Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Not even God can know what we will freely do next

Who wouldn’t want to know the future? Think of the mistakes you could avoid, the dreams you could achieve, the profits you could make! And lots of people would like you to believe they can know the future--by astrology, by reading palms, by interpreting dreams, and so on. In reality, of course, these people are more interested in your money than in the truth. According to the famous ancient Roman orator Cicero (106-43 BCE), however, when it comes to having knowledge of the future (or foreknowledge), even God is not much better equipped than Madame Condessa at her little shop behind the bakery.

Why? Because the idea that God has foreknowledge seems to have a very unsettling consequence: that it’s impossible for human beings to have free will. And that we have free will is something we simply cannot give up.

For suppose that God does know all events in advance. Since God could never make mistakes, whatever He knows about the future must in fact come to pass. But nothing can happen unless it is caused to happen by something preceding it. So if it’s really true that a given event will occur, then it must also be true that immediately before that event some other event will occur which causes that event to occur. But then if that other event will truly occur, then it must also be true that yet another event will occur before that one, causing it to occur, and so on. If God foreknows all events, then, all events will be caused to happen by earlier events in turn caused by even earlier events, and so on. But then everything that occurs will be predestined to occur and therefore unavoidable. The choices and actions of human beings are events like any others. So if these too are predestined and unavoidable, then we would never in fact choose or act freely.

So if God knows the future, we do not have free will.

Think about what that would mean! Suppose you choose to do something good, to help a stranger in need. If your choice is caused by events prior to it, events over which you have no control, then you really have no control over your choice. But then there would be no reason to give you any moral credit for your choice since it wasn’t even up to you, ultimately, that you made that choice. By the same reasoning we could no longer blame bad people for their bad deeds, such as murdering and stealing--since they would not be any more in control of their behavior than you are. From this it follows that all praise and blame, all approval and reprimand, all honors and rewards for good deeds and punishments for bad deeds, would be unjustified.

What a disastrous situation--a calamity for human society!

Well, there is a way to avoid it. This disaster follows only if we hold that God knows the future. Since it’s simply unacceptable to hold that human beings have no control over their actions, that there is no point to praise and blame, that--in short--we do not have free will, then we must instead deny that God foreknows our actions.

That may, admittedly, diminish our conception of God to some degree.

But such is the cost of freedom.

(1) Cicero, “On Fate” and “On Divination.”

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