Nathaniel Branden’s Case against Theism Examined:
God, Omniscience, and Freedom
by James Kiefer
Unpublished dot-matrix printout dated July 31, 1980 *
[Editor’s notes are in blue. Readers who prefer to ignore the links in the text, which go to the bottom of the page, and follow the notes on a separate page, may open a separate page with the references here.]

I promised at the beginning of this paper [“Objectivism and Theism”] that, after presenting the positive case for theism on Objectivist grounds, I would examine Dr. [Nathaniel] Branden’s arguments and state where, in my judgement, he goes astray. To this task I now turn.

Omniscience and Freedom

Having argued that Divine freedom destroys knowledge, Dr. Branden now turns the argument around and maintains that Divine knowledge destroys freedom. He says that if God knows everything, including the future, then the future must be predetermined, and hence freedom is impossible. I understand him to mean something like this:

“Suppose that God knows — and knows today — the truth value of every proposition. Then either God knows today that Jones will steal on his thirtieth birthday or God knows that Jones will not steal on his thirtieth birthday. [01] Either way, the question is already settled, and Jones is not free to choose. But we know that Jones is free. [02] Hence the premise (God is omniscient) is false.”

Now the difficulty presented by this argument does not arise from any assumptions about God. The same difficulty occurs in exactly the same way in the following parallel argument against the Law of the Excluded Middle — A or non-A:

“Suppose that at this moment every proposition is either true or false — A or non-A. Then either it is already true that Jones will steal on his thirtieth birthday or it is already false that he will. Either way, the question is already settled and Jones is not free to choose. But we know that Jones is free. Hence the premise (A or non-A) is false.”

Throughout this section, let us call Dr. Branden’s argument against omniscience the First Argument and the parallel argument against A or non-A the Second Argument.

How might Dr. Branden reply to this Second Argument? I suggest three possibilities:

(1) He might say:

I agree. A proposition about a future choice by a free agent is neither true nor false but undetermined. When the agent makes his choice, and not before, then the proposition about his choice acquired a determinate truth value — either true or false.

Now what grounds are there for conjecturing that Dr. Branden might take such a position?

In the first place, he is on historically firm ground if he does. He is not repudiating Aristotle’s Law of the Excluded Middle — he is affirming it in precisely the sense that Aristotle intended.

Aristotle considers the Second Argument, concludes that A or not-A, the Law of the Excluded Middle, is indeed incompatible with human freedom, and that since freedom is a reality, the law must be inapplicable to future human action. He says:

In the case of that which is or which has taken place, propositions ... must be true or false....
MMWhen, the subject, however, is individual, and that which is predicated of it relates to the future, the case is altered. For if all propositions ... are either true or false, then ... [t]here would be no need to deliberate or to take trouble, on the supposition that if we should adopt a certain course, a certain result would follow, while, if we did not, the result would not follow. For a man may predict an event ten thousand years beforehand, and another predict the reverse; that which was truly predicted ... will of necessity take place in the fulness of time.
MMFurther, it makes no difference whether people have or have not actually made the contradictory statements.... For events will not take place or fail to take place because it was stated that they would or would not take place....
MM... Since propositions correspond with facts, it is evident that when in future events there is a real alternative, and a potentiality in contrary directions, the corresponding affirmation and denial have the same character.
MM... It is therefore plain that it is not necessary that of an affirmation and a denial one should be true and the other false. For in the case of that which exists potentially, but not actually, the rule which applies to that which exists actually does not hold good.... [03]

If someone says that he believes in Aristotle’s Laws of Thought, it is certainly a possibility that he believes them in the same sense that Aristotle did.

Moreover, in Dr. Branden’s lecture, [04] we find one suggestion that perhaps this is his position. He tells us that statements like “This coin has a fifty per cent chance of coming up heads on the next toss,” express only our knowledge — or lack of it — and not the objective truth about the coin. As proof he cites, not the Law of the Excluded Middle, but the laws of physics. The outcome of the next toss is physically determined. This argument does not apply to free action, and a reasonable inference is that Dr. Branden intended his statement about the epistemological nature of probability statements to apply only to predetermined events, so that statements like “There is a fifty per cent chance that Jones will steal tomorrow” do in fact express a metaphysical, not merely an epistemological, uncertainty.

