The Mistake in Theological Fatalism

“God knows everything you’ve done and loves you. God knows everything you are going to do and still loves you” Vern Benom Grimsley

There is a present fashion among intellectuals, a belief they are not free willed in the libertarian sense, that libertarian free will is impossible in a universe of randomness (quantum mechanics) and determinism (everything else). Although this present fashion is rationalized by modern physics, the idea is as old as the Greeks. Democritus (of atom fame) was one of those who believed this, and so the debate has gone on for some 2400 years.

I make no secret of my scorn for this fashion (see “Arguing with Automatons” and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”). It is the philosophical equivalent of adolescent obsession with self-mutilation. Philosophers, even atheist philosophers like John Searle (“MIND” 2005 and “Making the Social World” 2010), Nicholas Rescher (“Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” 2009), and Edward Lowe (“Personal Agency” 2006), address the absurdity of this position, though Searle admits he cannot reconcile his epistemological conviction that free will must be genuine with his equally strong metaphysical conviction (grounded in physics) that it is impossible.

In this context, the term ‘libertarian’ is not a political ideology but refers to the idea that some agency, my “I”, is volitional; “at liberty” to cause (in Rescher’s term “initiate” [atemporal cause]) some sorts of neurological activity in my brain. Some entity (often called mind) is the starting point of actions instantiated in the physical world by my body. In effect a subjective agent, I, and not merely neurological activity (which I am not aware of directly) am in command/control of my body, and this I, while resting on neuro-physiology, has some independence from physics; there is a gap between that which chooses, and the physiology the choice precipitates. For this reason, the term “contra-causal will” is associated with libertarianism.

The idea here is that this “I” in command (mind?) does not appear to be a physical entity and so libertarian free will commits to the added idea there is in the universe a “cause of the physical” that is not physical. This idea violates a central principle of physics known as the Causal Closure Principle (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genisis of Mind”). The two ideas, libertarian will and contra-causal will, are therefore associated, but the connection rests on the assumption the “I” is not a physical object. ‘Libertarian’ refers to phenomenology, first person experience, while ‘contra-causal’ cause is a metaphysical idea. “Theological Fatalism” addresses the former and is not necessarily committed to the latter should the “I” happen to be physical (see “I Am a Strange Loop” 2004 by Douglas Hofstadter and Lowe referenced above).


On the other side of the debate, philosophers of religion (also going back to the Greeks) have an escape. God, being omnipotent, knows the trick of making contra-causal (and so libertarian) free will possible in a universe whose only other causes are random or deterministic.

Logicians then framed a puzzle. If God is omniscient, he knows everything that has, is, and will happen. This has to include every choice ever made (and ever to be made) by any minded being, personal or otherwise. If that is the case, if God already knows that when you step into a taquiria you will today order pollo and tomorrow carne asada, how can those choices be free? You cannot avoid the problem by intending to order chicken and then at the last moment changing your mind; God knows you will do that too. This puzzle is called “Theological Fatalism”. Even if God is the source of a third (contra-causal) cause, and “mind causes physics” (Sean Carroll “The Big Picture” 2016, something Carroll of course denies is possible) that cause cannot be free in the libertarian sense because God already knows what the choice will be and can never be wrong about it.

The puzzle is reminiscent of Zeno’s paradox (back to the Greeks again). Zeno said that movement, change in space, is impossible because to move a mile, or a foot, or even a millimeter, one has to go first half the distance, and then half that distance and so on blocking any movement before it begins. Although it seems obvious that we can move, it took some time for philosophers, early mathematicians, to figure out where Zeno goes wrong. The distance between any two points can be divided into an infinite series of smaller distances. Mathematicians demonstrated that one can traverse or complete an infinite series in a finite time. Zeno did not account for time and in a sense the same is true of Theological Fatalism, or at least that is a part of the story.

