Will I Eat Pancakes Next Tuesday? A Thought or Two on Open Theism

“Derek will eat pancakes next Tuesday.”

Question: Is this statement true or false?

“Are you serious, Derek?”

Well, it seems like it has to be one or the other doesn’t it? I can’t both eat pancakes and not eat pancakes on Tuesday, (considering the whole 24 hour period as Tuesday.)

“Sure, but really? Pancakes? Why are we talking about pancakes?”

Seems like a dumb question, but in fact, it’s connected a much bigger issue: What does God know and when does he know it?

Open Theism and the Future

According to some theologians, Open Theists, there are some things that God doesn’t know that we typically imagine that God knows. For instance, he apparently doesn’t know large chunks of the future. Now there are a number of ways that Open Theists can arrive at this conclusion, but for some of them this thought is supported by the idea that future doesn’t exist. Like Greg Boyd, they hold that while God is “omniscient”, all-knowing, his knowledge does not extend to large segments of what will happen in the future because they aren’t settled yet. Some parts, like the parts where God has already figured out, “Well about that time I’m gonna save the world, and in two years I’ll eat Chinese food”, he knows. Also, he knows that the weather will work in about 25 years because that’s just kinda rolling out from what’s going on now. He can reliably infer that. Still, the chunks that have to do with us making decisions certainly don’t because that part’s not “settled”–I haven’t made that choice yet. Due to this, God does not have “exhaustive foreknowledge” of the whole of the future. This is not a knock on God though, because it is impossible to know that part of the future given its non-existence. For them, it’s kind of like him not being able to make a married bachelor–it’s a logical contradiction. According to them, the issue then isn’t God’s knowledge, but with the nature of the future. God simply cannot know the future exhaustively because it’s not there to be known.

No biggie.

Is this really the case, though? Now, there are a number of issues that might be discussed with respect to Open Theism be they theological, philosophical, biblical, pastoral, etc. because Open Theists forward reasons for taking their view in all of these areas. Now, I’ll just come clean and say that I think the view, in all of its forms, is seriously deficient on all counts and have never found it even remotely appealing–and that was before I was Reformedish. Also, as I noted, there is a variety amongst them. This post won’t deal with every type. I can’t go into the various issues today without this being way too long. I simply want to make a few small points in this little post on this one claim: that God doesn’t foreknow significant chunks of the future because it’s not there to be known.

Is that Right? Does it Follow?

Theories of Time The assertion that the future does not exist for God to know assumes one of two possible theories about time. (Really, there are a number of formulations of each and the literature is complex and dense.) The first is called A-theory and it basically says that there is an objective present, that NOW is what exists–temporal becoming is objective. There are at least two families of this view. Some theorists think that the present and the past “exist”, and others hold that only the present moment exists. On both, the future does not exist yet. The second theory, B-theory, also has a few versions but holds something along the lines that what we call “past”, “present”, and “future” objectively exist on something like a line. In a sense, the future is “already” there.

I raise this point not because I think A-theory is wrong. I don’t. In fact, I haven’t landed anywhere on this point. I do so just to point out that there are a number of options here. One could adopt B-theory and avoid this whole issue. Plenty of philosophers and theologians do. But let’s assume A-theory. Does it immediately follow that God can’t know the future because it’s not there? I don’t think so.

How Does God Know That? For in addition to holding a particular view of time, this type of Open Theism also takes a particular view of God’s way of knowing. William Lane Craig points out that are at least two ways of thinking about God’s way of knowing, two pictures of the way God comes to possess knowledge. (The Only Wise God, pg. 121) The first is the empiricist or perceptualist picture. On this view God comes to have knowledge about the world either by immediate perception or causal inference. In a sense, God knows things about the world by “seeing it”, or inferring it based on what he “sees.” If there’s nothing there for him to see, then he can’t know it. This is the basic picture that underlies Boyd’s form of Open Theism.

