Sunday, June 05, 2011

Foreknowing ≠ Controlling, So Foreknowledge isn't a Threat to Freedom

The title encapsulates one objection to the idea that God's foreknowledge rules out human libertarian freedom. When Arminians make the claim that Calvinism's God rules out human freedom, one response is to point out that if the Arminian wishes to maintain classical Christianity's teaching that God foreknows the future actions of his human creatures, this likewise rules out freedom.

One popular response is to sidestep the objection with the enthymematic zinger, "Just because God foreknows that X doesn't mean he causes or controls that X." The SEA explains the comeback as good as any when they write, "Simply knowing for sure that a person will freely do something is not enough for God to control the world. This is because foreknowledge of an event does not imply direct influence or omnicausality or absolute determination, but merely knows what other wills are doing. In other words, foreknowledge doesn't mean absolute determination."

This response utterly misses the point. This post aims to put it to rest, hoping that it doesn't pop up in Calvinist comboxes anymore. The first issue, as Edwards said so long ago, is that the foreknowledge argument isn't intended to make the point that foreknowledge makes future human actions necessary, it is intended to show that they are. The second issue is this: freedom crucially rests on the notion of control. It seems intuitive that if you are not in control of your actions, then you are not free. Theological compatibilists (those who believe libertarian free will is compatible with God's foreknowledge) seem to think that the only way you can not be in control of your actions is if someone or something else controls you. Thus, they reason (as we saw above) that since God's foreknowledge doesn't "control" humans, then the foreknowledge argument doesn't show that humans don't have libertarian freedom. But this is to assume that the only way to lack control is if someone or something else controls you. However, this isn't so. Consider the case of being out of control. This could occur even, or especially (!), in a totally random, accidental world. In this case, nothing outside you would be controlling you; however, you would be out of control. The foreknowledge argument intends to show that your future actions are out of your control. This doesn't logically imply that foreknowledge argument is trying to show that your actions are controlled. See the difference? And the only thing the theological fatalist (as the position is known in the literature) needs to rule out libertarian freedom is that you not be in ultimate control of your actions. This can occur whether or not your actions are controlled by another person or thing.

Can we move on now?


  1. "This post aims to put it to rest, hoping that it doesn't pop up in Calvinist comboxes anymore."

    Quite likely a forlorn hope.

    Yet still a commendable hope.

  2. Perhaps many compatibilists about foreknowledge and libertarian freedom (such as many combox participants) think that the only condition on freedom is that the agent not be controlled by something else; but philosophers are well aware that this is false (a key issue that's been discussed is how the libertarian can avoid the charge that his alleged control is not undermined by chance or luck)

    I agree with the first issue: foreknowledge implies, not makes, a future action necessary. I'm not as clear on your remarks on the second. The "theological fatalist" should hold that, even if the divine foreknowledge itself does not control a future action, it implies divine control of the future action (in line with the first issue). However, instead of going this route, you make the point that an agent can lack control in more ways than by God's controlling the action (the agent's being out of control can happen in more ways than this); and the idea seems to be that foreknowledge might rule out (libertarian) control on the part of the agent, without God's controlling the relevant action.

    But is the "theological fatalist" really able to concede the weaker claim, that foreknowledge merely rules out an absence of control on the part of the agent? If the agent lacks control, the action is either uncontrolled (random, chancy, etc.), it is controlled by someone other than the agent and God, or it is controlled by God. In line with the first issue above, the "theological fatalist" should say that *divine* foreknowledge implies *divine* control. If the action is random, it is no more foreknowable than a libertarian choice would be. And if the action is controlled by another agent, then the issue arises as to how God foreknows that that agent will control the other agent's action in such a way; and, again, the three options arise again for this action (or series of actions) - but ultimately it will have to terminate either in randomness or divine control.

  3. Hi Dan,

    I agree that God's foreknowledge does imply that it is God who controls the future, as I would argue that his knowledge is based on his decree. So this brings in *another* argument. Maybe like an argument from an inference to the best explanation, i.e., what is the best explanation for why we don't have ultimate control over our actions given what the fatalist argument shows.

    The reason I bring up different senses of lacking control is that the foreknowledge argument considered only in terms of its premises and conclusion simply rule out the idea that an agent has any kind of "ultimate control" over her actions. The point of the argument isn't to show that God's foreknowledge considered in itself is the cause of or controls human actions. It's to show that the actions are unpreventable, thus removing the relevant aspects of libertarian freedom. If we want to then talk about why this should be, we can then claim that the Calvinist system is the best explanation for this unpreventability of our actions. For surely if God exists those actions are not unpreventable because of, say, the laws of nature, for presumably God knew about our actions before he created nature at all!

    So I'd say two separate issues are being confused. One is what the foreknowledge argument shows, the other is what best explains why the conclusion is true.

  4. In other words, the Arminian is free to claim that the conclusion is true because of the laws of nature, laws of logic, truths about the future, etc. The conclusion is *logically compatible* with those. Hence the argument doesn't *entail* that the foreknowledge is what makes for the necessity.

  5. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for the clarification.