Epistemic Eternalism vs Metaphysical Eternalism – A comparison between Boethius and Anselm’s solution to the paradox between free will and divine omniscience, Keqi Chen (Cambridge)

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Omniciencia by José Clemente Orozco, 1925

This is a post by Keqi Chen (Cambridge), a speaker from our Spring 2021 Seminar Series. If you would like to attend a seminar, please sign up using this link. You can also download the full schedule here.


The paradox between human free will and divine foreknowledge has attracted the attention of philosophers of religion for centuries. The kernel of the paradox lies in the contradiction between the uncertainty of the future contingent events derived from human beings’ free choices of will on the one hand, and the certainty of the object of knowledge on the other. For instance, assume that I can freely choose what I am going to eat for dinner tonight without any external intervention, whether explicit or implicit, my choice will not, and cannot, be known by anyone until I really make up my mind. This is because (1) this choice is a future contingent event, which, on the level of metaphysics, has no existence at all in the timeline and (2) a person’s free choice of will is not supposed to be part of any predetermined causal chain. The ultimate cause of a free choice or action is free will. Therefore, what I am going to eat tonight is still conatively defeasible now, and thus has not yet been qualified as an object of knowledge, especially the infallible divine knowledge. (The philosophical assumption is that knowledge expresses what is true, and the truth value is immutable. This is distinct from the concept of belief, which can turn out to be false.)

This paradox is particularly important against the theistic background and has sparked various discussions throughout medieval philosophy. On the one hand, God is omniscient. While the claim that God does not have future knowledge undermines God’s perfection, the preservation of God’s foreknowledge appears to imply that human free will is, in fact, implicitly predetermined. On the other hand, human free will can hardly be sacrificed, otherwise it would be counterintuitive that people should still be responsible for their moral conducts and deserve any praise or blame.

One influential defence for the compatibility between free will and divine omniscience in the middle ages is the appeal to the concept of eternity. Boethius (c. 477 – 524 AD), a great thinker in late antiquity, is considered to start the trend of eternalism in response to the paradox between free will and divine omniscience. The most complete argument was provided in his De consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy). Anselm of Canterbury (1033—1109), the outstanding philosopher of the 11th century, is well-known for his ontological argument for the existence of God, but his contribution to medieval philosophy goes far beyond that. It is commonly thought that his solution to the paradox resembles Boethius’. This view, as I shall show, is misleading in that Anselm’s solution departs from Boethius’ with regard to the conception of eternity and its role in the solution, and demonstrates a more radical libertarian position.

In this talk, I shall investigate the contrast between these two figures’ eternalism. Note that the notion of eternity is different from omnitemporality. The latter indicates an everlasting existence in our temporal line, whereas the former emphasises a distinctive relation with temporality. Moreover, it is not necessarily the case that eternity precludes any temporal relation (i.e., atemporality). In the tradition of medieval philosophy, divine eternality is closely connected to the notion of divine simplicity, which stresses that God’s existence is indivisible by time and space. God’s life embraces the past, the present and the future as a whole, simultaneously and immutably. Bearing these basic distinctions in mind, I shall first examine Boethius’ solution to the paradox between free will and divine omniscience. The main point I intend to clarify is that Boethius’ eternalism is the ‘epistemic eternalism’. According to Boethius, God’s metaphysical status of eternality endows Him with a unique cognitive power. What exactly is the metaphysical status of eternality is not of the central concern. It is sufficient to know that God’s nature is of absolute simplicity, so does His perception of time. God’s simple existence determines that His cognitive power is also simple and perfect, which has embraced everything, and thus does not require any addition or reduction. This in principle allows God to acquire knowledge without the actuality of the objects as the truth-maker. Therefore, God’s knowledge legitimately embraces knowledge about every temporal fact, including the unrealised future contingents, as a whole.

Then I shall proceed to Anselm’s solution. Anselm, as a radical libertarian, makes several original steps departing from Boethius. Anselm does not challenge the cognitive mode of God, but appeals to the metaphysical foundation of the inclusive dimension of the Eternal Present. This is why I call Anselm’s eternalism ‘metaphysical eternalism’. In Ansel’s view, there are future facts for God, not only because God’s own existence is of eternity, but also that God’s eternity marks a superior temporal-spatial dimension, in which all temporal facts are contained and present to God as a whole. In this framework, God has knowledge about future contingents because it is God’s prerogative to get access to the superior dimension of the Eternal Present. Whether Anselm’s solution is completely satisfactory, in my view, remains unsettled. Yet it is important to see that Anselm is able to hold (in fact, he does) a more radical libertarian position than his predecessors. In Boethius’ scheme, there is still space for divine predetermination. Boethius argues that God’s knowledge has a causal power to establish everything. In Anselm’s framework, by contrast, at least there is no threat from the part of divine foreknowledge, for God’s foreknowledge is grounded on the metaphysical status of existence included in the dimension of the Eternal Present.

The significance of my research is twofold. The first aspect lies in the study of the history of philosophy. It helps to disclose the originality of Anselm’s thought, and show different approaches to the notion of eternity in medieval philosophy. Second, my study invites people to reconsider the concept of eternity and sheds light on the plausibility of the compatibilist position on free will and divine foreknowledge.


About the Author

Author ImageKeqi Chen is a PhD candidate in Divinity Faculty, University of Cambridge (Trinity College). Her PhD thesis is about Anselm’s theories of semantics, modality and ethics. She specialises in early medieval philosophy, Latin tradition. Her research interests include modality and semantics in the long middle ages.

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