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Theological Fatalism

Theological Fatalism

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Published by Justin Vacula
I explore the problem of theological fatalism which contests that free will and an omniscient being, God, are incompatible.
I explore the problem of theological fatalism which contests that free will and an omniscient being, God, are incompatible.

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Published by: Justin Vacula on Jan 30, 2012
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Vacula 1 Justin Vacula Theological Fatalism Introduction The notion that we have free will is often taken for

granted and assumed to be true; many feel that their actions are 'up to them' and because of this, they assume that they have free will. Although free will seems to be the case, we must be concerned about what actually is the case. While many of our intuitions seem to be accurate and can often be correct, many of our intuitions are wrong1. While thinking that free will is an illusion may be quite troubling, false, and counter-intuitive, we must be careful to separate our emotions from our beliefs in order to arrive at the truth2. One 'problem' with the concept of free will, as may be the case with many discussions involving philosophical inquiry, is defining the term in question to begin with. Additionally, some philosophers have recently abandoned or otherwise do not like using the term 'free will' because of its theological baggage and rather concern themselves with human volition. For purposes of this essay, I will use the term free will that will be understood as 'the ability to exercise control over one's actions and have the ability to choose from various [alternative] courses of actions.” This essay will not cover various contexts in which free will may or may not be had, but rather will explore whether free will is compatible with the existence of an omniscient being. [I won't argue for or against free will if there exists no omniscient being.] Various atheists, from my experience, have a slight understanding of the problem of free will being harmonious with an omniscient being -- theological fatalism -- but few really seem to understand the problem or otherwise have voiced the objections in a lengthy and sophisticated manner. Some may say, “How can persons have free will if God knows the future?” and “If God already knows what persons are going to do, how can they have free will?” Theists, when objecting to the problem of
1 Just because one or most of our intuitions are right does not entail that all of them are. 2

Vacula 2 theological fatalism, don't seem to quite understand the problem (or otherwise have not heard a lengthy and precise description of what the problem is) when they voice objections to theological fatalism such as “God just knew what you would do before you did it, so there's no problem” or “God just knows all of your possibilities of action, but still allows you to act freely.” This essay should serve to better explain the problem of theological fatalism, respond to objections, and better inform all parties of the problem that lies between free will and an omniscient being. I will argue that notions of free will are incompatible with standard theistic belief; if an omniscient being exists, humans can not have free will in any meaningful sense – this is the problem of theological fatalism. Fatalism In his book Metaphysics, Philosopher Richard Taylor defines fatalism as “the belief that whatever happens is unavoidable” (55). Taylor defines a fatalist as someone who believes that whatever has happened and whatever will happen is and always was unavoidable. The future for the fatalist is just like the past for everyone else – the past is settled and fixed and although we may not remember it or know what it is, it cannot be changed and is certainly not 'up to us.' Those who are not fatalists may think that the past was once 'up to us,' but will agree that what has happened in the past is no longer within our power to influence. The fatalist looks at the future and the past in a similar manner (55-56). Suppose that an omniscient being exists3. Such a being would know every fact about the universe: this being knows how many hairs are on my head, how many people were bitten by mosquitoes in the past twenty minutes, and even what will happen in the future. Biblical support for God knowing the future comes from 1 John 3:20 (in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things), Acts 1:24 (Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men), and Psalm 44:21 (For he knoweth the secrets of the heart) just to name a few verses. Outside of Bible verses, the Christian god is known to be omniscient – this includes knowing everything that can
3 This being need not be the Christian god or have any other characteristics that a god might have. Only assume omniscience for the other characteristics, if any, do not matter.

