On God’s Foreknowledge of Possibilities

“God willed the free will of men and angels in spite of His knowledge that it could lead in some cases to sin and then to suffering…” CSL, Letters 6/7/49

To the degree that we are free to do x, it is genuinely possible that we do x. Therefore the fact that we do x cannot be settled before we do it, or that would remove the genuine possibility from our doing x in the first place, and we would not be free to do x. In other words, if our doing x is true before our doing it, then the possibility of x happening would not really be something that we had control over, and performing or not performing it would not be something really possible for us. The genuine possibility of x occurring or not would rest somewhere further back – perhaps in Nature or God’s will – but it would not be found in our free choice.

Many people grant this. In fact all who believe in free will will say that the coming to pass of certain possibilities is genuinely up to us. But at the same time many of these people still hold that God can know, before a possibility is settled, how that possibility will in fact be settled. But I don’t see how this can be.

It seems to me a contradiction to say that God can know a fact as both possible and settled, for to be both possible and settled at the same time is contradictory. What sense would it make to say that I am both “potentially” married and “certainly” married? In fact, to the degree that a thing is possible means that that thing is just so much not settled. And vice versa: for a thing to be settled means that that thing is just so much not possibly different. I am only potentially married if I am not, in fact, actually married. And I am only possibly a father to the extent that I do not actually in the present have any children. In other words, insofar as something is possible, it is not settled; and insofar as a thing is settled, it is not possible.

Here is what follows. If God is in time – and it may be possible for him to be in time in a way that does not exclude his timelessness – then God’s foreknowledge about possible future free choices would itself be knowledge of things possible. This is because what he knows are possibilities, not certainties.

If we have free will, that means we can go either this way or that way. Hence both ways are possible to us. Therefore neither way is settled ahead of time. And if this is so then God’s knowledge of our free will and the matrix of possibilities connected to it would not be of realities that are already settled. This does not mean his knowledge is imperfect or uncertain, anymore than his decision to create free beings makes his omnipotence imperfect or weak. It is just that to the extent that we free (however small or great that is), the what God knows is different than it is regarding things to which we are not free. For what God knows just are free possibilities themselves. Therefore they cannot be settled realities, for that would exclude him knowing them as possibilities. 

This point really comes down to whether or not you think God is able to know possibilities qua possibilities. If he is, then he must know them as open ended realities, as true forks in the road which can either one be taken. He cannot know the same thing as both possibly true and certainly true, for those two metaphysical modalities exclude one another just as right excludes left and good excludes evil. This – along with the grounding objection – is one reason Molinism is an unsatisfactory theory. For if God knows all possibilities ahead of time, even before free creatures exist to actualize them, I can’t see in what sense the possibility is known as a genuine possibility. The facticity of the event is settled from before the foundation of the world, and so never existed as a possibility in the first place.



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