The Compatibility of Omniscience and Freedom

I say even if God knows what you are going to do tomorrow, this does not stop you being free to act otherwise. You won’t act otherwise, but you could.

Let’s set out a few definitions. You are free to do an action if it is possible that you do it, and if it is possible that you don’t do it. If either of these options is removed, you are no longer free. So if ‘p’ is ‘you will do x’, then you are free to do x if and only if (iff):

It is possible that p, and it is possible that not-p

Alternatively, we will write this as follows (where ‘◊’ means ‘possibly’):

◊p &  ◊~p

The problem is that this freedom condition seems to be ruled out by the idea of God’s foreknowledge. The reasoning is that if God already knows that p, then it is necessary that p. We can write this as follows, where K = God knows, and □ = necessarily:

If Kp, then □p

And if it is necessary that you are going to do x, then it is not possible that you will not do x. If necessarily p, then it is not possible that not-p:

If □p, then ~◊~p

So let’s put this into an argument that seems to show that freedom and omniscience are incompatible by deriving a logical contradiction:

Premise 1) I’m free to do x     (i.e. ‘it is possible that p and it is possible that not-p’)

Conclusion 1) Therefore, it is possible that not-p.

Premise 2) God knows that p.

Premise 3) If god knows p, then p is necessary.

Conclusion 1) Therefore, p is necessary.

Premise 4) If p is necessary, then it is not possible that not-p.

Conclusion 3) Therefore, it is not possible that not-p

Conclusion 4) Therefore, it is possible that not-p, and it is not possible that not-p.

We can write exactly the same argument in symbols as follows (in the right I give whether each line is an assumption or how it follows from something previously assumed):

Premise 1) ◊p &  ◊~p                         (assumption)

Conclusion 1) ◊~p                              (from pr. 1, and conjunction elimination)

Premise 2) Kp                                      (assumption)

Premise 3) If Kp, then □p                 (assumption)

Conclusion 2) □p                                (from pr.2 and pr.3, and modus ponens)

Premise 4) If □p, then ~◊~p             (definition of □ and ◊)

Conclusion 3) ~◊~p                            (from con.2 and pr.4, and modus ponens)

Conclusion 4) ◊~p & ~◊~p                (from con.1 and con.3, and conjunction introduction)

So we have derived a contradiction; it is possible that I will not do x, and it is not possible that I will not do x. This means we have to either reject the truth of one of the premises, or reject the validity of the argument form. Now the validity is easy to address, as it uses nothing but inference rules from classical propositional logic and the duality of necessity and possibility (i.e. □ = ~◊~ and ◊ = ~□~). There is nothing controversial at all here. So we must reject the truth of at least one of premises 1, 2 or 3, on pain of having to accept a contradiction.

Premise 1.

We said that being free to do x requires that it is possible to do both x and to not do x. Not all definitions of freedom require this. In fact this is a strong condition, and ‘compatibilists’ (like Spinoza, or Frankfurt) will contend that one can be free even if only one option is possible, just so long as that option is chosen. So the prisoner is free to stay in the cell, even though it is not possible to leave, for example. So it is possible to reject this premise. I think we can keep it however, and still avoid the consequence. We do not have to be ‘compatibilists’ to argue that God’s foreknowledge is compatible with freedom.

Premise 2.

This says that God knows what will happen tomorrow. To deny this means either giving up on God’s omniscience, or on the fact that there is a truth about the future (i.e. giving up on the principle of bivalence). We could go the second route, and retain omniscience, given that there is no truth about the future for him to not know. It should be noted that if we go this route, we have to also also hold that God is located in time. In this case, he would find out what happens tomorrow with the rest of us. A timeless God cannot ‘find out what happens’, as this would be a temporal activity. Anyway, we do not have to reject bivalence or require God to be in time, as I say we can avoid the contradiction even if premise 2 is true.

Premise 3.

