Atemporalism and dependence


It is widely thought that Atemporalism—the view that, because God is “outside” of time, he does not foreknow anything (rather, his knowledge is timeless)—constitutes a unique solution to the problem of freedom and foreknowledge. However, as I argue here, in order for Atemporalism to escape certain worries (raised independently by Alvin Plantinga and Linda Zagzebski), the view must appeal to the dependence of God’s timeless knowledge on our actions. I then argue that, because it must appeal to such dependence, Atemporalism is crucially similar to the recent sempiternalist accounts proposed by Trenton Merricks, Philip Swenson, and Jonathan Westphal, and I conclude by briefly sketching some implications of this result.

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  1. 1.

    This view is also sometimes called “the eternity solution,” “the Boethian solution,” or “Thomism”.

  2. 2.

    As an anonymous reviewer points out, one such challenge for Atemporalism is to say how it is that God could be omniscient without knowing tensed truths such as truths about what time it is now, or about a past event having already occurred. But provided that Atemporalists can account for knowledge of these tensed truths in virtue of tenseless knowledge, this challenge can be met. For example, take the case of JFK’s assassination. God’s knowledge of this event is not tensed (he does not know that this already occurred, since God is timeless, on this view), but God does know (timelessly) that JFK is assassinated in 1963 and also that your reading this sentence occurs later than 1963 (and hence that JFK’s assassination is past relative to your reading this sentence). For more discussion of this issue, see Alston (1986) and Wierenga (1989).

  3. 3.

    See Merricks (2009), Swenson (2016), and Westphal (2011). McCall (2011) gives a similar response as does Westphal and Swenson (and Fischer and Tognazzini 2014 treat McCall as another sempiternalist), but McCall is actually an Atemporalist. Fischer and Tognazzini flag this as an “oddity” of McCall’s article and note that “this move [putting God outside of time] by itself plausibly undermines the incompatibility argument, since if God’s beliefs aren’t past with respect to the human action in question, the alleged fixity of the past has no role to play” (2014: 359, n. 18). For reasons that will become clear later, I disagree with Fischer and Tognazzini on this point.

  4. 4.

    For a brief argument for a similar conclusion, though it does not explicitly address any particular version of Atemporalism and does not address Plantinga’s and Zagzebski’s objections, see Hunt (1999: 11–12).

  5. 5.

    The reason for including this assumption in the argument for incompatibilism is that it allows the argument to generate worries about freedom from the intuitive idea that the past is fixed. As we will see, Zagzebski thinks that it is also intuitive that the atemporal realm is fixed, and thus that a very similar argument challenges even the Atemporalist.

  6. 6.

    In what follows, I abbreviate Pike’s original version of the argument.

  7. 7.

    It is worth noting that, besides the response we are about to consider, there have been two other popular types of response to Pike’s argument. The first is Open Theism, which rejects the assumption that God is omniscient, or at least that he is omniscient in the sense assumed for the argument (according to which God knows all truths about the past, present, and future, including truths about future human actions). Swinburne (1977) and van Inwagen (2008) are proponents of this view. The second type of response maintains that we can be free in the sense required for moral responsibility even if we lack the freedom to do otherwise. On one version of this type of view, moral responsibility is compatible even with causal determinism. See the introduction to Fischer (2016) for a defense of this view. Proponents of another version of this type of view—source incompatibilists—deny that moral responsibility is compatible with causal determinism. See Hunt (1999) and Zagzebski (1991) for defenses of this view. Note that each of these responses to Pike’s argument grants the incompatibility of a certain sort of knowledge (exhaustive divine foreknowledge) with a certain sort of freedom (the freedom to do otherwise). In this sense (the one at issue in this paper), then, these positions are incompatibilist ones, whereas Atemporalism is a compatibilist position.

  8. 8.

    See Fischer (1989), a collection of essays on Ockhamism.

  9. 9.

    Of course, some soft facts are nonetheless over and done with, such as the fact that Pike published his paper prior to the year 2000. For more on this, as well as a critique of the Ockhamist approach, see Fischer (1983, 1989, introduction; 1994, chapter 6; and 2016, introduction and chapter 7).

  10. 10.

    I should say that most Ockhamists argue for this claim. At least one Ockhamist case has made the case for the fact of God’s very existence (not the fact of his having certain beliefs) being a soft fact about the past, which is to say that premise (5) is false. See Adams (1967).

  11. 11.

    One defense of Ockhamism against some (but not all) of the criticisms that have been raised is Pendergraft and Coates (2014).

  12. 12.

    At the end of his article, Todd objects even to this modified version of Ockhamism, but we will not consider that objection here. It is worth noting, however, that Todd’s Ockhamist proposal (that he does not endorse) is similar to the sempiternalist compatibilist positions discussed below.

  13. 13.

    See the works cited in note 2. Swenson (2016) offers a revised Principle of the Fixity of the Past that does not hold as fixed anything that is explanatorily dependent on what an agent does. To my ear, this sounds like a new characterization of the hard/soft fact distinction, one that avoids the problems that Todd raises for the entailment criterion. And perhaps that is how to think of the other recent compatibilist responses that appeal to dependence. An alternative interpretation would be to think of these views as instances of multiple-pasts compatibilism, according to which we are (at least sometimes) able to act in a way that would require the hard past to be different. If facts about God’s past beliefs are taken by these accounts to be hard facts about the past, then these accounts are multiple-pasts compatibilist accounts. It doesn’t matter, for my purposes, to which camp these views belong; rather, what is important for my purposes is that each account appeals to the dependence of God’s beliefs on what we do (a commitment that could, at least in principle, cut across the Ockhamism/multiple-pasts compatibilism distinction). For more on multiple-pasts compatibilism, see Fischer (1994, chapter 4).

