Feser’s predestinationism and his bizarre claim that God’s knowledge is non-propositional

Today, I’m going to start looking at chapter 5 of Dr. Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God. I thought I’d begin with Feser’s take on Divine foreknowledge and free will. To cut a long story short: Feser is a predestinationist who professes at the same time to believe that humans possess genuine free will. In order to reconcile these beliefs, he proposes an analogy which at first seems plausible, but which ultimately collapses because it completely ignores our personal relationship with our Creator. To make matters worse, Feser holds that God knows everything that happens in this world, non-propositionally. He proposes another analogy to explain how this might be, but at most, it merely explains how God might know creatures; it fails to explain how He knows what they get up to. I conclude that not only is Feser’s account of God’s foreknowledge incoherent, but his account of how God knows any fact whatsoever about the world is also unintelligible.

This will be a much shorter post than my last one, so there’s no need to crack open a beer (at least, not yet). I’ll explain the picture of Mia Farrow shortly.

Divine foreknowledge and human freedom

Let’s begin with Feser’s predestinationism. To be sure, Feser never uses the word “predestination” in his book, but that is precisely what he believes: he hold that God decides everything that happens in this world. As Feser puts it, “he knows everything – including the present and the future – precisely by virtue of being its cause” (2017, p. 214) and he also compares God’s knowledge to “an author’s knowledge of the characters and events of the story he has come up with” (2017, p. 212). As Feser explains:

Now, the way an author knows these characters and events [in his story] is not by observing them. It is not a kind of perceptual knowledge. Rather, the author knows them by knowing himself, by virtue of knowing his own thoughts and intentions as an author. And that is precisely the way in which God knows the world. … [I]t is in a single, timeless act that God causes to exist everything that has been and will be. And it is in knowing himself as so acting that God knows everything that is, has been and will be. His knowledge of the world is a consequence of his self-knowledge. (2017, p. 212)

This analogy invites the obvious objection that if God knows everything that happens in the world by causing it to happen, then human beings cannot be said to have free will. Feser has a ready answer: just as the characters in an author’s story can be said to act freely, so too can the human characters in God’s story. In his own words:

Consider once again the analogy with the author of a story. Suppose it is a crime novel and that one of the characters carefully plots the murder of another, for financial gain. We would naturally say that he commits the murder of his own free will, and is therefore justly punished after being caught at the end of the novel. It would be silly to say: “Well, he didn’t really commit the murder of his own free will. For he committed it only because the author wrote the story that way.” The author’s writing the story the way he did is not inconsistent with the character’s having freely committed the murder.… It is perfectly coherent to say that the author wrote a story in which someone freely chooses to commit a murder.

Similarly, it is perfectly coherent to say that God causes a world to exist in which someone freely chooses to commit a murder, or to carry out some other act. God’s causal action is no more inconsistent with our having free will than the author’s action is inconsistent with his characters’ having free will… The author’s causal relation to the story is radically unlike the relations the characters in the story have to each other, and God’s causal relation to the world is radically unlike the relation we and other elements of the world have to each other. (2017, pp. 214-215)

Which brings us to Mia Farrow, who played the part of Jacqueline in the movie Death on the Nile, which was based on Agatha Christie's book of the same title. As most of my readers will be aware, in the book, Jacqueline de Bellefort and her fiancé, Simon Doyle, plot the death of wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway, coming up with a very clever scheme which they nearly get away with. Only at the end of the story does detective Hercule Poirot uncover the truth, at which point Jacqueline finally confesses before embracing Simon, and then shooting him in the head before killing herself.

