Philosophical Essays against Open Theism – ch. 2: Visser

By | March 27, 2024

Philosophical Essays Against Open Theism (Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion)This is part two of eleven in a series responding to the essays in Ben Arbour’s edited volume, Philosophical Essays against Open Theism (Routledge, 2019).

In this post I tackle chapter 2 by Sandra Visser, “God’s Knowledge of an Unreal Future.” Despite her not being an open theist, her essay is overall very congenial toward open theism, which is surprising given the nature of the volume it appears in. My differences with her are mostly over minor points of detail.

Visser’s essay is short (8 pages). It doesn’t break any major “new ground” but it does provide a clear and cogent summary of the state of play concerning “how God might know” the details of creation history and “what that means of knowing might entail about free will, time, and providence” (p. 37).

Concerning how God might know the goings on of creation, Visser sees two general possibilities: (1) “efficaciously deciding that the world will be a particular way” or (2) “finding out that the world is a particular way” (p. 37). Though she doesn’t make this connection, (1) and (2) correspond to the distinction between meticulous and general models of providence. A model is ‘meticulous’ if it affirms that God is a thoroughgoing micro-manager. In the words of the Westminster Confession (3.1), he ordains “whatsoever comes to pass.” Theistic determinism and Molinism affirm that God exercises meticulous providence. In contrast, a model is ‘general’ if it affirms that God is, to some extent, a delegator. He ordains at most some of what comes to pass and leaves the remaining details up to creatures to decide. The simple foreknowledge, timeless knowledge, and open theistic models affirm that God exercises merely general providence.

Visser then canvasses five different views about free will, time, and providence and gives her assessment of each.

  1. Theistic Determinism (TD): Visser devotes only one paragraph to TD. Her assessment, stated without supporting argument is that, given TD, “it is difficult to see how [God is omniscient, humans have free will, and presentism] could be true simultaneously” (p. 38).
    • Two comments: First, it’s not clear why Visser includes “presentism” as something we ought to try and reconcile with divine omniscience and human freedom.
    • Second, Visser should at least have mentioned the standard moral objections against TD, namely, that TD makes God “the author of sin” and absolves humans of any real moral responsibility on the grounds that the deterministic causal system undermines both sourcehood and leeway intuitions regarding moral responsibility.
  2. Molinism: Visser devotes only two sentences(!) to Molinism and/or “Molinism paired with a version of Ockhamism.” Again, her assessment is stated without supporting argument: Molinism is “unconvincing” to many (p. 38).
    • Three comments: First, Molinism is a counterexample to Visser’s claim that God’s knowledge can only come either by an efficacious decree or by a quasi-perceptual process (“finding out”). For Molinism, God efficaciously decrees (i.e., strongly actualizes) only some of the details of creation and comes to know the rest, not by any quasi-perceptual process, but by inference from what he has strongly actualized plus his middle knowledge.
    • Second, pairing Molinism with Ockhamism is a bad idea. Ockhamism grounds God’s knowledge of the causally contingent details of creation history in a quasi-perceptual manner: God gets his knowledge from the actual occurrences of future contingent events. But, as I’ve just noted, this conflicts with Molinism, according to which God gets this knowledge by inference. Combining Molinism and Ockhamism creates an inconsistent package.
    • Third, Visser doesn’t elaborate as to why Molinism might be thought “unconvincing.” This is unfortunate. She should have at least noted one of the many common philosophical objections to Molinism, such as the grounding objection.
  3. Boethianism / Timeless Knowledge: This view gets three substantial paragraphs (almost one full page). As Visser describes it, “on this theory, … God would create and then find out about what we call the future by seeing everything unfold” (p. 38). Visser presses two objections against this view.
    • Two comments. First, the idea that God could create “and then find out” is inconsistent with divine timelessness: “To think that God would find out by seeing or … having immediate awareness of the created order rather than by decreeing, would be to contradict the assumption that God is unchanging, and thus atemporal, because God’s knowledge would increase (change) subsequent to creation, for God could not see and thus know the free actions of created humans until after they exist.” (p. 39)
    • Second, this view “eliminates the possibility that God interacts [with or] guides … the temporal order” because “God finds out too late to do anything.” Because, on this view, God is atemporal and unchanging, “God cannot react to what he finds out, because if he does, he will change, and thus not be atemporal.” (p. 39)
  4. Ockhamism / Simple Foreknowledge: This view gets two substantial paragraphs (almost one full page).
    • Two comments. First, Visser statement of the view in question inadequate. Here’s how she puts it: “there are true facts about the future (and no propositions about the future without a truth-value), presentism is true, and God [can] know what will happen in the future in some unspecified way” (p. 39). The problem with this characterization is that everything that’s said here can be affirmed by an open theist. Visser seems to think that open theists are committed to saying that some propositions about the future lack a truth-value, but this just isn’t so. What she should have said to characterize Ockhamism is that there are future contingents, there is a unique actual future, and God’s knowledge of that future (so far as it concerns future contingents) is grounded in the actual occurrences of future contingent events.
    • Second, Visser presses an objection against this model: “On this view, God foreknows the future the instant after he creates. And this is what is hard to believe” (p. 40). Visser finds it quite “incredible” that the content of God’s knowledge should suddenly increase in this way. Her incredulity seems tied to an assumption of meticulous providence: “the only difference between the instant before creation and the instant after is matter—nothing in the concepts, properties, essences … of anything … [changes] except for [the existence of material stuff]. That doesn’t seem relevant either to the truth of future contingents or to God’s knowledge” (p. 40). In short, if God has pre-scripted everything, then the actual occurrences of future contingent events should be irrelevant to God’s knowledge. But this objection misses the mark. No one who affirms simple foreknowledge thinks God exercises meticulous providence. Nevertheless, I agree with Visser that the sudden increase in God’s knowledge right after the moment of creation is bizarre, but this is because (assuming presentism and future contingency) there is nothing yet there in the reality of creation to ground any supposedly unique actual future. The information just drops into being from nowhere, it seems.
  5. Open Theism: Visser spends about 40% of her paper (about 2.5 pages) on open theism.
    • Several comments. First, she misstates open theism: “God does not know the future until it occurs” and “future contingents do not have truth-values” yet “God knows all truths” and “God’s knowledge grows—there are more things to know as time goes on” (p. 40). Every single part of this characterization is problematic. First, open theists believe that God can know many things about the future beforehand simply by not leaving those details up in the air. (If “the future” denotes a unique actual future, then Visser’s first point is correct, but this is not how open theists think about the future.) Second, as already noted, open theism does not require that any future contingent propositions lack truth-values. Third, some open theists deny that God knows all truths. Fourth, while open theists all agree that the content of God’s knowledge changes over time, this is not because “there are more things to know.” Open theists who believe that God does know all truths would say, not that there are more things to know, but rather that there are different things to know.
    • Second, Visser says that open theism is “clearly inconsistent with the Church fathers” (p. 40). I understand where she’s coming from, but the matter is not nearly as “clear” as she thinks. Yes, most of the Church fathers probably held to either a simple foreknowledge or timeless knowledge view, but the question is whether this carries any serious normative weight or whether, despite this presumptive fact, open theism still qualifies as a permissible theological opinion or theologoumenon for Christians. I argue affirmatively in this post.
    • Third, most of Visser’s discussion is aimed at sketching out what sort of open theism would be compatible with God’s perfect goodness: “Suppose then, that God decides to create a world in which even he can’t know the truth-value of future contingents (because there aren’t any). … God will only create a world with [free] creatures if it is consistent with his own glory and greatness, [and] also good for the creatures which he creates” (p. 41). I like this line of thinking. Let’s see where Visser goes with it:

