The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom
Many have wondered how, if God knows everything we will do in the future, can we be said to have free will? After all, if we freely chose to do something other than what God foreknew, God would be wrong in what He foreknew; but since God cannot be mistaken we must do all that He foreknew we would do. Doesn’t this reduce us to mere actors, playing out the parts written for us by God? Are we puppets who have no control over our own actions? Darwinist, Robert Eberle, encapsulated this supposedly intractable problem of free agency in light of an omniscient God:
Aside from his simple declarations without any foundation that he believes certain biblical stories and miracles are true, he runs into major problems. One is the claim that God knows what was, is and will be. Collins asserts that there is still free will, but fails to explain his logic for arriving at this extraordinary conclusion. Either what will be is known and fixed or it is not. An infallible god that knows what is going to happen is in conflict with the idea that there is free choice and thus a responsibility for one’s actions.1
William Lane Craig, while lecturing on the topic “God, Time, and Eternity,” provided a concise philosophic answer to this common question. He argued that we do not do what God foreknows, but rather God foreknows what we will do. In other words, God’s foreknowledge is not the cause of our actions; our actions are the cause of God’s foreknowledge. While God’s knowledge of all future contingent acts is chronologically prior to those acts, the acts themselves are logically prior to God’s knowledge. This makes sense. Knowledge has no causal powers. It cannot cause anything, so therefore God’s knowledge of the future cannot be the cause of our acts.
Craig also distinguished between the certainty and necessity of our acts. Certainty is a property of persons—not propositions—and is epistemological in nature. Necessity is a property of propositions—not persons—and is ontological in nature. Certainty describes a disposition of a mind; necessity describes reality.2 While God knows for certain what will happen in the future, He does not know so necessarily. Our choices inform the foreknowledge of which He is certain. His foreknowledge does not necessitate/determine our choices. If we would have freely chosen to do X rather than Y, God would know X for certain rather than Y. Plantinga writes that the conflict between omniscience and human freedom is not a problem, because we are saying “Necessarily, if God knows in advance that X will do A, then indeed X will do A,” not, “If God knows in advance that X will do A, then it is necessary that X will do A.”3
For more reading see my article titled “Does God’s Perfect Knowledge of the Future Render Free Will and Human Responsibility Meaningless?”
1. Robert K. Eberle, “The Language of God: If God Could Talk What Would he Say?” Review of Francis Collins’ book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Contained in an eSkeptic newsletter dated 02 October 2006.
2. We can be certain about things that are false (e.g. we can be certain that we left our keys on the table when in fact they are in our pocket). Likewise, something can be necessary even if we are uncertain about it (e.g. God’s existence is necessary, even though agnostics are uncertain about it). Having the psychological disposition of certainty does not necessitate that what we are certain of obtains in the real world, nor does having the psychological disposition of doubt or ignorance necessitate that what we doubt and/or are ignorant of does not obtain in the real world. The real world (that which is necessary) is independent of our certainty about it. Our knowledge is derived from reality; reality is not determined by our knowledge. While God may be certain about how reality will unfold, that does not mean He determined what that reality will look like. We, by our own free choices, determine how reality will unfold. God merely knows what our choices will be before we even make them.
3. Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 67.
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