The Divine Ideas as Possible Grounds for God’s Middle Knowledge

“Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.)” CSL, Letter to Beversluis

There is a major difficulty in explaining how a timeless God in an “eternal now” could know our future free choices by simply seeing them. I made a rough sketch as to why this was in my previous post. My point was basically this. If God knows our future free choices timelessly, this really reduces to either a) that he knows them by determining them and therefore destroying free will or b)  that he is temporal, since he first gains knowledge of and then responds to various free choices in time. Therefore, if one wants to hold that God has infallible knowledge of our future free choices (I am aware some deny this), we must do more than simply assert that he “sees them in his eternal now.”

Let’s concede for a moment that there is enough Scriptural and experiential evidence to say that God’s having foreknowledge of future free choices is true; or that, in principle, there seems to be nothing spectacularly unbelievable in the idea of knowing what a person would freely choose in advance. I’m therefore going to suppose that there is no logical connection between merely foreknowing that something will come to pass and the necessity of the event that is foreknown. As far as I can tell, simply knowing what will happen does not strictly imply that the event itself happens because the agent foreknew it would happen.

Now, the idea of middle knowledge – i.e. God’s knowledge of what any free being would do in any circumstance – has been used to reconcile God’s foreknowledge and our free will. But traditionally the theory has been criticized because it provides no rational ground for such knowledge on God’s part. If God cannot observe free actions (which would mean he could not know them in advance), then in order to know them for certain he would have to determine their truth value by an act of will. But this really just reduces to theological determinism and destroys free choices. They would be what they are because God would have determined them so by his will.

But it seems to me there may in fact be a possible ground for middle knowledge, not in God’s will (which is voluntary), but in his nature. 

Imagine that there are such things as purely spiritual, individual essences. Could not these essences, as being singular and particular, possess their own properties in respect to how they would freely act in any situation? By freely I mean self-originatingly, insofar as the act came from that essence’s will, rather than the will of an outside agent. It seems possible that each agent, as an agent, has the property, as part of its own essence, of an infinite set of self-willed responses to whatever circumstances it may be in. In the same way a triangle has the property of three-sidedness inherent in its own essence as triangle, so too may Peter for instance have the property of self-acting in such a way in such and such a situation inherent in his own essence as Peter.

Now, the real point to grasp here is that the counterfactual facts of these essences are not something that exist because of God’s will. Rather, they exist in God’s mind, which is itself rooted in God’s nature. God’s will only comes into play when considering God’s creation of the world and that which is contingent. (Remember, classically theologians have always held that the Son is not produced by the Father’s will but by his nature.) Therefore, God’s will would have power over which circumstances he places the particular essences in – and this would constitute his providence over creation – but his will would not have power over the contents of his mind – i.e. what he perceives as possible and impossible, true and false, etc. This is no more problematic for God’s sovereignty, by the way, than supposing that God could not make a triangle with four sides or a married bachelor. The fact is that since the will naturally follows the intellect (rather than the opposite), it is just not possible, even for an omnipotent being, to perform actions logically impossible.

For that last point to work it is crucial we keep the relation between God’s mind and will correctly oriented. Grasping such a relation is necessary in order to understand how God could possess in his mind the ideas of creaturely essences, instantiate those essences, place them in all the circumstances he wanted to, and yet not be the one who “determined” their free actions. The core truth behind such a relation is this: the divine will follows the divine reason. That is, God “determines” not the content of his mind – for that is absurd – but rather his own action with respect to the content that is already there. Think of it this way. When a painter sits down to paint, does he determine the very nature of “shape” “color” “line” etc? Or does he determine, by using these concepts as they already exist in his mind, how to use shapes, colors, and lines?

Will and Intellect are closely intertwined, but the two are not the same thing and there is a relational priority between them. If a thing is “volitional” – that is, if we will a certain action – what we will or choose already presupposes a great many things we do not will or choose. In willing to drink beer rather than water I also do not will – in the sense that I lack the objective capacity for willing – that things like beer and water and taste and thirst exist. The will must necessarily function on “given” data that is presented to it that it does not itself freely choose. Think of the absurdity that would result if every choice meant that the options presented in the choice must themselves have been chosen.

So I want to make a sharp distinction between what exists

a) first in God’s knowledge, which he does not will in the sense of possessing voluntary power regarding (for remember what is “voluntary” is simply what the will chooses already supposing certain things it perceives as given and unchangeable) 


b) secondly through God’s act of will.

It seems to me reasonable to say that God’s act of will, in which he creates the essences he comprehends as ideas, and places them in various circumstances, does not itself determine how the creatures will freely choose in any situation. That is part of the unchangeable data given to it by the intellect that the will works on. The circumstances, the gifts of grace, the various emotional promptings, and the miraculous movement of the matter of the universe: these are things caused by the will of God. But the actual acts of free agents themselves – these, it seems to me, are simply things God instantiates or creates or allows to be, rather than actively determines.

But how, in regards to a mechanism, would God know creaturely essences which themselves have the ability to do otherwise? It seems to me we could just simply say that such knowledge is necessarily rooted in God’s nature as a potentially creative being. That is, it follows from God being necessarily possibly creative that he also has, necessarily and part of his nature, the ideas of free creaturely essences eternally in his mind, independent of their instantiation. Whether or not such essences will in fact be created, and what circumstances they will be in if they are, is something that would depend on his free will. But the truth value of counterfactuals would be grounded in God’s mind, which is rooted in his nature.

By the way, such a notion of God’s knowledge would be unaffected by whether or not you thought God was temporal or timeless, it seems to me.


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