Knowing the Future

Metaphysics takes us beyond empirical puzzles and bumps up against mystery



Life is a mystery to live, not a problem to solve. And metaphysics is rich in mystery!

Here’s a contrast. Science often advances by resolution and replacement. For example, Galileo resolves Ptolemy’s puzzles, and heliocentrism emerges. Einstein resolves Newton’s puzzles, and the theory of relativity replaces classical physics. Closer to home, when my daughter aces her astronomy test, I congratulate her on resolving one batch of problems and wish her well with the next one.

But metaphysics takes us beyond empirical puzzles. It bumps up against mystery. We gain knowledge in doing so, but our questions don’t go away. Nor should they. Remember “Que será, será”? Yes, whatever will be will be. But soon enough, we find ourselves asking how will it be. And, if it’s a human action, will it be free? Science doesn’t pretend to answer our questions.

Consider a Lenten example that raises metaphysical questions. Soon we will again read of the Last Supper. It’s then that Jesus prophesies, “One of you will betray me” (John 13:21). But He makes no empty prophecy. As God, in the words of Vatican I, “all things are naked and open to His eyes (cf. Heb. 4:13), even those things which are made by the free action of creatures” (Dei Filius).

Hang on, now, for a mix of logic and metaphysics!

First, a logical distinction. How could both of the following statements be true?

Jesus knows that Judas will betray Him.
Judas freely betrays Jesus.

One approach to this question is to distinguish between “de dicto” and “de re” necessity, that is, to distinguish between the necessity of language and of fact. Note the difference between:

Necessarily, if Jesus knows that Judas will betray Him, Judas will betray Him.
If Judas betrays Jesus, he will do so necessarily.

The point is that knowledge does not entail necessity. Thus, gentle reader, your knowing that you are still reading these remarks does not necessitate your doing so.

Still, Judas is a special case. Perhaps Judas had so hardened his heart that he could not but betray Jesus. Indeed, perhaps all prophecies are of acts already determined by their agents. A prophesy is more than a prediction.

Next up, metaphysics. Aquinas suggests that we explore God’s knowledge of our future free acts from a metaphysical vantage point. For God time is not linear; it is, rather, omnipresent. Here he draws from Boethius. In The Consolation of Philosophy Boethius asks:

“Why then do you demand that all things occur by necessity, if divine light rests upon them, while men do not render necessary such things as they can see? Because you can see things of the present, does your sight therefore put upon them any necessity? Surely not…. Wherefore this divine foreknowledge does not change the nature or individual qualities of things: it sees things present in its understanding just as they will result…in the future.”

Boethius’s point, then, is that God’s seeing eternally what we do freely, here and now, no more causes us to act as we do than our seeing our own actions as we carry them out causes them to be what they are. It’s our willing them that is their cause.

But, no surprise, there’s more. Encouraged by the interplay of logic and metaphysics, there’s a further point to consider. Vatican I teaches, we have seen, that “even those things which are made by the free action of creatures” are “open to God’s eyes.” So now comes the question: are there any such real things before they come to be? We need to be careful not to beg this critical question.

For my part, I reserve judgment about whether or not there are any such things. But if things need to be if they are to be objects of knowledge, then insofar as a free action has not come to be, it is not a thing for God to know. Thus, for example, Handel’s Messiah, until written, is known neither by Handel nor God. It’s a singularity.

And here’s a final approach. It might also be that God’s access to the future is not a matter of his knowledge but rather of his power. A chess master can announce that he will checkmate a novice’s king on a particular square without knowing in advance just how he’ll manage it. And unlike a chess master, God’s will and God’s knowledge are perfectly integrated.

Am I content, though, to reserve judgment? Yes, in light of the mystery that’s in play. Allow me to close with a longer quotation from Vatican I:

Reason illustrated by faith…attains…some understanding of the mysteries…not only from the analogy of those things which it knows naturally, but also from the connection of the mysteries among themselves and with the last end of man; nevertheless, it is never capable of perceiving those mysteries in the way it does the truths which constitute its own proper object. For, divine mysteries by their nature exceed the created intellect so much that, even when handed down by revelation and accepted by faith, they nevertheless remain covered by the veil of faith…‘for we walk by faith and not by sight’ [2Cor 5:6 f.].

The NOR’s own Tom Storck and I continue to discuss this interplay of knowledge and faith. Who knows what he’ll make of this post?


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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