Free Will vs Predetermination

Not Tsav (a nick which means “not a turtle” in Hebrew”) posted at the Paltalk Catholic Talk message board regarding his interest in scheduling a discussion some day on the topic of “Free Will vs. Predetermination.”

Reading his post brought the following to mind:

When I was a Freshman at St. John’s College, Annapolis, in 1967, I walked into a Jewish classmate’s room and saw an abridged copy of the Talmud, which is their oral understanding/teaching regarding the Torah, redacted centuries ago into written form. I glanced at the first page and one sentences seared (burned) into my memory. (Paraphrasing) “Of course G-D foreknows the outcome of all your freewill choices, and yet that foreknowledge in no way robs you of your freedom at the moment you make the choice.” In short, it is an inexplicable mystery that God, who is outside of time and eternity, in what is called a “pre-eternal” moment, knows what we shall do, and yet, the freedom and choice remain totally our own. I found these Greek Orthodox Christian notions, from early centuries, in essays on “The River of Fire” (see link below.)

But first, let me present you with a very simple illustrative example of divine foreknowledge versus individual free will. One hot sunny summer day, I was standing on the black pavement of a parking lot, watching a solitary ant wandering on the burning pavement. From the ant’s point of view, I was everywhere-present or omnipresent, there was no way to miss my enormous close presence, and yet, I was as invisible to the ant as if I had been in some other dimension, effectively non-existent to the ant’s awareness. I could see that the ant was moving in spirals of ever increasing radius. From the ant’s perspective it was traveling in a straight line. I could see or foreknow that the ever expanding spiral trajectory would eventually bring the ant to the cool protection safety of the green grass. My foreknowledge in no way robbed that ant of its free will as in chose to advance, or had it chosen to lay down and give up.

Also see:

Martin Luther on Predestination

Double Or Nothing: Martin Luther’s Doctrine of Predestination

I should explain that “The River of Fire” is an ancient Patristic interpretation of the meaning of the vision which Prophet Daniel beheld, of “The Ancient of Days” (a white bearded human figure) seated upon a throne, and from the base of the throne flows “a fiery stream” or “river of fire.”

I tend to approach such complex topics from a scholastic view of comparative world religion. I will compare various Christian notions with notions expressed in Islam and also in Hinduism.

But, just for fun, I am going to post a youtube clip which attempts to explain in modern mathematical terms HOW it MIGHT be possible to understand the mystery of God’s foreknowledge simultaneous with our freedom as our choices and actions unfold in the time-space causal matrix. What is expressed in this youtube clip will seem alien to traditional Roman Catholic thought, and yet the Magisterium acknowledges the possibility that such conjectures are correct in the brief encyclical “Nostra Aetatis.”

Compare the above video with the final scene of American Rose:

It is interesting to note that the Catechism of the Catholic Church Article 3 Man’s Freedom makes no mention regarding predestination or God’s foreknowledge of freewill choices.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a very nice, complete article on Foreknowledge and Free Will .

Consider the following excerpt from the above link:

Basic Argument for Theological Fatalism

(1) Yesterday God infallibly believed T. [Supposition of infallible foreknowledge]
(2) If E occurred in the past, it is now-necessary that E occurred then. [Principle of the Necessity of the Past]
(3) It is now-necessary that yesterday God believed T. [1, 2]
(4) Necessarily, if yesterday God believed T, then T. [Definition of “infallibility”]
(5) If p is now-necessary, and necessarily (p → q), then q is now-necessary. [Transfer of Necessity Principle]
(6) So it is now-necessary that T. [3,4,5]
(7) If it is now-necessary that T, then you cannot do otherwise than answer the telephone tomorrow at 9 am. [Definition of “necessary”]
(8) Therefore, you cannot do otherwise than answer the telephone tomorrow at 9 am. [6, 7]
(9) If you cannot do otherwise when you do an act, you do not act freely. [Principle of Alternate Possibilities]
(10) Therefore, when you answer the telephone tomorrow at 9 am, you will not do it freely. [8, 9]

Boethius and Aquinas denied premise (1) on the grounds that God and his beliefs are not in time, a solution that has always had some adherents.

