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Free will or omniscience? Or both?
March 26, 2010 10:11 AM   Subscribe

Are free will and an omnipotent/omniscient God possible in the same universe?

Christian doctrine clearly posits they are but I am struggling to see how the concepts are not in conflict. If God is omniscient then he knows the outcomes of any system he puts in place at the point he puts it in place; he is not limited by the human perspective on linear time and the future effects of his action or by the complexity of many variables interacting. That is, God knew all the decisions that would be made by the humans he designed and how they would turn out. does this imply the absence of free will, since an omniscient God could set the conditions and change them, and know the result of doing so in all cases. If God however, foregoes this knowledge, and started the human 'experiment' not knowing how it would turn out then does this not imply that God has foregone omniscience?

I am interested in both established doctrine on this issue from churches, as well as the philosophical opinions of MeFites.
posted by biffa to Religion & Philosophy (87 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Theoretically one could suppose that God endowed everyone with something called free will, such that he did not impose our decisions on us. He knew what those decisions would be, because he has perfect precognition; but they're still our decisions.

In human relations, I may know you're going to eat that chocolate, but it is in fact your decision to eat it.

This breaks down practically because it is indistinguishable from predestination. If God has perfect knowledge of what will happen, and also created everyone exactly the way they are (or created the universe with inputs such that it would generate us exactly the way we are), then God having total control looks exactly the same as our having free will and getting to exercise it in ways that, it turns out, God knew we would exercise it.

You could therefore say that free will / predestination are both unfalsifiable. Which is why they fall into religion rather than science.
posted by musofire at 10:17 AM on March 26, 2010


You know how your favourite movie ends, but sometimes you still watch it for fun.
posted by Behemoth at 10:18 AM on March 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


This sounds similar to the Omnipotence paradox.

From wikipedia:
One version of the omnipotence paradox is the so-called paradox of the stone: "Could [an omnipotent being] create a stone so heavy that even that being could not lift it?" If so, then it seems that the being could cease to be omnipotent; if not, it seems that the being was not omnipotent to begin with.
posted by rancidchickn at 10:18 AM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I see my son climbing up the back of the couch, I know he is going to fall off and probably bonk his head but I let him make the choice to go over that edge because that's how he'll learn. No matter how many times I tell him that he will fall it doesn't sink in until he does it himself. (Don't worry, we have a short couch and cushy carpeting.)

That's why we're here, to learn for ourselves. God knows the decisions that we will make, but he lets us make them for our own good. So that we learn the lessons. God didn't put us here for his entertainment, it's for our own growth and development as beings.

(This is what I believe, you can take it or leave it.)
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:25 AM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


[b]I see my son climbing up the back of the couch, I know he is going to fall off and probably bonk his head[/b]

This is actually kind of a bad example, because you don't know this. You only think you know this.

This is, imo, not a question that metafilter can answer. So far, this isn't a question that *metaphysics* can answer.
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:34 AM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


A very good friend of mine uses this analogy: God is not an angry bigot with binoculars and a grudge, watching every human being on the planet, keeping score of their good deeds or transgressions, listening for prayers, or deciding to give someone a car accident or a million dollars for retribution, reward, or to fit some divine master plan. Rather, God is like your parents when you were little, when they'd get you ready for school, say "Ok, have a good day!" and send you out the door on your own.
posted by usonian at 10:35 AM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's my analogy.

A father knows his son very well. A father has watched his son grow up and seen the choices and decisions that he makes. When presented with a situation a father knows what choice his son will make. Just because the father knows his son will make the choice, doesn't limit the free will of the son to make said choice.

That is all.
posted by lakerk at 10:39 AM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


TooFewShoes, I think you are missing something:

If it's IMPOSSIBLE for your son to follow your directions -- ff, whether he wants to or not, he's GOING to climb up the couch -- then he doesn't have free will (in terms of choosing to climb or not climb the couch). He may feel like he does, but he doesn't. He's fated to climb the couch.

If it's POSSIBLE for him to EITHER climb the couch or not, then he DOES have free will.

Which is it?

If you decide that it is possible, then why? If you don't say why, then all you're doing is saying, "I don't know, but I believe he does." In other words, you're just saying you believe in free will. Which isn't answering the question. It's just stating your belief.

Saying that God gave us free will so that we can learn is not answering the question either. That's just explaining -- in your opinion -- WHY God gave it to us. Not how it's POSSIBLE that He COULD have given it to us when he has perfect knowledge of our future.

It's a serious problem. If you construct a machine that will always roll across the floor and crash into the wall -- and if you KNOW that's what it's going to do, because, given its mechanics, there's no way it can do anything else -- then how can it also be true that the machine can choose to not bump into the wall?
posted by grumblebee at 10:48 AM on March 26, 2010


It's a matter of perspective. Think of free will as an illusion; that is, people believe they have it, while simultaneously, in God's eyes, everything has been pre-planned. Analogously, the characters in Avatar behave as if they have this thing so-called "free-will", but their creator, James Cameron, had already scripted out their actions in advance. At the risk of venturing towards handwavy pseudo-science, check out wikipedia's 9th definition of Complementarity.

Ofc, the problem becomes trivial if one supposes that nothing in the universe is omnipotent or omniscient. That is, there is no such God.
posted by polymodus at 10:49 AM on March 26, 2010


Just because the father knows his son will make the choice, doesn't limit the free will of the son to make said choice.

It does.

Let's say he says, "Son, I KNOW you are going to get drunk tonight."

Is it possible for the son to NOT get drunk, in defiance of his father's prediction? If so, then the father DOESN'T know everything about his son. If not, then the son doesn't have free will. He is fated to get drunk and he will always choose to do so.
posted by grumblebee at 10:51 AM on March 26, 2010


Think of free will as an illusion

I don't think that's compatible with any kind of Christian view since you're basically saying there is no free will.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:52 AM on March 26, 2010


Part of the issue with this question is that free-will is ill-defined. Omniscience/omnipotence is easy to define, but people don't really agree on a definition of "free will".
posted by polymodus at 10:54 AM on March 26, 2010


Just because someone knows doesn't mean they are the only making you do it.

Take God out of the equation. Take the person who knows what you are going to do out of the equation. You will live your life making choices. Pop that God back in there.

With or without it you have free will.
posted by lakerk at 10:54 AM on March 26, 2010


the problem becomes trivial if one supposes that nothing in the universe is omnipotent or omniscient. That is, there is no such God.

Arg. I don't mean to disagree with everyone in this thread, but... I guess I disagree with everyone in this thread. It really doesn't matter if God exists or not. The UNIVERSE might be omniscient in the sense that physical laws might be predetermined and binding. If so, we can't possibly have free will, unless there's some part of us that ISN'T bound by physics.

Even if we inject randomness via quantum effects, the problem doesn't necessarily go away. First of all, the randomness may average out at our scale. Secondly, random is not what most of us mean by free choice. Free choice isn't a dice role. It's some conscious force making a decision that COULD have make the opposite decision.
posted by grumblebee at 10:54 AM on March 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


A lot of philosophers and theologians have struggled with this. I did a paper on Augustine a few years ago about this issue, he thought you could, I disagree. That doesn't mean there aren't good arguments for it, I just don't buy them. When I read them I went "okay I see how you reach your conclusion, but c'mon really" whereas when I read arguments that opposed I went "oh yeah totally".

RustyBrooks is right. So far no one has answered this to the point that people have stopped arguing about it. I recommend going with what I did. When you read arguments about it just go with the one that makes you go "oh yeah totally."
posted by philcliff at 10:55 AM on March 26, 2010


By the way, it's NOT true that Christians believe in Free Will. Some do, some don't. There are whole sects that have rejected or partially rejected it. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will_in_theology
posted by grumblebee at 10:57 AM on March 26, 2010


This is how I interpret it, and it seems to me they are not in conflict.

Every time you need to make a decision, you have several options. This creates
a decision tree. Say if you have 3 options for a particular decision, then each option
in turn will pose further down the road another 3 (or many) options. Thus the decision
tree. This tree represents the infinite number of choices you can make, and the possible outcomes. God does not "force" you to choose. This is your free will. He knows all the possible options and outcomes, but its your choosing.
posted by theKik at 10:57 AM on March 26, 2010


First of all, omnipotent is not an issue. Just because something is all powerful doesn't mean that it has to use that power at all times.

If God is omniscient then he knows...all the possible...outcomes of any system he puts in place at the point he puts it in place.

God *could* choose to override free will entirely and therefore know which particular outcome will be arrived at, but that doesn't mean he does.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:00 AM on March 26, 2010


you're basically saying there is no free will.

I'm not saying that here. Illusions are real in the same way that abstract thoughts are real; both exist and we talk about them, use them, and are affected by them.
posted by polymodus at 11:00 AM on March 26, 2010


Read Boethius. Actually, don't read him, he's boring...I'm sum him up for you here.

This is a question that has plagued Christianity since the beginning, since they've been so insistent on a timeless, all-knowing, all-seeing God. Boethius (who was not necessarily a Christian, but probably so) posited this question in The Consolation of Philosophy, and the answered he gave was something called "divine foreknowledge".

Basically, God knows everything that will happen throughout time, but he plays no active part (short of miracles) to shape what will happen. So even though he knows that person A is a sinner and person B a saint, the decisions A and B make are purely their own (again, with divine intervention breaking the rules). Behemoth's description of watching a movie is actually quite apt.

There are, of course, many issues with this model. The first is that it does not make room for what we would call "multiple pathways" or "multiple universes". It assumes that person A and person B would make the same choices in life no matter how many runs they had at it. They sort of flies in the face of our modern belief in free will (where we regret decisions we made and vow we would make them differently if given the chance). The second major issue is that, since God created the universe, he actually did make the "movie" that he is now watching, which sort of destroys the whole argument.

It's a complicated issue with no real solution, really. But Boethius' had legs for a long time until the Reformation came and people starting getting new ideas.
posted by hiteleven at 11:00 AM on March 26, 2010


Just because someone knows doesn't mean they are the only making you do it.

If they KNOW -- if they know in an absolute sense, rather than just suspect or predict -- that means there no way you could possibly make a different choice. It doesn't matter who or what is making you do it.

Most definitions of free will I've heard claim that presented with choices A and B, even though I chose A, I COULD have chosen B.

But if someone knows ahead of time that I'm going to choose A, and there's no possible way that person could be wrong, then there's no possible way I could have chosen B. I was pre-rigged to choose B.
posted by grumblebee at 11:01 AM on March 26, 2010


God does not "force" you to choose. This is your free will. He knows all the possible options and outcomes, but its your choosing.

So you're saying that God knows that I can turn left or right, and He knows what will happen if I turn left and what will happen if I turn right, but He doesn't know which way I will turn?

If so, he's not omniscient. So you've "solved" the problem by rejecting its premise.
posted by grumblebee at 11:04 AM on March 26, 2010


Check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry "Free Will". It recommends Pink's book Free Will: A Very Short Introduction for further reading.
posted by Jahaza at 11:04 AM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


If God is omniscient then he knows...all the possible...outcomes of any system he puts in place at the point he puts it in place.

God *could* choose to override free will entirely and therefore know which particular outcome will be arrived at, but that doesn't mean he does.


You're confusing omniscient and omnipotent. The former means that he knows everything. He knows what you're going to do. In a sense (in his mind's model of the world), you have already done it. He's just watching a movie (that he's seen before) play out the way He knows it's going to play out, and He's never surprised.

Omniscient doesn't mean He can choose to know everything if he feels like it. It means that He DOES know everything.
posted by grumblebee at 11:07 AM on March 26, 2010


For me this question goes back to Cain and Abel. God knew that Cain would not love him as much as Abel and that Cain would kill him out of envy.

Yet he chastised Cain in advance [withholding grace] for not loving him as much [not accepting his offering because it was not his firstfruits] and suffered the eventual outcome of the first murder.

The universe is too elegantly designed for there not to be a Creator. Even a rudimentary understanding of molecular biology would lead you to understand that this isn't just all a big, happy mistake randomly spinning us all around out of serendipity.

Just because we don't understand how God thinks doesn't mean He doesn't exist.
posted by AuntieRuth at 11:08 AM on March 26, 2010


For the record John Calvin took Boethius' arguments (channeled through Augustine, who was always a bit vague on the issue himself) to their logical conclusion, and posited that there was indeed an "elect" that had been preordained to go into heaven when God created the universe, while the rest of us were just screwed. I'm not sure if he ever denied the existence of free will outright, but it becomes kind of moot at this point (since getting into heaven was basically the point of life).

Some scholars such as Charles Derber even think that the Calvinist/Puritan streak in American life paradoxically led to consumerist culture. At a certain point, the theory goes, it became fashionable to believe that the ability to afford and put on display a lot of possessions was a good sign that God favoured you and you were a member of the elect. So it's like, if Joe and Mary down the street can afford a 70" HDTV and mine's only a 40", it's about 30" more likely that they are members of the elect.
posted by hiteleven at 11:09 AM on March 26, 2010


I'm an atheist, but I suppose I don't see any logical inconsistency with the Christian position, though it certainly has been criticized historically. An omniscient Being that is capable of predicting all future human decisions does not preclude the fact that those decisions may be chosen freely. I say this because I assume that our understanding of temporal linearity may not apply to a truly omniscient being- what if said being experienced time as an amalgamation of all possible temporal states of the universe, rather than through any particular temporal perspective? The experience of the passage of time may be a distinctly human phenomenon.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 11:09 AM on March 26, 2010


There are three traditional models: Hard determinism, soft determinism, and free will. In hard determinism, God knows everything, it merely appears we have free will. In the free-will world, God forgoes future knowledge (i.e., isn't omniscient) so that we can have free choices. In soft determinism, you ACTUALLY have free will and ACTUALLY make free choices, but God AT THE SAME TIME knows everything that is going to happen. (This is exactly as it appears: a compromise position that allows you to have both, and that strikes many people as nonsense.) Allow me to metaphorize: (It's not a perfect metaphor but I think it helps.)

Hard determinism is a scripted movie. The actors are following scripts, they SEEM to us in the audience to be making choices, but in fact someone wrote the script and they were ALWAYS going to say those lines and do those things. If we were God, we could go unroll the movie (this is an old-time film movie) and see how everything is going to happen, but even more than that, if we were God, we wrote the script and predetermined it all.

Soft determinism is a documentary. The people on the screen ARE actually making choices about what they're doing. It's not pre-scripted. BUT if we were God, we could go unroll the movie reel and see how it's all going to end. It's never going to end differently, things will never happen differently, but the people in the documentary actually do make those choices -- but those choices can never be different.

Free will is improv theater. It's not LIMITLESSLY free -- you're not going to turn off gravity, for example, and chances are good that people will respond to presented situations in certain ways that make sense, and some of us can predict it pretty well -- but it's going to end differently every night and not be the same twice. No one knows how it'll end, there's no film reel to look ahead on.

A couple of modern additions posit God as a quantum computer -- God doesn't know what you'll choose, but God knows all possible outcomes of all possible choices (like a chess computer) and therefore has perfect foreknowledge anyway (but that leaves us with God still not omniscience because he doesn't know your specific choice -- that may or may not be a problem for you) -- or a quantum universe where each choice is both made and not made, spawning new universes each time, and God keeps track of them all.

Soft determinism is a fairly traditional Catholic view; I gotta tell you I thought it was crap way back when I was 7 years old and the nuns explained it to me for First Communion, but plenty of people find it intellectually satisfying and robust. (When I teach this to my intro philosophy classes, they're usually pretty evenly split on whether soft determinism is plausible or not.)

Sometimes, however, "free will" isn't being used in exactly that sense in theology; when Luther talks about free will, for example, he sometimes means the freedom to conform your will to God's and then live free from sin. Sometimes a theologian will be talking about multiple senses of the idea and a modern reader can get confused being just familiar with the idea of free choice ... or sometimes a theologian is just intellectually sloppy.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:11 AM on March 26, 2010 [9 favorites]


Also keep in mind that, as a detached non-believer, I'm giving you the scholarly, doctrinal answers to your question. Clearly individual people hold their own personal beliefs that do not necessarily accord with official doctrine (and probably kick Boethius' ideas' ass anyway).
posted by hiteleven at 11:12 AM on March 26, 2010


An omniscient Being that is capable of predicting all future human decisions does not preclude the fact that those decisions may be chosen freely.

I was thinking about this while you were writing it… The problem here is that there exists an interaction point between God and humans, namely our "creation". That is, that point set in stone all our past/present/future choices. He doesn't have to actively interfere or measure us because he defined our initial conditions.
posted by polymodus at 11:15 AM on March 26, 2010


It's a complicated issue with no real solution, really.

I think that depends on your goal. If your goal is to figure out a way to reconcile a deterministic universe with free will, then, I agree, there is no solution, because it's impossible.

People (in this thread and elsewhere) "solve" it by fudging. They say things like, "well, there's something in us that stands outside the laws of physics" or "God knows all the possible choices we might make, but the choices are ours." Those are fine things to believe, but they fudge the problem, because they posit a PARTLY-deterministic universe. Which is not what the original problem stated.

It's like asking how we can divide six slices of pizza between seven people and then saying, "Well, maybe one of those people doesn't like pizza." Fine, but that's fudging the problem.

If you ask, "how can we reconcile...?" then you're stacking the deck to begin with. You're assuming it's possible to do so, and we just need a smart person to point the way. That's an iffy sort of reasoning. It's like asking, "how can we build a perpetual-motion machine?" The more objective question -- the one less likely to be infused with bias and fudging is -- is it POSSIBLE to build a perpetual-motion machine? At the very least, you should ask that question first, before asking, "Well, since we've concluded that it IS possible, how can be build one?"

IS it possible to build a machine that is constructed to turn left and that can never possibly turn right -- and then to reasonably say that the machine COULD possibly turn right?

That's not a hard question to answer. It may be hard to live with the answer.
posted by grumblebee at 11:18 AM on March 26, 2010


The universe is too elegantly designed for there not to be a Creator. Even a rudimentary understanding of molecular biology would lead you to understand that this isn't just all a big, happy mistake randomly spinning us all around out of serendipity.

Just because we don't understand how God thinks doesn't mean He doesn't exist.


You do realize that the question isn't "Does God exist?" don't you?
posted by grumblebee at 11:19 AM on March 26, 2010


So you're saying that God knows that I can turn left or right, and He knows what will happen if I turn left and what will happen if I turn right, but He doesn't know which way I will turn?

If so, he's not omniscient. So you've "solved" the problem by rejecting its premise.


No. HabeasCorpus has answered this in a clear, succint way. Our concept of "knowledge" is restricted by our linearity, or said in other words, single-dimensionality. That's how we view or perceive the world. If you try to view knowledge in a multi-dimensional context, then you are not rejecting the premise at all. Omniscience is difficult for us to understand exactly because of this.
posted by theKik at 11:20 AM on March 26, 2010


people in the documentary actually do make those choices -- but those choices can never be different.

What do you mean by "choice"?
posted by grumblebee at 11:23 AM on March 26, 2010


Are free will and an omnipotent/omniscient God possible in the same universe?

Let's forget Free Will for a moment. Is an omnipotent/omniscisent God possible?

Rational solutions to theological questions: Blood, stone.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:25 AM on March 26, 2010


No. HabeasCorpus has answered this in a clear, succint way. Our concept of "knowledge" is restricted by our linearity, or said in other words, single-dimensionality. That's how we view or perceive the world. If you try to view knowledge in a multi-dimensional context, then you are not rejecting the premise at all. Omniscience is difficult for us to understand exactly because of this.

Okay, so is the idea that I could take path A, B, C and D, and that God knows what will happen in any of those cases? That, in his multi-linear existence, I take all those paths? He's reading a choose-your-own-adventure story and looking at all the possible endings?

Fine. But somewhere there's MY me, and I go down one of those paths. Let's say I take path C. Does God know that the C-path-taking-version-of-me is going to take path C? If so -- if that me is bound to take that path -- then he doesn't have free will. If God doesn't know which path that will take, then He's not omniscient.

Or if you're saying that there aren't multiple mes. If somehow, the same me takes all those paths at once, then I still don't see where choice comes into it. Choice is gone if I do everything. Choice implies NOT doing certain things and doing others instead.
posted by grumblebee at 11:28 AM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Let's forget Free Will for a moment. Is an omnipotent/omniscisent God possible?

No, omniscience/omnipotence is not practically possible, but may I cautiously suggest that it may be an interesting/provocative exercise to reason through a hypothetical. That's what's being attempted here. In fact I think there might be a phrase for it, with "armchair" somewhere in it.
posted by polymodus at 11:44 AM on March 26, 2010


it may be an interesting/provocative exercise to reason through a hypothetical.

It's useful if you think doing math problems is useful. There aren't really digits floating around in the air.
posted by grumblebee at 11:46 AM on March 26, 2010


??? Neither interesting nor provocative imply useful. Not sure what you're getting at.

Also, remember that mathematics isn't about just digits; digits are occasionally used to represent mathematical ideas.
posted by polymodus at 11:52 AM on March 26, 2010


Right, but math problems are often about hypotheticals. 1 + 1 = 2 means, "suppose I have one of something and add in another something..." If someone asks for answers to a math problem on Askme, I doubt anyone will accuse them of sitting in an armchair.

There's no "armchair" in chatfilter.

My understanding is that "chatfilter" is a question that can only be answered by opinion, and that there's no possible way to value one opinion over another. The OP didn't ask whether or not people believe in free will. He asked how one might reconcile free will and (divine) determinism.

There is a ton of literature about this, which can be cited, and various logical ways to answer it.
posted by grumblebee at 12:01 PM on March 26, 2010


Ofc, the problem becomes trivial if one supposes that nothing in the universe is omnipotent or omniscient. That is, there is no such God.

No, the problem is anything but trivial, and even without God a similar question exists: is free will compatible with a deterministic (or even probabilistic) universe? If you want to explore that, you might start at compatibilism and arguments for incompatibilism.

Let's forget Free Will for a moment. Is an omnipotent/omniscisent God possible?

Let's forget God for a moment. Is Free Will possible?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:04 PM on March 26, 2010


grumblebee wrote...
God *could* choose to override free will entirely and therefore know which particular outcome will be arrived at, but that doesn't mean he does.
[...]He's just watching a movie (that he's seen before) play out the way He knows it's going to play out, and He's never surprised.

Well that just takes you back to rock-he-can't-lift territory in the guise of can-he-surprise-himself. My answer is yes, he can choose to.

Otherwise the proposed lack of free will applies to God as well.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:18 PM on March 26, 2010


[few comments removed - comments really need to address the original question and not just sass other commenters]
posted by jessamyn at 12:19 PM on March 26, 2010


In these discussions (indeed, in this one), people tend to confuse choice with free choice. You see this when people say things like, "God knows what we are going to do, but we are the ones who choose to do it." That sounds like it answers the question, but it might just be saying something like "I know that the marble is going to roll downhill, but I'm not doing the rolling -- the marble is doing that."

Presumably, most people -- whether or not they believe in free will -- think that, when Fred chooses a vanilla ice-cream cone over a chocolate one -- it is HE who is reaching out his hand to grab the cone, and it is his brain that is motivating him to do so.

If you define "free choice" as actions or decisions directly prompted by the individuals brain, then you have an easy out. But I don't think that's all we mean by free choice when we use it normally.

When we're trying to figure out if a murderer is responsible for his actions, we're not trying to figure out whether or not the impulse to murder came from his brain or not. We know it did. But that in itself is not sufficient for us to feel sure that he acted freely. The question is, could his brain have chosen differently?

So, yes, Fred's brain prompted him to take the vanilla cone rather than the chocolate one, but that's only FREE will if his brain COULD have chosen chocolate.

You don't have to accept that definition of free will if you don't want to, but not doing so is a bit scary. If all something needs to be free is to be internally motivated, then we can genetically alter people so that they want to be slaves. So that there's no way they can ever want to not be slaves. Then we can say, "Hey, would you like to be my slave?" And when they say, "Sure!" we can say, "See. He made a free choice!"
posted by grumblebee at 12:23 PM on March 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


No, the problem is anything but trivial, and even without God

This is a different problem from the OP. To clarify, if you take God out of the equation, the OP's question does become trivial.
posted by polymodus at 12:23 PM on March 26, 2010


Well that just takes you back to rock-he-can't-lift territory in the guise of can-he-surprise-himself. My answer is yes, he can choose to.

IF He chooses to be surprised, then, by definition, he's not omniscient. Which invalidates the whole question. The question assumes that he IS omniscient. Of course, you are totally free to believe that He is omniscient, isn't omniscient or can choose to be either way, but you MUST assume that He is omniscient -- that He's never surprised -- in this thread, or you're not answering the question, which is "Are free will and an omnipotent/omniscient God possible in the same universe?"
posted by grumblebee at 12:30 PM on March 26, 2010


if you take God out of the equation, the OP's question does become trivial.

No, it just negates his whole question. My question about my cat's dandruff problem does not become trivial if you take dandruff out of the equation. If you take dandruff out, my question ceases to exist.

Questions VERY SIMILAR to this can be expressed without positing God. But since they can be posed with or without God, we should stick with God, because He IS a part of the OP's original question.
posted by grumblebee at 12:33 PM on March 26, 2010


The universe is too elegantly designed for there not to be a Creator.

Well, I find the universe somewhat beautiful, albeit in an ugly way. I don't find it to be particularly elegant, at all. Nevertheless, the OP's question does not require the existence of a God or variant of Great Maker. The bigger problem is finding a definition/meaning of God that people can even agree upon, and symmetrically, a satisfactory definition of free will; the OP's question leaves these tasks implicit.
posted by polymodus at 12:36 PM on March 26, 2010


negates (Yes, negate is a better word. I should have used that instead.)
posted by polymodus at 12:37 PM on March 26, 2010


The bigger problem is finding a definition/meaning of God that people can even agree upon

I think this is a definition that suffices for this particular question:

God is a being that knows everything that is every going to happen to you, definitively, down to the most minute detail (e.g. atoms), and there's no possibility he can ever be wrong or surprised about what's going to happen to you or what you will do. And He knew all of this before you were born.

Given such a God, does it makes sense to say that you have free will?
posted by grumblebee at 12:49 PM on March 26, 2010


To me omniscience means He knows every single thing that will ever happen because he planned it that way. Hence the Christian certainty of The Book of Revelation.

Every single thing that will ever happen has been preordained since God is free to act or not act to accomplish His will. Since no other being has ever made a reasonable claim of omniscience-- you can't question the problems of free will and determinism without questioning whether we have a divine being who is the source and sum of everything.
posted by AuntieRuth at 12:54 PM on March 26, 2010


You asked for the philosophical opinions of Mefites on free will and omniscience, so here's mine: god -- all gods -- are completely and totally imaginary. The only forces that have any bearing on your life are your choices, in some cases the choices of others, and random chaos. Believe all you want -- most of the world does -- but really there is no supernatural force watching over you or moving you around an earthly chessboard.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 12:54 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of the most closely reasoned, and philosophically interesting, attempts to reconcile divine omnipotence and human freewill was made by the Spanish Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina (1535-1600). Molina starts off by arguing that God has two main types of knowledge. On the one hand, there is his 'natural knowledge', i.e. his knowledge of everything which he could bring into being, and every possible course of action which he could cause to happen. On the other hand, there is his 'free knowledge', i.e. his knowledge of things as they actually do happen. His natural knowledge derives from his omnipotence; his free knowledge derives from the workings of human freewill. The question, then, is how to reconcile the two?

Molina solves this problem, at least to his own satisfaction, by positing a third kind of divine knowledge. This is called middle knowledge (scientia media), which is basically God's knowledge of counterfactuals: if (x) had happened, then (y) would have happened. The classic example of this is Jesus's statement (Matthew 11:23) that if the mighty works done in Capernaum had been done in Sodom, then Sodom would not have been destroyed. What does this mean? It means that in other circumstances (in an alternate universe, if you like), the inhabitants of Sodom could have chosen to repent: therefore human freewill exists. But in reality (in our own universe), God arranged the pattern of events to ensure that they didn't: therefore it presents no challenge to divine omnipotence.

In recent years this argument has been reformulated by the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, and if you're really interested in this issue then I recommend starting with Plantinga and going on from there. According to Wikipedia (and as we all know, Wikipedia is never wrong), Plantinga's freewill defence 'has received widespread acceptance among contemporary philosophers'. YMMV.
posted by verstegan at 12:55 PM on March 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'd just like to repeat this for emphasis:

In these discussions (indeed, in this one), people tend to confuse choice with free choice. You see this when people say things like, "God knows what we are going to do, but we are the ones who choose to do it." That sounds like it answers the question, but it might just be saying something like "I know that the marble is going to roll downhill, but I'm not doing the rolling -- the marble is doing that."

I wish this could be copied-and-pasted in every single free will discussion, since this seems to be a persistent confusion.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:05 PM on March 26, 2010


Every single thing that will ever happen has been preordained since God is free to act or not act to accomplish His will. Since no other being has ever made a reasonable claim of omniscience-- you can't question the problems of free will and determinism without questioning whether we have a divine being who is the source and sum of everything.

AuntieRuth, the question isn't about whether or not God has free will, it's about whether or not WE have free will.

It's completely consistent to say "we have no free will and God is a divine being who is the source and sum of everything." How is that a contradiction? Are you saying God HAD to create beings with free will? That He couldn't have created beings without free will, even if He wanted to? If so, then he's not all powerful.
posted by grumblebee at 1:07 PM on March 26, 2010


You asked for the philosophical opinions of Mefites on free will and omniscience, so here's mine: god -- all gods -- are completely and totally imaginary.

This is NOT what was asked, and yours is not a valid answer. Your answer is just like saying, "buy a Mac" to someone who asks how to fix a problem with his PC.

Here is the question, again, for reference: Are free will and an omnipotent/omniscient God possible in the same universe?

I am an atheist and I could have asked this question. This question does not need God to actually exist (or not exist) in the real world. It's a question about whether two things are logically consistent with one another.

You and AuntieRuth are derailing. She is arguing for God's existence; you are arguing against it. Neither of those responses are apropos to the question.

If I ask "Can A and B co-exist in a room together?" Saying, "there's no such thing as B" does not answer the question. The only way that would be relevant is if B is inconceivable, even as an abstract idea. The notion of a being that knows all of history IS conceivable.

Another example, if I ask, "Which is bigger, the Starship Enterprise or Battlestar Galactica," saying "those are fictional" is NOT an appropriate answer.
posted by grumblebee at 1:15 PM on March 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is called middle knowledge (scientia media), which is basically God's knowledge of counterfactuals: if (x) had happened, then (y) would have happened.

Daniel Dennett makes a similar argument. That when we talk about choice, we mean that it's conceivable that a different me, in a parallel universe that is SIMILAR to ours, could have make a different choice than I just make.

We flipped a coin and I chose heads. I was destined (via God's knowledge or determinism) to choose heads. But it's very easy to imagine an alternate universe -- one that would only have to be slightly different from ours -- in which the me there chooses tails. And THAT is what we mean by free will.

We don't have free will when we have to totally rewrite the story of our lives, say going all the way back to our births and making ourselves have different parents or something, in order to get our alternates to choose tails. But if all we have to do is to cause a different neuron to fire or something else trivial like that, then we can think of it as free will.

