Free Will and Divine Foreknowledge -- Mental Masturbation?

These days philosophers who accept Templeton money can expect to be mocked by the atheist community--by which I mean folks other than the 70% of philosophers who are atheists.  Now, I can see that the money itself is just a little dirty -- I can understand objections on that level.  But what's really odd is the way non-philosophers presume to be able to judge the research that gets funded. The idea seems to be that philosophy is something everyone can do -- it takes no expertise to tell whether a research project is worthwhile or not worthwhile.

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.


Aeolus said...

Once we use the word "foreknowledge", haven't we created a non-existent problem? God doesn't have foreknowledge of anything, because God is not trapped in time. God is transcendent; God created time. Why should anyone imagine there is a contradiction between free will and God's omniscience? As the transcendent Creator, God comprehends all events "simultaneously" and "eternally" (wrong words, but we creatures who are embedded in time are limited in how we can express ourselves).

Attempts to assess the (im)probability of God's existence run into the same sort of problem: we can't use the laws and logic of this universe to assess a hypothesized transcendental reality. Some problems are intrinsically unresolvable, I think.

Andrew said...

I think Benson is confusing knowledge with causality. If I freely choose to eat an apple rather than an orange today, and God knew a million years ago that that is what I would do, how does that affect the freedom of my choice? God isn't making me eat the apple, his knowledge does not interact with my free will.

I don't believe in either God or free will, but if you're going to swallow those premises I don't see that the scenario described above is incoherent. Aeolus is also right about some of the characteristics traditionally claimed about God's relationship with time. I can't grasp what it might mean for God to be outside of time, but I didn't grasp what Stephen Hawking is on about in "A Brief History of Time" when he says you can avoid singularities by considering imaginary time rather than real time. Sometimes you have to give things more than a few minutes' thought before dismissing them as nonsense - and sometimes, as Jean says, bizarre counterfactual speculation is a useful philosophical tool rather than evidence of mental deficiency.

Jean Kazez said...

OK, you you can avoid this whole puzzle with a timeless God, so there's no question of what God knows today about the 2012 election ... but then all the fun and interesting questions go away. Also--does it make any serious sense to think of God as timeless? And what kind of a religion could you build around a timeless God? A God like that couldn't interact with people, couldn't answer prayers, etc.

Andrew--I think we're to suppose I DID freely eat an apple today, and then the question is how God could have known I would do so. Given what knowledge is, it's a hard question to answer. To know seems to require the fact known to reach the knower (so to speak) by way of a causal chain. How's that going to work, if the knower knows the fact before it's a fact? I think that's the puzzle.

Fun puzzle, imho.

John S. Wilkins said...

Sometimes these attacks on philosophy remind me of GOP attacks on "useless" science, based on the same presumption that whatever they don't intuitive think is worthwhile is therefore stupid or, as you rightly term it, mental masturbation. Even worse if somebody is doing philosophy in a way that leads to a conclusion they a priori know is false.

Aeolus said...

Of course it makes sense to think of God as "timeless" in the sense of not being intrinsically embedded in time (that's the nature of a transcendent deity). But being "timeless" doesn't mean that God can't intervene in the space-time continuum in response to our actions and prayers. God has already, always, and timelessly will have answered the prayer I will freely choose to make five years from now after I freely choose to become a devout Muslim.

One can imagine a time-bound god and then create philosophically interesting pseudo-puzzles about free will and foreknowledge. But no one should think these pseudo-puzzles constitute any kind of evidence against the existence of a transcendent Creator, even one of the Abrahamic variety.

crystal said...

As the others have mentioned, this doesn't really have to be a problem. I think it was Augustine or Aquinas who said God was outside time and this could know everything that has and will happen simultaneously.

There's that time traveler example - someone returning from the future will have knowledge of what's going to happen, but his knowledge doesn't "cause" those things to happen.

Maybe God has knowledge of all the possible future outcomes, all the outcomes resukting from individuals' free will choices?

It's interesting to wonder about how this fits in with theories of the multiverse :)

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus, It sounds to my ear like you're just putting words together. Timeless being that intervenes in time...oh, ok. I just don't get that.

I don't think you necessarily get pseudo-puzzles by inventing things. I gave lots of examples in my post. These are all inventions: twin earth, the social contract, the experience machine. By talking about these things, we can make progress on real philosophical problems, about meaning, justice, and value.

So inventing a God who "lives" in time does not necessarily generate pseudo-puzzles. I wouldn't rule it out that somebody could write something very interesting about free will, time, causation, and other topics, starting from the pretense that there is such a thing.

Something I'm wondering--how many people working on free will and foreknowledge really do think of God as an element of a thought experiment (like twin earth), and how many are believers trying to defend the faith against an apparent problem? Maybe someone who knows will come along and comment...

Aeolus said...

