A Timeless God and Theological Determinism

Many theists believe both in a god with infallible knowledge about the future and in libertarian free will, and thus face the problem of how to reconcile these two ideas. An attempted solution which has come up in the comments section here more than once is the so-called “Boethian solution.” It maintains that God is outside of time, and so does not actually have foreknowledge. From his extra-temporal vantage point, God sees all of time — past, present, and future — all “at once,” so to speak. Therefore, he does not foresee what you’re going to do tomorrow; rather, he sees it, much as we see the present.

The most common reply to this is to point out — correctly, in my opinion — that a timeless god is a contradiction in terms. But there is another problem with the Boethian solution, which is that, even if we set aside problems with timelessness, it doesn’t work!

To understand why, it’s important to first be clear on what the problem of theological determinism is. God’s foreknowledge implies that there is only one possible future: the only events that can happen are the ones God knows will occur. It is this that is incompatible with the kind of freedom most people believe in. The Boethian solution therefore can only work if it allows there to be more than one possible future. And yet it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t.

To begin with, the Boethian solution is a perfect “have your cake and eat it too” kind of move. It is an attempt to find a way for God to know the future (while it is still the future) without, however, knowing it beforehand. Contrast this with “open theism,” which says that God only knows what happens once it happens (and thus does not know the future). The Boethian claims that God knows everything that happens because he “sees” it happening — just like the open theist does. However, because God sees it, not as it is happening, but rather from outside of time, he supposedly does not have to wait until it happens. Simple, right?

Not so fast. Here’s the problem: if there is more than one possible future, then there is more than one set of future events compatible with what is happening right now. But from God’s timeless vantage point, what is happening now and what happens in the future are combined into one overall set of events. Thus, from his vantage point, there isn’t more than one possible set of events in the future to go along with the present. Our present is combined with one-and-only-one possible tomorrow, since they are together present before God’s eyes. It follows that there can only be one possible future — and therefore, no free will.

By analogy, when we watch a movie, it seems that the characters are making free decisions — but of course we know that they aren’t: there is only one possible set of events that can play out, since the entire movie is already on the reel. If God is outside of time looking at it as a whole, he is seeing it much the same way as we would see a movie reel. The scenes of our lives are all already there, and thus can only turn out one way. The Boethian solution therefore implies that there is only one possible set of events for us to perform. It doesn’t avoid theological determinism.