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God’s divine foreknowledge has recently raised its interesting head over the last few comment threads and I thought it would be interesting to return to the subject again. I’ll start with a quote from a commenter here, found on their Miscellanea Agnostica blog:

The [reconciliation of “the problem of evil”] most apologists use is the “free will” theodicy, or the claim that the creator has given humanity “free will,” so that each of us can do whatevever s/he wishes at any time, and said deity refuses to do anything about it … hence there is suffering in the world that God cannot prevent. Unfortunately this fails for three reasons: First, not all suffering is even of human origin, so that someone’s presumed “free will” played no role in it and cannot have caused it. Second, that creator deity is believed to have intervened in human affairs many times in history and has gone so far as to order people around; clearly he is not some kind of remote spectator-being who’s philosophically opposed to getting involved in people’s decisions and unwilling to get in their way. Third, as the creator, he must have known how his creation would turn out; he must have known in advance what everyone would do; he must have known there would be widespread suffering for uncountable billions of people over many generations; yet — despite knowing all of this prior to the moment of creation — he created the universe anyway.

Ultimately, a truly omnipotent and omniscient being can never be absolved of any responsibility for what he creates; if he exists, and if he created this universe, he and he alone is responsible for everything that ever happens in it. Those who are part of that creation can, at best, only be secondary agents — since he created them as they are, and they did not create themselves. In the end, simply put, it is logically impossible for the creator of the universe we live in — which has suffering in it — to simultaneously be omnipotent, omniscient, andbenevolent. It just doesn’t work.

The curious thing about the problem of evil is, as soon as you take the Abrahamic deity’s presumed benevolence out of the equation, the rest of it actually becomes logically tenable. Removing his omnipotence or omniscience tends not to work so well: If you assume the creator was less-than-omnipotent, you’re still left with a creator who made a universe he knew would get out of his control and have suffering in it that he couldn’t do anything about; and even if the deity was less-than-omniscient, he still must have had some idea that he was risking creating a universe that might have suffering in it. And once he became aware there was suffering in it, still being omnipotent, he could have ended it instantly. So even taking either or both of those out, you’re still left with a creator-being who must have behaved in a less-than-totally-benevolent manner.

A great quote that sets up a discussion on divine foreknowledge and God’s moral culpability in creating. It’s worth noting here that not all Christian thinkers adhere to the line of thinking that God has full foreknowledge of all future events. This is no surprise because the concept of divine foreknowledge is more than mildly problematic in terms of God’s characteristics, making little sense of creation and the world, and even the Bible.

Indeed, the relatively new theology of Open Theism stipulates that God does not have full divine foreknowledge of future events because this plays merry havoc with the idea of his judgement and moral culpability. However, if God doesn’t know future events, then it means that his creation is somewhat random. It’s a bit like a game of SimCity or similar that he is playing in the hope that it will turn out well. This may, indeed, work with some notions of God but not with others.

Of course, the idea that God is perfectly knowledgeable, as in omniscient, is that he has the full knowledge and understanding of all counterfactuals that have ever and will ever come to pass. A counterfactual is an“if statement”. If Harriet is in causal circumstance T1, she will do X. If she is in T2, she will do Y.

If God genuinely knew every counterfactual, then this leaves no space, in my book, for any genuine libertarian free will (irrespective of the fact that the concept is broken anyway). That’s because (as is shown in something called the grounding objection) there must be some reason and causality involved in why Harriet does X in T1 and not ~X. Harriet’s causal circumstance has causality inherently wrapped up in it.

Let’s look at God’s moral culpability and responsibility. As I have written before:

If God designed the universe, the laws, humanity and everything, and then created the universe; and given that God could have chosen any other possible world out of infinite choices; and given that God could step in at any moment and change things; and given that God has complete foreknowledge of future events; how is God not in some way ultimately culpable for our sin?

For example, if I created a sentient lifeform in the lab – designed from scratch and created entirely myself – and I knew 100% (and I mean infallibly) that they would break out of the lab and rampage through town causing harm (rape, murder, mugging) and knew this in advance, and then still decided to create these lifeforms and they went out and did their evil thing, would I not be in some way culpable? Yes, some of them might go out and paint pictures and do charity work, but the majority were pretty evil. Yes they did it of their own free will. But I knew this in advance. I designed them in such a way. And I created them with this perfect foreknowledge. Would the police, in evaluating the crime and suffering in the town not see me as somewhat morally or causally culpable?

Let’s put it another way. I am the CEO of a massive car company. I design a car that I know 100% will have a certain amount of faults and will, as a result, cause pain and suffering through crashing as a result of those faults. Yes, some of the cars will be great, and provide good service. But many will crash and burn. Literally. And I create them knowingly. Would I not, as CEO, be held accountable?

There are two issues here, seen when we consider a literal understanding of Adam and Eve, but extendable beyond that example:

  1. Adam/Eve, if they are representative of humanity, reflect a poorly designed humanity. If we are poorly designed and God knows it, then God is a poor designer and should be held morally or causally culpable for our fall or failure.
  2. Adam/Eve are not representative of humanity, and we are being punished (vicariously through the Fall) for the actions of people who bear no proper connection to us, who are not reflective of who we are. Therefore, God is not fair.

Does God cause A&E’s actions? Ultimately, if God designed and created a scenario over which he has ultimate power, and allows his creation to knowingly play out, then yes, in any meaningful sense of the concept, God caused A&E’s actions.

Luke Breuer, in a previous conversation on this topic, sees a way out of this if God limits his own power (sort of how Jesus did in giving up his own will to that of God the Father, in kenosis, for whatever sense that makes):

If God self-limits (WP: Kenosis) in power and knowledge, how does that prevent God from fulfilling every promise God [allegedly] made in the Bible?

My own experience is that various agents can each partially determine the result. Indeed, this is precisely what happens whenever we make a quantum measurement: our wavefunction becomes entangled with the wavefunction of the measured object and the result obtained is (object + me)†.

Only the insecure would insist on fully determining the outcome; only the insecure would want to preclude all others from partially determining the outcome. That, or you believe you’re good and to the extent that anyone else disagrees with you, your ideas much trump theirs. This is self-righteousness and arguably worse than insecurity.

† I suspect it’s more precise to say (object ∗ me), with ∗ meaning mathematical convolution.

I don’t think this quite does the trick. This is effectively to advocate, as far as Luke hasn’t fully explained it here, for a willful open theism. That is to say that it isn’t that God doesn’t have the ability to know all future counterfactuals, but that he willfully refuses to access that knowledge.

Part of the reason that this is wholly unsatisfactory is that it doesn’t get around the fact that those counterfactuals exist, and their determining factors. Whether or not God accesses this knowledge is neither here no there. He has still designed and created a universe where certain counterfactuals will lead to certain outcomes, even if he chooses not to know these consciously.

Of course, choice (qua deliberation) makes no sense in GodWorld devoid of time prior to creation, but that’s another debate. If God “chooses” not to know things prior to creation, it is no “willful” choice in any meaningful sense. It would be an automatic “decision” of sorts that was necessarily instantiated simultaneously with God.

I deal with this and more in my reasonably-priced ebook: The Problem with “God”: Classical Theism under the Spotlight.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...