Sunday, December 13, 2015

Freedom and retrocognition

There's a classic conundrum between divine foreknowledge and libertarian freedom. Freewill theists think the future is open. The future doesn't exist. There are alternate future timelines. Which one becomes the actual future depends on the choices free agents make. Yet that generates well-known problems for the possibility of foreknowledge, or vice versa. For a recent treatment, cf. John Martin Fischer, Our Fate: Essays on God and Freewill (OUP 2016).

In that regard, it's interesting to flip this around by comparing precognition with retrocognition. Just as there's evidence for precognition, there's some evidence for retrocognition, although that's not as well documented. But we could discuss it in principle.

Obviously, it's often possible to naturally know about past events. Take my memory of events I personally witnessed or experienced. Likewise, there can be various kinds of evidence for past events. That's the stuff of history, archeology, and geology.

However, I'm referring to incidents from the past which an individual wouldn't naturally be in a position to know about. Suppose I could see the past. Have a dream or vision about a past event. Even if (ex hypothesi) the future is open, it is now too late for the past to be open. That's over and done with. That's what makes it past. 

Would retrocognition be possible if the past was indeterminate? If there were multiple alternate outcomes, no one of which was the real past, in contrast to the others? Isn't that wildly counterintuitive? 


  1. "Freewill theists think the future is open. The future doesn't exist." You are aware, right, that this is only _one_ position among freewill theists? And, in fact, it's rather a new one and in historical terms a minority one. There have been libertarian theists for a heck of a lot longer than there have been open theists or any sort of "the future doesn't exist" open futurists.

  2. I mean, among Christians. Aristotle, famously, believed that the future doesn't exist.

    1. To say "the future is open" is not synonymous with open theism. Rather, "open" is metaphor for indeterminate. There's a rudimentary difference between "open" as a technical adjective for "open theism," and the ordinary meaning of the word.

    2. I made the same point about Aristotle 6 days ago, in response to another commenter:

      "And libertarian freedom isn't a new idea, either. Consider pagan philosopher Aristotle's celebrated analysis of the sea battle tomorrow, which inspired so much medieval debate."

  3. If future-tense statements have no truth value, which is what I take you to mean by "the future is open," then it is extremely difficult to avoid open theism, since God can't know something that is neither true nor false.

    I'm simply pointing out that _not_ all those who believe in libertarian free will believe that future statements have no truth value. Not by a _long_ shot. You may think that they _should_ believe that, but lots of them don't. The statement in the main post gave the impression that everybody who believes in free will (in what one might call an "Arminian" sense) _actually believe_ that future-tense statements have no truth values.

    That just isn't the case.

    1. No, I'm not using "the future is open" as equivalent to "future-tense statements have no truth value."

      That, indeed, is a question that crops up for presentists and open theists. But that's not how I used the term. Rather, I twice defined my usage:

      Open = indeterminate

      "Freewill theists think the future is open. The future doesn't exist. There are alternate future timelines."

      I'm using "open" in a metaphysical sense, not an epistemological sense.

      You're drawing an inference that doesn't follow from what I said. You then deny something I didn't affirm.

    2. Okay, I suppose it would be possible to believe that the future *doesn't* exist but that future-tense statements *do* have truth values, though generally as I have heard the phrase "open future" used, it means that future-tense statements do *not* have truth values. That is why I took you to mean that.

      In that case, many philosophers would argue that the future-tense statements' truth values are subject to a "grounding problem"--that is, that if the future does not exist, it is impossible to say what the "ground" is of the truth of future-tense statements--that is, in virtue of what are true future-tense statements true?

      Moreover, it _still_ is not the case that all who hold to libertarian free will believe that the future does not exist. Again, I'm pretty sure that you think that they _should_ hold that (to be consistent), but it isn't true that they _do_ all hold that.

      For example, I'm a B theorist about time. I think the future _does_ exist. But I also believe in libertarian free will.

      It is possible to have a lively philosophical debate about whether free will is inconsistent with a B theory of time; it certainly isn't the case that everybody who believes that "the future exists" believes that we do not have libertarian free will.

  4. Hi Lydia,

    In what sense does the future exist with a B theory of time? Could you elaborate?


