Recently, Alsdair MacIntyre, one of the most prominent Catholic philosophers of the past century, delivered his annual lecture at the Notre Dame fall conference. The lecture is available here. During the lecture, MacIntyre claimed that certain spontaneous acts (“singularities”) of free creatures could not be foreknown even by God. MacIntyre claimed that this was not a denial of divine omniscience because omniscience entails knowing what can be known and such “singularities” cannot be known beforehand. A number of theologians and philosophers have responded to MacIntyre’s lecture. One response with which I will interact is the one Urban Hannon gave in an article at Josias spelling out what he took to be the classic Thomist position on the issue and critiquing MacIntyre. Hannon is helpful in both pointing out MacIntyre’s heterodox views, and in outlining a classical view of God’s foreknowledge in response. His article is left wanting in two ways however. First, Hannon mistakenly agrees with Aristotle about the truth and knowability of future contingents. Secondly, his brief account lacks the depth to give a full answer to the issue of divine foreknowledge of future contingents. Below, I will explain why Catholics must reject Aristotle’s opinion and also take up Hannon’s account and supplement it with Luis Molina’s views of divine foreknowledge.
Aristotle, in chapter 9 of a fairly short work On Interpretation (Gk. Περὶ Ἡρμηνείας Lt. De Interpretatione) he argues that there are no truths about future contingent events. If there were, he argues, the future events would not be contingent but necessary. Aristotle claims that a present tense truth like “Tomorrow I will go to work.”, if true, necessitates that I will go to work tomorrow. Thus, I am not free not to go to work tomorrow if it is true today that “I will go to work tomorrow”. His argument can be put into the following syllogism:
- If a proposition is true, then reality necessarily corresponds to that proposition. More specifically, if propositions about the future are true (or false), then the future must necessarily correspond to those true (or false) propositions.
- There are some contingent (i.e. not necessary) things in the future.
- Therefore, some propositions about future contingent things are neither true nor false
Aristotle is not claiming that all truths about the future lack a truth value. Truths about things that are necessary can have a truth value. Similarly, conjuncts or disjuncts of future contingent statements are necessarily true or false. So while, according to Aristotle, it is neither true nor false that I will eat a sandwich tomorrow, it is true that I will either eat or not eat a sandwich tomorrow. Similarly, it is necessarily false that I will both eat and not eat a sandwich tomorrow for such would be contradictory.
Notice also that Aristotle’s argument does not apply merely to humans knowing or uttering truths about the future. He is not arguing that humans cannot know the contingent future. Rather, he is saying that there cannot be truths about the future. Hannon misunderstands Aristotle on this point when he says
For it is not the case that knowledge of future things imposes necessity on them, even for Aristotle; rather, it is the case that the only way we temporal men could know future things is if they were already necessary, independent of whether we happen to come to know them or not.
On the contrary, Aristotle’s view goes beyond this. Since, according to Aristotle, the truth of a thing imposes a kind of necessity on reality, whether or not humans or anyone for that matter speak or know such truth, the thing cannot be contingent.
Why Aristotle Must Be Wrong
Aristotle’s argument, if true, presents problems for orthodox Christians who believe in divine foreknowledge. If truth can necessitate a thing and keep it from being contingent, then God knowing all truths about future events would seem to necessitate everything. As Hannon points out, Christian thinkers down through the ages have appealed to divine timelessness in order to reconcile these two positions. Whether such an appeal is sufficient to solve the problem is debatable but ultimately irrelevant. This is because whether or not God is timeless, divine foreknowledge manifests itself in time through prophecy.
Prophecy about future events is present throughout Scripture and is incompatible with Aristotle’s claim that propositions about future contingent events lack a truth value. Let us take Jesus’ prophecy about Peter’s denial as an example. Clearly, the prophecy was about a contingent event, indeed one that involved Peter’s free choice to reject association with Christ. Since all Catholics hold this act to be a sin, it must have been done freely and was thus contingent and not necessary. According to Aristotle, Jesus’ statement “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times” (Mark 14:30 ESV) wasn’t in fact true. So much for “Truly, I tell you”! Obviously, this was a true statement that was known and spoken prior to the contingent event about which it spoke coming true.
Thus, if we are to be faithful to the Word of God, we must jettison Aristotle’s erroneous view that future contingents cannot have a truth value. A discussion of why Aristotle is wrong can be left for another time. For now, we can proceed ahead knowing that future contingents can be true even if the nature of Aristotle’s error remains unexplored.
Hannon’s account of divine foreknowledge
Proceeding ahead with Aristotle’s error, Hannon attempts to reconcile Aristotle’s position with divine omniscience by appeal to divine timelessness. The gist of his position is that since God is not in time, he does not foreknow future contingent events. Rather he knows them all in his eternal present. In addition to timelessness, Hannon makes a few important points in his account. First, when quoting Boethius, he notes that God’s knowledge of future contingents derives from his simplicity and that it is not derived from the reality of the events in the future.
God derives this understanding and vision in the present not from the outcome of future events, but from his own simplicity.Boethius Consolation of Philosophy 5.6.pr41–42
This is an important point. God does not derive his knowledge of the future from creation. Secondly, Hannon avoids the error of Peter Geach, a 20th century Catholic philosopher, who thought that God’s foreknowledge was merely the result of his control of the world. In his discussion of Geach, Hannon notes that God’s foreknowledge is not merely the result of his will but a combination of both his will and intellect.