Again, Dr. Branden has repudiated the notion that there are some things which, by their nature cannot be known. [05] It seems likely that he would proceed on the same grounds to say that nothing exists at present which is unknowable at present (not meaning, unknowable with our present technology, but meaning unknowable because it is incompatible with its nature for it to be known at present). If the truth values of propositions about future free acts are in principle unknowable at present, it follows that the truth values of such propositions do not exist at present.

A more definite indication of the Objectivist position is to be found in the pages of Atlas Shrugged itself. Near the end of the novel [06] Eddie Willers is lying under the headlight beam of a “frozen” train that everyone else has deserted. We are not told what will happen to him or whether he will survive. And, as Dr. Branden points out, [07] the omission is deliberate. It is the nature of a man like Eddie Willers to have a future that depends ultimately on the choices of others. By breaking off the narrative of Eddie’s life at this point, Miss Rand does not conceal the truth, she reveals it. We ask, “Will Eddie survive?” and she answers, not “Yes” or “No” or “I don’t know” or “I won’t tell,” but “Undetermined!” And it is the superlatively right answer.

(It is not the first time that Miss Rand has made this point. Her answer to the question “Will Karen Andre be acquitted?” [08] — not, of course, to the question “Is Karen Andre innocent?” — is: “Undetermined. It is in the nature of the case that the jury’s verdict is unpredictable.” What a tremendous experience it is to study Miss Rand’s works! Every theme visible at the end is implicit in the beginning. Tap the web anywhere and it vibrates everywhere.)

If Dr. Branden takes this line, then the argument against omniscience collapses. We ask God whether the statement that Jones will steal is true or false, and he replies, “Undetermined.” This is not a confession of ignorance, but is the correct answer to the question, and the only correct answer. Many modern physicists believe that a particle does not have exact co-ordinates of position and velocity, but only approximate ones. Regardless of the merits of this position, it is clear that not even an omniscient being could be expected to know the exact co-ordinates of a particle that does not have exact co-ordinates. It would like insisting that, since God knows everything, he must know the address of my stockbroker even though I don’t have a stockbroker. But the thoughtful critic will recognize that omniscience does not mean knowing the answers to all questions. It means knowing the answers to all questions that have answers, and knowing of the other questions that they do not have answers.

(2) Again, Dr. Branden might say:

This pretended refutation of “A or non-A” confuses “necessity of the consequence” with “necessity of the consequent.” It is the Fatalist Fallacy. Granted, if it is true that Jones will steal then Jones must steal. But “must” here means, not that it is impossible for Jones to remain honest, but only that it is impossible that both Jones remain honest and the prediction that he will steal be fulfilled. And this does not impair Jones’s freedom.

If this is Dr. Branden’s reply, then the argument against omniscience collapses. For we see that the sentence, “If God knows that Jones will steal, then Jones must steal,“ and the sentence, “If it is true that Jones will steal, then Jones must steal,” use the word “must” in the same ambiguous manner, and an analysis of the structure of one applies straightforwardly to the other.

(3) Another line Dr. Branden might take is to say:

If a situation obtains today that is incompatible with Jones’s not stealing on his thirtieth birthday, then admittedly Jones is not free. But a proposition is not a situation. A situation is tied down to a particular time and place. A proposition is not, although it may refer to something that is. “It is true today that Jones will steal on his thirtieth birthday” and “It was true last week that Jones will steal on his thirtieth birthday” and “It will be true a thousand years hence that Jones will (or did) steal on his thirtieth birthday” are synonymous statements. To affirm one and deny another is to contradict oneself. A proposition, though it may be about something in time, is not itself in time at all. In the sentence “It is true that Charlemagne was crowned in 800,” the “was crowned” is past tense, but the “is true” is only grammatically present tense. Logically, it is no tense at all. Change it to “was true last week” or to “will be true next week” or to “was true in 600” and you have not changed the meaning. [09] Charlemagne’s coronation is datable; the proposition affirming it is not. Similarly, the proposition that Jones will steal is not a presently existing cause of Jones’s future action. It is a timeless entity.

