Eternity, God’s Knowledge, and Free Will

Reading Time: 10 minutes

By Michael Kurkowski, University of Notre Dame

Time is the measure of change.  Anything eternal (ex-terminus) is without a boundary in time; has neither beginning nor end.  There is only one existent being that “possesses this quality,” that of being eternal, namely, God, the One as described in various texts leading up to Boethius.  As first mover, He must necessarily have existed eternally in order to set the universe in motion. Without getting caught up in the question of how one can cause a change outside of time, we logically march directly towards the problem of evil: how can positive evil exist in a universe created by an omnipotent, omniscient God, who is also benevolent?  It seems God can only claim two of these three attributes.  

One solution to this problem, which will be an operative principle throughout, and highly fought over, is the existence of free will.  With free will, God can cause the universe and hold it in existence, and its existence can be good, but a rational agent can act in a vicious way, i.e., not befitting to its nature, through the exercise of its own will.  Thus evil is a privation of good action, and God’s benevolent nature is redeemed. Unless, of course, we consider the fact that in His infinite power and knowledge, he created this being knowing that it would commit an “evil action.”  Suddenly His spying nature from eternity lost Him His benevolence. God (A) caused the existence of, say, a human (B), which caused evil to occur (C). Naturally, A causing B and B causing C imply that A causes C. Sed contra, A’s knowledge of the future actions of B are in no way at odds with His benevolent creation of B, since C is contingent.  This is because the human perspective is limited by the confines of time and worldly existence and cannot conceive of eternity in the way that God “possesses” it.  

Boethius uses eternity to defend the existence of free will.  In the privation model, free will must exist to allow God to keep all three attributes.  Taking the privation model and this description of God as established, one is left with an eternal struggle between divine foreknowledge and free will.  How can God know what actions I will take if I freely choose them? How can I freely choose anything if God already knows what I will choose? That certainly doesn’t seem very free, especially if God has known my every action for eternity.  As Boethius outlines in The Consolation of Philosophy V. 2, “‘no rational creature could exist if it did not possess freedom of will’” (99).  One need only pause for a moment to consider one’s choices and how they could have made them differently to be convinced of one’s own free will.  The consideration of choices and how one acts in response demonstrate the necessity of free will for a rational agent, but they do not explain God’s foreknowledge before any decision is made.  

Boethius finds himself trapped between the causal nature of divine foreknowledge and man’s actions: God created humans with the knowledge of their future actions, but He did not actually cause the actions.  Boethius is unconvinced by the reverse argument: “things foreseen do not…happen by necessity, but that things which will happen are necessarily foreseen” (101). This causal nature seems inescapable: “necessity lies either in that future events are foreseen by God, or that things foreseen happen because they are foreseen.”  In other words, a future event that will occur is foreseen by God and will thus occur, or God foresees an event, and by nature of his omniscience, that event will occur. In either case, free will is being walked right out the mental door.  

In this argument, Boethius compares God’s understanding with man’s and adjusts the time-related circumstances to each.  Given a seated person, “…the belief…that he is seated must necessarily be true; and conversely, if the belief that a certain person is seated is true, then he must be seated.”  If God’s belief (knowledge) of a future event is true, then the event must necessarily happen, and any contingency based upon action from an agent with free will is removed. The converse is claimed to be unfit for God, since it forces His knowledge to depend on previous actions.  In essence, an event about to occur must be foreseen, but this means God has to wait and watch for the previous events to occur before He can know of the foreseen one. This doesn’t quite match His omniscience. Perhaps at this point Boethius is safer tossing out free will altogether.  

Lady Philosophy offers a thought experiment that sheds light on Boethius’ confusion.  Consider the billiard ball model of the universe: as long as some grand intellect knows the starting positions and initial velocities of every particle in the universe, He can see every outcome from the start.  Without invoking quantum mechanics and the issues it raises, a walk through Philosophy’s thought experiment is quite revealing. She takes Boethius’ parameters, and supposes an event is about to occur. Without divine foreknowledge, free will is intact, and the event happens.  Taking the same scenario and dropping divine foreknowledge back into the mix, the event still occurs, free will is lost, and the universe is reduced to the billiard ball model. Removing divine foreknowledge once more from the equation, free will is still utterly absent since every event is determined by a series of previous ones.  Now the conversation has shifted from ‘divine foreknowledge vs. free will’ to ‘neither divine foreknowledge nor free will.’ A quick return to the premises and their conclusions is clearly absurd. Both exist, but still appear incompatible; however, this thought experiment implies that the structure of the argument is flawed.  