I don’t imagine any of Agatha Christie’s readers felt terribly sorry for Jacqueline de Bellefort or her fiancé, Simon Doyle. But if someone were to use the characters in her novel, Death on the Nile, in an attempt to explain how God’s causing human choices is perfectly compatible with human free will, then I would have to point out three massive disanalogies:

(i) in crime novels, it’s one of the characters (an officer of the law) who catches up with the criminal and brings them to justice. Moreover, it is only the characters in the story (not the author) who blame the murderer for his/her actions, and denounce him/her as an evil person when they discover the truth. But in our case, it isn’t human characters who ultimately punish sinners (many of whom end up getting away with their crimes on Earth), but God, the author of the human drama. [For instance, many Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that God publicly pronounces sentence on sinners, on Judgment Day.] And unlike a crime novel, it isn’t just other human beings who blame and accuse these sinners: rather, it is God who says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), and who berates the servant in the Parable of the Talents who buried his talent in a hole in the ground as a “wicked, lazy servant” (Matthew 25:26). That would be like Agatha Christie punishing Jacqueline de Bellefort, instead of Hercule Poirot, and telling her off for being a wicked, wicked woman. I’m sure my readers can readily see that it makes no sense for an author to personally blame one of their own characters for his/her misdeeds. And if God’s relationship to us is like that of an author to a character in his story, then by the same token, it makes no sense for God to blame us for our misdeeds, even if other people do;

(ii) in crime novels, the characters are not even aware that they are characters created by an author, and of course, they make no attempt to communicate with the author. Many human beings, on the other hand, are very much aware that they have a Divine Author, and some of them even communicate with Him daily, in prayer, believing that they have a religious duty to do so, since He is their Creator;

(iii) in crime novels, the characters are incapable of defying the will of the author: they simply do whatever the author wishes them to do. By contrast, human beings are perfectly capable of defying the will of their Divine Author: it’s called sin.

But the irony is that Feser himself pointed out what was wrong with his own analogy in a 2011 post, titled, Are you for real?:

All the same, the world is not literally a mere story and we are not literally fictional characters…

[P]recisely because the characters [in a story] do not exist but are purely fictional, they are not true causes the way real things are. Everything they seem to do is really done by their author: We say that Spider-Man punched out the guy who shot his uncle, but all that happened in the real world is that Steve Ditko (in collaboration with writer Stan Lee) first drew a panel in which Spider-Man punches the guy and then drew a panel in which the guy is unconscious. Strictly speaking, Spider-Man didn’t do anything, because there is no Spider-Man.

Well, if Spider-Man didn’t do anything, then he didn’t choose anything either – and neither did the bad guys he pursued in the comics that bear his name. And in that case, the guy who shot Spider-Man’s uncle did not “commit the murder of his own free will” (as Feser suggests in his analogy above) because he didn’t really murder anyone. It is therefore a mystery to me why Feser declares in the same post that he thinks the storybook analogy is “useful for helping us to understand why divine causality is not incompatible with human freedom.” Really?

I conclude that Feser’s reconciliation of Divine causation of human choices (or predestination) with human free will is radically flawed. The analogy he invokes is faulty, in three fundamental ways.

Finally, here’s a little thought experiment. Suppose that after you die, you find yourself confronting a Being who reproaches you for the bad choices you made while on Earth, and says He’s going to punish you for them – and then proceeds to tell you that He caused you to make those choices! What would your reaction be? Probably an unprintable one, I imagine.

OK, now it’s time to treat yourself to a beer – and some cookies, too. Why cookies? See below.

(A tip for anyone thinking of visiting Australia: VB [image courtesy of Wikipedia] isn’t our best beer. Cascade Premium Lager is, IMHO. Boag’s Brewery in Launceston, Tasmania, makes some pretty good beer, too.)

God’s knowledge of what goes on in the world

But Feser isn’t finished yet. In his section on omniscience, in chapter 5 of his book, he goes on to explain that it would be an anthropomorphic mistake to think of God as having multiple concepts in his Mind, or entertaining various propositions. This, we are told, would conflict with the doctrine of Divine simplicity (defended by classical theists of all stripes), which means that God is totally and utterly devoid of parts: He doesn’t even have any real properties, let alone the mental property of believing a certain proposition (e.g. Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK) to be true.

