A critique of knowledge leading to determinism

Determinism seems to arise from a way of understanding the unity of being and truth. If we are to understand the universe, it must fall under some general law; if there is a definite activity it is the sum of all previous activities, each of which has has a definite description and therefore yields one and only one definite result. So go the popular contemporary arguments against free will, which function just as well as arguments against the reality of life (and this is exactly how they are used when taken as refutations of souls).

Another variant on this argument is that omniscience requires that all things be determined. If all is open before God’s gaze, then the future is as fixed as the present. That this argument commits a modal fallacy* has been known for a long time, but there is nevertheless a strong idea that knowledge eliminates contingency, and so absolute knowledge – whether by God or science – eliminates it absolutely.

One response to this is to claim that all knowledge – or perhaps just all human knowledge – requires novelty and surprise. Information theory makes novelty an index and measure of information. On this account, a completely known universe would have nothing to tell us. And what could possibly be more boring or less worth knowing than a universe where all was given in advance? There’s a reason why telling the surprises of a movie is a spoiler.

A closer look at the arguments for determinism suggests that they confuse the present modality of time with the only temporal perfection. Knowledge, it is assumed, has the effect of making all times present, and of seeing all things in light of a law that unites everything in an eternal now. But why can’t the future have its own contribution to the perfection of knowledge, say by providing a field of pure contingency and therefore of surprise and novelty? On this account, the present is not “the necessary” but the moment of decision where future contingency and surprise runs through our will on the road to past fixedness.

R.C. Neville develops an idea of God like this somewhere: that his eternity is not limited to an eternal “now” but includes also an eternal novelty and surprise at the future and an infinite givenness and fixedness of the past. Something like this idea is necessary if we see love as a perfection and yet have understood Plato’s critique of this idea in Symposium.


When we try to prove that all things happen of necessity by saying “If something is known by God, it necessarily will happen” then we either mean (a.) he sees it as present, and whatever seen as present is necessary or (b.) that which God sees happens necessarily. If the first, then this tells us nothing about how future things arise, only that, for one who sees them as present the things have the same necessity as present things have for us (if we see Socrates sit, then it is necessary that he sits). But if we mean (b.) then we have obviously begged the question and assumed that things happen necessarily from the get go.




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