God, time, and Free Will: Am I Making Any Sense?

Posted: 09/04/2009 in Foreknowledge, Free will, Greg Boyd, Open Theism
Tags: , , , ,

>As many of you know, I have serious reservations about the a-temporality (“God is outside of time”) and its relation to free will, which I define as the ability of human agents to choose between alternatives. I am writing a paper on this for my Aquinas class, and my thesis is this: God’s a-temporality, and knowledge gained by such, cannot be reconciled with human free-will in any workable, meaningful sense. It is very important to note that I am not yet endorsing Open Theism for this paper, only that I don’t think Aquinas’ view solves the problem. This blog is my practice round. I hope that I am making some kind of sense?

What is free will?

One of the problems I have with this paper is that I work with a definition of “free will” that is a little different than Aquinas’ view. I think of free will like this: a temporal agent has free-will when it is in that agent’s power, now, to either refrain from some future action, or actualize some future action. So I have free will if I can refrain or actualize from going to a Good Friday service tomorrow. You can are free if you can refrain or actualize drinking that cup of coffee Monday morning. The professor is free if s/he can refrain or actualize from doing his pile of grading come the end of the semester.

Such is so simple that it seems to make sense. Notice, however, that there is a degree of contingency here. What this means is that something is capable of being other than it is. Additionally, in terms of the future, something is capable of being prevented. “Two and three make five” is not contingent because it cannot be any other way. However, “The General Sherman tree is the largest tree in the world by mass” is contingent because that tree could have been chopped down in 1832. “Obama is the President of the United States” is also contingent because he could’ve lost.

Most future events we think of as contingent, but add something else. “Obama will win a second term in 2012” is contingent. “I drink another cup of coffee tomorrow at 9:00am” is contingent. The important thing about future contingencies is that they are contingent and are mutable by our actions. Obama gets voted out 2012 because the libertarians finally get a good candidate and he steals democratic votes. I refrain from that second cup of coffee because I want to fast on Good Friday or something. We cannot, however, change some past contingent like Obama being elected in 2008, or the latte we drank yesterday afternoon. So our past is contingent and immutable, while the future is contingent and mutable.

God’s eternality (a-temporality)

It is important to note that “eternality” is actually a negation that means something like “without time,” which is why I use “a-temporality” for the same concept. If God is outside of time, than a few things follow: (1) Time prepositions such as “before,” “fore,” “after,” “during,” etc should not be applied to God. (2) God takes in all knowledge of human activity “in one act of understanding.” This is exactly what Aquinas believes. For us, time is like a dot of light going across a straight line, but for God the line is already completely lit up. (3) There is no change in God’s knowledge. This again, was an assumption of Aquinas. Additionally, God can never be wrong about anything.

God’s knowledge of our future actions cannot really be called fore-knowledge. Rather, it should just be called “eternal knowledge.” God is aware of the coffee I am having tomorrow afternoon, the fact that I am typing this paper now, and philosophical wise-crack comments I made last night after class all in the same act of understanding. It is something like looking at film strip. We know that there events in the film, we know when they occur, but I do not know them in a sequential temporal order. We, as temporal beings, see time in a sequence of events. The past is done, the present is where the choices are made, and the future will be one way or another based on a choice we make now. But given God’s a-temporality and knowledge, there is simply no difference of this kind between past, present, and future. God sees Obama being reelected in 2012 just like he sees Obama getting elected in 2008. To say something like “God saw Obama getting elected in 2008, and now knows that Obama will be elected in 2012 is to place temporal prepositions on an a-temporal being.

Refraining from that cup of coffee?

Recall what I said about free-will: a temporal agent has free-will when it is in that agent’s power, now, to either refrain from some future action, or actualize some future action. I can refrain from a cup of coffee tomorrow, or I can drink it. Now recall that God’s knowledge cannot change and that God cannot be wrong. God sees me already drinking that cup of coffee tomorrow morning, just like he sees me trying to explain all this to another grad student last night. If I refrain, from that cup of coffee, have I not proven God wrong about something? God, in his eternality, sees me drinking a cup of coffee at 9:00am tomorrow. If God is never wrong, how can I do otherwise?

The response to this is that it is still my choice. God may know exactly what I’ll do, but I still choose those things. My choices cause God to know. The problem is that this is a confusion of what I mean by “choice.” Something is not just a result of my choice if I caused it, but is the result of my choice if I caused it and could have done otherwise. The future we see is contingent, but it is not mutable by our actions under a “God outside of Time” thinking. If it was, God would either be wrong, or his knowledge would change as our choices affect future states of affairs.