So how does God know what we’re up to? Does He perhaps have a single super-proposition in His Mind, which is a conjunction of all true statements? That won’t work, either: as Feser points out, the super-proposition “will itself have component parts,” contradicting Divine simplicity. Instead, Feser proposes two more analogies of his own:

A better, though still imperfect, way to understand the nature of God’s knowledge would be to think in terms of analogies like the following. From a beam of white, various beams of colored light can be derived by passing it through a prism. Though the colors are not separated out until the beam reaches the prism, they are still in the white light in a unified way. From a lump of dough, cookies of various shapes can be derived by means of cookie cutters. Though the various cookies with their particular shapes are not separated out until the cutters are applied to the dough, they are still on the uncut dough virtually. Now, God is pure actuality, whereas every kind of created thing represents a different way in which actuality might be limited by potentiality. That is to say, each created thing is comparable to one of the specific colors that might be derived from the white light that contains all of them, or is like one of the many cookie shapes which might be derived from the dough which contains all of them. God’s creation of the world is thus like the passing of white light through a prism or the application of the cutters to the dough. The prism draws out, from the color spectrum which is contained in a unified way in the white light, a particular beam of this color and a particular beam of that color, and the cutters draw out, from the variety of possible cookies contained in a unified way in the lump of dough, a cookie of this particular shape and a cookie of that particular shape. Similarly, creation involves drawing out, from the unlimited actuality that is God, various limited ways of being actual.

Now, just as if you knew the white light perfectly, you would know all the colors which could be derived from it, and if you knew the lump of dough perfectly, you would know all the shapes which might be carved out of it, so too, perfectly to know that which is pure actuality would entail knowing all the various limited ways of being actual which might be derived from it. And that is how God knows all of the various kinds of finitely actual things which exist or might exist – by virtue of perfectly knowing himself as that which is pure or unlimited actuality. (2017, pp. 215-216)

Now, Feser is very careful to point out that the foregoing illustration is just an analogy, and a highly imperfect one at that: for example, “created things are not made out of God in the way cookies are made out of dough” (2017, p. 216). But theological errors of this sort do not concern me greatly. When using an analogy, there is one and only one thing I expect it to do well: represent accurately the specific state of affairs which it’s meant to be an analogy of. If it can explain that one little thing which it’s meant to shed light on, then I’ll forgive whatever additional deficiencies it might possess.

In this case, the “one little thing” that I’m asking Feser’s twin analogies to shed light on is God’s ability to know everything that happens in the world, without knowing it propositionally (as that, according to Feser, is precluded by God’s simplicity). At the very best, Feser’s analogies relating to light and cookies only serve to explain how God could know what might happen, in a simple fashion. But in the light illustration, we need to know about the size, shape and positioning of the prism, if we wish to know what color of light can actually be seen. And if we want to know what kinds of cookies are actually made by the chef, we need to know which cutters he is using. Nothing in the nature of light or dough will tell us anything about the actual choice of colors or cookies that was made. And likewise, nothing in the nature of God as unlimited actuality will tell us (or Him) about what actually happens in the real world.

“But surely God could know what happens, simply by knowing His own choices when creating the world and all that is in it?” I hear you suggest. Indeed he could – assuming for the moment (as Feser does) that God knows what happens in the world by causing it to happen. But here’s the thing: just as the size, shape and positioning of the prism (which determines what color light we actually see) is something complex, and just as the shapes of the various cutters (which determine what cookies we actually eat) are also complex, so too, the specific choices God makes when causing the world to be in its present form are complex, not simple: “Yes, I want lions in my world; no, I don’t want unicorns; yes, I decree that Lee Harvey Oswald will kill JFK and thereby change the course of American history; no, he won’t kill Jackie or Governor Connally.” And so on. The whole point of Feser’s light and cookie analogies was to explain how God could know about these events without in any way compromising His simplicity. But it is precisely on this point that the analogies fail.

Let us recall Feser’s earlier remark that God knows the world “by virtue of knowing his own thoughts and intentions as an author.” I respectfully submit that it would be impossible for anyone (God included) to make a warts-and-all world like ours with a single, simple thought.