2.2 The Boethian solution

This solution denies the first premise of the basic argument: (1) Yesterday God infallibly believed T. What is denied according to this solution is not that God believes infallibly, and not that God believes the content of proposition T, but that God believed T yesterday. This solution probably originated with the 6th century philosopher Boethius, who maintained that God is not in time and has no temporal properties, so God does not have beliefs at a time. It is therefore a mistake to say God had beliefs yesterday, or has beliefs today, or will have beliefs tomorrow. It is also a mistake to say God had a belief on a certain date, such as June 1, 2004. The way Boethius describes God’s cognitive grasp of temporal reality, all temporal events are before the mind of God at once. To say “at once” or “simultaneously” is to use a temporal metaphor, but Boethius is clear that it does not make sense to think of the whole of temporal reality as being before God’s mind in a single temporal present. It is an atemporal present, a single complete grasp of all events in the entire span of time.

Aquinas adopted the Boethian solution as one of his ways out of theological fatalism, using some of the same metaphors as Boethius. One of the metaphors is the circle analogy, in which the way a timeless God is present to each and every moment of time is compared to the way in which the center of a circle is present to each and every point on its circumference (SCG I, 66). In contemporary philosophy probably the most well-known defenders of the idea that God is timeless are Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann (1981), who apply it explicitly to the foreknowledge dilemma (1991).

(end of excerpt)

I stumbled across this Stanford article while searching for whatever Aquinas might have to say on this matter in the Summa Theologica.

Consider the following excerpt from this Stanford article on Augustine:

(beginning of excerpt)
the relation of human free will to divine foreknowledge. While it is tempting to view this as a conflict between Athens and Jerusalem, the problem initially arises within the Greco-Roman tradition itself [see Rist 1994, pg. 268]. Although Augustine’s initial treatment of the problem at De Libero Arbitrio III.2-4 seems innocent of this fact, his later treatment at De Civitate Dei V.9-10 shows that he was aware of Cicero’s discussion of the problem in De Divinatione and De Fato. It is also worth noting that in later medieval philosophy, we see the mirror-image of this problem in terms of the relation of divine freedom and power versus the extent of human knowledge [see, e.g. The Condemnation of 1277; Henry of Ghent, Quodlibet VIII, qu.9; John Duns Scotus, Ordinatio I, dist. 42]. In both cases, the problem is attributable to the notion of necessity which underlies the Greek conception of knowledge. In this particular case, the problem is how to reconcile the absolute necessity that attends God’s knowledge (i.e. if God genuinely knows that x is going to happen, it is impossible for x not to take place –see De Libero Arbitrio III.4 and De Civitate Dei V.9) with the idea that there can be no moral responsibility unless it is in my power to choose to do other than I in fact do [e.g. De Libero Arbitrio III.3]. On the surface, freedom to do otherwise seems to rule out the possibility of foreknowledge, and conversely, foreknowledge seems to rule out the possibility of freedom to do otherwise. In both De Libero Arbitrio and De Civitate Dei, Augustine’s treatment of this problem is complex and at times exceedingly obscure [see Rowe 1964 and Kirwan 1989,pp. 95-103], but his aim is clear enough. Augustine is anxious, contra the Manicheans and Cicero, to defend the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom by arguing that the free exercise of the will is among the events foreknown by God and that such foreknowledge in no way detracts from our culpability for our acts of willing [e.g. De Libero Arbitrio III.3 & 4; De Civitate Dei V.9]. The obscurity of the details notwithstanding, Augustine leaves no doubt that he wants to maintain both that God does have foreknowledge of our actions and that we are morally responsible for them.

Augustine’s view becomes even more complicated, however, due to theological and doctrinal concerns. While the issue of predestination is not invoked in the discussion of divine foreknowledge and human freedom at De Civitate Dei V.9-10 [see Rist 1994, pp. 268-9], significant developments take place between the time Augustine composes De Libero Arbitrio III (circa 395 C.E.) and De Civitate Dei V (circa 415 C.E.). In particular, there are two events that have a momentous impact upon Augustine’s work in the late 390’s until his death in 430. The first is his increasing familiarity with scripture and the resulting modification of his earlier, Neoplatonizing views in light of what he finds in those texts. Pivotal in this regard is Ad Simplicianum (396 C.E.), wherein he focuses on a number of scriptural passages and begins to formulate his views on the universality of original sin and the necessity of grace to overcome its effects [see Bonner 1972, pp. 15-18 and Babcock 1979, pp. 65-67]. The second set of events center on his involvement in the Pelagian controversy, which occupied him from roughly 411 until his death in 430. Under the pressures of this controversy and in conjunction with his interpretation of scriptural and especially Pauline views on original sin and grace, the intellectualistic optimism of his earlier work was gradually transformed into an exceedingly grim view of the human moral landscape.

