The Free Will Problem: Medieval Solutions

In the Middle Ages, Jewish thinkers struggled to reconcile God's knowledge of the future with human choice.

Print this page Print this page

According to Maimonides, the problem is due to the fact that God's knowledge is incorrectly understood as akin to human knowledge, albeit of an infinitely greater degree. If a human being were to know beforehand how a man will behave, and know it beyond all doubt, that man would not be free to do otherwise. But God, says Maimonides, does not "know," as humans do, that which is outside of Him. God is a Knower but never a Learner. God's knowledge is not something added to His essence but is God Himself. God's foreknow­ledge is as incomprehensible as God Himself since God's knowledge is God Himself.

Conse­quently, the whole formulation of the problem, employing human ideas and human language, is logically meaningless. When we ask how God's foreknowledge can be reconciled with human freedom, we are operating within the human universe of discourse in referring to human freedom, and attempting to go beyond the human universe of discourse in speaking of God's foreknowledge. The question is as meaningless as if we were to ask: "How can X be reconciled with human freedom" without any possibility of stating what the X factor is.

Maimonides is insistent that the Jew must hold fast to both propositions. God does have foreknowledge and man has free will, though it is utterly beyond our scope to comprehend what the first proposition means. All this is in line with Maimonides' view that of God only negative attributes can be postulated. We can say what God is not but can never know what God is.

Solution #4: Choice Precedes Knowledge

Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (1326‑1408), in his Responsa collection (no. 118), is severely critical of Gersonides' attempted solution. According to Gersonides, God does not know beforehand which choice a man will make in the future but, presumably, Gersonides must hold that the act the man chooses does become known to God once it has been performed. This means that God acquires knowledge of that of which He had been previously ignorant, which is surely theologically impossible.

Perfet's own solution is that God knows beforehand not only the act but the choice upon which the act is based. God knows beforehand how man will choose in his freedom. It is not the foreknowledge that determines that choice but the choice which, as it were, determines that foreknowledge. God knows how man will choose in his complete freedom.

Perfet believes that this is the best solution to the problem, but the difficulty remains of how God's foreknowledge can fail to be determinative.

Past, Present, and Future Are the Same

Some of the Jewish mystics deal with the problem by invoking the mystical idea of the Eternal Now. It is incorrect to speak of God knowing now what a man will do in the future since past, present, and future are all seen by God, as it were, at once. God does not have foreknowledge of how man will behave in the future but he sees him when he acts in His Eternal Now.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.