It is at this point that Options 2 and 3 begin to merge as a single factor in the solution.  Up until now, Boethius has been considering God’s foreknowledge of events in the universe in human terms, drawing from human experiences, with a human memory, and based on human knowledge.  A paradigm shift is required to gain any deeper understanding, as evidenced from the epitome of the previous argument’s structure and its necessary consequences. Its heavy reliance on human understanding and the attempt to extrapolate divine qualities from human experiences cause it to fall very short of a succinct and rational explanation from a divine perspective.  The adjustment to a new perspective, however, requires a clarification of terms and a change in the analogy between God’s and man’s knowledge.  

“Eternity, then, is the total and perfect possession of life without end” (110).  In other translations, the word ‘simultaneous’ is inserted in this definition, which aids in clarifying its precise meaning, especially since Boethius establishes that he does mean for the definition of eternity to include it in the sentences immediately following.  Before using this definition, Philosophy proposes a shift from attempting to project man’s knowledge of events within time to a more big-picture notion of the universe and man’s place in it. The analogy can be reduced to man’s sensory perception of a physical object being compared to his rational grasp of its properties as similar to man’s knowledge that an event occurs (necessarily in the present or the past) comparing to God’s knowledge of an event occurring in God’s present.  Here, the two options fuse: the difference between the Divine and the human perspective is precisely that God exists in eternity.  

Being eternal, God possesses His entire self simultaneously.  Man is confined to the limits of time, at one point possessing a height of nineteen inches and being unable to walk; at another possessing a height of five feet seven inches and being unable to remember life at nineteen inches tall.  Within time, man can change, and time measures that change. At any one point in time, man can possess himself in the present moment, but he can only possess himself as he is at that moment. At that instant, no time passes, so he is unchanging.  While he is within time, that instant will pass as another comes and goes, and all the while he is changing as he passes through time. At any given instant in time, he can be aware of everything occurring to him, as it affects him at that moment, without causing these things to occur (e.g., feeling his foot be stepped on and the instant the searing pain registers).  

As comprehensive and self-coherent of a definition of eternity this seems to be, it has no mention of time at all, and yet a paragraph of explanation purely on how it relates to time was necessary to gain a fuller understanding not only of how it factors into the narrative, but also of what it even means.  Self-possession of one’s own life, for human comprehension, only makes sense within the context that humans can comprehend, within time.  However, a being, or rather, The Being who alone is eternal can exist outside of time and be given this attribute with no mention of time whatsoever: God alone is eternal and possesses His life totally and perfectly…eternally (without end).  Bringing this back within the context of human understanding, God exists unto Himself in the present, but has total self-possession, i.e., there is no time to elapse for Him to possess any different version of Himself since He’s got it all.  

Since God is whole, the One, simple, and perfectly united, all that exists must have some existence in God, otherwise He would be missing some part of existence, i.e., not whole or perfect.  Thus all creation participates in God’s existence not only in that He set the universe in motion (and brought about its existence), but also as continually existing, it must have some share in God’s being, in His existence merely because it and all that dwells, moves, and breathes within it exist.  Here we can see that if anything existing were to be eternal, either God would also be eternal or nothing would be. Aquinas has an eloquent explanation for God’s sole eternity, but to remain on level philosophical footing, it is possible to arrive at the same conclusion without invoking Scripture.  Thus there are four cases under scrutiny: God is eternal and so is the universe (or some part of it); God is eternal and nothing else in the universe is; God is not eternal but something created is; and nothing is eternal.  

