The Free Will Problem: Medieval Solutions

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

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

A problem that exercised the minds of the medieval Jewish philosophers was that of reconciling God’s foreknowledge with human free will. This problem, called the problem of “knowledge versus free will,” can be baldly stated. If God knows, as presumably He does, long before a man is born how he will behave throughout his life, how can that man be blamed and punished for his sinful acts and praised and rewarded for his virtuous acts?

Solution #1: God Has No Foreknowledge

Gersonides, unwilling to compromise in any way human free will, posits as a solution (The Wars of the Lord, iii. 6) that God does not know beforehand how a man will behave in particular circumstances. God knows beforehand all the choices open to a man but which of these he will follow depends entirely on his own free will. Gersonides’ “solution” does provide for free will, but from the theological point of view it is surely odd to deny God’s knowledge of the future in all its details.

Solution #2: Humans Have No Free Choice

[Hasdai] Crescas attempts to deal with the problem (The Light of the Lord, iv. 5) by distinguishing between fatalism, the notion that man must act in the way he does, and determinism, the notion that man is free to choose which acts he performs but the choice itself is determined. God’s foreknowledge is of the choices man actually makes of his own free will. Crescas admits that, since his choices are determined by God’s foreknowledge, man is not really free, and is obliged to face the problem of why, if this is so, there are rewards for virtuous living and punishments for vicious living.

Crescas tries to deal with this further problem by suggesting that the promise of reward and the threat of punishment are only to spur a man on to choose virtue and reject sin. The good man thus does not really deserve his reward nor the wicked man his punishment. Crescas is as unconventional in his qualification of human free will as is Gersonides in his qualification of divine foreknowledge.

Solution #3: Divine and Human Knowledge Are Incomparable

Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah, 5:5) holds that man has free will and God has foreknowledge so that there is, indeed, a problem but it is one incapable of solution by the finite mind of man. Maimonides is not simply saying that there is an insoluble problem. If he were saying that, his critics would have been right in protesting that a wise man does not formulate problems of faith for which he has no solution and Maimonides should have kept silent on the whole question. But, in reality, Maimonides is putting forward a solution of his own, as is clear from his actual formulation.

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.

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