But Craig points out that this isn’t the only way to think of God’s knowledge of the world. One could think of it in a rationalist or conceptualist fashion. On this view, God simply possesses knowledge of all true statements. In our own experience, much of our knowledge about the world does not come by way of perception or inference. We simply know it immediately, innately. For instance, we know that other minds exist, even if just looking at other humans and animals or argumentation alone cannot prove that they’re not just robots or mindless automata, programmed to function the way we do. We know they’re not, but we can’t prove it and direct perception doesn’t gives us that knowledge. (Don’t believe me? Philosophers have tried. It’s really stinkin’ hard.) In any case, a belief about the world like that, is kind of like the conceptual furniture that comes with our minds. We don’t come to know it, we just know it.

In the same way, on a conceptualist view of God’s knowledge of the world we might think that God knows only and all true statements about the world. If there are true statements to be known about the future (even those about human decisions), then he knows those, which would be foreknowledge. Now, there are a number of ways to think about just how God happens to possess this innate knowledge of the world (cf. Molinism, God’s decree, etc.). I won’t go into them, but it is at the very least possible to think of God’s knowledge of the world in this fashion.  If it is possible, then it does not immediately follow that God couldn’t foreknow the future, even on the A-theory of time. If there are true statements about the future, God could know them without the future “being there.”

Is the Future True?

This brings us back to the issue of whether or not I will eat pancakes on Tuesday. In order for the Open Theist’s objection to work, you have to deny that future-tense statements are either true or false. The main (if not only) objection against it is something along the lines of, “The future doesn’t exist, therefore there is nothing for future-tense statements to correspond to.” But as Craig points out, this is idea is based on a confused view of the correspondence theory of truth. (pp. 55-60)

On the classic correspondence view, “It is raining outside” is true, if and only if, it is the case that it is raining outside. It must be made clear though, that “the correspondence theory does not mean that the things or events which a true statement is about must exist.” (pg. 56) This is true only of present-tense statements. It’s obviously not true of past-tense statements like, “Obama won the election in 2008.” All that is required for their truth is that they have been the case so that the present-tense statement “Obama is winning the election” is true at some point. In the same way, for future-tense statements, “Derek will eat pancakes next Tuesday”, all that is required for their truth is that the event will exist. At that time the present-tense version of the statement will be true.

A future-tense statement is true if things turn out the way it asserts, and false if it doesn’t. This is pretty common-sense stuff. In fact, Craig goes on to list good reasons for thinking that future-tense statements are true.

1. “The same facts that make present- and past-tense statements true or false also make future-tense statements true or false.” (pg. 58) The point is that it is difficult to distinguish, “It will snow tomorrow” stated May 20 from, “It snowed yesterday” stated May 22. The same event makes both true. Craig asks, “If ‘it is raining today’ is now true, how could ‘it will rain tomorrow’ not have been true yesterday?”

2. “If future-tense statements are not true, then neither are past-tense statements.” (pg. 58) If future-tense statements are neither true or false because their corresponding realities are not there, then neither are past-tense statements because they realities they speak to no longer exist. That’s silly to think, though. By the same logic then, it is silly to think that future-tense statements have no truth-value.

3. “Tenseless statements are always true or false.” (pg. 59) You can make any statement tenseless. “The Allies invaded Normandy” can be rendered tenseless by adding a date, “on June 6, 1944 the Allies invade Normandy.” There’s some loss of meaning, but it’s essentially the same content in a tenseless statement. The point is that tenseless statements are always true or false. It’s either always true that the Allies invade on June 6, 1944, or it’s not. And if the tenseless statement is true, then so is the tensed version addressing the same realities. Therefore, past- and future-tensed statements corresponding with the tenseless ones will be true. Beyond that, tenseless statements are always true or false. If that’s the case, then before June 6, that tenseless statement was true, in which case the tensed version was also true, in which case if God knows all truths, he has foreknowledge. To recap, “Derek will eat pancakes next Tuesday” can be rendered tenseless by transforming it to “On Tuesday October 9th, Derek eats pancakes.” That statement is either true or false, in which case the future-tense version is true or false. If God knows that truth he has foreknowledge.

