Saturday, April 05, 2014

Does God Know the Future Contingently?

I want to share a dialogue that I had with a colleague and friend some years ago. I've slightly altered part of my response because I believe a reformulated answer makes more sense.

My interlocutor believes that God must fully (exhaustively?) know the future or else, God is less than omniscient. I obviously disagree; so my comments below are designed to address this particular objection. It is my belief that there are at least some things about the future that God knows contingently. Comments are appreciated.

In brief, knowing a proposition contingently (future or otherwise) is not the same thing as saying that one does not know a certain proposition at all. If God contingently knows that Abraham will offer up Isaac, how can it be said (legitimately) that He has no knowledge of the fact that Abraham will offer up Isaac?

(1) Whether Abraham will offer up Isaac or not is contingent.
(1) Necessarily, a contingent event can only be known contingently.
(2) Therefore, necessarily, God contingently knows that Abraham will offer up Isaac.

How is it possible for a contingent future event or proposition to be known in any other way except contingently? It is by its very nature contingent.

In answer to your second question about omniscience, I point to the old atheological question, "Can God make a rock so big that He can't lift it?" One problem with this query is the definition of omnipotence that it assumes. My point is that there is a similar problem that has plagued the traditional definition of "omniscience." As S.T. Davis says, divine omniscience does not mean that "God knows all facts." Rather, IMO, it refers to God's (exhaustive) knowledge of all epistemic possibilia.


Nathan said...

Hi Edgar,

Another brain-bender? But it's so late here! ... ;)

It seems to me that the answer to this problem begins and ends with one's definition of omniscience and how to square such a definition with divine providence. From what I have seen, those holding to the view of your interlocutor begin with a definition and then reason accordingly. For any given proposition P, God knows and believes P and cannot believe not P. Of course, the way that statement is worded enables one to argue for God's providential knowledge in all places and at all times. While this conclusion does seem to follow, I can't help but see a hidden premise whereby the argument is actually initiated by begging the question. One can't begin with a definition without first enabling that definition from the sources it is supposed to support.

At any rate, if God's foreknowledge is tenselessly propositional and not merely contingent, then the Bible seems to provide a confusing (or worse, misleading) account of God's providential knowledge – at critical points in Judeo-Christian history, no less (Gen.18:21, 22:12; Deut. 13:3; Acts 10:34f). In discussions on this issue, I have found that those who proffer the former view usually do so as a means to prevent what they see as the divine essence from being diminished. To exalt creaturely freedom is to exalt in a limitation of God, as it were. But surely this is putting the cart before the horse again. Since we have good reason to think that there are limitations in God's ontic and moral nature already (can't die, can't lie, can't instantiate the logically impossible [contra Descartes]), why dismiss the possibility of a noetic limitation unless one rigidly clings to a presuppositional formula? Or what about a self-limitation in God that is exercised for the sake of creaturely freedom? Really, aren't those of the reformed tradition hoisting decision over doctrine, and tradition over text? Of course, these are rhetorical questions only. Nevertheless, it's disconcerting to see so many in the throngs of this debate using their philosophy to inform Scripture instead of allowing Scripture to inform their philosophy.



Edgar Foster said...

Hi Nathan,

I always learn something from your posts. That's not just a mutual admiration thing. I really mean it. :)

Your point about how we define "omniscience" is well taken. I've often pointed out to my students how difficult the task of developing non-question begging definitions are. For example, some want to define "omnipotence" has "having maximal power," and that is fine with me, as long as the definition is not meant to say that "God can do anything." More satisfactory, in all likelihood, is Aquinas' definition for omnipotence: able to do all that is logically possible. In any event, how we define terms has a tremendous effect on premises and conclusions of arguments.

As for the second part of your submission, I'll try to find specific examples of how someone might try to demonstrate God's exhaustive knowledge, but from what I've witnessed, those who believe that God exhaustively knows the future try to assemble evidence from scripture and reason (philosophy) to support their views. Some have told me that God is necessarily omniscient in the strong sense or they say prophecy would be endangered if God did not know the future exhaustively.