    1. It exists tenselesly, ordered by the B-series.

    2. MP beat me to it.

      From my perspective as a timebound being, the future hasn't happened yet, while the past has already happened. That is a true perception of mine, because I really am in time.

      But from the perspective of a timeless being, like God, there is not (on the B theory) an "absolute now." Hence, past, present, and future do not exist *as such*, though some events occur before and after others, as on a timeline. (Just as the number 2 is before the number 3 on the number line, even though the whole number line is equally real.) But God sees history "all at once," existing tenselessly.

    3. So let's unpack that:

      If God timelessly knows the past,
      then God's knowledge of the past is unalterable,
      in which case the past is unalterable.

      If God timelessly knows the future,
      then God's knowledge of the future is unalterable,
      in which case the future is unalterable.

      If the future is immutable, how is the future not inevitable? Put another way, if God timelessly knows the future, then the future is settled–even before it happens.

    4. Yes, this is a pretty well-traversed argument. And you doubtless know what I'm going to say:

      That God tenselessly _sees_ me doing things freely tomorrow. There is no "even before it happens" because the future exists tenselessly. It's not that it is deterministically _caused_ before it happens.

      But again, my main point in commenting was a _descriptive_ one. I knew quite well that you would say that there are insuperable philosophical problems with the entire position in question. My main point was just that the statement in the main post, which implies that everybody who believes in libertarian free will _actually believes_ that the future is "not real" (at all, presumably in any sense). Descriptively, this is false. As I said, there is a lively philosophical debate on the whole subject.

    5. But my argument wasn't predicated on "even before it happens," much less "deterministically caused before it happens." Rather, I based my argument on the principles that you yourself provided.

    6. " Put another way, if God timelessly knows the future, then the future is settled–even before it happens."

      I disagree with that formulation.

    7. But you don't present an argument.

    8. I don't know what you mean when you say the "future exists tenselessly." After all, just before that, you say God sees you doing something "tomorrow".

      Even on the B-theory of time, some events are later than others. Some events lie in my future, in that sense.

      We can recast past/future language as earlier/later language and talk about God's unalterable knowledge of what's later.

      Are you discussing the nature of time in itself, or how a timeless God views time? And how does that affect my argument?

    9. Well, yes, I did present an argument--namely, that the phrase "settled even before it happens" (which is your phrase, as I just quoted) conflates the tenseless existence of future states with their being "settled" *in time*--e.g., already settled at my point in time as a time-bound being.

      When I say "God sees me doing something tomorrow," I mean in what is, now, to me, tomorrow. Just as we could say, "God sees me doing something up north last summer," meaning by the phrase "up north," "north of where I am presently." It would not mean that there is an absolute "here" relative to which all directions such as "north" are reckoned.

      Of course, the nature of time itself is deeply bound up with how God views time, given that God exists and is omniscient. The two are inextricable. So I'm discussing both.

    10. You're missing the point. The argument is not that it's settled due to its location on the timeline, but due to God's timeless, unalterable knowledge of the event.

      In addition. the B-theory distinguishes "before" from "after." What happened in 1066 is earlier than what happened in 1966. One event occured before another. That's not reducible to temporal indexicals. Rather, in the B-theory, temporal priority or posteriority is objective.

    11. As of 1066, 1966 hasn't happened. That's true according to the B-theory as well as the A-theory. 1966 didn't happen in 1066. Assuming that past and future are equally real, if we take 1066 as our frame of reference, then 1966 hasn't happened yet.

    12. Yes, I agree with you, 1066 is before 1966 in the B series. Like I said, as the number 2 is "before" the number 3 on the real number line.

      I don't see any of this (or God's timeless knowledge) as incompatible with free will in the fullest sense.

    13. I think the point is, simply, if God has atemporal unalterable perfect knowledge of all events (whether one wants to think of such knowledge as precognition or decretive) then *what* He knows all states of affairs to be (the content of His knowledge) is what they are (or from our perspective as time bound creatures have been or will be).

      It's a well worn path. You say He takes creaturely free will into account in His instantiation of reality, or something along these lines (you say it more elegantly, of course).