I don’t think any of what Hannon says about divine foreknowledge is objectionable but his brief account is incomplete. Hannon does not explain the precise relation between God’s intellect and will with respect to his knowledge of future contigents. Hannon says for example that “Thomas teaches that is precisely God’s knowledge which makes things to be, that gives form to the divine will that brings them into being.” However, the implications of this are not drawn out. Does God know what creatures would do with their free choice prior to creating or is that truth about a creature’s choice the result of God’s will? Hannon does not elaborate. This is understandable since Hannon’s article was not meant to expound a full Thomistic account of divine foreknowledge but rather to briefly comment on Alsdair MacIntyre’s views and juxtapose them with the classic Thomist account. What I want to do here is use Hannon as a stepping stone to give a fuller account of divine foreknowledge from a Molinist perspective.
Unlike Hannon, Molina rejects Aristotle and believes that future contingent propositions have a truth value. While he believes that humans may only have an uncertain or probabilistic knowledge of future things whereas God’s knowledge is certain, neither our probabilistic knowledge nor God’s certain knowledge necessitate the future contingent. How does Molina account for such foreknowledge? He does so in two ways: first, by recognizing the correct explanatory priority of God’s knowledge of contingent things and the things themselves, and second, by positing the concept of middle knowledge.
According to Molina, the reason that God’s foreknowledge of an event does not determine the event is because the event itself is explanatorily prior to God’s foreknowledge of the event. Suppose God foreknew that Peter would deny Christ after the last supper. This knowledge does not necessitate Peter’s denial and Peter is still free to remain faithful. If Peter were to remain faithful and not deny Christ, that would not contradict God’s foreknowledge. Rather, God would simply have foreknown Peter’s faithfulness instead. Since God’s foreknowledge is explained by Peter’s decision and not the other way around, Peter is free to choice to remain faithful or sin and it is his decision which explains God’s foreknowledge. As Molina says in Disputation 52 section 19:
[E]ven though God acquires no knowledge from things but instead knows and comprehends everything He knows in His own essence and in the free determination of His own will, nonetheless it is not because He knows that something is going to be that that thing is going to be. Just the opposite, it is because the thing will come to be from its causes that He knows that it is going to be.On Divine Foreknowledge: Part IV of the Concordia. Translated by Alfred J Freddoso. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988 pg. 179
One must be careful not to misinterpret this view to mean things that it doesn’t. For one, Molina does not hold that Peter has the power to change God’s knowledge. It is not within Peter’s power to make it so that God at one moment foreknew his sin and then later foreknew his faithfulness instead. Molina’s Disputation 51 of his Concordia is addressed at refuting this error. Similarly, while Peter’s action is explanatorily prior to God’s foreknowledge of it, this does not mean that God learns about Peter’s action from creation. Rather, God’s foreknowledge, as Hannon already correctly noted, is the result of his pre-volitional knowledge and his will. In order to explain how this is so, Molina’s doctrine of middle knowledge comes into play.
Middle knowledge is so called because it is in the middle of two types of God’s knowledge that were acknowledged by scholastic theologians namely, God’s natural knowledge and his free knowledge. The former is God’s pre-volitional knowledge of himself and all that is possible for him to create. The latter is God’s post-volitional knowledge of the contingent world God chooses to create. Middle knowledge, like natural knowledge, is pre-volitional, that is, it is explanatorily prior to God’s decree to create the world. In addition, like free knowledge, it is knowledge of contingent things, namely what decisions free creatures would make if they were placed in this or that circumstance. Because of these characteristics, it is neither reducible to natural nor free knowledge but is a distinct third kind of knowledge.
Because middle knowledge is prior to God’s decree to create the world, it preserves the important truth that Boethius taught that God’s knowledge is not derived from the world but rather is to be found in himself. Similarly, because God’s foreknowledge is explained by both his middle knowledge and his will to create, middle knowledge helps to avoid Peter Geach’s error of explaining God’s foreknowledge merely in terms of God’s will. This error, which Molina attributes to Scotus and his contemporary Dominican opponent Domingo Bañez was also condemned by Molina in Disputation 50 of his Concordia.
Having defined middle knowledge, it is clear how it plays a role in Molina’s account of foreknowledge. Since God knows by his middle knowledge what Peter would do with his free will if he were in the circumstances he found himself in after the arrest of Christ, once God decrees to put Peter in those circumstances, he necessarily knows what Peter will do. His knowledge of what Peter will do is explained both by his pre-volitional knowledge and by his will to create. Molina’s account therefore builds upon what Hannon outlined earlier and avoids the errors of MacIntyre, Geach, and Scotus.
In conclusion, we can see how easy it is to fall into errors regarding the difficult issue of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. Aristotle’s belief that foreknowledge would necessitate future events is contrary to Christian doctrine since it denies God the ability to prophesy free events. We saw that Luis Molina, building off of the same foundation that Urban Hannon laid out in his article, was able to reconcile free will and divine foreknowledge by correctly noting the explanatory priority of free choices to divine foreknowledge and by positing middle knowledge which God can use to sovereignly order the world and foreknow all future contingent things. While I suspect Hannon is no Molinist, I hope that what has been said can at least be appreciated by him and other Thomists.
MacIntyre’s Lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHP58hFDsRs
Hannon’s Article: https://thejosias.com/2022/11/12/gods-knowledge-of-future-contingents-a-response-to-alasdair-macintyre/#more-5070
Aristotle’s On Interpretation: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/interpretation.1.1.html
Molina, Luis De. On Divine Foreknowledge: Part IV of the Concordia. Translated by Alfred J Freddoso. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988