Before I dismantle this puzzle I want to note that this argument is raised by scientists and philosophers by way of ridicule; God himself is (or would be) inconsistent with free will. Oddly, many present-day theologians and philosophers of religion have accepted the argument and decided that therefore God is either not omniscient or not omnipotent!

If a theologian does not understand that God must be able to do and experience in ways we cannot and that there are logical riddles, transparent to God, we cannot (perhaps never will) fathom, who will? Such philosophers should hang up their philosophy hats and go away. Logically probing how such qualities as omnipotence and omniscience go together and yet provide for free will is one thing. Denying this is possible because they cannot figure out how it works is ridiculous; the pinnacle of hubris!


If God is God then he knows everything that has, is, and will happen throughout time with absolute assurance, never guessing, and never being surprised. His knowledge is immediate and atemporal, it is a knowledge of a sort we know nothing about by experience, nor can we grasp it logically. We can suppose that God’s knowledge must be infinite and perfect, but not what that is like to experience it.

I’ll go further for the sake of the conundrum. Harry Frankfurt is famous in ethics circles for coming up with a puzzle. A mad genius has learned to take over brains and can cause a person to make any decision the genius wishes. Moreover, the genius knows (here is the real genius) what decision you make as you are making it. If your decision is what the genius wants you to do anyway, she need do nothing. But if your decision is about to be what she doesn’t want, she can force you to make the one she wants and do so in such a way that you do not even realize you are being forced! The question is: is your will still free?

The short answer to the Frankfurt question is, I think, yes you are free when you make the decision the genius wants and no otherwise. My point in bringing this up is to note that God has the power (omnipotence plus omniscience) to be the supreme Frankfurt genius! While we appear to be free, we are merely compelled (having no feeling of being compelled) to follow God’s script. But this mistakenly implies a causal relation between what God knows and what we do. No one claims theological fatalism precludes freedom because it is causal . It is rather a logical problem. God does not cause, that is force, us to make a particular choice.  The matter is rather about what God knows in what seems, from our viewpoint to be “ahead of time”. But God’s foreknowledge is foreknowledge only from a human, temporal, perspective. What ever be the limits of human libertarian freedom, even the most dyed-in-the-wool libertarian does not suppose that such limits include contravention of natural law, including time.

In the comments here an interlocutor points out that what God knows amounts to fate, and for this reason we are not free. It is a viewpoint that amounts to a deduction from a universal perspective impossible for us to actually have. Since “God is one” one might argue that everything that, to us, appears differentiated about the universe is all illusion or but a shadow of the singular unified reality. This ignores the manifest, to us, reality of matter and a richly differentiated universe. Both views reflect the same singular reality, some shadow to God, differentiated reality to us. It is from this perspective that we are free even if what we choose is, from God’s universal view fated.

No libertarian claims our freedom is absolute. Just as we cannot contravene natural law, so also we cannot surprise God. So long as (and assuming) mind is a cause in time, the future is genuinely open in time! If from our perspective, always limited to the present, a choice makes a future difference, then our choice is free from within that perspective.

Of course we might still be wrong about this if God is a deceiver, if it is in fact the case (as in Frankfurt’s clever puzzle) that we are not the cause of our choices, or that we are that cause only when we choose what God has foreordained. But if we are deceived then God has to be causing our choices and that is not the crux of theological fatalism.

There is every reason to believe that God (should he exist) cannot be a deceiver (see Prolegomena to a Future Theology). It does seem to experience that our will itself, the subjective mind exercising it, is (provided we are of normal brain) sovereign over choice no matter what choice we make. That God knows what that choice will be does not abrogate its freedom from within the view of our temporally constrained, to the present, perspective.

From our viewpoint, future possibilities from among which we choose (God knows these also) are in fact genuinely open to us because we do not know what God knows. We do, subjectively, choose from among alternatives and “which choice” we make makes a future difference to us and others whom the choice may entangle. This is all a robust libertarian free will needs. The strongest advocates of libertarian will do not demand that no power in the universe knows what you will decide.  Being unable to “surprise God” does not equate to fate from our perspective.