Vacula 3 be known including the future. Currently, various interrogative propositions can be uttered about the future such as “Will rain fall tomorrow?” and “How many people will be reading books tomorrow?” that an all-knowing being would know the answers to. If an omniscient being did not know the answers to these questions, such a being could not possibly be called omniscient. An omniscient being would hold all and only true beliefs and could never be mistaken, for if this being was mistaken, it could not be omniscient. It need not be the case that such a being prearranged everything or wanted the future to be what it would be, but rather only that such a being knows what the future is. Such a being may have willed the future to contain certain events, but this need not be the case. Suppose that an omniscient being could write a book containing the details of someone's life. If someone were to read this book and find the details of his/her own life, he may have good reason to suggest that everything in the book would come true. Perhaps this person read facts about his/her own life that no one else was privy to and assumed that the only possible way that these facts could be known is if an omniscient being existed. If it is the case that every fact in this book is true and must be true, such a person has no power over what will happen in the future. A belief coming from an omniscient being cannot possibly be false! No matter what this person tried to do, whatever would happen in his/her life would be unavoidable and the person would have no choice in the matter. Taylor details such a case in his chapter “Fate” dealing with the story of Osmo. Osmo finds such a book and is convinced that everything in the book must be true, but tries to avoid his eventual future of dying in a plane crash. Regardless of his efforts, Osmo's aiplane, which he originally thought would not be going to the place the book mentioned, had taken a surprise landing. Osmo, hearing this news, tried to hijack the plane and this eventually led to his death (58-60). Osmo realized that true statements existed about his past and future because he had read this book. When he saw future chapters in the book and when the future chapters became past chapters, he

Vacula 4 realized that these events were all true. It need not have been the case that the book existed or that an omniscient being existed, but rather was the case that a set of true statements existed. True statements, in the sense of absolutely certain objective facts about the universe, cannot be falsified4. A god need not have intervened upon Osmo's life to make these events happen; the events simply had to have happened because they were objectively true statements and could not have been falsified. Taylor notes that Osmo did not believe that the events would happen 'no matter what' because they could not have happened unless Osmo was in specific places at specific times. Osmo, to die in a plane crash, must have been in a plane, for example, so 'no matter what' cannot apply to fatalism because this is not what the fatalist contention is. Taylor writes, “Osmo's fatalism was simply the realization that the things described in the book were unavoidable” (61). Osmo's efforts to save himself were in vain because he could not possibly avoid his future. Taylor writes, “No power in heaven or earth can render false a statement that is true. It never has been done, and never will be” (61). A logical proof Although the problem of theological fatalism can be illustrated outside of a logical proof, a logical proof may be helpful to better understand the problem. The following is a proof from Dr. David Kyle Johnson found here.
Assume that God exists and call whatever action you will perform at noon tomorrow ‘X’. (1) If you can freely perform X at noon tomorrow, it must be possible for you to not perform X at noon tomorrow (from the Principle of Alternate Possibilities). (2) God believed yesterday that you will perform X at noon tomorrow. (This follows from God’s omniscience). (3) God’s beliefs are events. (4) All past events are necessary (the past cannot be undone).
4 This is what I mean by 'true statements' throughout this paper. Worry not about what humans consider to be true or justified belief.

Vacula 5
(5) God’s past belief that you will perform X at noon tomorrow is necessary (from 2, 3 & 4). (6) Necessarily, if God believes something will occur, it will occur. (This follows from God’s necessary omniscience.) (7) It is necessary that you will perform X at noon tomorrow (from 5 & 6 by a ‘transfer of necessity’). (8) It is not possible for you to not perform X at noon tomorrow (from 7). (9) Therefore, you cannot perform X at noon tomorrow freely (from 1 and 8).

Implications This poses an interesting dilemma for those who believe in an omniscient being and free will. If an omniscient being exists, there can be no free will. If there is free will, there can be no omniscient being. An omniscient being would know all truths about the future and could not possibly be incorrect; if any of the being's beliefs were falsified, it would not be omniscient. All of these truths were known by the being assuming that it existed before humans did. If all of these truths are known by this being, there is only one set of logically possible outcomes that can happen in the future – persons have no choice in any matters whatsoever because the future necessarily must happen according to this being's knowledge. Our characters and all of our actions, then, would not be determined by us, but rather must be in exact accord with what this being knows about the future. It is not the case that this being would know all possible outcomes and people would have genuine choices because only one future is possible; there would not be multiple possible futures. Considering Objections Just because God knows how one will act doesn't mean that persons lose free will One objection, noted on CARM.org (Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry) is that just because God knows what one will do in the future does not mean that persons have no free will. The