This, as I see it, is where the confusion sets in. It says that ‘If God knows that p, then it is necessary that p’. Why would we think this premise is true? One reason is as follows. If you know something, anything, then it has to be that it is true. After all, you can’t know something false. It’s part of the definition of knowledge that it is of something true. God, who is infallible, only makes this force stronger; he couldn’t be wrong about anything. So if he knows something is going to happen, it is definitely, necessarily, going to happen. How could he be wrong?

Well, we need to be careful about the logical form of what we are saying. It is necessary that God knows p, and truth is a necessary component of knowledge; but this doesn’t mean that what God knows is necessary. Here is the sentence that is doing all the heavy lifting conceptually:

If God knows that you will do x, then it is necessary that you will do x.

I agree that everything God knows is true, i.e. he is infallible, and that everything true is known by God, i.e. that he is omniscient. But this only amounts to the following:

Kp iff p

This says that ‘God knows that p  if and only if p’. I can even go all the way and say that this is a necessary truth:

□(Kp iff p)

Now, we can derive a conditional which is very similar to premise 3 (which I will call 3.1) from this, namely:

3.1) □(If Kp, then p)

But it is important to note that this is as far as we can go. There is no way to go from 3.1 to 3:

□(If Kp, then p), therefore (If Kp, then □p)

So premise 3 does not follow from 3.1. Moreover, I say that 3.1 is actually the correct logical form of: ‘If God knows that you will do x, then it is necessary that you will do x.’

Admittedly, the word ‘necessarily’ is in the consequent in the sentence, and that seems to count against my claim. But then we systematically leave it there when we express both de re (of the thing) and de dicto (of the word) modalities, which should have it in different places. This means we fail to distinguish between the scope of the modality in natural language. Getting the scope of the modality right will solve the problem.

Quine’s example in Word and Object (p120) is that about cyclists being necessarily two-legged (and mathematicians being necessarily rational). To adapt his example, we would say:

If x is a cyclist, then it is necessary that he has two legs.

This sentence also has the word ‘necessary’ in the consequent, when it should be prefixing the whole conditional. It expresses only that under the description of the word cyclist, x has two legs. It is possible that x falls and gets one of his legs somehow cut off, and then x would not have two legs. It is not a necessary truth about x that he has two legs, only a necessary requirement for being a cyclist. So it is necessary de dicto that x has two legs, but not necessary de re. If we speak carefully, we would say:

It is necessary that (if x is a cyclist, then x has two legs)

The above formulation is compatible with the fact that x could fall off his bike and lose a leg, because he would then stop being a cyclist. Neither him being a cyclist nor having two legs is necessary; what is necessary is the connection between being a cyclist and having two legs.

This shows that we regularly fail to state the correct logical form when expressing de dicto modal claims. Sometimes, even though the word ‘necessarily’, etc, is in the consequent, it should be prefixing the whole conditional. And I say that premise 3 is one of these cases.

So if 3.1 was used in place, it would say that it is necessary that if God knows you will do x, then you will do x, just like it is necessary that if x is a cyclist, then he has two legs. Just like with the cyclist example, you do not have to do x (and he could fall off his bike). x doesn’t have to have two-legs, its just that it is necessary that if he is a cyclist then he does. You don’t have to do x, it just that it is necessary that if God knows that you will, then you will. In each case, the conditional is necessary, meaning that the one condition is never true without the other, but the other can be false. If it is false, then the antecedent condition would be false too.

One way of putting this is that it God knows contingent truths, like that you will do x. It is necessary that he knows them, but he only knows them if they are true. It is contingent that you will x, so it is contingent that p is true, and thus God might not know it. All that is necessary is that if it is true, he knows it; and if he knows it, it is true.

If we plug 3.1 in place of 3 in our argument from above, it stops us being able to move from it being true that p, to it being necessary that p. We needed that to get our contradiction, so we have blocked the contradiction. Thus foreknowledge and freedom are compatible.

Conclusion.

So I gave an argument for the incompatibility between divine foreknowledge and freedom, making it as strong as possible, which showed logically that the two concepts lead to a contradiction. However, I suggested the the logical form of the third premise was incorrect, allowing us to keep all the strong assumptions and show that no contradiction is forthcoming.