      “Because the limit [on God’s knowledge] is both self-imposed and constrained by God’s goodness, God’s knowledge of the future will be sufficient for him to accomplish any and all of his purposes. Thus, according to this version of open theism, there is no question about whether God is in control and able to act sovereignly. Nor is there any question about whether good will ultimately prevail or whether any evil will happen to a person in such a way that God is surprised, caught unawares, or in any other way wrong footed by any event—good or bad, that might occur without his foreknowledge. … God would not create anything inconsistent with his goodness. And being good, he would want what is best for his creation. He couldn’t create anything that he knew could go terribly and irredeemably wrong for his creatures. … So, God will have to know enough about the future so that he can be sure that nothing will go irredeemably wrong. And he’s powerful enough that he’ll be able to ensure that whatever his plan is, it will occur. God will also know enough, both about individual people’s tendencies, and the rest of the world’s functioning, that he will know exactly when to step in. … [G]iven how much he knows, … he can easily anticipate future consequences of indeterministic actions or events, such that nothing will happen to surprise him. (pp. 41–42)

      Visser concludes that this “very limited” version of open theism is “consistent with robust providential action” (p. 41) and “not obviously false” (p. 42).

    • Fourth, by way of commentary on Visser’s version of open theism, I maintain that her “very limited” version of open theism is, minor nuances aside, very close to the sort of open theism that I and many other open theists advocate for. We certainly don’t think of open theism as proposing a “diminished” view of God who is not firmly in control. Rather, we think God has deliberately crafted an open-ended world within carefully considered limits in order to realize goods (e.g., friendship with and among robustly free creatures) that could not be realized in a tightly micro-managed world.
    • Finally, I find it amusing that, in a book explicitly devoted to philosophical objections against open theism, Visser’s only real objection to the version of open theism she presents is a theological one, namely, that it conflicts with Christian tradition. Aside from that, she seems to think that open theism of the sort she describes deserves consideration as the only serious alternative to theistic determinism: “At this point I think that … either some form of compatibilism must be true or else an open theism that is very constrained” (p. 42).

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