Libertarianism requires only that we cannot know what that power knows and as concerns God’s viewpoint this is surely true.  To say then: “well our freedom is purely perspectival, or stems merely from our limited perspective” is trivially true, but over-simplified. All freedom short of God stems from or exists within some perspective. It is freedom nevertheless because from within any perspective it bears causal responsibility for the particular choice made.

All that libertarianism requires is that subjective agency, the self-aware subject, and not deterministic neurophysiology nor God causally, initiates action from within its perspective and this requirement is fully satisfied in the human experience of willing. We are free in our experience and if “mind can cause physics”, if contra-causal cause is real (possible if God is real), and God is not a deceiver, then we are free in the libertarian sense, from within our perspective, despite what God knows. God knows what we will choose, but so long as his knowledge is not a cause of our choice our will is free within its constrained perspective. Theological fatalism is a false doctrine.

Review: N. Rescher “Free Will”

I’ve read two books by Rescher. The first “Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues” (2000) I did not review for Amazon because there is no Kindle version and I managed to find the complete text as a PDF or online read here. This book inspired my essay “Process, Substance, Time, and Space”. Rescher’s examination of the free will issue, often the gorilla in the room for philosophy of mind, epistemology, and metaphysics, not to mention ethics, is nothing short of thorough and well articulated. Another of my essays “An Epistemological Argument for Free Will” was written prior to my reading Rescher’s “Survey” or “Free Will”. It addresses some of the same issues, but Rescher does a much better job.

In the review I mention Lowe (“Personal Agency” 2006), but I didn’t want to add my own philosophical commentary to a book review. Here I will note again the two works are complimentary. Although Lowe is a substance and Rescher a process ontologist, the compliment arises because Lowe’s focus is metaphysical, while Rescher’s is phenomenological and epistemological. Lowe’s book is directed more towards establishing the metaphysical possibility of free will in a deterministic and/or random (quantum) universe. He looks at causal process and asks what freedom means, what it must accomplish, its “existence criteria” to be called free and willful (purpose directed) in the context of a causal universe. By contrast Rescher gives us an explosion of distinctions in types, kinds, or categories of experience in which we explicitly and directly recognize the freedom and willfulness of our acts. For Lowe it is about what we understand freedom to be, while for Rescher it is about how we experience it. Along the way, Lowe must, perforce, delve into the epistemological, while Rescher only rarely touches on the metaphysical.

Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal, Second Edition (Kindle Edition 2015)

This book has been out on Kindle for over a year and a half now and I am its first reviewer. I suspect this has something to do with its $40 price which is frankly obscene for a Kindle book. My opinion here casts no aspersions on Amazon for it is the book’s publisher who sets the price. This is a particularly greedy publisher especially as it appears that a bit of sloppiness crept into the production here but I will save that at the end.

Sometime ago I reviewed a book on the same subject by Richard Swinburne (“Mind, Brain, and Free Will”) and in that review I said that Swinburne “conceded too much to the determinists.” Having read Rescher now I come away with the conviction that even in my own writings, with a much more expansive view of freedom than Swinburne, I have conceded too much to the determinists!