So there it is

And that, very briefly stated, is why I do not think that God’s a-temporality can be reconciled with human freedom.

Did I make any kind of sense? Am I clear? Or was this just some existentially driven, and caffeine infused, philosophical gibberish?

  1. Adam Goyer says:

    >This makes perfect sense to me, and I’m going to reference a few contacts of mine to it who I have been trying to explain this to. Well put together. The final sentiment about choice being: what was it, “I caused/chose to do so AND I could of done otherwise”. I liked that idea very much.

  2. Anonymous says:

    >I’m not entirely sure whether these notes will be constructive or relevant to your thesis, but you know what they say, “hope for the best” (they are well-intentioned):1. According to your definition of free will, what exactly do you mean by “now”? I am asking the question from a Heideggerian perspective, and so, I would want to know (in reading this) what is actually “happening” in the “now,” according to your view? Is the “now” a point in time? Is it a “tension” between the being-becoming and the being-having-been, etc? 2. If the “now” is a sort of “moment” right before the temporal agent either refrains from or actualizes an action, could you not say that it isn’t an either/or incident, but an overlapping, a co-existency? In other words, it isn’t a choosing BETWEEN the two, but in choosing one, the other is not chosen simultaneously (and others are and are not chosen). To use your example, I choose to go to a Good Friday service tomorrow and at the same time I am choosing not to go out to breakfast and not to sleep in, and so on. Also, the “now” will have to keep shifting if you adopt this view. So you’ll be choosing to actualize the “going-to-service-ness” over and over and over again, for the entire duration of the service.3. (You asked, “I hope that I am making some kind of sense?”) Is there an motive behind your thesis? Is there something that personally worries you about Aquinas’ view? Or is it simply that you find it incoherent? It could be so, but maybe not. I think answering this question for yourself may help, if you haven’t already done so. And the merit in doing this, I think (from my experience), is that you can then be sure (or closer to being sure) whether you are making sense or not. Cheers – A.C.

  3. Anonymous says:

    >Joel,Thank you. I’ve heard this argument so many times before, and this is the first time it’s made sense to me. I’m not sure I agree, but I think your argument is coherent and rational. Hope this helps. Good luck on your paper.Alexander

  4. Jin-roh says:

    >Thank you all for your comments.Anda, (That is you, right “A.C.”?), I am not very familiar with Heidegger. I think I know where you’re going, but I am not sure. We’ll have to chat.Secondly, Yes, there is something that motivates this thesis. I have always had a personal, almost pre-rational, aversion to the “God outside of time” thing. I believe that if God knows our futures in this way, it leads to may reductio ad absurdums in Christian devotional life.

  5. Q says:

    >I have a problem with your definition of free-will in that it’s impossible to make a future decision. This is speaking strictly from a human perspective. It’s not that the future is contingent or mutable; the future doesn’t exist. It is a human concept created to try to gain control of something that is out of human control. So, in essence, your definition of free-will is logically impossible because you’re making a decision about something that doesn’t exist.The other thing that doesn’t seem to come into play are factors outside of God and humanity. B. F. Skinner argued that free-will doesn’t exist because every person is determined by a multitude of factors outside of their control. Where we live, what family we grew up in, how tall we are, how much we weigh, how far apart the houses are in our neighborhood, the climate, the economic factors in the society we find ourselves in, etc.; all of these make it impossible to make “free” choices. It is all determined. So, let’s say for a second that someone can actually make a “future” decision. That decision isn’t free anyway, because it is determined by the environment we find ourselves in. You perceive it to be your choice because you are unaware of the outside factors affecting your choice, but it is ultimately determined by those factors.Now, if I am working with a definition of God that is outside of time (time being a creation), then I can argue that God is not held to these rules because God created them and therefore is free to manipulate them. If God is NOT outside of time, then God is not free, because God will be bound by the same limitations are humanity.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >Regarding notions of free will: “We’ll have to chat.” We shall.A.C.

