Simple Foreknowledge is Useless for Providence
Simple foreknowledge has catastrophic problems and the attempts to resuscitate it have failed. It is time to move on and affirm either dynamic omniscience, middle knowledge, or theological determinism.
William Hasker and John Sanders have explained why simple foreknowledge is useless for God. David Hunt has made several attempts to rebut this criticism, but each time Hasker has shown why these attempts fail. I summarize the issue and main problems below.
Doctrines are not just abstract ideas. They are tools to accomplish tasks. The doctrine of simple foreknowledge was developed to accomplish an explanatory task. Simple foreknowledge (and timeless knowledge) is the idea that God can “observe” or know all events of human history prior to creation. God somehow “sees” every event that will ever occur. Several early Christian writers used simple foreknowledge to explain two issues regarding God’s foreknowledge and human libertarian freedom. (1) How God, prior to creation, could elect individuals for salvation without overriding their freewill. (2) How God, prior to creation, could logically “respond” to a prayer made in history without determining the prayer. The way it works is that God learned via foreknowledge that a human, say Kate, was going to follow Jesus and so God, prior to creation, chose Kate for eternal life based on the foreknowledge of Kate’s action in history. That is, divine foreknowledge allowed God to respond to Kate’s actions. Similarly, prior to creation, God used foreknowledge to learn that Thomas was going to pray for something and so decided to answer the prayer before Thomas ever existed.
Throughout history, proponents of Simple Foreknowledge have claimed that this type of knowledge is of great value to God. The common claim is that God could foresee some event and then take steps to respond or even prevent that event. Hasker has stated the basic problem with this: “[I]t is clear that God’s foreknowledge cannot be used either to bring about the occurrence of a foreknown event or to prevent such an event from occurring. For what God foreknows is not certain antecedents which, unless interfered with in some way, will lead to the occurrence of the event; rather, it is the event itself that is foreknown as occurring, and it is contradictory to suppose that an event is known to occur but then also is prevented from occurring. In the logical order of dependence of events, one might say, by the “time” God knows something will happen, it is “too late” either to bring about its happening or to prevent it from happening.” [Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge, pp. 57-8. This same criticism was made in 1843 by Billy Hibbard, Memoirs, p. 387, and by Keith Ward Rational Theology, (1982), p. 152.]
My work provides many examples using different types of situations to show that simple foreknowledge simply cannot accomplish the tasks its proponents claim it does. For example, if, prior to creation, God uses simple foreknowledge and “sees” that event DJ (destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians) will occur at T (587 BCE), can God provide the prophet Jeremiah with information about DJ so that the people of Israel are warned and might repent which would lead God to prevent the destruction of Jerusalem? The answer is, No. Once God previsions all of history up to event DJ, then God cannot change any event that God knows to be a fact prior to event DJ. Once God previsions every event up to the time of DJ, God then knows every event in Jeremiah’s life up to that time. It is “too late” (in the logical order of explanation) for God to provide Jeremiah with a warning about the future DJ. After all, God did not foresee God warning Jeremiah when God previsioned the events up to DJ. God would need to change the actual events of Jeremiah’s life by warning him. But this would change God’s knowledge of what, according to the Simple Foreknowledge view, are facts. [If God did prevision God warning Jeremiah before DJ, then God did not choose to warn Jeremiah. God simply foresaw God’s own actions which seems to mean that God is following a script devised by someone else.]
In sum, if every event up to the destruction of Jerusalem is settled (fact), then the knowledge God has of those events cannot be used to change the events because you cannot change what is already settled.