Hi Jean,
When I say "pseudo-puzzles", I don't mean that they can't be useful devices for thinking about philosophical problems; rather, I mean that they don't apply to a transcendent deity and so are irrelevant in that respect. I'm not a believer, but I don't think a Jew, Christian, or Muslim has any good reason to be fazed by such questions. (We're IN the Matrix. God CREATES the Matrix.)

Alan Cooper said...

The question of whether and how some entity having potentially complete foreknowledge of one's behaviour may or may not be reconciled with some concept of "free will" is a legitimate one. But the word "god" is a red flag for hard core "atheists" and I actually have some sympathy with their response. The unqualified use of that loaded term for a hypothetical fully informed entity is unfortunate, and combined with the source of the funding it does, in my opinion, bring the study into disrepute.

Andrew said...

I think the response to the question about how God knows I will freely choose to eat the apple before I do so, is that "before" is not a concept to God, as he exists outside time. If you accept that, then it becomes no more mysterious than asking how I know what someone else chose to have for lunch yesterday.

As I said before, I don't believe in any of this - but many of the standard responses to these sorts of religious claims assume that the hypothetical omniscient being is incapable of knowing some things. That's cheating, even in a thought experiment.

Felix said...

It seems to me, as a atheist and non-philosopher that:

Philosophy + god = Theology

Since the vast majority of theology is building castles in the air to projected a cherished belief it behoves actual philosophers to shun god.

In fact I already had a question in my head having recently attened a lecture on Malebranche:

"Can a theist be a philosopher?"

It seems to me that as soon as a theist brings god into an explanation they cease to do philosophy and commence theology.

Jean Kazez said...

I really don't think a tough-minded philosopher will readily accept the idea of a God that exists "outside of time" but interacts with a world that unfolds in time. This is the kind of thing that only seems like a solution after it's been repeated enough times. It's like saying God doesn't need an explanation because he's a special kind of being called a "necessary being." Sure, it's a classic story, but just talk really. Saying an atemporal God interacts with a temporal world is like saying the number 4 occasionally drops in to cut apples into four pieces, or give people four limbs. How's that supposed to work?

Aeolus said...

I don't think we're going to agree on this one.

A wooden knight on a chessboard is talking to the queen about a place "outside" the chessboard where beings can move in circles -- beings who can also intervene in events on the chessboard. "But moving in circles is impossible," says the queen. "The laws of motion don't allow that. As for these magical, non-wood beings intervening in our lives, you're just playing with words. You only believe that stuff because the bishop keeps repeating it."

One can't use the laws and logic of this universe to determine how things must be (or not be) beyond those laws and logic. To insist "But that's all there is" is to be like the queen on the chessboard.

John S. Wilkins: As an agnostic atheist who has thought about these matters, perhaps you'd like to say something (more coherent) than I have.
Everyone else: Check out John's blog Evolving Thoughts: http://evolvingthoughts.net/

crystal said...

I think that to say God can't be outside time and also work within it ... I don't know. There's so much we think we know about time but which is assumption or untrue - check out this page from New Scientist, which mentions, among other things, that some physicis shows time to be an illusion, or that quantum computers can work outside time .... http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16607-seven-things-you-need-to-know-about-time.html

Jean Kazez said...

Link looks interesting, crystal.

Maybe we are talking at crosspurposes here. I'm wondering how it's possible to reconcile divine foreknowledge and free will. I want a clear theory about that. You don't have a theory if you invoke a timeless God, and say you don't understand how he interacts with the world, but it's not totally out of the question that he does.

You, on the other hand, are thinking of this puzzle as a challenge to faith, and you're saying it shouldn't turn a theist into an atheist. After all, theists can appeal to a timeless God, and just admit it's a mystery how a timeless God interacts with the world.

OK, maybe that's good enough for "apologetics" but it's not good enough to be a real account of how to reconcile divine foreknowledge and free-will. A theory about that is like a theory reconciling determinism and free-will. It just won't do for parts of such a theory to allude to mysteries and things we don't fully understand. A theory like that just isn't a theory.

John S. Wilkins said...

Aeolus, i have a paper on just this topic coming out in Zygon. You can read the manuscript version here:


Jean Kazez said...

That probably came off as being more adamant than I meant to be. Just a matter of having to rush .... One kid just said he needs a haircut and the other said I ought to be baking a cake. Makes it hard to focus on free will and divine foreknoweledge.

crystal said...

Jean, you're right. I'm not saying I find this guy's argument convincing and I don't think what he's doing is philosophy but theology. Someone might believe something personally without the same level of coherence that's needed for a logically stated argument, but if one is going to do philosophy, one should adhere to its standards.

Faust said...

