Boethius on Reconciling Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will

by Max Andrews

Boethius discusses the problem in reconciling genuine human freedom with God’s foreknowledge in “Divine Foreknowledge and Freedom of the Will” (proses III-VI).  He bases his whole discussion on whether or not something that is foreknown happens by necessity.  He offers the disjunctive option of the necessity of either thing, which are going to happen be foreseen by God or that what God foresees will in fact happen—either way, he argues, human will is removed.  When discussing the uncertainty of future events he concludes that, for God, there must be no uncertainty in these events because it’s then reduced to possible conditionals, or could-counterfactuals.  Hence, the law of excluded middle is true for knowledge of future tensed events.  He makes an interesting point when discussing aspects about Cicero’s contribution to the problem.  If foreknowledge is removed then the events of human will are no longer necessary. Considering all of the discussion so far he believes that everything that happens does so by necessity.

Boethius then discusses how everything is necessary because God knows it. God is eternal and timeless and everything that God knows must be some type of abstraction of himself or is known through him.  Because God is timeless and eternal then everything is one present now for God and since that knowledge is necessary as God is necessary then it follows that everything happens necessarily.  It is quite strange how this works out because it does not violate human freedom.  It avoids a deterministic concept of human action and free will but there doesn’t seem to be any logical priority in God’s knowledge of events or human actions; rather, they are combined into that one eternally present now.

Boethius’ argument may be summarized as:

  1. Whatever is known is known according to the nature of the knower.
  2. The nature of the knower, God, is eternal and necessary.
  3. Therefore, everything that God knows has been eternally known, at one continual present, and he knows what he knows necessarily.

Here are my thoughts on his argument.  If God’s natural knowledge (and middle knowledge) is known logically prior to the creative decree and God only apprehends his free knowledge logically posterior to the divine decree then I don’t see any conflict between temporal events being the cause of God’s foreknowledge.  God would know these events eternally and his foreknowledge serves in a reflective way in the sense that it is because of these events occurring they are foreknown to happen necessarily.  Additionally, if the first disjunct discussed in the summary above is true I see no problem in these events having logical priority over God’s knowledge of them.  It seems as though Boethius attempts to remove any order of logical moments from God’s knowledge and have but only one moment. Perhaps this is where Thomas picks up his understanding of divine knowledge.

I don’t see why Boethius is convinced that everything must exist in an eternally present now.  One of the most profound and incoherent implications of this is idea is modal collapse.  Every action of God or state of affairs in reality is essential to God and therefore necessary, so that it is not open to God to change any state of affairs to something other than what it was, is, or will be.  So if in accordance with simplicity, each action of God’s is in all its detail identical with his nature or essence, the doctrine apparently entails that God could not do anything other or otherwise than he actually does.

Things are necessary, according as it is necessary for God to will them, since the necessity of the effect depends on the necessity of the cause.  It is not necessary that God should will anything except himself.  It is not therefore necessary for God to will that the world should always exist; but the world exists forasmuch as God wills it to exist, since the being of the world depends on the will of God, as its cause.[1]

There is a denial of modal distinctions between possible worlds, feasible worlds, and the actual world.  There are things in creation, which simply and absolutely must be.  Those things simply and absolutely must be, in which there is no possibility of their not being.  Created existents have no potentiality of not being.  Thus, the only possibility is the actual world.  This carries an extreme form of fatalism Thus, this enters into a collapse of modal distinctions and everything becomes necessary.  If God knows that p is logically equivalent to “p is true,” the necessity of the former entails the necessity of the latter.  This defines any logical sequence of thought out of existence.

I don’t find this solution that Boethius offers attractive in any sense since it dilutes the notion of foreknowledge to a temporal aspect, which is only real to humans.  In a sense, God does not actually have foreknowledge—he just has knowledge of the eternal now.


[1] ST 1.46.1.

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One Comment to “Boethius on Reconciling Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will”

  1. C. S. Lewis described God’s timeless view of history (past, present, future) similar to to the all one “now” idea–at least as a possible position that he subscribed to. At any rate, we are at a disadvantage trying to understand how God must operate according to His divine attributes.

    Can God flip a coin without causing the result? Maybe not, but perhaps He can create a self-flipping coin–or an independent coin flipper for which to transfer causality. Perhaps the independent will is the rock so big that God can’t lift. Is God able compartmentalize His knowledge in ways we couldn’t begin to comprehend–such as being able to “forget” sins (covered by the atonement) as well as forgive them. Can God experience history as all one now and as a sequential timeline at any rate of speed (slow motion to fast forward) that suits His purpose? The more I try to figure God out, the more I am awestruck.

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