Vacula 6 author of a specific article on this topic writes, “Free will does not stop becoming free because God knows what will happen.” The author of the article mentions that he/she knows that his/her child will eat chocolate cake instead of eating dead mice. He/she then writes, “Knowing this is not taking away the freedom of my child since she is freely choosing one over another. Likewise, for God to know what a person will choose does not mean that the person has no freedom to make the choice. It simply means that God knows what the person will choose. This is necessarily so since God knows all things.” The author of the article misses a crucial point of contention for theological fatalism: God's beliefs can't be falsified because he is omniscient. Since God knows that a child will eat chocolate cake, the child's eating of chocolate cake is unavoidable; it is impossible for the child to refrain from eating chocolate cake because God's beliefs can't be falsified (and God had believed that the child would eat chocolate cake). Additionally, the analogy presented here is very faulty. While humans may be able to predict an action or even may be almost certain that one would partake in a given action, this knowledge is not that of being omniscient, but rather knowledge based on reasonable inferences, weighing alternatives, etc. For example, one can be reasonably confident that at least one student will be present in a particular college classroom at a particular time. If one were to hold this belief, it can be rendered false, but if God were to hold this belief, it can not. Omniscience is vastly different than human knowledge. Free will is an “advanced recording” One may contest that God's knowledge is simply that of what one would have done before an action was followed through. This, though, is not compatible with omniscience because God knows the future – and therein lies the problem of theological fatalism. God holds beliefs about which actions humans will take, if he exists, and these beliefs cannot be falsified. If God's knowledge is indeed an 'advanced recording,' this solidifies the problem of theological fatalism; God knows actions before humans act and these beliefs that God holds about these actions cannot be falsified.

Vacula 7 God knows all possible actions and still allows freedom Some, perhaps to avoid the problem of theological fatalism, will contend that God knows all possible alternatives that people may choose regarding a certain course of actions and does not know which 'route' persons will take. This, though, is incompatible with God's omniscience; God, if he exists, knows exactly which actions persons will take. A statement of “God knew what would have happened if Sue were take not eat the pizza on Thursday” is nonsensical if God knew that Sue were to eat pizza on Thursday; Sue's pizza eating was unavoidable and Sue only has one possible course of actions. God exists outside of space and time While it is quite unclear, exactly, what 'outside of space and time' means and how something can exist outside of space and time, some will argue that God is outside of space and time (perhaps to avoid the problem of theological fatalism). Perhaps God doesn't know the actions before the actions had taken place, but rather sees time much differently than humans do. Perhaps God's beliefs have no impact on what happens on the earth. This line of thinking goes against scripture which states that God holds beliefs about what would happen on the earth. As previously mentioned, God knows all things. If God knows all things, it must be the case that God knows what will happen in the future from a 'human perspective.' Did not God, according to classical theism/standard Christian notions of God, create the universe? At one point in time, regardless of whether he is in time or not, God – since he is omniscient – knew (and still would know) all human actions before any humans existed. Might past, present, and future be only human concepts that are not coherent from a 'God point of view?' Regardless of what the answer to this question may be, assuming that God exists, this seems not to have any bearing on the problem of theological fatalism. Regardless of how God exists or where God exists, God has beliefs about human beings that cannot be falsified. God is omniscient and knows, exactly, if he exists, what I shall do in every second of my life; God, if he exists, knows how many

Vacula 8 essays I have written, how many essays I will write, and is privy to the contents of everything I had ever written. If God, regardless of how or where he exists, holds a belief that I will have written five hundred essays in my life, it is the case that I must write five hundred essays in my lifetime because God's belief cannot be falsified; my future is unavoidable and must contain me writing five hundred essays. God doesn't know the future Giving up omniscience or otherwise trying to limit God's omniscience might be the final solution for the theist to escape the problem of theological fatalism. This, though, would force the theist to relinquish one of the 'omni-terms' usually attributed to God; God is believed to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent. If the theist is willing to give up omniscience, so be it, but many aren't willing to do that. A 'move' like this might be a 'failure' in other respects, though, but this is outside the scope of this essay. Conclusion Theological fatalism proposes a serious threat to theists who maintain that an omniscient being exists and persons have free will. If free will and an omniscient being are incompatible, the theist is either forced to relinquish belief in an omniscient being or relinquish belief in free will. Many of the standard responses to theological fatalism don't seem to quite understand the problem and may perhaps be a hasty response to an ill-formed version of the problem. Hopefully this essay has better crafted the problem and will further the discourse on this matter.

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