Boethius’ Consolation, Freedom and Divine Foreknowledge

[This is the final segment in the Boethius series as the problem of divine foreknowledge takes us through the end of the Consolation. I’ve enjoyed writing it, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it.]

In prose III of book V Boethius proposes the problem of divine foreknowledge as a subject for further philosophical discussion. How is it that God can have infallible foreknowledge about contingent future events because knowledge requires necessity? If God necessarily knows that Socrates will do X at some future time, then it seems that Socrates cannot fail to do X, and therefore that he does not have free will and X is not contingent. But it is ridiculous to deny the freedom of the will in Boethius’s opinion, since then there would be no vices nor virtues, and even vices would be understood to come about through God’s action, nor would there be any point in praying (401).

Philosophy’s response to this problem in chapter VI draws a distinction between simple and conditional necessity (429). Simple necessity is tied to the nature so, for instance, it is a necessary truth that “man is a rational animal.” Conditional necessity is not tied to the nature, but rather to some contingent state of affairs at a particular time. Suppose I see Socrates seated. When I see him, it is conditionally necessary that he be seated because he is seated at that time, but there is nothing in his nature that forces him to be seated. A moment later he can choose to stand. This conditional necessity is sufficient for me to have knowledge that Socrates is seated. So my present knowledge and Socrates’s contingent willing to sit are perfectly compatible.

The problem with divine foreknowledge is that it asserts a conditional necessity not merely of a present state of affairs, but of a future state of affairs. In order to reconcile God’s infallible foreknowledge with future contingents, Philosophy proposes a widely influential definition of eternity:

“Eternity, then, is the whole, simultaneous and perfect possession of boundless life, which becomes clearer by comparison with temporal things” (423).

Philosophy grounds this understanding of the divine experience of time in divine simplicity. There is no past, present and future in God’s experience of time, rather all temporal events are present simultaneously to God’s simple knowledge. Therefore, Philosophy says, “if you should wish to consider his foreknowledge, by which he discerns all things, you will more rightly judge it to be not foreknowledge as it were of the future but knowledge of a never-passing instant” (427). God can have infallible knowledge about what Socrates will do in the future (from his point of view), because God, in his simple eternal knowledge, already sees Socrates doing it. Thus, the infallibility of God’s knowledge is grounded on a conditional necessity, which preserves the contingency and freedom of Socrates’ willing and choosing.

Prayer and human morality remain necessary as acts of free human creatures. One can be punished for acting wrongly presumably just because one had the freedom to do otherwise. Likewise, it is possible to petition God, not as though this changes God’s mind about what he has already decreed to do in the future, but just because God does what he does (in the future from our point of view) simultaneously with seeing our prayers in the present (again from our point of view). This response of Philosophy also leaves open the possibility of an augustinian free-will theodicy, since God’s knowledge of future evil choices does not imply that God causes the wicked to be wicked.


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