Thinking About Religion
Volume 5 (2005)

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Boethius on Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will

Gregory Rich
Fayetteville State University

Living in Italy from around 475 A.D. to around 525 A.D., Boethius was not only an influential philosopher, poet, and translator, he was also an important politician. By 523 he had become a high-ranking official in the government of Theodoric, ruler of Italy and King of the Ostrogoths. By the next year, however, Boethius had been removed from office, perhaps because he was too upright for the corrupt court or perhaps because he subscribed to orthodox Christianity and Theodoric was an Arian Christian. Or perhaps Theodoric considered Boethius too supportive of the prerogatives of the Roman Senate or too sympathetic toward the Eastern Roman Emperor. For whatever reason, Boethius was found guilty of treason, among other things, and sentenced to death. While in prison awaiting his execution, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. Little could he know then that after the Bible, his little book would be one of the most translated and read books in the west for the next thousand years (Flew 47).

As the book begins, Boethius despairs of the sudden unfortunate change in his life conditions. Soon Lady Philosophy, a personification of wisdom, appears before him to console him. The book consists of a dialogue between the two, with Boethius as a character in the book often playing the naïve questioner and Lady Philosophy being the mouthpiece for the considered opinions of Boethius the man. Each discussion between them ends with a poem on the topic they have just been discussing. Their discussions cover a wide range of topics: the good life, fortune vs. providence, the problem of evil, and the relationship between divine foreknowledge and human free will. The latter topic is the focus of this paper. First, I shall set out Boethius’s attempt to reconcile foreknowledge and free will. Then I shall defend the view from two criticisms frequently put forward against it. Finally, I shall criticize the view on two counts.

In Book V of The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius is concerned about the relationship between foreknowledge and free will. He says, “There seems to be a hopeless conflict between divine foreknowledge of all things and freedom of the human will. For if God sees everything in advance and cannot be deceived in any way, whatever his Providence foresees will happen, must happen” (104-05). Thus the initial problem is that whatever God foreknows is something that must happen, and whatever must happen does not happen freely; therefore if God foreknows everything we do, we never act freely.

Boethius, in his guise as a character in the book, initially claims that those who think that God could have foreknowledge of events that are unnecessary or uncertain are just confused. He thinks it is self-contradictory to speak of foreknowledge of what is not necessary. That’s because “the outcome of something known in advance must necessarily take place” (106). If it is known that something will be, then it necessarily must be. Thus foreknowledge of what is not necessary is self-contradictory because it involves one and the same thing as necessary and as not necessary.

Boethius also initially rejects the idea that God might only have foreknowledge of uncertain events, events that might or might not occur. He rejects this idea because saying that God might only know that an event might or might not occur puts His knowledge on a level with human knowledge and fails to recognize His exalted status. Thus Boethius initially concludes that what God knows is necessary and certain. He says, “Therefore, there can be no freedom in human decisions and actions, since the divine mind, foreseeing everything without possibility of error, determines and forces the outcome of everything that is to happen” (107).

Boethius proceeds to trace a number of undesirable consequences from the apparent incompatibility of foreknowledge and free will (107). First, if no human acts are free, then rewards for the good and punishments for the bad are not deserved. It becomes unfair to punish one person and reward another if neither one has control over what he/she does but is predetermined to do it. Thus rewards and punishments lose their basis. Also, if neither praise nor blame is deserved, the applicability of the ideas of virtue and vice is called into question. Moreover, if the order of events depends entirely on God’s providence and not at all on human choices, then God becomes the author of what we regard as the evil we do. Finally, if the future is unalterably fixed, there is no point in hope and prayer, thus undermining a key uniting bond between God and man.

Boethius’s considered opinion, however, is expressed by Lady Philosophy. It is that these undesirable consequences can be avoided because, after all, foreknowledge and free will are compatible. He regards those who think there is an incompatibility here as the ones who are confused; for, in considering how things are known, they do not give enough recognition to the nature of the knower. For example, humans by their power of reason can know things that shellfish and beasts cannot know. And in a similar way, divine intelligence can see the future in a way that human reason cannot. That’s because God is eternal, and humans are not. According to Boethius, “only that which comprehends the whole plenitude of endless life together, from which no future thing nor any past thing is absent, can justly be called eternal” (115). Things passing through time, or in time, are not eternal, since they do not “comprehend and include the whole of infinite life all at once” (115). Thus, according to Boethius, an eternal being is not, as Plato thought, a being with endless life, but instead a being outside of time who is aware of unending life “all at once as present” (116).

Due to God’s nature as an eternal being, i.e. a timeless being, His knowledge is different from human knowledge. Regarding divine knowledge, Boethius says, “It encompasses the infinite sweep of past and future, and regards all things in its simple comprehension as if they were now taking place” (116). From God’s perspective outside of time, He sees “all at once as present” (116) before Him all of the events in time, those past, present, and future. Thus God’s foreknowledge is not a foreknowledge of things future to Him, “but knowledge of a never changing present” (116).