  14. 14.

    As Merricks notes, this idea can be traced back at least to Origen, who said that “it will not be because God knows that an event will occur that it happens, but, because something is going to take place it is known by God before it happens” (Merricks 2009: 52).

  15. 15.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for helping me to clarify. The dependence account really has two key commitments, then: (A) that (some of) God’s past beliefs depend on what we do, and (B) that, when assessing what we are now free to do, we should not hold fixed anything that depends on what we do now, including God’s past beliefs. Critics of the dependence account may object to either of these components of the account. I will return to this point in the conclusion.

  16. 16.

    Although these recent compatibilist accounts do not explicitly appeal to the hard/soft fact distinction, these accounts are plausibly interpreted as an extension of the general Ockhamist strategy, since, on these accounts, what depends on your present actions—even if it is a past belief—should not be held fixed (as part of the hard past) in evaluating what you are now free to do. Indeed, though Merricks himself eschews the hard/soft fact distinction, Fischer and Todd point out (correctly, in my view) that the contentions motivating Merricks, and the sort of dependence needed for his response to succeed, are exactly what is implicit in the Ockhamist strategy that relies on the hard/soft fact distinction. See Fischer and Todd (2011) and Todd and Fischer (2013).

  17. 17.

    Since we are interested here in Atemporalism as a response to the problem of freedom and foreknowledge, we are setting aside both coherency worries and theological worries for taking God’s existence to be atemporal.

  18. 18.

    Plantinga goes on to show that, even if propositions are not true at times, the argument can be suitably modified by replacing talk of propositions being true at times with talk of sentences (which express propositions) being true at times.

  19. 19.

    We should also add that the event/state of affairs must be contingent, and thus not necessary at all times (hence the “accidental” in “accidental necessity”).

  20. 20.

    Others have expressed similar concerns. Adams, for example, says: “But if the necessity of the past stems from its ontological determinateness, it would seem that timeless determinateness is just as problematic as past determinateness” (1989: 1135). Westphal makes a similar claim when he parenthetically remarks: “How does it help to move the knowing that is said to determine our actions from the past to the timeless? It seems to make matters worse!” (2011: 247).

  21. 21.

    Is it true that the timeless realm is intuitively just as fixed as the past? I am not sure why we should think so, and even Zagzebski admits, before and after the quoted passage, that it is not. Zagzebski says earlier: “the intuition of the necessity of eternity is less well grounded in intuitions about eternity than the necessity of the past is grounded in intuitions about time” (1991: 60). And she also says later: “the Timeless Knowledge Dilemma uses the principle of the Necessity of Eternity, which is no doubt less well entrenched in our intuitions than the analogous Necessity of the Past Principle” (1991: 63).

  22. 22.

    Interestingly, the most recent Atemporalist paper I know of—McCall (2011)—endorses this dependence relation. I will argue in this section that Atemporalists like McCall must do so in order to avoid the worries raised in the previous section.

  23. 23.

    As I noted earlier, other replies to Pike’s argument (such as Open Theism) do not merit consideration as compatibilist replies, since they deny the compatibility of exhaustive divine knowledge of future contingents and human freedom to do otherwise. There is one other type of reply to Pike-style arguments that I have not considered, and it denies that God’s having knowledge entails that he has beliefs. (See Alston 1986 for the classic defense of this view.) Still, even on this sort of account, God’s knowledge must depend on what actually occurs, so it is best, I think, to conceive of this sort of account as a third way to work out the fundamental reply to the argument, which is an appeal to dependence.

  24. 24.

    For some recent objections, see Todd (2013a) and Fischer and Tognazzini (2014). An additional potential objection for Atemporalists with a broadly Thomistic picture of God (a picture that includes the doctrine of simplicity) who also wished to adopt Atemporalism (and surely Stump, at least, is such a person) is the tension between (1) Aquinas’s claim that God’s knowledge is the cause of all things, including human actions, given that his will is joined to his knowledge, and (2) the dependence of God’s knowledge on what actually occurs. The reason for the tension is that the direction of causation (from God’s knowledge/will to the human action) is opposite the direction of dependence (from the human action to God’s knowledge), and it is counterintuitive, at best, to think of an effect as grounding its cause.

  25. 25.

    Todd’s (2013a) objection is (arguably) of this type.

  26. 26.

    Fischer and Tognazzini’s (2014) objection is of this type.


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For comments on earlier versions of this paper, I am grateful to John Fischer, Simon Kittle, Andrew Law, Jonah Nagashima, Michael Nelson, Jared Smith, and Philip Swenson. Thanks also to an anonymous reviewer for this journal.

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Correspondence to Taylor W. Cyr.

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Cyr, T.W. Atemporalism and dependence. Int J Philos Relig 87, 149–164 (2020).

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  • Atemporalism
  • Dependence
  • Foreknowledge
  • Freedom