Three quick comments:

1. Generally agree with the thrust of Aeolus's comments.

2. Looking forward to reading Wilkin's essay.

3. One way to get outside of the unfortunate allergy that so many anti-supernaturalists have when considering the concept "God" is just to stop worrying about how these scenarios relate to OUR world and imagine supercharged versions of ourselves creating worlds. That is to say: if WE had enormously powerful world creating capacities (e.g. The Sims game times a million) how would WE relate to THOSE systems.

"God" in the context of these thought experiments just MEANS "Being of enormous (perhaps infinite) power that created a world (happens to be ours). IF that world has a [set of laws X] (insert our undertanding our our laws here), THEN what are the range of possible undertandings we might have about the relationship of the creator to the created? To think about these questions is merely to think about the relationship between a system and the creator of a system but at the very limits of our imagination.

John S. Wilkins said...


That's basically how I approach it in my essay: think of Aladdin's Genie - "Phenomenal Cosmic Powers". Although I call it a Neo-Leibnizian deity...

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, You aren't troubled by the notion of a timeless god interacting with a world that unfolds in time? I am. I haven't the slightest idea what anyone means by that. It's just theology-speak. So how could anyone resolve the puzzle of free will and divine foreknowledge that way ... as opposed to just shifting the puzzle elsewhere?

Lippard said...

Since I'm inclined to compatibilism, I can see some possibilities for the compatibility of free will and divine foreknowledge, though they start to erode with the addition of "contra-causal" or "libertarian" as an adjective in front of "free will." The divine foreknowledge itself still seems problematic to me, though, in the face of indeterminism.

I'm not sure I can make any sense at all of the idea of a timeless *personal* God, since it seems to me that personhood requires thought and action, which entail change over time.

Jean Kazez said...

Hi Jim,

I think you only get any real puzzle about divine foreknowledge if we're talking about libertarian free will. If we're talking about some sort of free will compatible with determinism, then God can just infer whether Obama will win in 2012 from his knowledge of the current state of the world, plus the physical laws. (Right?) The freedom of the voters would be any barrier to his knowing the outcome.

A timeless God is also problematic in this context because it's hard to see how his states of mind would count as knowledge, on any going understanding of knowledge. How could his states of mind have the sort of regular relationship with concrete facts (like Obama winning in 2012) that makes for justification?

So really--I think this is just talk, and nobody should think "problem solved" by invoking a God who exists out of time.

I wish there were more hours in the day. I'd like to read John Wilkins' paper.

Faust said...

Jean, I think you're right that merely positing a "timeless" god is short changing things a bit. I think it becomes a de-facto consequence of imagining a god with enormous knowlege about a system. If the system is sufficiently deterministic then god is basically timeless releative to the system, i.e. no time need pass in order for a particular system state to unfold in real time, as it has already effectively unfolded as a consequence of the system structure that determines it.

Ruminating on Aeolus's chess board may be fruitful. Chess boards are defined systems with a possibly finite (I've seen argument on this point) set of moves, that we have been able to get increasing "control" over with sophisticated software. Pocket Fritz can beat grandmasters off a mobile device at present. It might be a bit of a red herring but for me it serves as at least a metaphor for the compression of a complex system decision tree into a high speed thought process. Pocket Fritz "knows" what you are going to do before you do it, because Pocket Fritz can process the total decision tree available to you. We can imagine god as the ultimate Pocket Fritz except the chess board is the sum total of our universe and the rules of the game are the rules of physics. Of course this takes us down Leibnizian difficulties...

Now that I think about it I know I've read some stuff about chess and free will somewhere... think it might have been Dennet. Freedom Evolves?

Aeolus said...

John Wilkins: Thank you for access to your fascinating paper.

Anonymous said...

Using words like "god" and "divine" just muddies the waters unnecessarily. If you are interested in the logical consistency of a statement then it would be better to ask what mathematically formal systems exist that have objects that could reasonably be mapped to the concepts of omniscience and "free will". ("Free will" would need to be defined rigorously. There may be multiple rigorous definitions and each can be examined independently to see how they compare and how subtle changes in the definition impact the model.)

Are such mathematical systems consistent? How many such systems are there? How counterintuitive do the definitions of these concepts need to become in order to make the model consistent?

In other words, these kinds of questions are better analyzed by mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics. I don't see how a philosopher using a non mathematical language (like English) can make a meaningful contribution.

Russell Blackford said...

The first paragraph of the two-para explanation of the research does give an impression (to me) that what we have here is the kind of doctrinally committed work that seems dubious in a university setting.

But the second para states more explicitly what is to be done in the project. It seems to involve a philosophical examination of whether certain theological doctrines are coherent, etc. I have no issue at all with philosophers doing that. In fact, that's exactly the sort of thing that I think we should be doing. So in a sense, I don't see the problem.

There is, of course, an issue as to whether we should be taking money that is "dirty", and conversely (or maybe it's the really the same thing) as to whether reputable scholars should be allowing an organisation such as Templeton to use their names. However, that's separate from whether there's anything wrong with the research topic itself.