Sunday, January 12, 2014

Does God know the past?

I'm going to post a recent email exchange I had, beginning with my initial statement:

Debates about freedom and omniscience typically focus on whether God's knowledge of the future is compatible with libertarian freedom. However, even freewill theists who deny God's knowledge of the future usually grant God's knowledge of the past. But does that follow? How would God automatically be cognizant of what all free agents chose in the past? 

If God can't know future choices before they happen, how do they suddenly become known after they happen? On libertarian grounds, I can see how past free choices would be knowable in a way that future free choices are not, but how would their passing into the past make them known? Is there something that causes God to know a free choice the instant it becomes a past fact? What would that be? 

God knows everything it is logically possible to know.

Given freewill theism, I think that's up for grabs. 

In the case of an actualized past, there is something there for God to know, and so God knows it.

That shows the past is knowable, not that it's known. It shows that God can know the past, not that God ipso facto knows the past. 

If it's knowable, then why wouldn't God, who is omniscient, not know it? Isn't the burden of proof on anyone who would deny that God knows some things that are in fact knowable?

Why are freewill theists entitled to the assumption that God is omniscient? How is that an implication of their metaphysical system?

You seem to be taking the position that even in freewill theism, divine omniscience is the default setting unless there's some special impediment to divine knowledge. I don't see that that follows.

To take a comparison, how does God know the past (i.e. past human volitions) in Calvinism? He knows the past by planning the past and by causing the past through a chain reaction he initiates. He knows the past the same way he knows the future. He knows human volitions because he planned them and he brings them about. 

Obviously, that explanation isn't available to the freewill theist. So the freewill theist must reverse the transaction. The past itself somehow causes God to know the past. 

But what does that mean? What's the causal process by which a past human volition informs God? Even in freewill theism, God doesn't learn about the past through sensory perception. 

You're going to have to specify the kind of 'freewill theism' you have in mind. Taking William Hasker as a surely representative example, Hasker would affirm that God does know everything it is logically possible to know.

The question at issue isn't what open theists claim to be the case, but whether their claim is justified. 

How does God know what a possible person would do? Because, on that scheme, God is the source of abstracta. They are mental entities that inhere in God's mind. Indeed, they are constituted by God's mind. God knows what they would do by knowing his own mind. God knows what they would do because what they would do is a reflection of God's imaginative resources. They are like fictional characters in the mind of a novelist. 

But freewill theists don't think possible human agents bear that relation to God. Even as bare possibilities, they require a measure of independence in relation to which God is responsive. Which imposes limits on what God can instantiate. 

It's a different ontological, which results in a different epistemology. 

I don't think that omniscience needs to be an 'implication' of their 'system'. They can just stipulate this about God, and then move on to defending it against any principled counterarguments they find. And in this respect, is the 'how' question really a principled argument? OK, on Calvinism God knows the past, present, and future by 'knowing his decree'. And how does he know that? Why do I as an immaterial soul know any of my choices? I just know, correct? I know it by self-reflection and not by memory. But if "I just know..." is acceptable, well, at that point, why can't the freewill theist just say, "Part of being divine is being such that, necessarily, you just know everything that it is logically possible to know. And I'm not positing a mechanism for that..."

i) There are different potential explanatory levels. For instance, in intelligent design theory, you can rightly conclude that something was designed without having to account for the designer. I can say a painting was the product of a painter. That's not an ultimate explanation. For the painter was the product of his parents. The paint was the product of natural ingredients. But my answer is an adequate explanation for the painting

There's a difference between having an explanation for the painting by attributing the painting to a painter, and having no explanation for the painting. Treating the painting as a brute fact. Or postulating conditions which militate against any rational explanation for the painting. 

ii) Apropos (i), Calvinism has a straightforward explanation for how God knows past, present, and future events, including human volitions. Freewill theism doesn't even have an explanation at that level. 

Now, a freewill theist might challenge the Calvinist to dig deeper. But the Calvinist still has an advantage the freewill theist does not. It won't do to say they are in the same boat. 

iii) Likewise, as I'm sure you'd agree, explanations come to an end. It's like village atheist objection to the cosmological argument. "Well, if the universe requires an explanation, why doesn't God require an explanation"? 

There's a difference between an ultimate explanation that's arbitrarily ultimate, because it artificially cuts off further legitimate inquires or prior conditions, and an explanation that properly terminates at that point. 

iv) Apropos (iii), "how" questions tend to be process questions. By what means or mechanism is something the case? Indeed, that's how you just unpacked it.  

But in the case of knowing one's own thoughts, those are self-presenting states. There is no medium. That's direct self-awareness.

This is one of the objections to eliminative materialism. Consciousness is not an inference, but an immediate deliverance. That's nothing that intervenes to facilitate knowledge of our own mental states.

So, no, I don't think a freewill theist can turn tables on a Calvinist in that respect. 

v) We need to distinguish between an explanation and supporting arguments for an explanation. An explanation may demand layers of supporting arguments over and above the explanation itself. However, that's not the same thing as a deeper explanation. That doesn't mean the explanation can't be ultimate, that there's must be something behind or below the explanation. 

vi) In human affairs, there are generally two ways of knowing an event. One is if the event itself causes my knowledge of the event, like an external stimulus. The exploding firecracker triggers my perception of an exploding firecracker. 

Another way is if a human agent deliberately causes the outcome. I can know a future event if I know that by doing something in the present, my action will effect that outcome.

And in Calvinism, God knows past and future by causing past and future–usually through a series of second causes. And that includes human volitions.

That explanation is not available to a freewill theist. So he's at a disadvantage. 

guess your argument that God, lacking sense organs, therefore can't learn about history by observing history would also preclude disembodied Cartesian egos from learning anything by observation. Maybe you'd be happy with that.

Depends on what your'e alluding to. Angels? Ghosts? ESP? 

One question is whether that non-empirical mode of acquiring knowledge is even analogous to divine knowledge. 

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