A dead assumption in God foreseeing

The problems of God foreseeing are well known – if things are known in advance, nothing can be free; if God saw some evil happen, he should have stopped it; if God foresees his own action, even he can’t change his own mind, etc.

I’m not interested in solving the problem, only in pointing out something that is (sometimes? Often?) assumed and implied when we consider the problem, but which no one thinks is true when it is made explicit, namely Foresight is guessing or prognosticating, which is later confirmed or disconfirmed. Presumably, no one thinks that God’s foresight consists in his being the most perfectly talented guesser, or a perfectly well-informed pundit. No one thinks, for example, that my bringing a ham sandwich to work today confirms a previous divine claim that I would do so today.

But what is this foresight if it is not guesswork followed by confirmation? We must mean it is some sort of immediate vision: with God seeing all points in time like we see all the spacial parts in our horizon.  God sees things “before they happen”. But we can’t mean that God sees X before X exists; since under such a condition there is no X to see. The best he could see is some image of the event to come, not the event itself. If, for example, I tell you that I saw the September 11 attack before it happened, you’ll assume that I had some sort of vision or dream, but a dream is no more a vision of the event itself before it happens than it is a vision of the event itself after it happens. The vision substitutes for the event whether it is seen before or after, and so the actual event confirms it after happening. But this is exactly the sort of guesswork-confirmation model that no one thinks God is involved with.

Or assume that the vision is not a substitute. Assume that, while sleeping some night in, say, 1996, you really were watching the September 11 attacks happen. But if this is our ontology, we’re saying that in 1996 you watched them happen in 2001. So we can’t simply say that you saw them happen before they happened since you watched them happen in 2001, which is when they happened.

And so if we expose the assumption – believed by no one – that God does not foresee in the sense of guessing or predicting and later being borne out or confirmed, we are left with an ontology that this foresight consists in being able to see a thing happen when it does at the same time as before it does.

And so the answer to a question like “Why did God not stop some sin before it happened” is in a certain sense very simple: i.e. because, like us, he saw the sin when it happened. Indeed, it is necessary for both God and man to see a thing happen when it happens. In the same way, whenever God sees our choices, he also sees them in the exact same vision when they happen.  This seeing when the event happens is essential to the vision, whatever else might come with it.

This can be read just as well as a refutation of omniscience: one might just say it’s incoherent to see something when it happens and not when it happens in one and the same vision. But this is what’s God Knowledge comes to, not some infallible prognostication, or God seeing all things that will happen in his head before they do.


  1. Bob Kurland said,

    November 21, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    Nice article. Related to your post, I’m doing a series on my blog on Free Will. Part III (forthcoming on Monday, Nov. 24th) is on Free Will in the context of Divine Foreknowledge and Providence. Much of the post will be devoted to the Molinist answer (Jesus de Molina) to the question how is free will possible, given God’s omniscience/omnipotence.

  2. J. S. Pflug said,

    November 23, 2014 at 8:14 am

    “Presumably, no one thinks that God’s foresight consists in his being the most perfectly talented guesser, or a perfectly well-informed pundit.”

    Of course there are many Open Theists who believe that God’s foreknowledge just is a maximal ability to predict.
    John Sanders writes, “. . .God can predict the future as something he intends to do regardless of human response, or God may utter a conditional statement that is dependent on human response, or God may give a forecast of what he thinks will occur based on his exhaustive knowledge of past and present factors.” (The God Who Risks, p. 139)

    I am not saying, however, that this is coherent.

    • November 23, 2014 at 10:29 am

      Thanks for the quotation. If I understand Open Theism, they say this because they believe that there is no future to know, whether by God or anyone else. I think this is one possible response to the paradoxes at the head of the post, inter alia, but I also think one can respond by showing that the problems with foresight arise from not fully following through with foresight as such,and seeing that it is essentially the ability to see things when they happen, even if one is not limited to seeing the events of only one such when, which I would say is the case with God. So I think that both the Open Theists and myself are responding to the same set of paradoxes, but they see it as a reason to deny foresight while I don’t.

      The argument I give at the end might be taken up by open theists, sc. that it’s not coherent to see when something happens when it’s not happening. For my own part, I think its better to see that what God and human beings have in common is that they both see things when they happen, but God is not limited to seeing the contents of only one such when. One can see this also as a certain denial of foresight, but not one that consists in saying that God just predicts and has his predictions later confirmed. To be honest, this seems to be a God for professors to talk about and nothing more.

%d bloggers like this: