Monday, December 5, 2016

A Groundhog Day argument before Christmas

Last Sunday the advent sermon topic was how God’s foreknowledge might partly
explain how he could reliably speak about the future, which raises the question: Is divine
foreknowledge consistent with human freedom?

Here is what I will call a Groundhog Day Argument For the Compatibility of Divine
Foreknowledge and Creaturely Freedom:

1. By the end of the movie Groundhog Day, it is possible for Bill Murray’s character to foreknow some of the free actions of others, without his foreknowledge in any way compromising the freedom of those actions. 
2. What’s possible for Bill Murray’s character is possible for God.
3. It is possible for God to foreknow some of the free actions of others,
without his foreknowledge in any way compromising the freedom of
those actions.
A longer treatment would argue that the two premises are true and that the most
promising objections to these premises are unsatisfactory. 

This post will focus entirely on supporting the first premise. 

Groundhog Day is a comedy about a TV weatherman, played by actor Bill Murray, who
has to visit a small town to cover their annual morning Groundhog Day festival. He finds
himself unable to leave the town that evening because of a snowstorm. He spends the
night in a local bed and breakfast. He wakes up the next morning only to discover that it
is Groundhog Day again. However, there is a catch: whereas Bill Murray’s character
remembers living through Groundhog Day yesterday, no one else in the town
remembers this. Although it seems to Bill Murray’s character that he lived through a
“first” Groundhog Day yesterday, and is living through a “second” Groundhog Day
today, everyone else in the town perceives the present day to be just the regular old
Groundhog Day, which comes around once—and only once—each year. 

(This is not just an epistemological breakdown of the memory of the other characters.
Rather, the sober but strange metaphysical fact of the matter is that everything in the
town, with the exception of Bill Murray’s character’s memory, is, at the beginning of the
“second” Groundhog Day, precisely as it was at the beginning of the “first” Groundhog
Day. For example, if Bill Murray’s character and another character both had a huge
greasy breakfast omelet on the “first” Groundhog Day, neither of them would have an
increased cholesterol number on the “second” Groundhog Day, but Bill Murray’s
character would remember having eating the breakfast on the “first” Groundhog Day.) 

Bill Murray’s character again tries to leave the town, the snowstorm again prevents him
from leaving, he again spends the night in the bed and breakfast, and, to his dismay, he
wakes up again the next morning only to discover that it is, once again, Groundhog Day.
The rest of the movie chronicles his attempts to escape this predicament, to
communicate it to other characters, and to cope with it in a number of different ways.
The connection between this movie and the first premise is seen in one of the strategies
Bill Murray’s character uses to cope with his predicament of being trapped in a cycle of
re-living the same day over and over again.

He begins to learn what each of the other characters in the movie would do in a certain
situation, and he begins to use what he learns in subsequent live-throughs of the same

For example, on the first “live-through” of Groundhog Day, he is greeted by an old
acquaintance on the street corner, and this old acquaintance tries to sell him some life
insurance. The exact same thing happens on the second live-through. On different live-
throughs, Bill Murray’s character responds differently to the greeting of the life
insurance salesman. The life insurance salesman, in turn, has a different comeback for
each of Bill Murray’s different responses to his greeting. If Bill Murray’s character does
A in response to the salesman’s greeting, the salesman comes back with action B. If Bill
Murray’s character does C in response to the salesman’s greeting, the salesman comes
back with action D. And so on. Bill Murray’s character, however, can remember how
the life insurance salesman comes back to different responses to his original greeting. 

In this way, Bill Murray’s character gains a very detailed knowledge of what different
characters in the movie will do in different situations. 

After a while, he uses this knowledge to take advantage of the other characters: for
example, he knows exactly when and where a certain security guard is going to look
away from a bagful of money, so he can easily slip in and steal the bag undetected. But
by the end of the movie, he has learned to use his newfound knowledge to benefit
others as well: for example, he knows exactly when and where a certain girl is going to
fall from a tree in her neighborhood, so he can catch the girl and save her from injury.
It seems, then, that by a certain point in the movie, Bill Murray’s character has
foreknowledge of some of the actions of others. For example, on what seems to him to
be the 8th live-through of Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character foreknows what
another character is going to do at 10:00 that morning. Bill Murray’s character also
foreknows what that other character is going to do at 10:00 in the morning on the next
live-through of Groundhog Day—what will seem to him to be the 9th live-through of
Groundhog Day. And so on. 

The peculiar features of the movie entail that the same types of actions done on the
“first” Groundhog Day will be repeated on “subsequent” Groundhog Days. 

What makes this argument for the compatibility of foreknowledge and freedom
interesting is that it simply collapses the difference that usually exists between
knowledge of the past and knowledge of the future. Bill Murray can foreknow the
future free actions of others because, in a sense, he’s already seen the other characters
perform these actions in the past.

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State