4. “The denial of the truth or falsity of future-tense statements leads to absurd consequences.” (pp. 59-60) So, for instance, if future-tense statements are neither true or false, then the statement “Mitt Romney either will or will not win the 2012 presidential election” would not be true. This is a compound of two future-tense statements, “Mitt Romney will win the 2012 election” and “Mitt Romney will not win the 2012 election.” But, if future-tense statements are neither true nor false, then neither or these statements, nor their compound is true or false. But that is absurd because those two options exhaust the logical possibilities. He either will or he won’t win. Even more, we can’t even say that a statement like “Romney will and will not win the 2012 election” is false because that’s another compound of two future-tense statements. But that’s a self-contradiction that seems manifestly untrue. But on this view, you can’t say that.

For these reasons it seems safe to say that future-tense statements have truth values. If future-tense statements can be true or false, even ones that have to do with human decisions, like me eating pancakes next Tuesday and Romney winning the election, then it follows that God can have knowledge of them which constitutes foreknowledge.

How ‘Bout Dem Pancakes?

So, just because I haven’t made them yet, it doesn’t necessarily mean that God is ignorant as to my future breakfast choices. Now, to be sure, this isn’t a definitive statement on the foreknowledge issue. Far from it. Open Theists have plenty of other arguments at their disposal, (although, again, I think they have been handled multiple times over), and even this short treatment of this one issue is incomplete. Still, I think we’ve seen here that even if we grant that the future doesn’t exist yet, it by no means necessarily follows that God cannot have exhaustive foreknowledge of it. That idea rests on a confused idea of the nature of truth, and an unnecessary picture of God’s knowledge. In fact, I think given the fact that future-tense statements can be true or false, we’ve even gained some reasons to think that God does have knowledge of them, in which case the denial of God’s foreknowledge because of one picture of the nature of the future is a bit hasty.

And that’s all I really wanted to show today.

Soli Deo Gloria

8 thoughts on “Will I Eat Pancakes Next Tuesday? A Thought or Two on Open Theism

  1. Calvin would say his god’s gonna make you eat them pancakes and there aint a damn thing you can do about it. Pancakes are irresistible you know.

    • Well, I mean, would you want to resist them? See, that’s God’s goodness. He liberates you from the wickedness that keeps you from choosing the good. He heals your mind and will so that you are now free to eat what your will should want. 😉

  2. The point of the open theists is obviously, yes the statement is true if it comes to pass, but really its only true after it comes to pass. It still holds that since the future doesn’t exist yet, it cannot be known exhaustively. You can only know it exhaustively once its present or past. While its still future, it is not absolutely true, but only a probability. Here we can bring in fuzzy logic and set theory. How much true is the future statement in the now? 25%, 95%? In the future, it will be 100% true or 100% false, but now its only a certain percent probable. So it can’t be know exhaustively, yet.

    • See, and I think it’s possible for me to be really and truly wrong right now. I don’t think fuzzy logic applies here, or probabilistic logic. I’m kinda feeling the LEM and bivalent logic.

      • “I don’t think fuzzy logic applies here, or probabilistic logic. I’m kinda feeling the LEM and bivalent logic.”

        Think about it. With the past, you have only two options. Either it happened or it didn’t happen. With the future, its this likely to happen, and this likely not to happen. Its a completely different scenario. The only way to make bivalent logic work with the future is to assume that its all pre-scripted, or that it repeats. If time is a DVD on a loop, then sure, the future may be known in black and white today, since the future is already the past. But a world like that is illogical and there would clearly be no point in it even existing.

  3. Pancakes – eating them next Tuesday? True and False options are not covering all of the possibilities. In fact they don’t cover it at all. ‘Might’ or ‘might not’ covers it. And that is what Boyd asserts. Future free decisions are in the realm of possibilities. To assert a fixed answer (True or False) to a future possibility is illogical.

    So is it True or False I will eat Pancakes next Tuesday? Answer: Maybe.

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