The latest atheist-derided project is UC Riverside graduate student Patrick Todd's research on divine foreknowledge and free will. According to the university announcement --
The fellowship enables young scholars to use contemporary analytic methods to pursue independent research in the fields of divine and human agency, such as moral responsibility and freedom of will; or philosophy of mind and its theological implications, such as the presence of the divine in a natural world and the emergence of consciousness ...
His postdoctoral research project, “Divine Foreknowledge, the Philosophy of Time, and the Metaphysics of Dependence: Some New Approaches to an Old Problem,” assesses a core Ockhamist thesis about foreknowledge. William of Ockham was a 13th century philosopher. “The central contention of the Ockhamist concerns a point about the order of explanation. According to the Ockhamist, it is because of what we do that God long ago believed that we would do these things. That is, God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus, says the Ockhamist, we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs,” he explained. “The overarching goal of this project is to develop and assess this core Ockhamist thesis along two underexplored dimensions: the philosophy of time, and the metaphysics of dependence – both of which have seen an explosion of recent interest.”Patrick Todd works with John Martin Fischer, one of the top free will experts in the world -- and a non-believer. Todd has already published about free will in the top peer-reviewed journal in philosophy. Given these indirect clues, the chances that this student is a mush-minded fool are roughly zero. But here's biologist Jerry Coyne's learned, or unlearned, assessment: "This is an area about which I’m completely ignorant, and happy to remain so, because it sounds like a godawful cesspool of theological lucubration."
Ophelia Benson at least shows appropriate modesty when she wonders if she's missing something. She has the gut feeling that it's "conceptually incoherent" to imagine there could be divine foreknowledge in a world with free will. God would have to be capable of the logically impossible. I take it that's her point when she writes,
But what’s being described here is not something that doesn’t actually exist but something that (given everything we know) couldn’t exist – something that makes no sense – an omniscient god that knows the future, which is not determined because free will says it can’t be. If god knows the future, it’s determined. If it’s not determined, then god doesn’t know it. Gotta pick one; can’t have both. Both in combination are just contradictory.Certainly God's omnipotence is not thought to include doing the logically impossible, like lifting a rock nobody can lift. But is foreknowledge, in a world with free will, really logically impossible?
Suppose God right now in October 2011 knows that Obama will win the election in 2012. There is free will, we are supposing, so millions of people will freely cast their votes in 2012, before Obama wins. Since we are ruling out determinism, God does not know about Obama winning by knowing facts about how the world is right now, and drawing on his knowledge of laws to make a prediction. Rather, God knows about Obama winning directly, despite the fact that his winning turns on all those free votes. Also suppose knowledge requires the right sort of dependence of the knower's belief on the fact that's believed. Many theories of knowledge say something of that sort.
Are we now at the point of supposing the logically impossible? Not necessarily. What we have to believe, to make all this coherent, is that the state of God's mind in 2011 can depend in a certain way on facts about the world in 2012. The past has to depend on the future in the right sort of way. That would be possible, even if there is free will, assuming there is backward causation, or time worked in some funny way. That may or may not be physically impossible, but it's not (obviously) logically impossible. And there may(may, may) also be ways to make sense of this sort of dependence, without making extravagant claims about time and causation. Perhaps that's part of what the student plans to think about, with the help of his Templeton grant.
Note, just for fun--the past does depend on the future in some trivial and unproblematic ways, even if there is free will. What happens in 2012 will make sentences written in 2011 true or false, will make desires in 2011 satisfied or unsatisfied, will make hopes in 2011 dashed or fulfilled. The past does depend on the future in some respects. The question, though, is whether it does, or could, conceivably, depend on the future in the right sort of way for anyone (like God) to know the future, assuming there is free will.
What value could this sort of research have, if there is no god? Jerry Coyne has this to say--
If there isn’t one ... then the project becomes an exercise in mental masturbation, musing about what something nonexistent would do if it existed. Why is that any more valid than wondering how an omnimalevolent God could allow good in the world, or why an omnibenevolent God allows evil? Or, for that matter, how fairies would keep their wings dry in the rain, or how Santa manages to deliver all those presents to billions of kids in only one evening. And what if you assume that God isn’t omniscient? Then the whole project is moot.He seems to think that all counterfactual assumptions are equally valuable or valueless, but this is obviously not so. We get nowhere by supposing there are fairies in the garden, but learn a lot from other fanciful assumptions. For example, there is a mountain of research in philosophy of mind and philosophy of language that proceeds from the counterfactual assumption that there is a place called Twin Earth--just like earth in every single way, but a distinct place. Can you really dismiss it all as mental masturbation, on grounds that there is no twin earth? The answer is no.
Likewise, you get some valuable insights in ethics from supposing (contrary to fact) that the fetus is a person (see Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous article on abortion), or from supposing (contrary to fact) that once upon a time people got together and contracted with one another to form a society (see Rawls and the whole social contract tradition), or from supposing there's this thing called an experience machine, that people can enter to maximize their future happiness (see Nozick).
What do we gain, philosophically, by supposing (or even believing!) that there is an omnipotent God, and trying to figure out if his/her/its knowledge of the future is compatible with free will? The discussion above ought to have made that clear. To make headway on these things, you must carefully think about time, knowledge, causation, free will, etc. There is plenty of philosophical pay-off, whether you enter the discussion as a believer, or you regard God as a counterfactual assumption, like twin earth, fetal personhood, the social contract, or Nozick's experience machine.