posted on Mar, 4 2018 @ 11:43 AM
“Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate-
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute-
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.”
Paradise Lost, Book II, ll557-561, John Milton
That was how the fallen angels in Hell occupied their time.
We should be reluctant to follow them into the maze.
But there might be less danger (remembering a family visit to Hampton Court) in standing on the other side of the boundary hedge and shouting in
I want to confine myself to one detail of the debate, one particular blind alley.
There is a difference between Foreknowledge and Fixed Fate.
The Biblical God claims Foreknowledge of what will happen in the future.
The standard explanation, and probably the best explanation, is that the Creator God stands “outside” the structure of time. For time itself (as
Einstein would agree) is one of the physical dimensions, one of the elements of the created universe.
This means that God has a vantage-point from which he can see our future just as easily as he can see our past and our present.
From our own vantage-point, where the future is invisible, this looks like Foreknowledge.
But what about the argument that this Foreknowledge amounts to Fixed Fate?
“If God knows what I’m going to do, then I can’t change what I’m going to do.
My freedom of will is impaired”.
Now, there may be reasons for thinking that our freedom is impaired, but this is not one of them.
We may try to explain the case by analogy.
Let’s take a novel, one that you know very well. It might be by Jane Austen, Dickens, Zola, Tolstoy… “Dead Souls”? “Pale Fire”? “The
OK, let’s try Tolkien. If you haven’t read “Lord of the Rings”, you will have seen the film, which is closer to the book than most
When you follow the story through again, you will know the plot.
At each stage, you know what Frodo and Sam are going to do. You know what they will decide about leaving the Shire, taking the Ring from Rivendell,
and getting through into Mordor, and you know how these things work out.
To be exact, as you read the “present” chapter from your vantage point of remembering the final chapters, you know what they did.
From the standpoint of the “present”, you know what they will have done.
The important point here is that your “foreknowledge” does not impinge upon their freedom of action.
They have the power (or Tolkien had the power) of directing their course in other ways.
But if they took a different line, then your knowledge of what they did would change, because your knowledge is determined by the final published
version of the book.
In other words, your Foreknowledge is controlled by the choices they make, and not the other way round.
Or we could take a familiar story from History, like the reign of Charles the First (1625-1649).
Once again, when we follow the story through, we know the plot and we can spot the mistakes as they happen.
When the House of Commons gives up the impeachment of Strafford, and passes a Bill of Attainder instead, we know that the king will throw him to the
We know that Charles will fall into the trap of marching down to the House in a failed attempt to arrest the Five Members (“I see my birds have
We know about the harsh letter that will drive Prince Rupert into the disastrous battle of Marston Moor.
We know that even as a prisoner of Parliament, the king won’t be able to resist the temptation to negotiate in bad faith and drag in the Scots for
a second Civil War.
In short, we know what he’s going to do.
To be exact, as we read the “present” chapter of this history from our vantage point of remembering the final chapter, we know what he
From the standpoint of the “present”, we know what he will have done.
The important point here is that our “foreknowledge” does not impinge upon his freedom of action.
He always had the power of directing his course in other ways.
But if he had taken a different line, then our knowledge of what he did would have changed,
because our knowledge is determined by the final version of what happened in history.
In other words, our Foreknowledge is controlled by the choices he made, and not the other way round.
Or what about your own life-story?
You are going to be a very important person.
You will be promoted to, or elected to, offices A, B, and C.
Your achievements will include D, E, and F.
Along the way, you will have made mistakes G, H, and I, but they will all be retrieved by the famous triumph of Q.
A couple of centuries down the line, there is a young lady who regards herself as your greatest fan. She has read all the books about you, seen all
the films, downloaded the hologram.
She dreams about inventing a time-machine, to come back and marry you.
You will guess that she knows every detail of your life-story.
As she reads it over again, she anticipates the promotions and achievements, groans over the mistakes, rejoices in the triumph, and weeps over the
tragic death scene. (Sorry, I wasn’t supposed to talk about the tragic death scene. Forget I mentioned it.)
In short, she knows what you’re going to do.
To be exact, as she reads the “present” chapter of your biography from her vantage point of remembering the final chapters, she knows what you
From the standpoint of the “present”, she knows what you will have done.
The important point here is that her “foreknowledge” does not impinge upon your freedom of action.
You still have the power of directing your course in other ways.
But if you took a different line, then her knowledge of what you did would change, because her knowledge is determined by the final outcome of your
In other words, her Foreknowledge is controlled by the choices you make, and not the other way round.
In the same way, the statement that God knows “what you are going to do” really means this; from the vantage point of observing your future, he
knows what you did.
From the standpoint of our present, he knows what you will have done.
The important point here is that his “foreknowledge” does not impinge upon your freedom of action.
You still have the power of directing your course in other ways.
But if you took a different line, then his knowledge of what you’ve done would also be different, because his knowledge is determined by the final
outcome of your decisions.
In other words, his Foreknowledge is controlled by the choices you make, and not the other way round.
There may or may not be scriptural reasons for regarding God as writer of the book, as well as reader.
However, that is another set of problems in the darker part of the maze, where the Minotaur lurks.
The central point here is that Foreknowledge is not in itself a reason for believing in Fixed Fate.
So let’s leave the maze behind. Shall we go for a pot of tea and some scones, and then go round the rest of the Palace?