Is Freedom an Illusion?

We finished the Consolation of Philosophy with a bang today, and Dr. Freer came in on a very animated class to boot.  I started both classes with a fairly detached discussion of what chance is for Boethius, and we extended his definition into modern terms by saying that in Boethian terms, we call chance or random those events that do not allow for prediction.  In Boethius’s example, when a farmer discovers a thief’s stolen and buried treasure by plowing his own field (is there a pearl of great price under this example?  I should have thought of that in class), his intent was not to find treasure but to prepare the field for planting, and the thief’s intention was not to give the treasure to the farmer but to hide it for his own later retrieval.  No problem; both classes grasped the ideas and moved nicely through the arguments.

The real fun started when we got to the questions of divine foreknowledge and human free will.  The contours of the contradiction are clear enough: if human will, which operates on a temporal axis, affects events themselves, then divine foreknowledge will have to be contingent and thus not real knowledge in a classical mold.  On the other hand, if divine foreknowledge really comprehends all events at all points in time, then human choice is an illusion, as divine knowledge comprehends all time, and no being can do other than what God knows to happen at any given moment, and no event itself can be other than what God knows at any moment.

What I call Boethius’s foul ball is when he negates the event itself as a valid part of the equation: “Everything that is known is comprehended not according to its own nature, but according to the ability to know of those who do the knowing” (126, Victor Watts, trans.)  In other words, in Boethius’s philosophy, there is no event itself that renders the two kinds of knowledge contradictory.  By negating that middle term, Boethius asserts that in the same moment, two kinds of perception can coincide, one in which events unfold, some according to human will, and another in which divine providence perceives all of time as unchanging and present.  I call it a foul ball because in order to hold this strange dual knowledge together, one either has to ignore the law of non-contradiction or one has to ignore the reality of the event itself.  Willing to do neither of those, I’m inclined to say that the ball flies foul off of Boethius’s bat.

Incidentally, not a few of my students recognized this line of reasoning from C.S. Lewis, and once again I reminded the class that Lewis is just worlds more fun after one has read some Boethius and some Plato.  I think he replicates Boethius’s foul ball, but I know full well that I’m in the minority when I insist that an event has its own reality.  However, since I know there are fans of Lewis and other philosopher-types who read, I do welcome folks to weigh in on this Boethian conundrum, hopefully in ways that are as fun as the last one.



Filed under Boethius, teaching

6 responses to “Is Freedom an Illusion?

  1. ahandkerchiefsandwich

    One approach may be to make a small grammatical change: “one has to ignore [a] reality of the event itself.”

    Another is to challenge the linear and temporal basis of knowledge. You do not need to know which outcome will occur to know the outcome.

  2. Except that Boethius affirms the first of your pair fairly explicitly and mocks the knowledge that multiple outcomes are possible as no knowledge at all. Theologians (I believe Ockham was first, but I’m not clear on that) have offered knowledge of multiple contingent outcomes as a solution, but Boethius for one will not hear of that.

  3. Boethius would have been royally pissed at Milton’s treatment of free will in PL, with the deck-stacking that goes on there.

    I’m gonna have to go back and “revisit” that . . .

  4. I’m not sure he would have. If anything, the Father seems to assume Boethius’s argument in PL book three, though He doesn’t see the need to articulate it directly in any detail.

  5. Hmm. That’s true, actually, and I thought about that last night after commenting.

    One of my favorite moments in PL occurs in book one(?), when the narrator mentions, almost off-handedly, that Satan would not have been able to even raise his head out of the fires of Hell’s lake without the permission of God. In allowing Satan to do so, the Father acknowledges that Satan’s gonna make evil his good, that Adam and Eve are going to fail, and His son’s going to make up for it. Boethian divine knowledge, indeed.

  6. I’ve held off because I wasn’t sure how to respond, but I do think that Milton relies precisely upon a Boethian version of divine knowledge for his Father character. Moving away from a Calvinism that’s more philosophically realist than Boethius but that leads towards complete determinism, Milton seems to prefer a denial that events have their own being, preferring Boethius’s radical separation of things-as-perceived from things-as-perceived without any solid things-as-they-are on which to stand for the sake of judging between them. It’s an anti-realism that C.S. Lewis among others has picked up on to great effect (if nothing else, almost all of my freshmen are convinced by it), and it works well for the paradox (if not outright contradiction) that Milton wants to hold up.

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