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Monday, November 24, A.D. 2008
Prophetic Dreams?

I remember some classroom arguments in a medieval scholastic philosophy course that involved divine foreknowledge. The issue was whether human beings are actually free if God knows what they are going to do. The distinction between necessary and contingent truth known necessarily or contingently bubbled to the discussion’s surface, and my peers’ opinions seemed to coalesce into accepting that God can know future contingent things necessarily but that mortals cannot. Were human beings—contingent temporally bound creatures—to know the future, then our freedom would be questionable.

I cannot reconstruct the argument well because it never made much sense to me. I am not even sure what contingent really means. Necessary truth is easy—things are necessarily so if they cannot be otherwise, due to their nature and to the nature of the universe. Mathematical relations are necessarily true. Historical facts are often offered as examples of contingent truths—it is conceivable that Caesar would have not crossed the Rubicon. A parallel universe would be intelligible to us in which Caesar instead decided to retire in Gaul and sip Gallic wine unto the end of his days. As Hume would say, matters of fact—contingent truths—have no contradiction. They do not repulse our minds but rather appear as possibilities.

Yet, I wonder if things are contingent only in their intelligibility to us. I confess that I have pondered the issues of freedom, determinism, and the rest of those webs for many years with little success. I frankly do not understand reality. Yet, I stagger along and try to make sense of things as I can. I am more comfortable—to use an irrational word—with determinism because it seems more intelligible. What does it mean for something to be undetermined? What does free choice really entail? I don’t know.

Regardless, I never understood why it mattered whether God or human beings had knowledge of necessary and contingent things. God must know all things, and I suppose that God’s knowledge of them is truth in the highest meaning of truth. Divine truth is truth simply, whereas truth as perceived by limited creatures would seem to be limited and, hence, distorted, as well. If there is a natural difference—beyond our means of understanding—between necessary and contingent truth, God surely would know it. Yet, human knowledge is a limited knowledge of God’s knowledge—it is an image of real knowledge as known by the divine mind. If that is true, then what difference does it make whether God or man perceives some truth? For all cognition seems to be a participation in the Logos.

Maybe, Platonists just have an easier time with these matters. Past, present, and future are merely causal directions in Platonism. Our “now” is not a privileged present moment. From eternity’s perspective, our now is no more now than the moment when Caesar crossed the Rubicon or the moment when human beings will land on Mars. We tend think with an attitude of temporal chauvinism—that our framework of past, present, and future is the true one simply—true for God. However, it is only relatively true for us. What is really true, absolutely, in our temporal framework is the causal relationships. That X precedes Y, or that Y precedes Z (not in the alphabet but as variables for events) is true for everyone at all times. Yet, whatever event that is happening in our now is no more present to God than any moment in creation. For God transcends time and is its creator. That is what eternal means . . . Aristotelianism has muddied the West’s theological waters by reducing eternity to everlastingness.

So, from a Platonic perspective, that God knows “the future” is simply a matter of God knowing one part of the historical continuum of created time and space that happens to be in our future, though such a future is not God’s future. The other medieval arguments for God’s knowledge of contingents may be fine—that God knows all things by being their creator, that God knows all the consequences of his movement as the perfect prime mover in knowing himself—yet, these are unnecessary arguments to salvage human freedom with divine foreknowledge. For God has no “foreknowledge”—it is simply that God’s knowledge can appear as foreknowledge to temporal beings such as ourselves.

As such, it does not seem that revelations of such knowledge to human beings would affect the status of freedom at all. However revelation works—if there is a distinction between revelation from above (such as to the prophets) and revelation from below (through natural reason), as Avery Dulles suggests, or if there is no such distinction and all knowledge is the result of the human mind’s being open and purified to the world as it is—it seems that revelation offers the human mind a glimpse of reality through the work of God . . . by creation or providential grace. Is it so different to have a vision of historical events in one’s future than to realize the truth of the Pythagorean theorem? If one accepts the fundamental ideas of Christian theology—that there is an omniscient and benevolent God who cares for his created mankind—then, such truths do not appear so radically dissimilar. They are both instances of God’s sharing of truth with minds created in his image.

However, what if one did not accept Christian theology? What if one were a materialist, instead?

It is not my intention to offer an apology for Christianity in this post. My reasons for being a Christian exceed this particular topic greatly. However, as human knowledge of future contingents is the subject at hand, I cannot ignore my own personal experience, for which I do not see how materialism could account.