If Dr. Branden takes this position, then the argument against omniscience collapses. The argument for the timelessness of a proposition is parallel to the argument already considered for the timelessness of God’s knowledge. [10]

More generally, we may say that any refutation at all of the Second Argument will turn out to be refutation of the First. For the First Argument actually presupposes the Second. It says, in effect: “Suppose (a) God knows now that Jones will steal. Then (b) it is true now that Jones will steal. Then (c) it is already a fact that Jones will steal. Then (d) it is impossible that Jones should not steal. Then (e) Jone has no choice between stealing and not stealing.” The First Argument is that (a) implies e. The Second Argument is that (b) implies (e). But the road from (a) to (e) lies through (b), and if you can’t get from (b) to (e), then you can’t get from (a) to (e). Hence, if the Second Argument is invalid, so is the First.

We may go further and say that the two arguments are really the same argument. For in discussing necessary omniscience in an earlier section, we saw that the statements, “God believes p is true," and, “p is true,” are synonymous.

At this point, perhaps Dr. Branden will complain that I have pulled the usual mystical gambit of evading the force of his argument about Divine knowledge by explaining (or rather, anti-explaining) that God’s knowledge is “timeless” And therefore quite different from what we mean by knowledge. I shall do my best to meet this objection by showing that even ordinary human knowledge before the event is no obstacle to freedom.

It might seem that if Smith correctly stated on Monday that Jones would steal on Tuesday, then an event occurred (or a situation prevailed) on Monday from which it necessarily followed that Jones would steal on Tuesday, and therefore that Jones was fated to steal on Tuesday and had no choice in the matter. For surely if we know what Smith said on Monday, and know that it was a correct prediction, then we know that Jones stole on Tuesday. But this conclusion is fallacious. For the correctness of the prediction is not a part of the situation on Monday. If two persons agree on what Smith said but disagree on whether it was a correct prediction, they are not disputing about what happened on Monday. What happened on Monday is that Smith made a prediction. What happened on Tuesday was that Jones fulfilled the prediction. No description of the events of Monday that confines itself to Monday implies anything at all about the events of Tuesday. But the statement that Smith correctly predicted on Monday what Jones would do on Tuesday is not just about the events of Monday. It is about the events of both days, and how they were related.

A similar analysis holds if put it more stongly and say that Smith knew on Monday that Jones would steal on Tuesday. For what does it mean to say that Smith knows that X is true? It is usually taken to mean that
MM"(a) Smith believes that X is true, and
MM"(b) Smith has good evidence that X is true, and
MM"(c) X is true [11]

The difficulties begin when we try to agree on what constitutes good evidence. But note that good evidence does not mean evidence such as we never have for false propositions. If Smith correctly believes that Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota because he has looked it up in the atlas, then we would agree that he knows it, without meaning to assert that atlases never contain misprints. So, if Smith believed on Monday that Jones would steal on Tuesday, and if Smith had good reason for his belief (such as hearing Jones discussing the prospect with a fence) and if Jones did in fact steal on Tuesday, we would say that Smith knew he would, And if Jones changes his mind at the last minute, then we would say that Smith did not know after all, but that his reasons were still good reasons. Thus, we see that Jones’s freedom is not incompatible with Smith’s foreknowledge.

I remind the reader that knowledge does not mean infallibility. “John knows that snow is white,” means that (a) John believes that snow is white, and (b) John has good reason to believe that snow is white, and (c) snow is white. It does not mean (d) John has better reason to believe that snow is white than anyone could ever have or believing something that is in fact false. That would exclude us from ever saying that we know the sum of a column of figures, since our evidence must necessarily be that we (or others) have added them up, and people have sometimes added wrongly, and failed to find the error on adding again. It does not mean (e) John is more confident that snow is white than anyone ever is of something that is false. The world is full of people who believe all kinds of false things with unsurpassed confidence.

A critic may challenge the given definition of knowledge, since it is not found in Objectivist texts. I could reply that neither (as far as I know) is any alternate definition, and that Miss Rand, when she departs from common usage, commonly says so. [12] But instead I invite the critic to construct an alternate definition: Jones is correctly said to know that X is true if and only if the following conditions are met:.... I think he will find that a viable definition can always be so cast that one of the conditions is that X is in fact true, and the other conditions are all capable of being satisfied even if X if false. And this is all that my argument requires.