Boethius’s next step has crucial importance. Having placed God in a “timeless present,” Boethius proceeds to compare God’s vision of the present with man’s vision of the present. He notes that a man’s seeing something present before him does not make the thing necessary, and he concludes by analogy, that God’s seeing something as present before Him does not make the thing necessary either. In this way Boethius reaches the conclusion that God can know that something will take place and also know that it will not take place by necessity. He is aware, however, that critics will still say that if God foreknows something it can’t be any other way, and in that case it happens by necessity.

In response, Boethius says that “the same future event is necessary with respect to God’s knowledge of it, but free and undetermined if considered in its own nature” (117). This can be because there are two types of necessity: conditional necessity and simple necessity. “If you know someone is walking, then necessarily he is walking” is a conditional necessity because “whatever is known, must be as it is known to be” (117). “All men are mortal,” in contrast, is a simple necessity. A simple necessity is necessary due to the nature of the thing involved (in this case man), not necessary due to the condition of God’s knowing that it is so.

The distinction between conditional necessity and simple necessity matters because conditional necessity does not involve simple necessity. If a man is walking forward, then necessarily he is moving forward. But that does not mean that he is plain and simple necessitated to walk forward. God’s knowledge imposes only conditional necessity in that if He knows an act will take place, it must take place. But that does not mean that the act of its own nature is necessary. It is this absence of simple necessity that leaves room for free will. Thus, Boethius maintains, that an act can be free even though God knows that it will happen. He concludes that as free will and foreknowledge are compatible, human free will is secure, rewards and punishments applied to those who freely chose as they did are just, and “hopes and prayers are not directed to God in vain” (119).

In sum, Boethius’s proposed solution to the apparent conflict between foreknowledge and free will includes four main points. First is the claim that what one can know depends on the nature of he knower. Second, eternity, i.e., timelessness, is part of God’s nature, and so His knowledge of things is timeless knowledge. All things in time appear to Him in a timeless moment. Third, just as an ordinary human’s seeing someone do something is not making that act necessary, so too, God’s seeing someone doing something is not making the act necessary. Fourth, Boethius brings in the distinction between conditional necessity and simple necessity to answer critics who say that what God knows, must happen; and whatever must happen, is not done freely. According to Boethius, conditional necessity does not involve simple necessity. Thus if God knows a deed will occur, it must occur; but that does not mean that the act of its own nature is necessary. God’s knowledge creates a conditional necessity but not a simple necessity. The absence of simple necessity is what leaves room for free will. In this way, Boethius concludes that foreknowledge is compatible with free will.

If, contrary to Boethius, foreknowledge and free will are incompatible, then theists face a dilemma: either give up foreknowledge, which seems to be part of omniscience, or give up free will, which is necessary for moral responsibility. Thus this dilemma calls into question key aspects of traditional theism. But if Boethius’s proposed reconciliation of foreknowledge and free will is correct, then theists do not have to face this dilemma at all. Boethius provides a classic treatment of this problem (Marenbon 177). It was widely influential throughout the Middle Ages (Green xix), and variants on the position have a following even today (Helm). But is his proposed reconciliation defensible?

Much of the criticism of Boethius’s attempted reconciliation focuses on his idea of a timeless God. Some claim that the idea doesn’t really make sense at all. Others claim that a timeless God could not act in time, and so the view conflicts with scripture and traditional doctrines. I think the Boethian view is defensible against these objections.

According to Anthony Kenny, “the whole concept of a timeless eternity, the whole of which is simultaneous with every part of time, seems to be radically incoherent” (38-39). Kenny points out that if A is simultaneous with B and B is simultaneous with C, then A is simultaneous with C also. But in that case, if the founding of Rome is simultaneous with all eternity and the fall of Rome is also simultaneous with all eternity, then the founding of Rome is simultaneous with the fall of Rome. According to Kenny, then, the idea of timeless eternity leads to absurdities.

Kenny seems mistaken; his point of view seems to arise from a failure to distinguish between the temporal and the non-temporal, between the human perspective and the divine perspective. Events simultaneous for God do not have to be simultaneous in the temporal realm. An event occurring at t1 is not simultaneous in the temporal realm with a later event occurring at t2, but the two events can be simultaneous as experienced by God. Thus in God’s experience the founding of Rome can be simultaneous with the fall of Rome, while in the temporal realm the two events are clearly not simultaneous.

