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Open Theism and the Nelson Pike Argument

In November ’07 the old Spectrum blog site posted an article by David Larson titled Richard Rice Discusses Open Theism, to which there was extensive reader comment.

One comment to that article was mine, where I quoted a complex argument supporting Open Theism by philosopher Nelson Pike, from his 1965 essay titled Divine Omniscience and Voluntary Action. I didn’t elaborate much then, and it seemed to me that the implications of Pike’s argument were not generally recognized in later postings. In this article I wish to revisit his argument and propose the admittedly strong position that it is pivotal to substantive discussion of Open Theism.

But first a few preliminary words to add some background. The traditional view, sometimes called Classical Theism, states that God fully determines the future and knows everything concerning the created world, including the actions of responsible agents. However this exhaustive knowledge (which I will term ‘Classical Omniscience’) is usually considered to be compatible with human freedom (Free Will). Open Theism, in contrast, believes there are some human actions that, being free, are thus inherently unknowable. This leaves the future ‘open’ in that not every possible move is known in advance by God.

Adventist theologian Richard Rice was an early proponent of Open Theism, writing, in 1980, an Adventist-published but controversial book titled The Openness of God – the Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom. He later contributed, with four other co-authors, to a 1994 volume titled The Openness of God – A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. This latter book had wider circulation and was also quite controversial. One reviewer ( called it “a frontal attack on the Reformed conception of God as expressed in its confessions of faith and in its orthodox theologians”.

Parallel to the theological debate (although perhaps beginning a bit earlier) there has been a philosophical dialog/debate around the issues of God, foreknowledge and human freedom, stimulated in part by the Nelson Pike article. It appears to me (but I would be happy to be corrected) that these two threads of discussion have had minimal intersection.

Now, on to the purpose of this essay.

When I read defenses of Classical Theism it appears that a significant concern is that Open Theism diminishes God. I would contend that most Christians (myself included) have what I will call an Anselmian concept of God. By that I mean our view aligns with Anselm of Canterbury’s (1033-1109) definition of God in his so-called Ontological Argument for God’s existence. Anselm wrote (addressing God): “we believe that thou art a being that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” (Italics supplied). And when you and I conceive of God, don’t we take every ‘good’ attribute we can think of and try to extrapolate each out to infinity, then say this collectively is what God’s is like?

Yet Open Theism appears to assign something less than that to God. It identifies an ‘open area’ of potential knowledge outside of God’s omniscient view. And the Classical Theist (thinking after Anselm) objects that with such a view God is no longer ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’. A presumably greater omniscience would be one that included this open area. Hence the charge that Open Theism diminishes God.

But an Open Theist would reply that this open area is absolutely unknowable, by the definition of freedom, and thus God isn’t diminished by some lack that is really non-existent. A frequently used illustration is the idea of a square circle. The question is posed – can God make a square circle? (Or substitute, for example, a rock so heavy He cannot lift it.) A square circle is a logical contradiction. If you take the intersection of the set of all squares and the set of all circles, the resulting set is empty. There is no such thing as a square circle and presumably God is not diminished by the limitation of not being able to do what is logically impossible.

Now, Nelson Pike’s original article centers on an argument in which he claims that Classical Omniscience is logically incompatible with Free Will. Here is that argument, as I posted it in my comment last November:

1. God's being omniscient implies that if Jones mows his lawn on Saturday afternoon, then God believed at an earlier time that Jones would mow his lawn on Saturday afternoon.

2. Necessarily, all of God's beliefs are true.

3. No one has the power to make a contradiction true.

4. No one has the power to erase someone's past beliefs, that is, to bring it about that something believed in the past by someone was not believed in the past by that person.

5. No one has the power to erase someone's existence in the past, that is, to bring it about that someone who did exist in the past did not exist in the past.

6. So if God believed that Jones would mow his lawn on Saturday afternoon, Jones can refrain from mowing only if one of these conditions is true:

(i) Jones has the power to make God's belief false.

(ii) Jones has the power to erase God's past belief.

(iii) Jones has the power to erase God's past existence.

7. Alternative (i) is impossible. (This follows from steps 2 and 3).

8. Alternative (ii) is impossible. (This follows from step 4).

9. Alternative (iii) is impossible. (This follows from step 5).

10. Therefore, if God believes that Jones will mow his lawn on Saturday afternoon, Jones does not have the power to refrain from mowing his lawn on Saturday afternoon.

At first reading, this certainly is a brain-buster. But for the moment just consider it to be a ‘black box’, i.e. some argument that purports to demonstrate that human freedom and God’s foreknowledge are logically incompatible, as Open Theism contends. We don’t know if this argument is successful or not. Still, it is either true or false. If false then it can be set aside as an interesting attempt and that’s the end of it. But if true then it is just like the square circle case! It’s easy to see and possibly agree to a square-circle limitation. It may be quite difficult to see if Pike’s argument is true, but if it is, Open Theism has made its point on logical grounds.

The contention (buttressed by an argument such as Pike’s) that Classical Theism is actually logically contradictory is why it seems to me that any meaningful discussion cannot properly evade consideration of this point. Pike’s argument (until conclusively deemed incorrect) reframes the discussion.

But resistance to my above conclusion is more likely to be the norm than the exception. The reasons vary widely. Some reference the argument, others do not. Let me consider some of them (the labels are my own).

