This post is the final post in my three-part series concerning the problem of theological fatalism – namely that an omniscient being and free will are incompatible. My first post in the series explained the groundwork for the problem and the second explained the implications of the problem.
This series was started to expand on one of the arguments I presented in my “Does God Exist?” debate with Catholic philosopher Dr. Ronda Chervin (PhD, Fordham) which can be streamed via Livestream or watched on Youtube.
I may respond to new objections or further clarify in future posts. Happy reading and, as always, feel free to comment.
Objections to the problem of theological fatalism are italicized. My answers follow.
Just because God knows how one will act doesn’t mean that persons lose free will
One objection, noted on CARM.org (Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry) is that just because God knows what one will do in the future does not mean that persons have no free will. The author of a specific article on this topic writes, “Free will does not stop becoming free because God knows what will happen.” The author of the article mentions that he/she knows that his/her child will eat chocolate cake instead of eating dead mice. He then writes, “Knowing this is not taking away the freedom of my child since she is freely choosing one over another. Likewise, for God to know what a person will choose does not mean that the person has no freedom to make the choice. It simply means that God knows what the person will choose. This is necessarily so since God knows all things.”
The author of the article misses a crucial point of contention for theological fatalism: God’s beliefs can’t be falsified because he is omniscient. Since God knows that a child will eat chocolate cake, the child’s eating of chocolate cake is unavoidable; it is impossible for the child to refrain from eating chocolate cake because God’s beliefs can’t be falsified (and God had believed that the child would eat chocolate cake).
Additionally, the analogy presented here is very faulty. While humans may be able to predict an action or even may be almost certain that one would partake in a given action, this knowledge is not that of being omniscient, but rather knowledge based on reasonable inferences, weighing alternatives, etc. For example, one can be reasonably confident that at least one student will be present in a particular college classroom at a particular time. If one were to hold this belief, it can be rendered false, but if God were to hold this belief, it can not. Omniscience is vastly different than human knowledge.
Free will is an ‘advanced recording’
One may contest that God’s knowledge is simply that of what one would have done before an action was followed through. This, though, is not compatible with omniscience because God knows the future – and therein lies the problem of theological fatalism. God holds beliefs about which actions humans will take, if he exists, and these beliefs cannot be falsified. If God’s knowledge is indeed an ‘advanced recording,’ this solidifies the problem of theological fatalism; God knows actions before humans act and these beliefs that God holds about these actions cannot be falsified.
God knows all possible actions and still allows freedom
Some, perhaps to avoid the problem of theological fatalism, will contend that God knows all possible alternatives that people may choose regarding a certain course of actions and does not know which ‘route’ persons will take. This, though, is incompatible with God’s omniscience; God, if he exists, knows exactly which actions persons will take. A statement of “God knew what would have happened if Sue were take not eat the pizza on Thursday” is nonsensical if God knew that Sue were to eat pizza on Thursday; Sue’s pizza eating was unavoidable and Sue only has one possible course of actions.
God exists outside of space and time
While it is quite unclear what ‘outside of space and time’ means and how something can exist outside of space and time, some will argue that God is outside of space and time (perhaps to avoid the problem of theological fatalism). Perhaps God doesn’t know the actions before the actions had taken place, but rather sees time much differently than humans do. Perhaps God’s beliefs have no impact on what happens on the earth.
This line of thinking goes against scripture which states that God holds beliefs about what would happen on the earth. As previously mentioned, God knows all things. If God knows all things, it must be the case that God knows what will happen in the future from a ‘human perspective.’
Did not God, according to standard Christian notions of God, create the universe? At one point in time, regardless of whether he is in time or not, God – since he is omniscient – knew (and still would know) all human actions which would occur before any humans existed.
Might past, present, and future be only human concepts that are not coherent from a ‘God point of view?’ Regardless of what the answer to this question may be, assuming that God exists, this seems not to have any bearing on the problem of theological fatalism. Regardless of how God exists or where God exists, God has beliefs about human beings that cannot be falsified.
God is omniscient and knows, exactly, if he exists, what I shall do in every second of my life; God, if he exists, knows how many essays I have written, how many essays I will write, and is privy to the contents of everything I had ever written. If God, regardless of how or where he exists, holds a belief that I will have written five hundred essays in my life, it is the case that I must write five hundred essays in my lifetime because God’s belief cannot be falsified; my future is unavoidable and must contain me writing five hundred essays.
God doesn’t know the future
Giving up omniscience or otherwise trying to limit God’s omniscience might be the final solution for the theist to escape the problem of theological fatalism. This, though, would force the theist to relinquish one of the ‘omni-terms’ usually attributed to God; God is believed to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent. If the theist is willing to give up omniscience, so be it.