Giving due attention to the distinction between the non-temporal and the temporal removes the absurdities alleged by Kenny. The idea of a timeless eternity does not seem self-contradictory even if it is difficult for temporal beings such as us to comprehend the idea. One analogy that makes the idea clearer puts God on a hilltop above a stream of all the events in time. God’s vision encompasses the whole stream at once, but He himself is not part of it (cf. Nash 75).

That analogy, however, suggests another criticism of the idea of timeless eternity, viz. that it is hard to see how a timeless God could act in time as the Bible and traditional doctrines characterize Him as doing. He hardened Pharaoh’s heart; He liberated the Israelites from bondage; He ascended unto heaven. According to Nelson Pike, the language used to describe these acts is unavoidably tensed language, and for that reason, God is in time (94-95).

But Pike is not convincing because some languages, such as Chinese, do not have tenses. In speaking Chinese one unavoidably uses non-tensed language. Should we conclude in that case that God and the rest of us for that matter are not in time? If not, then we should reject Pike’s argument above as well.

The real worry here concerns whether there is any way for a timeless God to act in time. E.L. Mascall suggests that we think of God’s acts as having a subjective timeless pole and an objective temporal pole. Mascall says that an act of God

is at its subjective pole (at God’s end, if we may use the phrase), timeless, even though at its objective pole (the creature’s end) it is temporal. God timelessly exerts a creative activity towards and upon the whole spatio-temporal fabric of the created universe. This will be experienced as temporal by each creature who observes it and describes it from his own spatio-temporal standpoint, but it no more implies that God is in time … than the fact that I describe God in English means that God is English (166).

In this way the timeless acts of God can have results in time, and a timeless God can interact with His creation. Thus the idea of a timeless God not only seems coherent but also seems to fit with scripture and traditional doctrines.

One may still wonder how a timeless God could become incarnate. God the Son can be timelessly Jesus even though Jesus is not always part of the temporal realm (cf. Helm 54). A timeless being could be in a being in time and guide that being’s behavior by willings from eternity on the order of “I’ll say `Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ in this situation,” and “In this other situation, I’ll say ….” Though willed by God outside of time, the words would be experienced by beings in time.

But what of biblical language to the effect that God did this then and that later? Such language can be interpreted as language that a timeless God uses to make Himself understandable to a time-bound people. Thus such biblical language can fit with the idea of a timeless God.

I have tried to show how the idea of a timeless God can be coherent and how such a being could act in time. Even if Boethius’s view of the relationship between foreknowledge and free will can be defended against these criticisms, I think his view ultimately runs afoul of two other criticisms.

First, according to Boethius, foreknowledge does not rule out free will because foreknowledge only creates conditional necessity, not simple necessity. To review, simple necessity is necessity due to the nature of the thing involved. While simple necessity can rule out freedom, the absence of simple necessity is supposed to leave room for freedom. For example, humanity’s nature includes mortality, and so our death is not something about which we have freedom. In contrast, it is not part of our nature to drink alcohol or to play soccer; not everyone does these things. About these things there is an absence of simple necessity, and this absence is supposed to leave room for freedom regarding drinking alcohol and playing soccer. The trouble is that this absence of simple necessity does not seem sufficient for freedom in these matters because something else could make the person drink alcohol, such as, God, an evil demon, a compulsion, or even a threat. But if one is made to do these things, it is hard to see how he/she does them freely. Therefore, even if foreknowledge is compatible with an absence of simple necessity, more needs to be said to show that foreknowledge is compatible with free will.

A second problem for the Boethian position is that even given an absence of simple necessity, conditional necessity by itself provides reason to believe that foreknowledge and free will are in conflict. Here’s why. Suppose the Boethian God timelessly knows that we’d be here today. In that case, if we had the power not to be here today, we had the power to change God’s timeless knowledge that we’d be here. The difficulty is that none of us has that power because that would involve changing a timeless realm where there is no change. Consequently we did not have the power not to be here today. But if we freely came here today, we did have the power not to be here today. Thus God’s timelessly knowing that we’d be here today conflicts with our freely being here today. And so in the end Boethius’s attempted reconciliation of foreknowledge and free will fails.

It may be objected that even if God timelessly knows we’d be here today, we may still be here freely. The idea is that we would still have the power or ability not to be here in the sense that we would have done something else if we had so chosen. But this meaning of `power not to be here today’ seems too weak, for according to it, we still have the power to do otherwise even when we cannot choose to do otherwise, so long as we would do otherwise if we had chosen to do otherwise. But one who could not choose to do otherwise would hardly be free. Thus the objection fails to show that foreknowledge and freedom are compatible.

A defender of Boethius may claim that the analogy between human seeing and divine seeing is enough to prove the compatibility of foreknowledge and free will. The idea again is that God’s seeing acts from His timeless present would be like our seeing acts in our present. And just as our seeing something happening before us doesn’t make it happen, so too, His seeing something happening before Him wouldn’t make it happen either.