Until and unless someone can suggest a better analogy than Feser’s light and cookie analogies, I am forced to conclude that the notion that God could have simple, non-propositional knowledge of earthly affairs is a nonsensical one, just as I am forced to reject Feser’s reconciliation of God’s causing our choices with our making them freely.

Time for another beer, I’d say. What do readers think? Over to you.

223 thoughts on “Feser’s predestinationism and his bizarre claim that God’s knowledge is non-propositional

  1. So, a syllogism?

    Definition: universe = “all that exists”

    How about:
    1. X = finite universe
    2. Nothing does not and cannot exist.
    3. For X to be true, there must be nothing other than X.
    4. 1 is false.

    An objection to this might be that I’m misusing the term “nothing” to represent “something”; however, that’s the very point I’m making – that the concept of “nothing” is itself absurd. It doesn’t refer to anything, so it cannot actually have any true meaning. Look a the word itself: “no thing”. What that refers to cannot even be imagined. It is a self-contradictory, absurd word (if applied literally) that cannot ever be true.

    One might say that that “nothing” refers to the absence of anything and everything, but I think that’s just a long form way of saying “nothing”.

    BTW, I’m not the first guy to have this view or make some of these arguments. There was a pretty famous ancient philosopher that presented them. Anyone know who that was?

  2. walto: No. There you’re confusing epistemic possibility with metaphysical or logical possibility.

    You’re very confused, William.

    Can you clear up my confusion on that point?

  3. William J. Murray: BTW, I’m not the first guy to have this view or make some of these arguments. There was a pretty famous ancient philosopher that presented them. Anyone know who that was?

    I don’t know who you’re referring to but there’s a classic and very funny article on “nothing” in the old Edwards “Encyclopedia of Philosophy” that has fun with some of the silliness you’re exhibiting here.

    FWIW, I particularly enjoyed your claim that if a term doesn’t name anything it must be meaningless.

  4. walto: I don’t know who you’re referring to but there’s a classic and very funny article on “nothing” in the old Edwards “Encyclopedia of Philosophy” that has fun with some of the silliness you’re exhibiting here.

    FWIW, I particularly enjoyed your claim that if a term doesn’t name anything it must be meaningless.

    So if a term doesn’t refer to anything, it has meaning? How is that?

  5. William J. Murray:
    So, a syllogism?

    Definition: universe = “all that exists”

    How about:
    1. X = finite universe
    2. Nothing does not and cannot exist.
    3. For X to be true, there must be nothing other than X.
    4. 1 is false.

    An objection to this might be that I’m misusing the term “nothing” to represent “something”; however, that’s the very point I’m making – that the concept of “nothing” is itself absurd.It doesn’t refer to anything, so it cannot actually have any true meaning. Look a the word itself: “no thing”.What that refers to cannot even be imagined. It is a self-contradictory, absurd word (if applied literally) that cannot ever be true.

    One might say that that “nothing” refers to the absence of anything and everything, but I think that’s just a long form way of saying “nothing”.

    BTW, I’m not the first guy to have this view or make some of these arguments.There was a pretty famous ancient philosopher that presented them. Anyone know who that was?

    I believe you’re thinking of Parmenides.

    Parmenides was the first philosopher to articulate the principle of ex nihilo nihil fit: from nothing, nothing can come.

    He argued that since all thinking is thinking of something, it is not actually possible to think of nothingness.

    In contemporary (i.e. Fregean) terms, we can put Parmenides’s thought as follows: since every thought must have a sense, and to think of nothingness would be to have a thought without a sense, one cannot think of nothingness. So the word “nothingness” is meaningless.

    On this basis Parmenides then argues that being is eternal, unchanging, unchangeable, and indivisible (etc.) and that all motion and change is an illusion. And that gets the whole ball rolling for Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle to try to explain how change and motion can be explained in terms of unchanging beings.

  6. William J. Murray: So if a term doesn’t refer to anything, it has meaning? How is that?

    What does “but” refer to? Or “how” or “is” or “that”? Or “so” or “if” or “a” or “doesn’t” or “to” or “has”?

