I wrote an article some years back on the Transfer of Necessity Principle (TNP), an idea which some have used as an argument against free will. Looking back, my only real regret writing it was that it was too long, and probably inaccessible to someone who hasn’t studied the issue. With that in mind, I purposed to write a more concise refutation of the idea. For reference, I’ll be interacting with Linda Zagzebski’s Stanford article on Foreknowledge and Free Will (also revised since my original article).
Before I get into TNP itself, I’ll let Zagzebski outline the position that many Christians have historically taken in response to objections to God’s foreknowledge of free will choices (typically called The Boethian Solution):
This solution probably originated with the 6th century philosopher Boethius, who maintained that God is not in time and has no temporal properties, so God does not have beliefs at a time. It is therefore a mistake to say God had beliefs yesterday, or has beliefs today, or will have beliefs tomorrow. It is also a mistake to say God had a belief on a certain date, such as June 1, 2004. The way Boethius describes God’s cognitive grasp of temporal reality, all temporal events are before the mind of God at once. To say “at once” or “simultaneously” is to use a temporal metaphor, but Boethius is clear that it does not make sense to think of the whole of temporal reality as being before God’s mind in a single temporal present. It is an atemporal present in which God has a single complete grasp of all events in the entire span of time.
Notice, the main point of the solution: because God is transcendent, He perceives time from the outside, and from there knows all that is within it. Keep this in mind as we look at TNP.
Transfer of Necessity Principle (TNP) Defined
The arguments for TNP (innovated by Diodorus Cronus, but used and adapted by others in recent times) tend to be overly long and ponderous. I’ve trimmed the theological fatalist version down here for easier consumption:
P1 Events in the future can’t affect events the past
P2 In the past, God infallibly knew what you will do in the future
C Therefore, anything you may do in the future can have no effect on what God infallibly knew you would do in the past
Taking the example of drinking punch on Christmas (though we could extrapolate it to pretty much anything we do), TNP would say:
Given that you drank punch on Christmas
P1 Things that happen after Christmas can’t affect things that happen before it
P2 God infallibly knew before Christmas that you would drink punch
C Therefore, there was nothing you could have done on Christmas to change what God knew
Further, since what God knows is always accurate, you had no real option but to drink punch on Christmas (i.e. no free will)
Are you sensing a problem? You should be. Premise 2 in both cases is misleading in that it frames God’s timeless knowledge much as one would an event in time. God timelessly knowing a thing, by definition, isn’t really an event in time, and it’s fallacious to treat it as such (Cronus original argument is similar, except he uses past truth propositions rather than God’s knowledge, which is equally fallacious). Temporal events can’t affect past temporal events, but there’s no reason to think that what applies to such events would identically apply to timeless properties. In fact, there’s good reason to reject this notion entirely due to the counter-example of truth.
Counter-Example: I will now affect a proposition ‘in the past’
Elvis Presley has died (shortly before I was even born, in fact). That is an event in time. There’s nothing I can do to go back and undo this event. In fact, nothing about the occurrence of the event itself could ever be influenced or affected by anything that I do. That he’s dead is “now-necessary” (and always has been for me).
What about *truth* in the past? Was it true yesterday that I would write today? Absolutely. You’re reading the evidence of it right now. Does my writing affect anything about that proposition? It does actually, because my writing today is what makes that proposition true -even in the past (ditto for the proposition of you reading this article today, you’re also making that true right now)! If it weren’t for my writing this today, such a proposition yesterday would have been groundless and false.
So I cannot affect or influence a past event, but I am, as I write, making a past proposition true! Is this retro-causation? Am I traveling backwards in time? Not at all. What is true isn’t an ‘event,’ but a timeless property. A timeless property can be grounded or fulfilled by what is temporal.
Zagzebski contends that God’s knowledge being timeless doesn’t get around the issue of TNP. She presents the syllogism,
(1t) God timelessly knows T.
(2t) If E is in the timeless realm, then it is now-necessary that E.
(3t) It is now-necessary that T.
This second premise commits the same error as the one above, treating God’s timeless knowledge as a temporal event. Besides that, at least for purposes of making this argument, Zagzebski appears to discount the entire point of the Boethian solution she described above: God timelessly knows temporal contingencies because He perceives all of time. If we factor in what Boethius actually argued, premise 2t would force us to conclude that God perceiving some event happening within time is what makes it have to happen (the timeless [pun intended] “chicken or the egg?” problem). Zagzebski acknowledges the problem with treating timeless knowing like an event, but makes an equally puzzling assertion:
Perhaps it is inappropriate to say that timeless events such as God’s timeless knowing are now-necessary, yet we have no more reason to think we can do anything about God’s timeless knowing than about God’s past knowing. The timeless realm is as much out of our reach as the past.
The whole point of the Boethian solution was that God’s timeless knowledge is partially comprised of what happens within time, what is temporal in part constitutes what is timeless. Since we can plainly see from the above counter-example that current action can make something timelessly true, I would counter we have no reason to think that God couldn’t base His timeless knowledge on what occurs within time. This is not our reaching into a timeless realm to affect God, but rather He reaching into His creation with and for His understanding.
“…for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought.” (1 Chronicles 28:9b)
A Fundamentally Backwards View of Reflections
TNP rests upon a flawed assumption, much like other bad philosophical pretensions throughout history. [See also: Zeno’s Paradox (physical motion is not a series of division operations), Truth Relativism (it’s absolutely true that nothing is absolutely true?), and the Bible date calculations of The Watchtower or Harold Camping (the numbers usually add up, but the Bible never supports the meaning they assign to the numbers)]
I explained TNP to my teenage daughter. Once she grasped what was being said she perked up immediately, retorting, “That’s backwards!” She caught the perhaps more fundamental problem immediately. The major fallacy with both the “true proposition” and “God’s knowledge of our choices” versions of TNP is that infallible knowledge and true propositions (as used here) are reflections of reality, not events or necessitating forces. Arguing that true propositions or God’s knowledge somehow make a thing necessary makes about as much sense as arguing that mirrors make you do things when you stand in front of them:
<SATIRE>Stand in front of the mirror, then while looking into it, take some action. You will never do differently than the mirror shows you doing, therefore we can conclude that the mirror makes your actions necessary!</SATIRE>
This is of course, blithering nonsense. The mirror doesn’t drive you to act, it gives off a reflection of what you do -just as (per Boethius) God timelessly knowing based upon what you do, or certain propositions being true because of what you do- are also reflections. Proponents of TNP and other such philosophical voodoo greatly err in putting the metaphysical cart before the figurative horse.
The arguments for the TNP fail because they operate under the premise that timeless properties (truth, God’s knowledge) function exactly like past events. While temporal events cannot change events of the past, they can in some ways contribute to timeless properties (such as whether a proposition about an event is true). Timeless properties such as propositions and God’s knowledge of choices are reflections of reality, not drivers.
With that Gordian Gobbledygook cut through, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to ground the other hopefully timelessly true propositions of me mending my fence and enjoying my kids playing baseball.