To me, that's totally unsatisfying. When I (and I believe most people) talk about free will, I am not talking about alternate universes. I am talking about rewinding the universe we live in and seeing the same people, the second time around, choose differently, because they are totally free to do so.
posted by grumblebee at 1:26 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Are free will and an omnipotent/omniscient God possible in the same universe?

I'm casting a vote for "no"; grumblebee lays most of my arguments out above better than I could, but here's my personal summary of the argument.

If an omniscient being exists, it has to know what I'm going to do by the definition of omnisicent. You can branch off into alternate dimensions or look at quantum possibilities or whatnot, but it has to -- by definition of omniscience -- know what I am going to do.

Not alternate-universe me or quantum-possibility me. Me-me.

And if he knows what I'm going to do, even if I can't decide sitting here right now if I'm going to have chocolate or vanilla, it knows.

Since it knows what I will choose, my "free" choice is nothing but my illusion of freedom: I am going to choose vanilla, I was always going to choose vanilla, I have been since the moment of my birth on an inexorable unalterable path to choosing vanilla.

The fact that I'm sitting here going "hey, maybe chocolate" has no impact on my inevitable choice of vanilla.

God has seen that I will choose vanilla, or it is not omniscient.

I can only choose vanilla, or it is not omniscient.

If omniscience exists, free will is an illusion.
posted by Shepherd at 1:58 PM on March 26, 2010


Omnipotent, sure. A god could choose to leave some or all decisions up to us, thereby giving us at least some amount of free will.

Omniscient? Depends on how you define the terms. If the god knows what we will choose, but we don't know until we "decide", or even if we merely feel that we have a choice, are we "free"? Or if the god knows what everyone's going to do, but we can only foresee our own actions, not those of other people, are other people "free" as far as we can tell, and hence are we "free" on some level (the level of human interaction) but not "free" on another level (the level of the god)? Or can we never be "free" unless nobody, human or god, knows what we will choose? This isn't a philosophical question, it's a language puzzle. The answer depends on how you define "free will".

(Of course, so is the question about omnipotence, ultimately. IMO the answer for omnipotence is clear for any of the most common meanings of "omnipotence" and "free will". YMMV.)
posted by equalpants at 2:06 PM on March 26, 2010


I tried to read thorugh all the answers to see if anyone has contributed this, so forgive me if I copied your idea above and didn't give due credit.

The problem that gives rise to the paradox is our default definition of God. God is not this or that, God Is. Paul Tillich said it most concisely -- "God is not a being, but being itself." God calls himself I AM in Exodus. The name Yahweh means "to be."

When we imagine God as a bigger badder supernatural person with super powers, we naturally assume that she exists in time and is therefore subject to it. So we have questions like "Who created God?" and the paradox in question. These questions are paradoxical for a less developmentally advanced idea of what God is.

God doesn't "predict" anything because the very term implies impartial knowledge. God's "omniscience" is not the omniscience a Human would have. A Human with omniscience would see into a future in which he does not exist (yet) and, when he gets there, verify that he was right. To a God completely outside of time, this idea of omniscience is meaningless.

What if there is only the present moment, in which God (being) exists? And what if the past and present are constructs for us Humans to help us reflect and make decisions? Essentially faith, hope, and love are our bridges to the future. They allow us to act in the present moment to improve existence for others in a present moment to come. For us we experience this as time. But for God, it's all one big I AM. Alpha Omega. Yahweh (to be).

Yeah, this brings out a lot of other questions, but I cannot begin to summarize centuries of Christian theology into one AskMe post. Just suffice it to say the question is a paradox for the wrong God. The God I am talking about has his own different set. :)
posted by cross_impact at 2:33 PM on March 26, 2010


God doesn't "predict" anything because the very term implies impartial knowledge. God's "omniscience" is not the omniscience a Human would have. A Human with omniscience would see into a future in which he does not exist (yet) and, when he gets there, verify that he was right. To a God completely outside of time, this idea of omniscience is meaningless.

If a being with knowledge of all events exists "outside of time", then from that being's frame, there is no progression of time, and all events are simultaneous. From this frame, there is no meaningful free will.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:52 PM on March 26, 2010


Well said, Herr Robot.

If a deity is omniscient, it knows everything that ever was and ever will be in all universes at all times. There can be no uncertainty about any of it, or it's not omniscience. "I know you could choose to do a or b" is not omniscient unless I also know "...but you choose b, and then c and d follow...". "I'll let you choose a or b but will I will also deliberately choose not to know the outcome or interfere" isn't omniscient either.

The watered-down linguistic paternal gibberish ascribed to their deity by some of the posters above is no more omniscience than any of us have now: "Yeah, I'm omniscient. Yeah, I know everything there is to know about mr_roboto. He could order that Big Mac, or a cheeseburger, or he could walk out, or do anything at all because I gave him free will. See? He got beetroot on that burger. Didn't see it coming. Still omniscient, though."

As for this "but from God's perspective" twaddle: Hi, God here. (Prove me wrong.) I'm here to tell you about free will. It's not really free, because it's already happened from my perspective out here beyond the 10th dimension. And it's not really will, because I made you and everything around you and from my perspective, where I see all universes and all times at once, it's purely deterministic. What you call free will is an illusion created by a lack of information. Y'all have fun now. Except you - before I created the universe, which I knew I always would, I knew instantly (and had always known) that the atoms would clump together in a way that make you miserable. But I'm all-loving and want you to learn a lesson. I could just tell you, but...where was I? Oh, everywhere at once forever, that's right.

I'll leave you with this one: did I know Eve would eat the fruit in the Garden of Eden? If I did, then that's a bit of a dirty fucking setup, don't you think? If I didn't, then I didn't know as much about Eve as obiwanwasabi knows about his three-year old son, whose brain chemistry says he has no choice whatsoever about whether he'll take that slice of mango. Remember, it's not omniscience to say "I know you will eat it or you won't eat it but I don't know which." I'm 10th dimensional - I've already seen it happen in all possible universes.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:59 PM on March 26, 2010


What if there is only the present moment, in which God (being) exists?

Then He can see everything, all at once, that we experience as linear time. Which means that everything we experience as unfolding is, in-fact, known, the way that we can know how an entire machine works by peering down on it from above.