At this point, a critic may say:

I will grant your definition of knowledge, and grant that good evidence is not the same as conclusive evidence (i.e., evidence that is simply incompatible with the falsity of the conclusion). But I deny that we can ever know what someone will freely choose to do.

If we insist that Smith can never know in advance what Jones will (freely) do, we must say that knowing implies having such good reasons for belief as are never available where human freedom is concerned. But this commits us, if not to a universal skepticism, at least to a very drastic one. For our reasons for supposing that someone will not lie are very like are reasons for supposing that he has not lied in some instance where we cannot check him, and so farewell to all knowledge that depends in any way on human testimony. Indeed, given that humans have considerable ability to suppress or distort memories of incidents that they do not choose to remember accurately, it would seem (by this line of argument) that I cannot know whether I have chosen to remember something inaccurately, and then chosen to forget that I have so chosen, and so farewell to all knowledge that depends on my own memory of my own past experience. That does not leave much. In short, if I can never know what someone will (freely) do, then there is precious little that I can know.

I very much doubt that Dr. Branden will agree with that conclusion. In view of what he has said on a closely related subject, [13] I should expect him to comment somewhat as follows:

Suppose that you attend a gather with a friend. At this gathering a stranger suddenly confronts you and charges you with being about to commit a murder. You indignantly deny it, but the stranger insistently repeats his charge.
MM“What murder?” Your accuser does not answer. “Why do you suspect me?” Your accuser does not answer. “Why do you suspect me?” you demand.
MMYour accuser smiles slyly and answers, “I believe that you will commit a murder within this very hour. Can you prove that you won’t?”
MMYou turn away — and see that the friend with whom you came is looking at you tensely. You cry to him, “You don’t believe that I will murder anyone, do you?”
MMYour friend answers nervously, “No, of course I don’t. I mean ... he hasn’t given any evidence that will commit a murder, he’s just predicted it. And since you have free will, he couldn’t possibly know that you will commit a murder. On the other hand, he couldn’t possibly know you won’t commit one. Neither could I; for that matter, neither could you. I guess I’d have to say that nobody knows whether you will murder someone in the next hour or not.”
MMThereafter your friend is very fair and conscientious; he makes it very clear to everyone that he does not believe that you will murder anyone; he is, he explains, an agnostic in the matter, and his decision to leave the gathering at once and without you is a purely precautionary measure.
MMIf you were the victim of such a nightmare, you would feel that a monstrous injustice had been committed — specifically, an epistemological injustice. And you would be right.

Another objection a critic might voice:

You have completely misrepresented Dr. Branden’s argument. You have written as if he tried to show that Divine omniscience is incompatible with human freedom. But in fact, he argues that it is incompatible with Divine freedom. And this is another matter altogether. It is, perhaps, not incredible that a man may know how another man will freely decide to act. But it is out of the question that a man should himself know in advance how he will decide. If he does, then he has already decided. If I have just turned off the alarum, and am trying to make up my mind whether to get up or turn over and go back to sleep, the essence of the situation is that I don’t know which I am going to do. If I did know, the problem of deciding would not exist.

To this I reply:

This objection confuses deciding with dithering. If it were valid, a rational man would have to say, “My friends can know whether I am going to commit a murder tonight, but, since I have free will, I cannot possibly know.” Again, if it were valid, it would be immoral to make promises. For no moral man would promise that something will occur when he has no idea whether it will or not. He would have to say, “Please lend me ten dollars till Saturday. Since I have free will, I shall be deciding Saturday whether to pay you back, and of course I have no way of predicting what the decision will be.” It does not help matters to suggest that the man’s freedom lies in deciding now that he will repay the loan on Saturday, unless one is prepared to say that decisions freely made are by their very nature irrevocable (that it is impossible, as opposed to immoral, to renege).

Finally, the critic may say:

It is true that human knowledge is compatible with freedom. But that is only because human knowledge is contextual, because every human knowledge claim is (or ought to be) provisional, subject to revision in the light of the further evidence. But theists claim that Divine knowledge is something quite different — that it is timeless, which human knowledge is not, that it is not acquired, which human knowledge is, and that it involves omniscience, which human knowledge does not. To suppose that you can prove Divine knowledge compatible with freedom by proving that human knowledge is, is a blatant non sequitur.