  1. The first case is clearly not correct since the universe and all within it are ever changing and thus bounded by time.  This fundamentally contradicts the definition of eternity.  
  2. The second case holds theoretical water, and merits a revisitation.  
  3. In the third case, one may be tempted to accept that God is not eternal since some part of God, namely the Second Person, existed in time.  Additionally, if miracles happen or God answers somebody’s prayers, it certainly seems as though God is changing—or changing His mind at least—and change is measured by the passage of time.  However, it does not take much thought to realize that everything in the universe is subject to the same constraints that the universe itself is, specifically time, as demonstrated in case 1, so this case is defeated regardless.  
  4. In light of the previous scenarios, the fourth case begins to appear more appealing.  One can reject divine foreknowledge in favor of the view that God, an omnipotent being, learns of our future actions as we perform them, thus allowing free will to win the battle Boethius proposed at the outset.  This view takes on more problems, however, as further analysis reveals that an omnipotent being confined to the realm of time isn’t as powerful as a being without this constraint. Without proposing a self-defeatist question (e.g., Can God create a rock so big He can’t lift it?), one can ask how time, a constituent of the universe, can exist (we can measure it, see its effects, etc.) if its existence is itself necessary for its creator to exist.  Now God is dependent on some other preexistence before He can exist…to even create it. Not only is this argument now self-contradicting, it limits God’s power to be able to act in whatever state He is confined to at a given time.  

Thus it is evident that God alone must be eternal.  This has numerous and serious implications on the existence of free will and whether God’s omniscience negates it.  

All creation participates in existence with God’s, and yet God possesses Himself totally, perfectly, and simultaneously.  Thus God’s entire existence is present to Himself in a single moment, and like the realization that one’s toe has been stepped on, God sees all of existence in an instant.  Again similar to the toe, God does not cause future events contingent on the free will of rational agents. The entire dichotomy hinges on a misunderstanding of this key concept.  To use the terminology of Option 3, God’s perspective of the universe is more than fundamentally different from man’s; He doesn’t “see events before they occur” because this vocabulary can only function within time.  God sees time itself as an instant, an ever-present moment, an eternal now. For Him there is no time distinction between events that we measure as “in the past/future” or “occurring before another.” To Him they are all occurring.  His perspective on time isn’t merely faster than man’s, time plays no part in His perspective. The divine perspective is exactly the perspective of that which is. Here, “is” refers to the eternal present, but humans would say “that which was, is, and will be.”  Hence it is an understatement to say that God’s perspective differs from man’s on future contingents. To God there is no future, and the human term “foreknowledge” is simply an attempt to differentiate between man’s knowledge within time and God’s knowledge of time as the eternal being.  

The final wrench to be thrown by the skeptic is that of the distinction between contingent events and automatic ones.  Automatic here is meant to signify necessary by means of no rational agent, e.g., the rising and setting of the sun, the falling of rain when two fronts collide, etc., so as not to conflate meanings of the term “necessary.”  It is impossible to completely separate the two types of events, claiming that those pertaining to rational beings are contingent (upon their choices) and the rest fit the billiard ball schematic for two reasons: man can cause or stop automatic events.  For example, man can divert the flow of a river and stop erosion in one spot, while causing erosion in another. In both cases, he has effected or negated automatic events by the contingent (i.e., freely chosen) action of diverting the river. Thus all events in the universe can be considered automatic until the arrival of a rational being on the scene.  At this point in time, contingent events occur and become so widespread that it can be difficult to distinguish any purely automatic events from those that have any contingent influence.  This can be a problem if God’s perspective is limited by contingency, but on a broader level, the whole structure is in danger if God views automatic and contingent (and contingent-influenced) events any differently.  

Throughout this discussion, the notion of contingent events as being specified among all perceived future events really only arose in the framing of the problem as God’s foreknowledge intruding or even trampling on free will with knowledge of future choices, and in the explanation of how God being eternal gives Him a perspective that is different from man’s.  Considered within the context of Boethius’ definition of eternity and how God possesses His entire existence simultaneously, the distinction between contingent and automatic events is in actuality a nonissue. All events perceived as in the future by man, regardless of whether they are contingent or automatic, will happen when the rational agents choose them.  They are still chosen freely, and yet God knows (and has known for eternity) what the choices will be, or rather, are.  

Thus it is evident that a being, particularly the only being who is eternal, can have knowledge of all events that participate in His existence without directly causing them.  These events, as seen from the human perspective, i.e., bounded by time, are understood as occurring in the future, even by rational agents through the exercise of their free will, and yet that free will remains intact because God sees every choice and every event as a present occurrence, not “before” it is chosen or occurs.  Boethius’ definition of eternity outlines this precisely and eloquently; the integration of this definition as the key factor in the differentiation between the Divine and human perspectives is exhibited thus.

Edited by Maggie Rudman

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