Thursday, December 22, 2011

Foreknowledge and Counterfactuals

Counterfactual knowledge is the awareness of what would be if something other than what happened had happened--seeing, if you will, the alternate timeline that would have arisen if another choice had been made or other circumstances had existed. Is it real? It's hard to say, even in regard to God (though I will try). He is certainly analytical enough to prognosticate in that fashion (as we are under many circumstances), and he has the added benefit of being able to see everything, including our thoughts and intents and not just our outward actions.

Before we can get anywhere with this, however, we must first determine how God uses statements in the Bible we consider counterfactual. Is he actually dispensing information concerning an alternate "what-if" reality, a window on his thoughts about possibilities, or is he merely making points rhetorically? If it were any other person speaking that way we would know the answer was "rhetorical," with the all-knowing God we must pause before reaching such a conclusion. Does God know certainly what any of us would do if we were in different circumstances?

It would be easy enough to say yes, if for no other reason than not to offend God and honor our conceptions of his omniscience and sovereignty, but that isn't really the point. God is about truth, and in particular the truth he tells us about himself. Humans attributing to God what he doesn't claim for himself, even to make him appear "bigger" or "better" doesn't really honor him--at best it would be presumptuous, at worst it would be idolatrous! Is God actually, clearly telling us that he knows what we would do in any given circumstance?

There is scriptural warrant to think he does, cases in point:
Deuteronomy 31:20-22 - God knew the intents of the heart and what history those intents would end up making as a result;
Psalm 139 - God's knows the thoughts and actions of David before they occurred;
Ezekiel 3:6b-9 - God knew the hearts of Israel and took steps within Ezekiel's to counteract them;
Matthew 11:20-24 - Jesus knew that people who did not repent in the past would have repented if they had seen Christ in action. [Now, that is not to say they would have come to faith in Christ, just that the incredibly wicked would not have acted in ways that demanded their immediate destruction rather than waiting until the end of time];
John 2:24-25 - Jesus understood the inner workings of man's intents and desires, and how to thwart their consummation in action;
1 Corinthians 10:13-14 -  God knows what temptation a person can bear and does not allow more than a believer can withstand by promising an available escape.

On the other hand:
Genesis 22:12 - God had to see the determination to act and the act initiated before he could say that he knew that Abraham would not withhold Isaac;
Exodus 13:17-18 - God spoke uncertainly about what the people might do and avoided learning what they would actually do;
Deuteronomy 8:2 - God had to see the heart actualized before he knew for certain what was in it.

I don't know that God meant to establish parallel truth by making counterfactual statements in the Bible. It easy to see these statements as other than the revelation of absolute, certain descriptions of alternate reality. There are obvious other purposes to those counterfactually structured statements that may be more fundamental to their meaning than the apparent counterfactual aspect. As always in biblical interpretation, intent of the (ultimate) author is of paramount importance.

If God had to see something done before he could know it certainly, as seems to be the case in some of the texts cited above, then I think it is safe to say that counterfactuals represent the discernment of God rather than the revelation of an alternate, possible history. Is God accurate in his assessments? Absolutely, but an assessment of a person's character and reactions is not the same as the statement of fact as in a historical narrative. Therefore, counterfactuals in the Bible do not represent an unveiling of Middle Knowledge, but merely the discernment of the all-wise, all-seeing God.

Foreknowledge is based on what God actually sees outside of time, not on permutations of possibilities that he cogitated within the counsels of his own mind before he created. If we posit that God knows with certainty what we would do in any circumstance, that he deliberated through what-ifs of creaturely freedom before he chose what became, we don't have freedom but merely a different way to see Compatibilism. If God has true (that is absolutely certain) counterfactual knowledge of free human action, not founded on what humans actually did, then foreknowledge is "rigged" and compatibilism is true.


  1. Hi SLW, You capture well my thoughts on this topic. The idea of God using middle knowledge to exhaustively decree events is hardly distinguishable from full blown Calvinism, and ultimately must deal with the same troubling "character of God" issues. I do realize that Arminian Molinists disagree with those implications.

  2. KJ,
    The more I look into this the more I see that unavoidable conclusion. Molinism doesn't produce a practically different view from compatibilism. Molinism, it seems to me, offers little more than a tightly confined rat maze for the "free" agent to navigate.

  3. It seems to me you are trying to bring out a balanced discussion. Two things you said hit me. They may not be the major thrust but were important thoughts.


    "Humans attributing to God what he doesn't claim for himself, even to make him appear "bigger" or "better" doesn't really honor him--at best it would be presumptuous, at worst it would be idolatrous!"

    We are so guilty of this that the caution is important.


    "Foreknowledge is based on what God actually sees outside of time, not on permutations of possibilities that he cogitated within the counsels of his own mind before he created."

    One of the limiting factors we face is that we are creatures of time. Much of this we will not understand until the resurrection, but we are expected to struggle with the mysteries.

    Grace and peace.

  4. Pumice,
    Thanks for stopping by, I'm very appreciative of your comments. Hope you and yours have a Merry Christmas.

    My aim to pursue truth and let the chips fall where they may. As long as any of us can do that in good will, learn from whatever the source God's grace puts before us, and avoid putting a horse in the race before its time, balance kinda takes care of itself.

    God doesn't need us as defense attorneys, although that is role we sometimes let ourselves assume. The Pharisees were very guilty of this, it seems to me, and look what reaction they got from Jesus. Truth sets free and can stand on its own, so long as it is faithfully and accurately proclaimed. It really doesn't need our aid or additions, or even our understanding.

    You are so very right about creatures of time trying to stretch our minds into the timeless. There are things we have to let go of in trust while at the same time wondering.


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