Pelagius himself is an obscure figure, as is his relation to the view that has come to bear his name (Bonner 1972, 31-35), but at the heart of the Pelagian position seems to be an emphatic insistence upon the principle that “ought implies can,” i.e. that it is unacceptable to require individuals to perform actions that they cannot in fact perform [Pelagius, Ad Demetriadem 2, op. cit. at Brown 1967, pg. 342; see also Bonner 1972, pg. 34]. The Pelagian insistence upon preserving the kind of autonomy that seems required by the moral ideals of Christianity set in motion a fierce controversy about the nature of original sin and the role of grace in overcoming it [Brown 1967, pp.340-364]. In general, Pelagians tended to deny the kind of insuperable original sin that Augustine believed he had found in scripture, and they proposed a milder view of grace as being an aid to a will disposed to a Christian life, as opposed to being a necessary condition for such a disposition in the first place [TeSelle 1999, pg. 635]. As is often the case with disputes that have a deep moral urgency, the controversy acquired a ferocity that can seem, from a modern perspective, out of keeping with the subtlety of the points made in it, but it is precisely the sort of dispute that cannot but have lasting effects upon its participants, and Augustine was one of the main participants during the last two decades of his life.

By the time Augustine completed De Civitate Dei in 427 C.E., he came even more emphatically to insist upon the conclusion to which his discussion in Ad Simplicianum had led him, i.e., that original sin is both universally debilitating and insuperable without the aid of unmerited grace [De Civitate Dei XIV.1]. Furthermore, there is a predestination at work that is as rigorous as the foreknowledge by which God knows its results [De Civitate Dei XIV.11]. Here too Augustine insists that we are morally culpable for the sinful choices that the will makes [De Civitate Dei XIV.3], but under the pressures of the Pelagian controversy — a controversy in which he will find his earlier words being cited against him [see Retractationes I.9.3-6] — he presents these views in a manner that is austere and uncompromising. So damaging are the effects of the original sin that the human will is free only to sin [De Correptione et Gratia 1.2; 11.31; Rist 1972, pg. 223]. Thus, the human race is comprised of a massa damnata [De Dono Perseverantiae 35; see also De Civitate Dei XXI.12], out of which God, in a manner inscrutable to us [De Civitate Dei XII.28], has predestined a small number to be saved [De Civitate Dei XXI.12], and to whom he has extended a grace without which it is impossible for the will not to sin. While there is some controversy over whether this grace is sufficient for redemption and whether it can be resisted [Rist, 1972, pp. 228ff.], Augustine makes clear that it is as much a necessary condition as it is unmerited and inscrutable. The ignorance and difficulty that afflict our condition in De Libero Arbitrio III have become more than obstacles to be overcome by means of our will [De Libero Arbitrio III.22]; they are now impassible barriers we have inherited from Adam, and without unmerited grace we are utterly incapable of initiating even the smallest movement away from sin and towards God. In De Libero Arbitrio I, Augustine suggests that the will is confronted by a rational choice between a life spent in the pursuit of what is temporal, changing, and perishable, and a life spent in the pursuit of what is eternal, immutable, and incapable of being lost [De Libero Arbitrio I.7]. By the time he comes to write De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio in 426 C.E., in the midst of the Pelagian controversy, we find a vastly different picture. Here too the will is central, and here too we are culpable for our sins, but gone is the earlier optimism. The post-Adamic will is no longer in a position to initiate any choice of lives; the fact that we have any choice at all is entirely a product of unmerited grace [see, e.g. De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio xx and xxi], a grace that will be given to only a small number whom God has predestined to be saved out of the vast number who are eternally lost.

Being more a matter of theology than philosophy, it can be tempting for those interested in Augustine as a philosopher to turn away from his later thinking on the will, but one has to be careful in doing so. To begin with, the boundary between the philosophical and the theological is not as clear in Augustine as it is in later philosophers, and part of what makes Augustine such a fascinating thinker is his refusal to compartmentalize his thought in ways that are now taken for granted. Second, the development of Augustine’s thinking on the will, as unsettling as the resulting moral landscape may be, does oblige one to confront questions about what a viable concept of the will should involve as well as questions about how to determine moral culpability in the face of external determination — questions that are as easy to overlook as they are difficult to address. Finally, Augustine’s reflections on the will had considerable influence upon those who inherited his vast legacy and on his own account of how we are to understand the drama of human history.
(end of excerpt)

HERE IS AN ARGUMENT THAT WILLIAM BUELL made several years ago in an IRC Undernet #philosophy chat:

(beginning of excerpt)

Abraham in Sodom’s Bargain Basement

(excerpts from IRC brainstorming soliloquies)

I have made an interesting observation regarding repentance, freewill, divine foreknowledge, and the debate between Abraham and God over the fate of Sodom….