  7. walto: What does “but” refer to? Or “how” or “is” or “that”? Or “so” or “if” or “a” or “doesn’t” or “to” or “has”?

    I see we’re going to have to replay the entire history of 20th-century analytic philosophy of language here.

    Man, it’s gonna be wild when we tell them about indexicals!

  8. walto: What does “but” refer to? Or “how” or “is” or “that”? Or “so” or “if” or “a” or “doesn’t” or “to” or “has”?

    The object of the sentence

    peace

  9. William,

    An objection to this might be that I’m misusing the term “nothing” to represent “something”; however, that’s the very point I’m making – that the concept of “nothing” is itself absurd.

    There’s nothing absurd about the concept of “nothing”, which is why you are able to understand this sentence.

    Mathematicians have even formalized it, defining the empty set as the set containing nothing — that is, the set having no elements.

  10. keiths,

    The empty set is still a thinkable content, an object of thought. (In phenomenological terms, an intentional object.) So it’s not non-being in the sense that WJM is indicating. What WJM is pointing out is that we cannot have thoughts that lack contents — there’s no thinking without thinking of.

    That seems quite true. I’m just not sure it has any of the implications for ontology that Parmenides et al have claimed for it. It’s really a point about human cognitive psychology.

  11. KN,

    The empty set is still a thinkable content, an object of thought. (In phenomenological terms, an intentional object.) So it’s not non-being in the sense that WJM is indicating.

    “Nothing” is an object of thought, too. It’s not absurd, and the comprehensibility of my sentence demonstrates that:

    There’s nothing absurd about the concept of “nothing”, which is why you are able to understand this sentence.

    KN:

    What WJM is pointing out is that we cannot have thoughts that lack contents — there’s no thinking without thinking of.

    No, he’s claiming that the word “nothing” is meaningless and self-contradictory, which is silly.

  12. William, to dazz:

    The first two word of the premise “nothing exists” outside of X” is a logically self refuting phrase. Think about what “nothing exists” means. It’s the same kind of phrase as “square circle”. “Nothing” cannot exist, so nothing cannot exist outside of any X. The only question is if all such statements regarding “outside X” represent the same kind of self-contradictory absurdity.

    William,

    You’re tying yourself in knots over nothing, literally.

    “Nothing exists outside of X” is perfectly coherent. You can see this by recasting it in the language of set theory, so that it becomes:

    The set of all things T, such that T is not contained in X, is empty.

    It makes perfect sense, and there’s no contradiction.

  13. William,

    So, as to the expansion of the universe not requiring anything to expand into, I know this is what a lot of scientists say, but it still doesn’t make any sense, and they admit there is no good analogy to characterize this claim.

    Just as you don’t construct reality with your “mind powers”, contrary to what you claimed in your now-regretted books, you also don’t limit reality via your mental shortcomings.

    The fact that the expansion of space doesn’t make sense to you is irrelevant to its truth.

  14. keiths: “Nothing exists outside of X” is perfectly coherent. You can see this by recasting it in the language of set theory, so that it becomes:

    The set of all things T, such that T is not contained in X, is empty.

    It makes perfect sense, and there’s no contradiction.

    Uh… that doesn’t work. X and T would necessarily be the same set, because X contains everything.

  15. William,

    Now, I can imagine… I can imagine… I can always imagine…However, I cannot imagine…

    Now, that could be a limitation of my particular imagination, or it could represent a true logical contradiction – something that cannot exist, like square circles.

    It’s a limitation of your imagination. If you disagree, show us the contradiction.

  16. Uh… that doesn’t work. X and T would necessarily be the same set, because X contains everything.

    Read it again, William.

  17. walto: See if you can figure it out.

    The only thing that I can think of is if “but” is a conjunction that connects clauses in the subject or verb rather than the object of the sentence.

    In that case “but” would refer to the subject or verb of the sentence whether real or potential.

    My point was that each of the words you listed get their meanings from the words they are associated with in a sentence with rather than independently.

    In an effort to be pithy I might have been misleading.

    peace

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