31 January 2007

Dissolving a Difficulty, not Formulating a Theory

The problem that Boethius discusses in Consolation V is (roughly) how God's omniscience is compatible with human freedom.

But the first thing to settle is what precisely he is trying to do in discussing it: since we want to know whether he fails on his own terms.

Which of the following is he attempting?

(i) to tell us how it actually works--that is, to give us something like a theory or a model, of how God's knowledge of our actions works together with our freedom when we do those actions; or
(ii) (simply) to dispel or dissolve an objection--that is, to leave it standing, that God knows all things, and that we are free, but without attempting to explain how.

The first task is positive and rationalistic; the second is negative and purely defensive. Someone who held, for instance, that the relationship between God's knowledge and our actions is ultimately mysterious (although not inherently contradictory), would want to take the second approach.

In my view, Boethius does take this second approach. He offers a diagnosis of why we feel a difficulty in God's knowledge of our future actions. On his view, the difficulty arises because we presume, incorrectly, that God's knowledge of the future is like the knowledge that we might have of the future. We can have knowledge of the future, only as regards those things that are strictly determined by antecedent causes. (Why? Because we can have such knowledge only by tracing such causes into the future.) But God sees future things in an eternal present. Thus he can see and know future things directly--even future events which are not determined completely by causes antecedent in time. God's foreknowledge is really direct knowledge of things that are future for us.

If this is the correct understanding of Boethius' aims, then that other difficulties can be raised as regards Boethius' conception of God (such as the relation between God's omnipotence and human freedom) is irrelevant. Of course there will be such difficulties, and, of course, Boethius will think that (given sufficient attention) they can be similarly dissolved. But it would be strange to say, as Marenbon does, that because there are such difficulties, then Boethius' account is vitiated in the end.

Boethius was never attempting to offer in the first place a fully satisfactory 'theory' or 'model' of God's relationship to the world. He meant to diagnose and dissolve one difficulty, and he does so.

(Of course, one might wonder: Why was he concerned with just that difficulty? Why wasn't he equally concerned with the difficulty about omnipotence? A good question: which I'll answer tomorrow.)