For those who accept the existence of God, He is a deity who infallibly foreknows the entire future. On the other hand, human beings have a psychological feeling that they are completely free. Throughout the history of philosophy almost all philosophers have argued whether God’s infallible foreknowledge determines human deeds in the future. In answering this question, theological fatalists have claimed that infallible foreknowledge and free will are incompatible, thus God’s infallible foreknowledge determines all future events, including all human deeds. In contrast to this, in his book On Free Will, Augustine asserts that God’s infallible foreknowledge of what we will do in the future is compatible with free will. Consequently, Augustine is regarded as one of the leading compatibilists as far as divine foreknowledge and free will are concerned. In my opinion, he also alludes to the difference between the concepts of “freedom of action” and “freedom of will.” Here there is a point of disagreement between him and Evodius, consisting of the question: “Do we human beings have freedom of will or freedom of action?”
According to theological fatalists, all events, including human deeds, are absolutely determined by God’s foreknowledge and will. We human beings think we can act or carry out our actions voluntarily, but if God foreknows how we will act in the future, in other words, that we will act in a specific way, then we must necessarily act as He knows because divine knowledge is infallible and unchangeable. If we act out of necessity, then there is no voluntary choice in our acts and thus God’s foreknowledge of what we will do in the future determines our will. In order to establish their ideas they argue that even though humankind wishes to be happy in the future, we cannot be happy because we do not have the power to be happy; only God makes one happy. In short, for fatalists, God’s foreknowledge and will is a necessity.
Augustine, like other monotheists, defines God as omnipotent, omniscient and good. For his definition, God unerringly foreknows everything, including our future acts, so the problem here is whether divine knowledge determines our acts in the future. By making use of the dialectical method, that is, the Socratic Method, and some philosophical arguments, Augustine seeks to prove the existence of free will and then analyzes the problem of the compatibility of free will and God’s foreknowledge. As an answer to the question posed by theological fatalists: “Why can we not achieve our future will if we have free will?” his reply is that we may wish to be happy in the future, but may not be able to achieve this because to do so would be dependent on factors that are wholly beyond our control. In other words, there may always be external constraints which hinder us in fulfilling our desires.
Thus, for Augustine, we can not speak about freedom of action, but only freedom of will. When we use the concept of “something being in our power,” we mean simply “being able to do what we will.” Therefore, there are very few things that are in our own power, but our will is one of them; for in the moment we wish to do something the “will” is there and we discover it within ourselves. This is a kind of psychological argument that proves Augustine’s claim for the existence of will; in addition, Augustine uses a linguistic analysis to support this. The propositions “It is not voluntarily that we will” and “It is necessarily that we will” are meaningless and far from true. For if we necessarily will, why do we need to speak of “willing” at all? When we say “we wish to do anything” we directly claim that we have a faculty called “the will.” Lastly, he called attention to a logical mistake; his logical analysis of “what we will” as “a physical action” and “an effect of our will” is completely different from “our will” as a spiritual action. Even if we do not achieve what we will, we cannot say that we do not have the power to will. We may only think “we will” but in fact we do not achieve whatever we wish, for our success in attaining what we wish depends not only on our will, but also on other factors that are wholly beyond our control. However our will itself would be our own as long as it remains in our power, therefore, “it is not necessary to deny that God has foreknowledge of all things while at the same time our will is our own”; in other words, God’s foreknowledge of the entire future does not determine our will. Despite all of these arguments, Augustine concludes: “we shall exercise our wills in the future because He has foreknowledge that we shall do so.” Rather, it would be more consistent with his arguments if he had said: “He has foreknowledge that we shall exercise our wills in the future, because we are allowed to do so” for we will exercise our future wills with our own will by His permission. In this case, God’s foreknowledge is consistent with our will, but His foreknowledge is not the cause of our choices. But Augustine’s concluding sentences claims the opposite, that is, our will is determined by God’s foreknowledge.
In conclusion, human beings can choose one particular action from among various alternatives. As Augustine concludes, the power to will is not taken from us by or is not opposed to God’s foreknowledge. In fact, Abrahamic religions necessarily support the idea of the compatibility between divine knowledge and human free will. For if we did not have free will, in other words, if we must act in a certain way, then why would God judge us? This would be meaningless. Furthermore, His divine foreknowledge certifies our will because His timeless foreknowledge is consistent with our will in a future time, therefore there is no incompatibility between God’s foreknowledge and our free will.
* This article is a product of my reflections over a section in the book Readings in the History of Christian Theology Volume I by William C. Placher, pp. 106-111.
Izzet Coban is a theologian living in Chicago. He has an MA from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.