understood as a looking forth than a looking forward (bk. V).

Boethius’s understanding of God’s eternal knowledge, along with Aquinas’s, is best summed up in the phrase, “God knows the future; he does not foreknow it.” With this understanding of God’s eternal knowledge, we are in a position to apply it to God’s infallible knowledge of man’s future free actions.

Consider first the problem of the contingent nature of events that God knows infallibly. If God infallibly knows man’s future free actions in their present reality, and as argued above infallible knowledge of a contingent event in its presentiality does not violate its contingent nature, then it follows God’s infallible knowledge of man’s future free actions does not violate their contingent nature.

This is the kind of reasoning Boethius has Lady Philosophy employ when considering God’s knowledge of future contingents. Lady Philosophy tells Boethius:

Why then do you demand that all things occur by necessity, if divine light rests upon them, while men do not render necessary such things as they can see? Because you can see things of the present, does your sight therefore put upon them any necessity? Surely not. . . . Wherefore this divine foreknowledge does not change the nature or individual qualities of things: it sees things present in its understanding just as they will result some time in the future (The Consolation of Philosophy, bk. V).

God’s knowledge of man’s future acts, therefore, does not preclude their contingent character.

With regard to the problem of how God can infallibly know a contingent event and it still be necessary at the same time, the reasoning is as follows: If God knows man’s future actions in their present reality, and as demonstrated above contingent events in their present reality are conditionally necessary, then it follows the necessity required for infallible knowledge is preserved in God’s knowledge of man’s future free actions.

As Lady Philosophy says, “[I]f Providence sees an event in its present, that thing must be, though it has no necessity of its own nature” (bk. V). In other words, it is conditionally necessary, not absolutely necessary.

Conclusion

There are many apparent anomalies when it comes to God, his creation, and the relationship between the two. For many, such apparent anomalies can be a cause for embracing atheism. God’s knowledge of man’s future free actions is one such apparent anomaly. But as we’ve demonstrated, such an anomaly is just that—apparent. No dilemma exists between God’s infallible knowledge of man’s future actions and human freedom.

Once the nature of God’s knowledge is seen in the light of eternity, the problem dissolves and the path to reconciling the two horns of the dilemma becomes apparent. Both the dignity of God and the dignity of man are preserved. God remains omniscient, and man remains free.

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