Extension Material for Paper 1 Anthology Extract 1: J.L. Mackie ‘Evil and Omnipotence’ – a brief note on Boethius.

At the very end of his article, Mackie asserts that, ‘The paradox of omnipotence can be avoided by putting God outside time, but the free will solution of the problem of evil cannot be saved in this way,

Is he correct?

One Christian philosopher who might have disagree is Boethius (c.480 – 524 AD). Boethius was a prominent member of the court of Theoderic, who was arguably the most powerful man in Western Europe after the Roman Empire had fallen at the turn of the Sixth Century. However, Boethius fell out of favour with Theoderic and was imprisoned on charges of treasonous intrigue (with the Byzantines) . The Consolation of Philosophy is a tract authored by Boethius while he was locked up and awaiting execution. The book is written in the form of a dialogue between Boethius and ‘Lady Philosophy’.

At one point, Boethius discusses the problem of freedom and foreknowledge, which essentially boils down to the fact that if God knows what we are going to do before we do it, then we are never really free to make good and bad moral choices because they are determined by God’s advanced knowledge of them. Therefore we cannot be judged by God for our actions and be rewarded and punished on the basis that we freely chose them and were therefore responsible for them.

Boethius’s approach to this issue is distinctive because, unlike Augustine and Irenaeus, he argues that God does not know in advance about human actions and He therefore cannot be regarded as determining them in any way. This is because God is believed by Boethius to be atemporal (outside of time and space), and therefore perceives His creation from a perspective that is very different to ours. From God’s point of view, all the events that ever have or will happen in the universe are seen by Him as taking place simultaneously. In our case, this means that at any stage in our life, He does not see what we are about to do but only whatever it is that we happen to be doing. For example, in the case of an A Level student of Religious Studies, He sees your birth, starting primary school, entering secondary school, commencing A Level studies, going on to university and/or the world of work, getting older and dying, all at once. So for Boethius, God’s knowledge is ‘not a knowledge of things in the future but a knowledge of an unchanging present.’ And because God’s knowledge is not ever of the future but is always of the ‘simultaneous present’, then He cannot be held in any way responsible for free human action. Therefore it is acceptable for Him to reward and punish people.

NOTE: When combined with the criticisms of Boethius that are described a bit further on in this blog entry, the above is probably already enough for A Level and might usefully be deployed in response to a question on the problem of evil that takes in Mackie and/or the free-will defence. But here, for the sake of thoroughness, is the finer detail of Boethius’s argument:

Boethius develops this view by discussing two types of necessity: simple and conditional necessity. He invites his reader to imagine that a man has gone out for a walk on a sunny day and to also picture in their mind a viewer sitting on a hill looking down at the man. That observer might conclude that it is both ‘necessary’ that the sun is shining and that the man is walking, though necessary in different ways.

The first type of necessity (the shining sun) is just part of the way the universe is. This is an example of simple necessity. Another example Boethius gives is that humans beings are necessarily mortal. Being mortal is not a matter of choice. However, the example of the man walking is different. It is an example of conditional necessity. That the man is walking at that moment is a necessary fact because he couldn’t be doing anything else. And yet the man has still chosen to walk when he could have been doing something else e.g. hopping. Meanwhile, the viewer (i.e. God) has no influence over the man who is walking or the sun that is shining as he observes the view. He hasn’t forced the man to walk and the man is capable of making other free decisions like this. In other words, conditional necessity does not include simple necessity. For example, because we know that someone is walking means that they must be doing this (conditional necessity). But it does not follow that the person is compelled to be walking in the way that they are compelled to be mortal (simple necessity). So, like the viewer, God sees everything but is not responsible for events which are conditionally necessary. Therefore it is acceptable for God to reward and punish free-actions that are, at the same time, examples of conditional necessity.

Does the manner in which Boethius envisages this God’s-eye view of human action help to salvage the free-will solution to the problem of evil? Mackie himself states that placing God outside of time leads to ‘difficulties of its own’ but he does not state what they are. However, Richard Swinburne has offered the following criticisms:

First of all, Boethius’s conception of God as timeless implies that God is simultaneously present yesterday, today and tomorrow. Logically, this implies that yesterday, today and tomorrow are also simultaneous with each other, which they are clearly not. Therefore God cannot be simultaneously present yesterday, today and tomorrow, and Boethius is asserting something logically incoherent in claiming that He can.

Secondly, a timeless God imagined as a mere observer is inconsistent with Christian teaching about God being interventionist and continually involved with his people via the Incarnation and performing miracles, like parting the Red Sea. Boethius therefore thinks too much in terms of God being ‘up there’ and passively remote from us.

As an alternative, Swinburne proposes that thinking of God as a being who exists everlastingly within time does not lead to these problems and still allows for human free-will and appropriate punishment and reward. However, Swinburne’s alternative solution (that God’s omniscience is restricted to what it is logically possible to know and that knowledge of what humans will do in the future is not a logical possibility) seems to limit God’s omniscience for those who define omniscience more traditionally. And his position still seems vulnerable to Mackie’s criticisms.

A further difficulty with Boethius’s notion of a timeless God is that God cannot therefore know what day it is for us because He does not operate within space and time like we do. This again appears to limit his omniscience rather drastically but it is a fair point because if He did know what day it was for us then He would have advanced knowledge of whatever lay in our future, and we would then be saddled with the original problem that Boethius was trying to solve.

Still another difficulty (an important one that is well worth noting) has been suggested by Linda Zagzebski: a timeless realm would still be an unchanging one in which all events have to happen the way they do. So they still could not be other than they were, and we are therefore still not free to make the choices we do.

Another brief but useful discussion of Boethius can be found HERE for those who want to delve into this more deeply.