To this I reply:

Granted. But please remember how the discussion developed. First, Dr. Branden undertook to show that Divine knowledge, as traditionally understood, is incompatible with freedom. I undertook to meet him on that ground by showing that the idea of a timeless, omniscient being does not contradict freedom. In case someone complains that I am avoiding difficulties by bringing the mysterious notion of timelessness into the argument, I then argue in terms of ordinary human knowledge. But let him not then turn around and complain that I am avoiding difficulties by leaving timelessness out of the argument!

[Editor’s notes are in blue. Readers who prefer to ignore the links in the text and follow the notes on a separate page, may open a separate page with the references here.]

* The title refers to Nathaniel Branden’s lecture “The Concept of God,” from his lecture series “The Basic Principles of Objectivism.” That lecture is fully transcribed in his book The Vision of Ayn Rand, chapter 4. Partial and perhaps complete audios seem to be available throughout the Internet. See also R.A. Childs, “The Epistemological Basis of Anarchism,” Note 19.

[01] Purists may substitute “blank out” for “steal” throughout.

[02] See Dr. Branden’s refutation of determinism as cited above. [James had made a transcript of Branden’s lecture on the existence of God “by special permission of the author.” The dot-matrix printout contains an explicit claim that the transcript is “not for mass reproduction or commercial use,” and I shall be observing James’s wishes, despite the inconvenience they impose on the reader. Branden’s argument for the existence free will is found in his book The Psychology of Self-Esteem, chapter 4, section 3, and in The Vision of Ayn Rand, chapter 5. An excerpt from the lecture itself — containing the essential argument for free will — is available on YouTube. See also R.A. Childs, “The Epistemological Basis of Anarchism,” Note 19.]

[03] Aristotle, On Interpretation, chapter 9 (18a–19b).

[04] N. Branden, “The Concept of God.” [The passage occurs in The Vision of Ayn Rand on pages 103–104.]

[05] N. Branden, “Intellectual Ammunition Department: Is there any validity to the claim that certain things are unknowable” 2/1/3g-j [January 1963]. [References of this form refer to The Objectivist Newsletter, so that volume 4, number 3 would be March 1965. After volume 4, the name of the publication was The Objectivist. The page numbers for the latter are those of the original format, not those in the bound volume.]

[06] AS [Atlas Shrugged] 1081xx-1083b [hardback] (1165qq-1167c [paperback]).

[07] Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, WIAR [Who Is Ayn Rand? (paperback edition)] 100–101 [hardback edition: 121–23].

[08] A. Rand, The Night of January 16th, “Note to the Producer,” page 17 (Signet paperback).
MMThis play is a murder trial without a prearranged verdict. The jurors are to be selected from the audience. They are to witness the play as real jurors and bring in a verdict at the end of the last act. Two short endings are written for the play — to be used according to the verdict.
MMThe play is built in such a way that the evidence of the defendant’s guilt is evenly balanced and the decision will have to be based upon the jurors’s own values and characters.

[09] A speaker in the year 600 would say, “Charlemagne will be crowned in 800,” but he would be affirming the same fact from another point of view; hence we say, “And he spoke the truth: Charlemagne was indeed crowned in 800,” — thereby showing that his "“will” and our “was” mark different formulations of the same proposition.

[10] “Objectivism and Theism, Part Two.”

[11] See John Hospers, Introduction to Philosophical Analysis (2nd edition; Prentice-Hall, 1963), 144 ff.

[12] A Rand, “Introduction to The Romantic Manifesto ??? and RM ??? [I think the passage that James had in mind from the “Introduction” is in the first two paragraphs: “The dictionary definition of ‘manifesto’ is: ‘a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives or motives, as one issued by a government, sovereign or organization.’ (The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, College Edition, 1968.) I must state, therefore, that this manifesto is not issued in the name of an organization or a movement. I speak only for myself. As for the reference to The Romantic Manifesto, when I can determine what he might have in mind, I will add it here. Readers with ideas are welcome to write to me. Please supply a page number and tell me whether you are using the hardback or paperback edition.]

[13] N. Branden, N. Branden, “Intellectual Ammunition Department: What is the Objectivist view of agnosticism?” 2/4/15j-cc [April 1963. The parallel passage in the lecture may be found in The Vision of Ayn Rand, page 109] .

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