To a tiny bit of dust, being buffeted around in the machine, everything might feel random. The bit of dust might even feel like it is making choices, because it's unable to see the entire mechanism. It might be unable to see that the reason it "chose" to turn left was because a gear on the other side of the machine touched another gear which activated a switch which...

If everything we can "choose" is known, then we're not really choosing. We are, as they say, "carrying out God's plan."

Another useful metaphor: a comic strip. In the first panel, Nancy says, "I can't decide whether to go visit Sluggo today or to stay home and play whist with Aunt Fritzi." In the second panel, there's a light-bulb over her head. In the third panel, she's knocking on Sluggo's door.

We, as God, can look down from above and see all three panels at once. From our point-of-view, Nancy's world has no linear time. All its moments exist at once.

Now say we're Nancy, in the first panel. We have not yet made up our mind what we're going to do. We are trying to decide whether to stay home or visit Sluggo. Linear time feels very real for us. We haven't made our decision yet, but we will soon. When we make it, is there ANY possibility that we'll choose to stay home? Do we have the freedom to make that decision?

No, but we FEEL like we have it, because, unlike God, we can't see the second frame. We have no idea what we'll wind up doing. We can't see the conclusion that we'll inevitably come to.

Then we get to frame two, the lighbulb appears, we decide to go to Sluggo's and we think, "We just made a choice, and we know we did, because we remember sitting there, thinking that we had two options. We thought about them, weighed one against the other, and now we're doing one. But we COULD have done the other one."

No, we coudn't. God knows we couldn't, because he can always see the third panel, when we're knocking on Sluggo's door. That never changes. (Or, since to God, there isn't any change, it's more accurate to say, that third frame IS.)
posted by grumblebee at 4:04 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


First, I'd say that the omniscience of God is not necessarily a core Christian doctrine. I think that people who believe in omniscience have a real difficulty when it comes to making that doctrine line up with the scriptures. If God is omniscient, why not just start by creating Noah and his family? Why pick Saul to be the first king of Israel, when he wound up being such a loser? What was the point of asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, if God already knew that Abraham was trustworthy? I could go on and on and on. It's really hard to square omniscience with what actually happens in the scriptures. On the flip side, it's hard to find a verse that clearly claims that God is omniscient. In my opinion, the whole idea is an import from Hellenstic philosophy that causes more problems that it fixes.

I'm pretty much in the open theism camp myself. In short, I'd say that God knows everything that can be known, but the future is unknowable even to God. Having not happened yet, there is no knowledge to be had. In that case, free will is not a problem and God has the capacity even to be surprised, as he seems to be on numerous occasions in the Bible.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:50 PM on March 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


an omniscient God could set the conditions and change them, and know the result of doing so in all cases.

Your question right here answers it for you. You're asking about an absolute when the question has a "could" in it. Your question assumes that he does. No that he just "could" do.
posted by shesaysgo at 6:26 PM on March 26, 2010


a God completely outside of time

Which God is that? It's certainly not the Judeo-Christian one. (I seem to recall something important involving seven days....?)
posted by Sys Rq at 6:31 PM on March 26, 2010


Here is the (most common) Jewish answer to the question:

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, knows everything that will happen before it has happened. So does He know whether a particular person will be righteous or wicked, or not? If He does know, then it will be impossible for that person not to be righteous. If He knows that he will be righteous but that it is possible for him to be wicked, then He does not know everything that He has created. ...[T]he Holy One, Blessed Be He, does not have any temperaments and is outside such realms, unlike people, whose selves and temperaments are two separate things. God and His temperaments are one, and God's existence is beyond the comprehension of Man… [Thus] we do not have the capabilities to comprehend how the Holy One, Blessed Be He, knows all creations and events. [Nevertheless] know without doubt that people do what they want without the Holy One, Blessed Be He, forcing or decreeing upon them to do so... It has been said because of this that a man is judged according to all his actions. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Teshuva 5:5)

In other words, it IS contradictory that God can know everything before it happens and yet we can have free will. But God DOES know everything and we DO have free will. And the way to resolve this is to simply say that it's "beyond the comprehension of Man."

"God moves in mysterious ways."
posted by grumblebee at 6:38 PM on March 26, 2010


Which is a great benefit of being a theist (in many religions). If you believe in both determinism and free will, and you think they come from God, you can say, "Yup, it's a paradox, but God resolves it somehow -- in some mysterious way."

If you're an atheist determinist who believes in free will, you have to just say, "Golly. That IS totally irrational of me. I'll just try not to think about it."
posted by grumblebee at 6:41 PM on March 26, 2010


As you can tell from the answers, this is a question that has been struggled with for centuries, so despite AskMe's great ability to find answers, it is not going to solve this paradox. It does not directly address your question, but is closely related: does God have free will? Are bad things bad because God says so, or is God limited by a moral code that compels him to condemn certain acts? This question too goes back a long way, even before Christianity; it was initially formulated as the Euthyphro dilemma by Plato.

For myself and others, the rational impossibility of an truly omniscient and omnipotent deity was the first step toward questioning the existence of a god or gods altogether
posted by TedW at 7:34 AM on March 27, 2010


Just because a being knows everything and can do everything doesn't mean they have to do anything at all.
posted by RawrGulMuffins at 11:39 AM on March 27, 2010


"Could [an omnipotent being] create a stone so heavy that even that being could not lift it?"

(not making this up):
When I was young I worked on a farm. One of my co-workers was a laconic old farmer with a nuanced view of things. One day we were mucking out stables. I had just heard the rock problem on Monty Python recently.

"Can God create a Rock so big that he himself cannot lift it?"
"Sure." (not missing a beat)

I paused, then I stopped and leaned on my pitchfork,
"How can you explain that?!"
"Well, he's only human." (not missing a beat)
posted by ovvl at 3:12 PM on March 27, 2010


Just because a being knows everything and can do everything doesn't mean they have to do anything at all.

Right. But, apropos to this question, it does mean we can't have free will.
posted by grumblebee at 3:15 PM on March 27, 2010


Alright, if you insist that God must be a being. Then you're right, God's purported nature is very paradoxical indeed and logically inconsistent. So I, a devout Christian, join you in disbelief of the God you disbelieve too.

And of course it is also very easy to poke holes in scripture if you take everything literally, as if the writers were attempting some sort of historical and scientific record of God's action in the world. I agree that, if that's the way you insist on seeing it, scripture is pretty much riddled with ridiculous and fantastical notions. Like seven days to create the world. A big flood. Yeah.