God initially says that Sodom will be spared if 50 righteous men may be

Abraham, through rhetoric/debate/dialogue, bargains the requirement down to ten righteous men.

Now, if God is totally omniscient, knowing all past present and future, then God already knows that there are no righteous men, hence, with regard to their agreement, God is in a sense being dishonest with Abraham, since the “deck is stacked” in Gods favor.

BUT,…. if there is truly free will, and if God intentionally self-limits his
omniscience and omnipotence in some way (see Kaballah notion of tsim tsum), and if there is always the potential for at least ten people in Sodom to REPENT (which rules out predestination)….

Well… I think you follow my point….

For God NOT to be a “card shark” in his agreement with Abraham, then
predestination must be a false doctrine, human freewill choice must be

(end of excerpt)

Some remarks on Tsim Tsum:

In the mystical writings of the Jewish Kaballah, the term Tsim Tsum (Hebrew for CONTRACTION, WITHDRAWAL) is used to describe what God did prior to the creation of things (samsara.. space/time); THE DIVINE WITHDRAWAL, to make a PLACE (Makom) for the Creation.

Some theologians actually argue that God voluntarily gives up a portion of His Omnipotence and Omniscience in order to allow MAKOM (Space) for CREATED THINGS (Samsara) and FREE WILL for creatures.

GOD only created a new dimension here

HE dwells in HIS place outside of time and space

But also dwells within space as well for what is within space are many doorways we cannot fathom

Yes… Rambam (Moses Maimonides) states that God does not intervene in normal causality… but only in the life of the righteous, as “divine overflow”

Part of the “religion” problem… it NEVER BOILS DOWN… in the sense of coming to completion…. it all boils down to whether the “DIALECTICAL PROCESS” of this struggle…

This wrestling (in the sense of Isaac CORRECTION Jacob (thanks!) wrestling all night with the angel of the Lord)… of this ongoing dialogue…. (as described in Malachi ch.2). whether this PROCESS of searching the scriptures… this unending DIVERSITY in the struggle for UNITY is part of plan


Socrates,…. Dialogues of Plato… dialectic…..

Socrates has a metaphor of the weavers loom, the warp the woof,…. the shuttle…. conjoining and separating (Pilpul in Hebrew),… much like the Talmudic process which shapes the “Talmudic mind”, a special activity of discourse
(end of comments on Tsim Tsum)

Jean-Paul Sartre:

Sartre saw that without “nothingness” everything would be such a filled plenum, that there would be no room for freedom. This notion is related to the divine withdrawal Tsim Tsum of the plenum of God to make a MAKOM (place) of void (nothingness) were there is room (potential) for things to happen freely, and also the randomness which Solomon states. This place of freedom also requires God’s voluntary self-limiting and non-intervention into the causal matrix. For Maimonides, God only intervenes in extreme situations in the lives of a few righteous in the form of “divine overflow“.


Cause, act, and end constitute a continuum, a plenum … freedom in its foundation coincides with the nothingness which is at the heart of man. Human-reality is free because it is not enough. It is free because it is perpetually wrenched away from itself and because it has been separated by a nothingness from what it is and from what it will be. It is free, finally, because its present being is itself a nothingness in the form of the “reflection-reflecting.” Man is free because he is not himself but presence to himself. The being which is what it is can not be free. Freedom is precisely the nothingness which is made-to-be at the heart of man and which forces human-reality to make itself instead of to be. … If we start by conceiving of man as a plenum it is absurd to try to find in him afterwards moments of psychic regions in which he would be free. As well look for emptiness in a container which one has filled beforehand up to the brim! Man can not be sometimes slave and sometimes free; he is wholly and forever free or he is not free at all.



One Response to “Free Will vs Predetermination”

  1. James Says:

    Jacob, not Isaac, struggled with the Angel. 🙂

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