1) Who Cares? Pike’s argument is far from transparently true. Our eyes glaze over. And life is short. This whole topic, for many, seems too esoteric to be of practical concern. Why should we care? The most important response, in my view, is that the core issue is about whether human freedom is real or not. And lurking behind this discussion is the formidable Problem of Evil that questions whether evil’s obvious existence can be reconciled with a good God. And the only response that seems (to me anyway) to get any traction at all is one that assigns some responsibility to God’s created beings, via free will gone bad. So if human freedom is illusory the buck totally stops with God.

2) Appeal to Transcendence. I am asserting that if Pike’s argument is true then you can only simultaneously believe in Free Will and Classical Omniscience at the cost of violating logic’s Law of Non-Contradiction (see Pike’s Step #3). And that is a very high price to pay. But some would say what do we humans know anyway? God transcends all – perhaps even logic – and for all we know God can make square circles if He wants to. Or at least operate as Classical Theism contends. Consider the doctrine of the Trinity. There’s an apparent paradox. In the original November ’07 discussion one comment was “I find the closer we get to truth, the closer we get to paradox”. And maybe this conundrum is like that. Now I would note that appealing to transcendence is always impossible to refute, and consequently might be correct in any instance. The term ‘for all we know’ recognizes that some things are beyond actual or even potential human knowledge. But also we should also recognize that just because something is irrefutable that doesn’t necessarily make it true (try refuting solipsism).

3) Knowing Isn’t Causing. The idea here is that God can infallibly know our actions without causing them. Hence we are both free and God retains Classical Omniscience. One participant in the November discussion stated:

“I had some friends who got married years ago, and I knew beforehand that it wouldn't last, and it didn't, even though I had absolutely no contact with them during their ill fated union. That is, my foreknowledge had nothing to do with the freedom they used to ruin their marriage”.

Now this view seems very persuasive because it is difficult to imagine how just knowing would also involve causing. And it should be difficult because there is nothing wrong with this argument, per se. The problem is not that the argument is bad, rather that it is not relevant. To better see this it is important to recognize two different types of causation. I will call them direct (or immediate) cause and initial (or first) cause. The error enters if these two different meanings are conflated. The above quotation refers to direct causation. But looking closely at the Pike argument you find nothing there that speaks about causation at all. What the argument attempts to prove is that Free Will is inconsistent with Classical Omniscience. This implies the universe needs to be deterministic (i.e. Hard Determinism). And, if God is the creator, then He created a ‘falling domino’ universe – which is an initial cause. And it is due to this determinism that God (by virtue of His omniscience) can play out the future infallibly. It is not necessary for God to be the direct cause of anything. His knowledge derives solely from the definition of Classical Omniscience and the hard determinism resulting from a first cause. So any response that concerns itself with direct cause is beside the point

4) God is Outside of Time. Some have argued that God created time and can step outside of time as needed. He would then presumably infallibly view past/present/future from this timeless perspective One November participant stated: “God is not just like us and He dwells both outside and inside of our realm of time and space”. Here I would first observe that this response is a really an instance of #2 – an Appeal to Transcendence. ‘For all we know’ God operates this way, and that fixes any problem. But we should also recognize that the words outside and inside are spatial terms and we are being asked to apply a spatial metaphor to a temporal concept. Anyone using a metaphor should be able to demonstrate that there is a genuine parallel, else the metaphor is invalid. And I don’t know how such a parallel could be demonstrated. Given that we are all spatio-temporal beings (and thus conceptually bound) how would one even coherently explain what it means to be outside of time?

5) Open Theism is Un-Biblical. Christian doctrine and scripture should align. Some concerns about Open Theism include, for example, whether God could make trustworthy prophetic pronouncements. Or, whether texts like Jeremiah 1:5 entail Classic Omniscience. Such points are interesting and important to consider. It is, however, frequently less than obvious whether a specific idea is aligned with the Bible or not. And this issue has been intensely discussed by theologians and even summarizing that debate is well beyond the scope of this article.

There are likely other responses I have omitted, and variations on the ones I’ve commented on. Transcendence is always a possible answer and should not be treated lightly as we humans know so little. But appealing to it here means (if Pike’s argument succeeds) that we would be setting aside logic when its conclusion cuts against our preconceptions. Biblical fidelity is also necessary but it appears (at least to me) that there are points well taken on either side of that discussion. Your investigation might conclude that one perspective or the other holds the greater weight of evidence, but I think few would consider either view to be a scriptural ‘slam dunk’.

In the November discussion one participant stated: “I guess I just don't see that what we gain by keeping the future open to God is worth what we are forced to give up”. And Dave Larson, author of the original article, later asked: “’Closed Theists’ disagree with ‘Open Theists’ with enough respectful seriousness to convince any objective observer that something very important is at stake. What is it?” No one really responded to his question then. As I suggested earlier, it seems to me that a key component of what’s ‘at stake’ is the belief that Open Theism diminishes God. And this belief spawns the fear that such a God is not in control. Open Theists attempt to respond to this point, but I wonder whether that response receives an adequate hearing. Various reasons, like the above, can be interposed and possibly obscure this bedrock concern.

Finally, Pike’s argument is certainly not universally accepted by other philosophers. There is a lively debate that has been carried on in the years since he published it. But the various replies have all implicitly or explicitly acknowledged the necessity of dealing with it. I submit that they have good reason for doing so.

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