Since I was a small child, I have had dreams of events that subsequently occurred. I do not like the term “prophetic dream” to describe my dreams because prophesy has much more to do with relaying God’s will than with the degenerate common English meaning of fortune telling. I do not know what term would be better, though. After looking around on the internet, I read “precognitive dream” on several sites, but that terminology also does violence to our language. It does not make sense. “Predictive dreaming” is ambiguous, as we could all say that a thirteen year old boy has predictive dreams—ones that we could predict, knowing about thirteen year old boys. Prescient dreaming may be a good choice, but it lacks the sexiness of “prophetic” in an entry title. So, I’ll stick with prophetic dreams, with the caveat that we should suffer no prelest in thinking too highly of ourselves as especially appointed messengers from God.

Well, some of these dreams can be explained away as coincidence. Human life is predictable in that most things are expected and follow patterns. If I dreamt of eating pancakes and then woke up to my mother’s serving pancakes, I should not be surprised. Yet, I sometimes dream of things that cannot be easily dismissed.

I bring this up because of a recent event. One of my brothers works at a local pharmacy. On the telephone, he told me a few weeks ago that his store was robbed. I remember thinking how terrible it was that he had been at the store twice in the past year during a robbery—you know, what is our society coming to and all that woe mongering. When I came back home for Thanksgiving break, I brought it up again to him. He said that the robbery was the first time that the store had been robbed. I asked him about the robbery from several months ago, perhaps in the spring, and he said that there was no earlier robbery. However, I have distinct memories of his telling me, in person, of the robbery. I also remember relaying the story to other friends and family members. He said that he never told me of a robbery until two weeks ago—on the phone.

So, it is possible that I had a dream about the robbery and of the subsequent conversations concerning the robbery and that I remembered the dream as fact. It is also possible that I simply dreamt of an event that, while not likely, could result from some strange subconscious anxieties that I have about my brother’s working at the pharmacy. I am not aware of any such anxieties, but I would not be of subconscious ones. It could be mere coincidence.

Yet, this sort of thing has happened many times, and one such occasion cannot be reduced to generalities because of its peculiarity. Last year, one of my co-workers started looking for another job. Around the summer of A.D. 2007, I remember her, clear as day, telling me about one of her interviews. She told me that during the interview, a delivery man entered the office where the interview was being conducted and interrupted it. He had a shipment of many boxes of paper, and he did not know where they should go. The interviewing panel explained that the delivery was a mistake, either in its timing or in its goods. They then asked my co-worker what she would do in such a situation. I remember laughing when she told me this, as she emphasized the “Can you believe it” factor and the bizarre unfairness of the episode. Throughout the story, I imagined the event in my mind, as I do when I hear people talk. So, I had a memory of the interview as I imagined it in my mind, along with the sense perception memory of her telling me it.

Well, last autumn, at least three months after I remembered this conversation’s taking place, I walked in on the same co-worker’s telling another co-worker about her latest interview, where a shipment arrived, chaos ensued, and the woman who was interviewing her asked her what she would do in that situation. I then asked, in amazement, how such a thing could happen to her again. She looked up at me quite puzzled. Then, I told her about what she had said earlier in the year, and she was astounded. There had been no earlier interview, though I remembered it. Rather, I foresaw something before it came to pass.

I do not accept any dismissals of this story as coincidence. I do not witness job interviews or hear about them. I certainly do not know of any other interview interruptions so as to have a generalized view of interviews that would make me dream up something like this coincidentally. I do not see how any such explanation makes sense. Yet, what does make sense? How can I dream about the future?

Yet, I am not sure that the two events recounted above were even dreams. I have had prophetic or prescient dreams that I remember as having dreamt, but I simply remember these two events as if they had happened. This bothers me, naturally, as I could start a chain of unproductive worrying about all that I know that may not have yet occurred. It is almost Truman Show-esque—there is no need to question one’s knowledge of reality until one finds it repeatedly unreliable. I suppose that I am still some time away from interrogating people whether ABC about their lives is true.

Dream or inexplicable memory, how could one explain away such experience from a materialist perspective? Of course, a materialist might accuse me of lying, but I am asking how I could hold to materialism with such personal experience. I find the materialist world view quite unable to explain a multitude of phenomena and human experience, but as our topic is this particular sort of knowledge, how could it be so? For that matter, how could any consciousness be so? It astounds me that so many rational, intelligent people have such opinions about the world . . . Why? For if all is atoms swirling in the void, what does intelligence or intellection mean?

Prescient dreaming or knowledge seems to be rather common. From passing “déjà vu"experiences to detailed knowledge of peculiar and detailed events, it seems that our temporal minds frequently glimpse a sight beyond the horizons of our time frame. Should this even surprise us? For we can understand the Pythagorean theorem.

Posted by Joseph on Monday, November 24, Anno Domini 2008
Philosophy | AnthropologyEpistemologyMetaphysicsComments
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