"All Is Foreseen"


What Do You Think?

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June 12, 2022

8 min read


There is an ancient conundrum that asks "if God already knows what's going to happen, how can we possibly have freedom of choice?" Could both be true?

All is foreseen, and freedom of choice is granted. (Ethics of the Fathers)

This famous pronouncement of Rabbi Akiva asserts in its own way that God is omniscient and knows all that will be (the future is closed and determined in accordance with his plan), and yet, Rabbi Akiva asserts, freedom is granted. What could this mean? How is this possible? How may one account for the compatibility of divine providence with human freedom? Human freedom seems to demand an open future, pregnant with possibility and is evidently incompatible with a strict universal determinism. Apart from any religious context, this is a classic problem in metaphysics and has moral and legal philosophical implications.

Compatibilist solutions, if such there be, often hover around the scope of what God knows: Perhaps he knows just general features of reality, about humankind as such, leaving the particulars in our power to determine in accordance with free will and choice. Perhaps he knows mere possibilia (what can be), leaving the actualization of one or another of the possibila in our power. But if we bite the bullet, if we suppose that God knows, "foresees" in this sense, absolutely everything, general and particular, actual and possible states of affairs, past/present/future, then what is left of our freedom, of our power to determine the future? Can we contravene the divine plan if all is foreseen? If the omniscient God knows that at some future time T, I will do x, how can I fail to perform x? And if this is so, in what sense do I freely perform x? God's foreknowledge appears to necessitate my actions, thus militating against my freedom.

Let us briefly consider why we think ourselves free? Why do we (apparently) need to believe that we are part of a future that is brought about, one way or another, by our power and determination and through our agency? Part of the reason is that we imagine ourselves 'higher-order' animals, who, by contrast with those 'below' us (animate or not, living or not), have rational capacities and powers that set us over or against 'brute' nature and her laws, a realm of inexorable necessity. In other words, we imagine we are positioned 'outside' of nature (and her inexorable laws) and can affect it rather than be (merely) passively affected by it. Freedom here is understood as "power." Another reason why free will is important to us and why we think ourselves free and the author of our actions is on account of the (apparent) link between it and the reality and phenomenology of sin and the need to be held morally responsible for that. Atonement, regret, and making amends are tied up with this, but more generally, the point here seems to be that our sins are 'freely' chosen, and for that reason, we may be held accountable or responsible for what we do (as indeed we are). Freedom here is understood as unconstrained by any external force. Both notions of freedom, as power and as unconstrained action, meet in the idea of autonomy, the idea of human agents being laws unto themselves, outside of and unconstrained by (brute) nature.

I think there is a notion of freedom understood as enlightenment and liberation from a self-induced servitude, a notion of freedom that is compatible with determinism.

Now, as a matter of fact, the Jewish tradition seems to hold both a belief that humans stand exalted over other beings (we are, after all, last and best in the order of divine creation), and because of our linguistic and rational capacities we are 'free' to order nature as we see fit, hopefully with a good deal of kindness; and also, Judaism appears to hold deeply that human beings are responsible for what they do or do not do. From the Fall from Paradise to the acceptance of the commandments at Sinai, the Jewish tradition is strongly committed to responsibility for actions and a sense of dutiful obligation that makes little sense without a notion of free will. So, we are back to our paradox. If all is foreseen, how is free will possible? Why ought we to be punished for Adam's sin, and why ought Jews to be held responsible for transgressions against the law?

Unsplash.com, Ryan Gagnon

I don't immediately see a compatibilist solution along the lines of accounting for free will and the capacity to sin and divine omniscience. But that does not, in my view, entail that no form of compatibilism might be seriously entertained, that in the end, divine foreknowledge and human freedom are incompatible. I think there is a notion of freedom (similar perhaps to ideas in Asian philosophy, of which I am no expert) understood as enlightenment and liberation from a self-induced servitude, a notion of freedom that is compatible with determinism. This is not the libertarian (unconstrained) notion of free will. The freedom I have in mind is that which liberates ("frees") us from the illusion of free will and thus allows us to accept and understand that all that was, is, and will be must be, and could not be, or have been, otherwise, and that we human agents are implicated in this causal nexus.

Coming to accept the truth and reality of divine omniscience and the necessitarianism that is implicated in it is something we can come to understand through reasoned reflection, and the liberating effect and acceptance of this are in no way to be viewed as defeatist or entailing inaction, a kind of resigned fatalism. Rather, such insight entails a deep understanding and acceptance of our finitude, an understanding that we inhabit a world that admits no alternative possibilities, that cannot be other than it is. So, I suggest that we replace the notion of (libertarian) free will and the problems we have seen that beset it with this simpler notion of freedom, understood in opposition not to determinism but rather to slavery. So, on this reading, a free person is not enslaved to, is free from, say, irrational prejudice or overwhelming passion. This notion is compatible with determinism in a straightforward way. I am free, liberated from the illusory notion of free will, and thus able to accept and understand my part in the order of things.

In identifying freedom with reason and insight, we at once collapse the strong dichotomy we previously noted between the natural and the supernatural. We will begin to see ourselves not 'outside' of nature but squarely within it, as part of a greater whole. To be sure, non-human animals cannot have this insight, but this ability is just our particular way, the human way, of finding our place 'in' the world; other animals have keener antennae than we do, etc. Further, responsibility and accountability for what we do will cease to depend upon a future that could have been otherwise, counter-factual possibilities that are an impossibility on my account of a strict necessitarianism. Rather, responsibility and accountability for what we do depend upon 'owning' my role, accepting and making the most of my part, whatever it is, in a divine or cosmic drama that I cannot alter or perhaps even comprehend.

We will begin to see ourselves not 'outside' of nature but squarely within it, as part of a greater whole.

According to this account, everyone, and everything, has and plays a role as a character in a divine or cosmic drama scripted at the very beginning of time. The drama unfolds, act by act, epoch by epoch. The time comes when each of us steps out onto the stage, and each of us plays, must play, the part assigned to them, and we interact with others. A role is scripted for each of us. We are responsible and accountable for what we do or don't do, not because we could 'freely' choose to do otherwise or play another part in the drama, but precisely because our part is inescapably ours, not another's, and it is up to us, in our power, to act as best we can in our assigned role and to understand as best we can what we are doing and our role in the cosmic drama. Just as Oedipus and Macbeth are responsible for what they do, even as they cannot escape their fate, so are we. But the author of our roles is God or perhaps blind fate, not Sophocles or Shakespeare. Perhaps I can vivify the general point I am making here by reference to some memorable lines:

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own. (Hamlet 3.2)

There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will. (Hamlet 5.2)

Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish, but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life. (Epictetus, Handbook 8)

I'll conclude by noting that so long as we allow for a coupling of divine omniscience and human understanding, freedom in this sense, I think we can say that Judaism is committed to both, as is the traditional story. So, God knows all that will be, and the future is determined, and yet it is up to us, in our power, to accept that, to understand our role and live our lives against the grand scheme of things.

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