  7. Anonymous says:

    >To understand what time holds, we must go back to the beginning of time. Time is a concept opposed to eternity where everything is known. Time is where everything is imagined…temporarily. Time seems to interrupt eternity, posing as competition. However, no matter how many millions of years seem to transpire, time is never forever. Time is temporary, with a beginning and an end. It ends when the temporal welcome the eternal back to it’s rightful place. Everything that can be imagined has been imagined already…even before time begins. Man is an image, imagined within a greater mind. The greater mind imagines every action, every scenario, every feeling, every circumstance. The images the greater mind imagines appear to be autonomous, independent, having their own mind, making their own choices. And when an image makes a choice to have a cup of coffee, or not…both choices have already been imagined by the greater mind. Thus, the image appears to be making a choice, but actually, it is the illusion of choice. One way to grasp this is to imagine a character in a virtual reality computer graphics game. Games are getting so sophisticated that a character can make many choices, leading to various scenarios. Well, the game makers have already imagined every choice the character is allowed to make. It’s called a “multiple choice” script, with multiple outcomes. So whether you have a cup of coffee at 9:00 or 9:01 or 9:02…or not…all your choices have already been scripted, so-to-speak. As Shakespeare might put it, “All the world is a stage, and (we) are merely players”. To better understand this, try to think back to a moment when you experienced what is oft called “deja vu”. The experience implies that you are acting out predetermined scripts…right down to the last detail. You appear to make choices. However, how can you be so sure that the greater mind is not making the choice for you? In fact it is. And, it can be argued that it makes multiple choices regarding many, most, or perhaps even all decisions. In this sense, you are the greater mind are working together…cooperating in an imaginative process. This implies that there is an outcome for if you drink coffee at 9:00 or if you drink it at 9:01…or not at all. Each outcome requires a “parallel universe”, so-to-speak. Theoretically, there would be another universe for every choice…or at least for important choices. I will call this a “mind-game”. In this game, no matter what you choose, it has already been chosen. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as a “closed system”…or, “dead universe”. I would like you to start thinking of time as a tomb for a dead Christ. Inside the tomb is everything imaginable. Outside of time is everything real. What is imagined is believed. What is real is known. The end of time and the opening of the tomb to reality are both the same. If you let Christ mean reality, then it become apparent that what is inside the tomb is like a dream. The dream explores everything imaginable…meaning, everything that is not real. If Christ is “life”, and life is reality, then the dream must explore every kind of death scenario. So when you really think about it, all choices within the dream are the same. They all lead to death scenarios…over and over. Choices within the dream distract our attention from the one true choice: To sleep, or to awaken. Theologians will mostly put you to sleep, with much jargon. Aquinas is one such. There is no way to think like Aquinas and awaken at the same time. And that is because Aquinas does not recognize that human life, and all its apparent ability to choose, is but the dream of a single dreamer. So long as the dreamer is misidentified, there can be no awakening. After all, who can awaken from a dream but the dreamer himself? It does not help to call the dreamer “God”. That is a judgment made by sleepers. Better to call it your own, greater mind. When that mind awakens, it knows itself as Christ. Knowing this, it gets up and walks out of the dark tomb of time to the clear blue sky of eternity. Must think outside the “box” on this one. It’s a matter of life or death. We can choose to sleep or awaken. While we are asleep, freedom is qualified. Asleep, freedom is transformed into an oxymoron. We are free, but we are not. We, as images, are slaves to the dreamer…and the dreaming has already been dreamed. We are just going through the motions. One thing we have not chosen yet is to truly awaken from the dream. To do that, we must identify with the dreamer…and prepare ourselves to awaken as Christ, and none other. Anything else is a character in a dream, whose apparent existence vanishes when the dreamer awakens. This is what Jesus meant when he said, paraphrasing, we must “die to ourselves, that you may take our life back up again”. As Christ “dies”, a dream and its characters live. As each character opts to awaken, he must choose between his character and his reality. There is only one reality…not many. Therefore, we must be Christ. Ahh…that is the question: To be Christ, or not to be. Choose the latter and sleep. Choose the former and awaken.

  8. Tim Fink says:

    Part of what we discuss here is also the very idea of what time is. Most of us relate to time by the idea of physical change. That is not truly the essence of time. Time is simply the passing from one moment to the next. For rational thought, time must exist, for to have a thought, respond to it and come to a conclusion or a decision, there has to be some order to it to make it comprehensible.

    If God is as Aquinas, or Augustine, postulates, then God’s thoughts are without any definite order.
    Also, if true, then all God’s thoughts and knowledge are just as eternal as he is. What are the implications of that? I would think this would make God not-free. Does God have the freedom to do something other than what would be from his eternal, and uncreated, knowledge? It brings up a whole lot of self-contradictions, or absurdities.

    I know the scriptures always, in a natural sense, attribute to God the power of thinking thoughts as a present-tense activity. I would rather abide by those statements.

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