  5. By the way, it is generally taken that what Aristotle was getting at concerning the sea battle is that future contingent statements are neither true nor false. So insofar as Aristotle's position on the sea battle is being used as a model for the concept that is being called the "open future," this also makes it seem that the concept one is referring to is that future statements do not have truth values.

    1. I've not seen Biblical prophecy (fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled) enter into this dialogue yet, but from a Christian perspective mustn't this loom large in such a discussion?

      It seems so to me.

    2. Oh, it definitely does! Those who deny that future-tense statements have truth values pretty much have to adopt open theism, which is, to put it mildly, a major revision of the notion of prophecy and divine omniscience concerning the future.

      To put it uncharitably, in open theism God ends up being a really good guesser.

    3. I agree with that, and believe open theism to be a deeply flawed concept, to the point of practically denying at least one divine attribute (omniscience), which inevitably affects others (e.g. immutability). It un-gods God, at least the God of the Bible as He has revealed Himself. The price the open theist pays for philosophical consistency is too high.

      Anyway, more to the point of what I was getting at with my earlier comment, when we see so many examples of God orchestrating events in order to bring about the fulfillment of prophecy in the Bible - the unlikely birth of Isaac, the Exodus of Israel from Egypt including the timing and amazing natures of the lives of Joseph and Moses, the rise of David, the sorry history of Israel during the period of the Judges and into exile, plus their restoration to the land including the decrees of kings named by name, the ministry of John the Baptist, and of course the crown jewel of the advent, sufferings, crucifixion and resurrection of the can Christian theists not see and accept His absolute sovereignty over all things and all affairs, yet also see and accept the twin truth of human responsibility, and conclude that both are true?

      In a nutshell these types of considerations are why, to me at least, compatibalism seems to be the simplest and best accounting of both truths.

    4. Isn't it amazing what God can do with total middle knowledge?


    5. Well, I don't personally see any need for a commitment to the Molinist distinctive of the "freedom of indifference" considering God's natural knowledge and free knowledge, which for me at least collapses the basis for middle knowledge at the outset.

      Basically I can't see any compelling Biblical case for a sub-set of divine knowledge existing with contents distict from (lying between) God's natural and free knowledge.

      If the contents of God's knowledge are timelessly eternal (atemporal), as you seem to concur earlier up the thread, then what would be distinct about middle knowledge except that it's representing some sort of divine deliberation when deciding what possible world (or worlds?) to actually instantiate, which under most (maybe all?) libertarian freedom schemes that I've seen end up representing - in some form or another - God's reaction to man.

      This thinking seems to be pretty obviously freighted with temporalism. And probably divine mutability is also unavoidable. It at least has the merit of stopping short of outright divine ignorance a la open theism, but not entirely unlike open theism the price tag for middle knowledge vs. the payoff seems to be fool's gold.

    6. I would definitely reject the term "divine deliberation," as like you I think that has a temporalist ring to it. God does not deliberate. He knows everything, all at once. I hold that God is timeless. Similarly phrases like "deciding which possible world to instantiate" seem to me incorrect, both because they sound temporalist and, more importantly, because they seem to imply that God instantiates an entire history-line rather than God's instantiating persons, objects, and (some) direct events (by intervention). If one takes freedom seriously, God never creates an entire history line. That sounds like a compatibilist phrase or determinist phrase in and of itself, which the libertarian should reject.

      Here is my old post on "The Fallacy of the Clickable Universe," which still seems to me to stand up pretty well after the intervening years. About the only thing I would say is that I'm a little more open now than I was then to the theory of a trans-world human fall (I don't like the phrase "trans-world depravity," because it doesn't seem to me to express the theory in question accurately).

    7. I read your linked article. I thought it was interesting, but I didn't notice any description or explanation of, or argument for a category of divine knowledge with distinctive content existing between God's natural and free knowledge. 

      Probably that wasn't the intent of the piece anyway since it focused primarily on theodicy.

      Maybe deploying middle knowledge in a more restrictive sense to address the POE could be attractive to a Calvinist with compatibalist views to help extricate God from the charge of being "the author of evil" (scare quotes!), but of course I don't think that's your intent, for obvious reasons.

      Anyway, good thoughts, though we disagree.