When people talk about God’s omniscience, we generally have a vague idea of what they mean. God just knows everything – He knows all the stuff that exists, and all the thoughts that people have, and He probably knows the future or whatever, because He probably sees time differently – yeah, you know, standard omniscience. But here’s a question: when we say that God knows everything, does that include all the possible futures? Does omniscience extend to the things that could have happened but didn’t?
It seems like a bit of a throwaway question, right. Does it matter that much? Instinctively, we sort of want to shrug and go sure, why not. It fits with how people talk about God – they say things like oh, God was protecting me, He guided me away from a situation that would have ended really badly. He made me lose my keys, so I didn’t go to the doctor, so I didn’t end up being attacked by that escaped lion that got into the doctor’s clinic. Surely, for God to have protected me in that way, He had to have known what would happen if I’d been at the clinic. He had to know about this possible future before He could stop it from happening. He has to be able to think in counter-factuals.
A counter-factual is this psychological thing – it’s basically our ability to say ‘what if’. If I’d found my keys, I would have gone to the doctor’s and been mauled by a lion. That’s a counter-factual. It didn’t happen, but it could have under different circumstances. Generally speaking, counter-factuals are really important in our day to day lives. We learn from our actions by generating counter-factuals, by imagining how things might have gone differently. We simulate different outcomes in our heads so that we can better manage new situations in the future. Here’s an example – we were back home in New Zealand recently, and we found a bottle of champagne in the cupboard. I loosened and removed the muselet (the wire cage), and the cork fired right out the bottle, right past my head. It was a shock, mostly because of the very obvious counter-factual: that could have hit me in the face. Could have taken my eye out. I wasn’t deliberately pointing the bottle in any particular direction, I was just holding it – so if I’d been unlucky, if I’d been pointing it slightly to the left, it would’ve been my eye. And you can see how those counter-factuals will inform my behaviour next time I’m opening champagne. I’ll know that the cork can explode out once the muselet is off. I’ll know to point it very deliberately away from all faces and vulnerable appendages, rather than just pointing it any old way. And that behaviour will be seared into my brain by a pretty visceral counter-factual.
At the same time, we might say – well, you know, it might have happened, but it didn’t. You don’t need the counter-factual – it’s just creating trouble, just imagining pointless things that never happened. We know what did happen, and that’s all we need to know. Especially from God’s perspective – if God is all-knowing, then why does He need to know what ‘might’ happen? Arguably, from His perspective, there’s no such thing. He already knows how everything turns out. If God can see the future, He’s not worried about what ‘might’ happen, because from His perspective, everything is already set in stone. It has, in a sense, already happened. God knew how 2020 was going to unfold. Nothing happened in the past year that God did not know was coming. From His perspective, there are no counter-factuals: He doesn’t think about what might have been, because He already knows what is, and what’s to come. An omniscient God doesn’t see alternate possible futures: He sees the one single future that He has laid out for reality, and He watches it unfold exactly as He intended it. From this perspective, it’s not true that God protected you from a possible future involving a lion mauling, because that future was never really possible.
So to some extent this is an argument about the relationship between our free will and God’s omniscience. It’s something we’ve talked about a bunch before. If God knows what we’ll choose, are we really making a choice? Augustine argues yes, Calvin argues no. The validity of counter-factuals kinda feels like it’s tied up in these debates – that is, if we can make valid choices and actually change the course of things, then a range of courses must be possible, meaning that counter-factuals are valid descriptions of possible alternate futures. Alternately, if God’s foreknowledge means that we cannot change the course of events away from what they were always intended to be, then maybe it is silly to talk about counter-factuals, in that there actually aren’t any alternate possible futures besides the one that is already preordained by an omniscient, omnipotent God. What’s that? Oh, Schleiermacher.
- The text: The Christian Faith
- The author: Friedrich Schleiermacher
- Notes: We’re mostly looking at paragraph 55
- Read it yourself: I haven’t found any free digital versions, so you’ll have to go hard-copy for this one.
In his 1830 work The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher argues that there are no multiple possible futures, because God has a plan and He makes the plan happen and nothing else can possibly happen other than what God intends. There is God’s plan for what happens in the universe, which is both real (in the sense that it has happened, will happen, is happening) and possible (meaning able to happen). Everything outside of that plan is impossible. It cannot happen, and it will never happen, because God’s plan is absolute and incontrovertible. Plus, Schleiermacher complains, imagine if God actually did know all possible futures. “If anywhere even for God anything is possible outside the real, then infinitely much is possible at every point, and as each point is co-determinant for all the rest, a different world arises for each case from each point.” He describes a sort of multiple universe theory, where God knows every possible alternate reality – and frankly, it sounds pretty cool. There are “infinitely many times infinitely many worlds,” which are forming “infinitely often,” and “amid which the real world is lost as something infinitely small.” For Schleiermacher, that’s just wasteful. It seems like the thinking of a human artist, who comes up with a bunch of ideas that they don’t end up using in the final product. “This whole apparatus of rejected thoughts is simply a knowledge of nothing,” he concludes. It would have been far better to think of God as “the perfect artist, who in a state of inspired discovery thinks of nothing else, to whom nothing else offers itself, save what he actually produces.”
So Schleiermacher’s problem with God knowing all possible futures is that it seems almost indecisive. We live in one reality, and there is one set of events that will inevitably play out, and so there’s no point in God knowing about all these alternate possibilities, because none of them will ever happen. Except – well, you know – what if they did? What if Schleiermacher’s infinite universes were not just hypothetical possible universes known by God, but real, alternate universes, where all of our decisions played out in a different way? Just given the way that Schleiermacher articulates the problem, one valid response might be to accept the idea of God knowing all possible futures, and then insisting that God knows them because they’re all actually real. It slots neatly into and against Schleiermacher’s argument. He doesn’t like thinking about possible futures because it’s not real knowledge – unless these alternate universes really do exist. It makes God seem indecisive, like He’s having a bunch of inferior ideas that He doesn’t follow through on – unless He does follow through, and they do exist, and they’re not actually inferior. It’s not an argument I’m really making in earnest – it’s a bit silly – but it’s silly in the good way, where it throws up a bunch of entertaining questions. If multiple universes exist, what becomes of Leibniz’s claim that we live in the best of all possible worlds? If everything that could happen has happened in one universe or another, are there realities where the Fall didn’t occur? Similarly, if there really are alternate realities covering every possible set of events, do your decisions have any value, or do you just happen to live in the universe where you happen to make one set of decisions and not another? How can you be angry at John Wilkes Booth for murdering Lincoln? He doesn’t do it in all realities – and in some realities, Lincoln didn’t even end slavery. We just happen to live in the reality where Lincoln did happen to end slavery and where Booth also happened to kill him for it. That’s hardly something you can blame Booth for. We’re all just victims of circumstance, just little people playing out one set of events against an infinite cascade of alternate realities. We’re simply in the version where things happen like this. I mean – you know, it’s probably not true, but it’ll stick the wind up Schleiermacher.