If this is not the best book I’ve ever read on the subject of free will it is a very close second to that of E. J. Lowe, “Personal Agency” 2006 (it’s a tough call). I was surprised to discover that Lowe is not cited in the book’s bibliography. Lowe’s focus is more metaphysical, the nature of agency, while Rescher aims squarely at the phenomenological, the subjective qualities of free will, but their thought runs in parallel streams detectable throughout the book. Rescher’s arguments are thorough. He spends the first 2/3 of the book making distinctions and investigating what free will would have to be like if it existed. His first and most important distinction is that between metaphysical and moral freedom. He does not mean what either of these terms normally connote. “Moral freedom” for Rescher is commonly addressed by what philosophers call Compatibilism, the notion that an act is done without constraint from outside the actor, like a thief with a gun to your head ordering you to open the safe. For Rescher, moral freedom is simply the freedom to act free from “undue external constraint” whether or not the act has any traditionally moral implications. Metaphysical freedom, by contrast, is the freedom to choose, to make a decision prior to an act, and that such a choice arises from the deliberation, “the thought” (conscious or subconscious, though not unconscious), of the decider. In contemporary philosophy, Compatibilism is a response to the fashionable notion that Rescher’s “metaphysical freedom” is impossible, not supported by physics. Rescher stands the matter on its head and notes that moral freedom, the possibility of a “freedom to act” (in a manner fully compliant with physics, not to mention the limits of one’s biology) depends on having a prior freedom to deliberate (even subconsciously) and choose. Even with a gun to your head you have “metaphysical freedom”. You can deliberate over alternatives like fighting off the thief. That you would not actually succeed, are likely to die, is what revokes your moral freedom, but deliberation, the choice to deliberate, remains available. The choice “in mind”, prior to any final decision to act, is “metaphysical freedom” in Rescher’s sense.

Rescher raises many issues usually addressed in the negative. Besides making important and obviously useful distinctions here, He effectively demolishes many of the challenges to free will like Galen Strawson’s claim that for a decision or act to be free every input to it, including every motive, belief, and inclination of the actor would have to have been both consciously and freely chosen going back to the earliest life of the actor. Rescher also demolishes the notion that one could, in principle, trace the neurological basis of some particular choice or action back indefinitely in the history of the actor, and addresses various interpretations of the infamous Libet experiments. He points out and argues extensively and well that without some stopping point in the thought of the actor not only is there no room for freedom, but consciousness itself becomes pointless. Without eventually referencing thought itself, there is always something that is left out of the description of most human behavior. That such “leaving out” is an inevitable outcome of a purely physical description, is evidence that something genuinely important is being missed.

It is not until the book’s last two chapters that Rescher addresses the metaphysics of “metaphysical freedom” as he understands this. His case here is entirely circumstantial, but convincing nevertheless. He notes explicitly that there can be no empirical demonstration of free will one way or the other. He argues that broadly speaking evolutionary advantage accrues to animals the more they have the power to choose and revoke choice in thought prior to acting. Mind and brain exist together in lock-step such that there is never a “mental eventuation” without there being some correlative brain activity. The mental is not causal in the traditional sense but “initiating”. Exactly what the difference is here is not really explained but at least one difference is initiation’s lack of temporal precedence. At no time is there a mental eventuation (there is a distinction Rescher makes between “events” and “eventuations”) without a corresponding brain activity. Rescher is, in the end, a materialist. From the traditional metaphysical viewpoint he argues that free will, like the consciousness (capacity to think) underlying it, is simply emergent from physics through biology (Darwinian mechanism) and that therefore there is nothing mysterious about it metaphysically speaking. The agent herself emerges from the bundle of tropes that constitute her consciousness. That we do not know (and can never discover because it is not strictly causal) precisely the mechanism by which thought takes control and initiates does not mean it doesn’t happen. He argues persuasively that the entirety of our experience not to mention the subjective meaningfulness of consciousness itself suggests that it, that is free will, is real, and it is always rational for us to proceed on that basis.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book I did notice a curious production issue. There are places in the book where whole paragraphs (sometimes two or three successive paragraphs) are lifted from one part of the book and placed in another. At first I thought this a curious stylistic device as in each case the following discussion takes different turns. But as it began to happen more and more, not only between successive chapters but inside chapters and in the last case even within the same subsection, I began to wonder if this was not a production error on the editor’s part?

Nobody interested in the free will problem from one side or the other should be without this book. Dualists and monists of all stripes will find if not a complete answer to their questions, a host of useful distinctions and considerations bearing on the problem. It is unfortunate that it is so expensive. The publisher is doing the community of philosophers-at-large no favors here.