I think this analogy breaks down, however, because there is an important difference between our case and God’s case, a difference that hearkens back to the second problem for Boethius mentioned above. In the temporal realm, when a human knows at t that x is occurring at t, there is no reason to believe that his knowledge rules out the possibility of x’s being otherwise. But in the non-temporal realm, when God timelessly knows that S does x at t, there is reason to believe that His knowledge does rule out the possibility of S’s doing otherwise. That’s because if God knows timelessly that S does x at t, then S’s ability to do other than x at t requires the ability to change God’s timeless knowledge. But since S cannot change God’s timeless knowledge, then S does not have the ability to do other than x at t. But if S does x freely at t, then he has the ability to do otherwise at t. Therefore, if God timelessly knows that S does x at t, then S does not do x freely at t. The argument can be generalized for any subject, S, and for any act, x. Thus unlike human knowledge at t of an act taking place at t in the temporal realm, there is reason to believe that God’s timeless knowledge of an act taking place at t in the temporal realm would conflict with the power to act otherwise at t and in that way conflict with free will. For this reason, the analogy between human seeing/knowing and divine seeing/knowing breaks down.

Traditionally, the conflict between foreknowledge and free will arose because God, a being considered to be in time, knew beforehand what would happen at t. The trouble was that if God knew in the past that we’d be here today, then it was true in the past that we’d be here today. But in that case, for us to have he power not to be here today, we’d have to have the power to change the past. And this power is obviously something none of us has. By placing God outside of time, Boethius shows how the ability to do otherwise would not necessarily require the ability to change the past. In this way, Boethius tried to keep the apparent conflict between foreknowledge and free will from arising at all.

The trouble for the Boethian view is that the problem re-appears (cf. Zagzebski, 60-61). If before, with God in time, the power to do otherwise depended on the power to change the past, now, with God outside of time, the power to do otherwise depends on the power to change a timeless realm. But such a realm seems unchangeable, since change involves a before and an after, and a timeless realm does not include a before and an after. Just as the past seemed unalterable, so too does a timeless eternity. Just as there appears to be a necessity to the past, there also appears to be a necessity to eternity.

The reasoning here is not from `Necessarily if God knows p, then p is true’ and `God knows p’ to `Necessarily p is true’. That reasoning does involve a modal fallacy (Zagzebski, 9). One cannot logically reason from `Steve knows it’s Wednesday’ and `If he knows it’s Wednesday, then it’s Wednesday’ to `It’s necessarily true that it’s Wednesday’. At most the premises show that it’s Wednesday, not that it’s necessarily Wednesday. That is not the type of reasoning used here. Instead, the reasoning here for the apparent incompatibility of foreknowledge and free will is based on the apparent conflict between the ability to do otherwise required for free will and the necessity, the unalterability, of God’s timeless knowledge. Thus by putting God outside of time, Boethius has not disposed of the apparent incompatibility between foreknowledge and free will.

Even so, Boethius, “the last of the Romans and the first of the scholastics” (Flew 47), made a number of important contributions to the history of western philosophy. His translations promoted the cause of learning in the west by transmitting ideas from classical antiquity into the Middle Ages. In particular his translations of Aristotle’s logical works were the only ones available in the west for centuries (Dawson 51). In this way he helped provide medieval philosophers with a vocabulary, a methodology, and a set of problems, including the much discussed problem of universals. But beyond this, he also exemplified how to apply logic rigorously to such Christian theological topics as the Trinity. Moreover, his innovative work in The Consolation of Philosophy shows him to be an important thinker in his own right, not just a transmitter of other’s ideas (cf. Marenbon 4). Even if his proposed reconciliation of foreknowledge and free will ultimately fails, it is a philosophically important view because it was for centuries widely regarded as the “authoritative solution” to this problem (Green xix), and variants of the view are still defended today (Helm).

Works Cited

  • Boethius, Ancius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Richard Green. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962.
  • Dawson, Joseph G. “Boethius.” In The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers. Edited by J.O. Urmon and Jonathan Ree. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989, 50-51.
  • Flew, Antony, ed. Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 1979.
  • Green, Richard. "Introduction." The Consolation of Philosophy. By Ancius Boethius. Translated by Richard Green. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962.
  • Helm, Paul. “Divine Timeless Eternity.” In God and Time: Four Views. Edited by Gregory E. Ganssle. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001, 28-60.
  • Kenny, Anthony. The God of the Philosophers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Marenbon, John. Boethius. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Mascall, E.L. The Openness of Being. Philadelphia: Westminister, 1971.
  • Nash, Ronald H. The Concept of God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1983.
  • Pike, Nelson. God and Timelessness. New York: Schocken, 1970.
  • Zagzebski, Linda Trinkaus. The Dilemma of Freedom and Foreknowledge. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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