Let us suppose that God contemplates the entire set of future events via foreknowledge. Hasker says, “In so deliberating, God has, so to speak, all of time and history spread out before him in his foreknowledge. How, we wonder, does this knowledge assist God in deciding what he shall best do? A little reflection reveals that the answer is, not at all! In fact, in that situation God is completely unable to make any decisions whatsoever concerning God’s future actions. For the entirety of the future, including all of God’s own actions, is already there, present in God’s comprehensive foreknowledge; it is completely impossible that God should at that point decide to do anything different, which would mean that his infallible foreknowledge was not in fact infallible after all. There might be some things that God would wish might be different, but it is “always already too late” for any change to be made.” [Hasker “Et Tu” p. 3]
“It now becomes apparent that the simple foreknowledge proponent is forced to walk a fine line, if she is to justify the claim that her view affords God advantages as compared with open theism. Affirming either that all of God’s foreknowledge is available as he makes his decisions, or that none of it is available, has the same result: simple foreknowledge is providentially useless.” [Hasker “Et Tu” p. 4]
To get around this, David Hunt and some others have suggested that God can access some factual future contingent events while eliminating other factual future contingent events from God’s awareness. That is, God is somehow able to not be aware of some of the divine knowledge when God is deliberating about what to do.
Hasker raises a couple of problems with this proposal. “[T]his raises the separate question as to how God decides just which segment of the future to access in his providential decision-making, so as to avoid all circularity” (p. 9). Hasker asks us to envision God peeking between the divine fingers to see some events and block out others. How does God decide which events to see and which to block out? To date, no plausible explanation has been given for which events God sees and which events God blocks out. If the blocked out events are intentional by God, then God would need some awareness of all events so that God could decide which events to block out—so they are not really blocked out. If the blocked out events are accidental to or arbitrary by God, then divine providence is limited to those events God was fortunate enough to see (not a promising position for simple foreknowledge).
A second, and I believe decisive problem, writes Hasker is “Even though God (for purposes of his decision with regard to t) is unaware of most of his knowledge of the future, that knowledge does exist. And the existence of that knowledge entails that the future is ontologically determinate, even though many future events are not implied or necessitated by facts about the past and present of the world up until t.” [Hasker, “Et Tu” p. 11] This means that every single future event that God knows via simple foreknowledge is metaphysically determinate—there is a fact of the matter for the entirety of the future. According to simple foreknowledge, God’s knowledge of the ontologically determinate future is infallible. God is unable to alter what God infallibly knows. Hence, simple foreknowledge is useless.
In sum, there are two key problems. The first is that Hunt and others have yet to produce any sort of plausible explanation for how God could pick-and-choose which future contingent events to foreknow and which God can be unaware of. The second issue is that even if God selectively ignores some future events, the ignored events are ontologically determinate and cannot be changed. Either (1) those future events are facts (determinate) and cannot be changed so simple foreknowledge is useless, or (2) if they can be changed then they are alethically open (the truth of those events is not determinate), for God to foreknow and now we no longer have the theory of simple foreknowledge in which God foreknows the complete history of events! The proponents of simple foreknowledge cannot have it both ways. Either all future events are determinate in which case foreknowledge is useless or only some future events are determinate in which case the theory of simple foreknowledge has been abandoned because there is no complete story of history for God to foreknow.
No view of omniscience is free from questions. However, the two key problems with simple foreknowledge are catastrophic: (1) the incompatibility of foreknowledge with freewill and (2) the uselessness of simple foreknowledge. The vast majority of philosophers who write on divine foreknowledge affirm one of three views: dynamic omniscience (held by open theists and others), middle knowledge (Molinism), or theological determinism (God knows the future because God determines the future). Simple foreknowledge is not a live option in philosophy today. The theologians and pastors who affirm simple foreknowledge are either unaware of the uselessness of simple foreknowledge or they do not care. It really is time, however, to either show how simple foreknowledge is providentially useful or abandon the theory.
*I thank William Hasker and Alan Rhoda for helpful comments on this paper.
William Hasker, “Et Tu, Zimmerman? Is Foreknowledge Useful After All?” 2022 TheoLogica: An International Journal for Philosophy of Religion and Philosophical Theology. Published Online First: June 13, 2022 DOI: https://doi.org/10.14428/thl.v7i2.66783 1
William Hasker, “Why Simple Foreknowledge is still Useless.” JETS 52/3 (2007)
Sanders, God Who Risks, revised edition (2007), pages 209-217.
Sanders, “Why Simple Foreknowledge offers no more providential control than the openness of God” Faith and Philosophy, 14, no 1, 1997 pages 26-40.
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