It's very easy for an atheist to sharpen her claws on the faith of a nine-year-old (which admittedly many people never grow past). But some people grow past these notions and remain quite devoted to the God in whom they live and move and have their Being.
posted by cross_impact at 12:53 PM on March 30, 2010


Alright, if you insist that God must be a being. ...And of course it is also very easy to poke holes in scripture if you take everything literally...

Who is the "you" you're referring to? Not me*, I hope. I haven't said I thing about scripture. WHY are people debating the existence of God in this thread? It's not relevant. I know it's a topic folks are emotional about, but it really doesn't have anything to do with THIS question. And I say that to both the folks who are arguing that God does exist and the folks that are arguing that He doesn't. NOT RELEVANT.

This is a perfectly valid question: can Spiderman fly?

"Spiderman doesn't exist" is not relevant. He "exists" in a comic-book world, and the creators of that world have endowed him with certain powers and not with others. You can correctly say, "No, he can't fly (without the help of a web)," whether you believe he exists or not.

And I'm NOT saying that God is like Spiderman. I happen to be an atheist, but if I become a believer tomorrow, I will answer questions here exactly the same way. Because the answers have nothing to do with whether or not God exists.

Here's a rephrasing of the question that doesn't affect the answers in any way: let's say that there's a universe that is in a relationship with a being that is all-knowing and all-powerful. Given such a universe and such a being, is it possible that inhabitants of that universe could have free will?

* I assume you're talking to me, because my post was right before yours, and you didn't bother quoting someone before me. What makes you think I care about whether or not God exists. I don't. I never debate that. I never try to shatter anyone's faith. That would be cruel if I succeeded, and I doubt I would succeed. So at best, it would be a waste of my time. The debate pro-con God bores me to tears. I opt out. I also happen to think that it's better to be a theist than an atheist. I would become a believer if I could. I can't.
posted by grumblebee at 1:13 PM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sorry to imply the assumption that you were the object of my comments. I was replying to what I percieved as the consensus of the thread as a whole and was not sure how to do that properly.

I do believe God's existence is relevant to the question insomuch as the *way* we perceive God's existence contributes to the paradoxical nature of the question. The question is paradoxical based on certain assumptions about God (and free will for that matter) that are not necessary for faith. For some of us this question is a tempest in an overly-literal teapot.

I'll tell you what I tell every atheist/non-believer I meet. Fugeddaboutit. Way more important to be moral, caring, selfless, humble and loving than to "believe." If you strive earnestly to be the best human being you can be, you have all the 'faith' you need. In fact, some of the best Christians I know are atheists.
posted by cross_impact at 1:41 PM on March 30, 2010


Alright, if you insist that God must be a being.

For the purposes of this conception of God (typically referred to as a "personal god"), God has volition, awareness (i.e. knowledge of the world at least, usually also self-awareness), and the capability to perform actions. This is all that is meant by referring to God as a "being". I don't think you can take any of these characteristics away without rendering the concepts of "omnipotence" (i.e. the capability to perform any conceivable action) and "omniscience" (i.e. perfect awareness) meaningless.

I don't know why you're hung up on the word "being", but this is all that is meant by it.

I do believe God's existence is relevant to the question insomuch as the *way* we perceive God's existence contributes to the paradoxical nature of the question.

OK. So how does one perceive of God in such a way to avoid the paradox?

I think the paradox is pretty deeply tied to the concept of omniscience itself, and has little to do with the idea of God qua God. As grumblebee has repeatedly pointed out, the problem is with the conflict between determinism and free will. Omniscience is just a sort of proxy for determinism: perfect knowledge in a deterministic world. Substitute Laplace's demon for God and you have the same problem.

Pater Aletheias' argument (essentially, the future is unknowable) is interesting, but it basically rejects a deterministic world, which goes against a whole lot of our experience of causality.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:51 PM on March 30, 2010


OK. So how does one perceive of God in such a way to avoid the paradox?

No. That's bypassing the question, too. Here, again, is the question:

Are free will and an omnipotent/omniscient God possible in the same universe? [Emphasis added.]

cross_impact would have a point if the question was "are free will and God possible in the same universe." It would then make sense to say, "Well, what sort of God are you talking about?"

mr_roboto, I think the only way your question works, WITHIN THE OP'S CONTEXT, is to ask, "So how does one perceive of an omnipotent/omniscient God in such a way to avoid the paradox?"

If you take omnipotent/omniscient out of it, your response belongs in another thread.
posted by grumblebee at 1:59 PM on March 30, 2010


Are free will and an omnipotent/omniscient God possible in the same universe? [Emphasis added.]

Okay, point well taken grumblebee. The question presupposes a popular image of God and the question is whether the popular image of God can stand up to the paradox of free will.

The Catholic Encyclopedia gives an extensive consideration of this question including Dominican and Jesuit approaches to resolving the nature of Divine Knowledge so as to allow for free will. No proposed resolution is without its logical problems. All I can speak for is the Catholic approach, which is to accept that there are many things about God that are basically unknowable in the rationalist sense. Mystics have been beating this drum for centuries. Apophatic theology and all that.

Whichever way we turn we are bound ultimately to encounter a mystery, and, when there is a question of choosing between a theory which refers the mystery to God Himself and one which only saves the truth of human freedom by making free-will itself a mystery, most theologians naturally prefer the former alternative.

In other words, Catholics should apply the "mystery" label to God and accept free will as fact. For me, this question has always been a lens to examine our own "knowledge" of God and how we cling to particular images of him.

So, as I see it, it's like this

1 -- God is bascially the way he is popularly concieved.
2 -- God is omniscient
3 -- Humans have free will

Now, pick two.
posted by cross_impact at 10:26 AM on March 31, 2010


Now, pick two.

How? 2 and 3 are incompatible. "It is a mystery" is a profoundly unsatisfying attempt to resolve this dilemma. Unless by "it is a mystery" you mean that, mysteriously, God is not omniscient.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:32 AM on March 31, 2010


Actually, I don't even see how your concepts 1 and 2 are independent. God is popularly conceived as omniscient. You can't pick 1 without picking 2, and, with regards to omniscience (which is the point of this question), you can't pick 2 without picking 1. So really, you've given a list of three concepts which is really only a list of two concepts. And then said "pick two". And those two contradict.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:35 AM on March 31, 2010


That makes sense, except you can't pick these two (and claim to be making a logical/rational argument):

2 -- God is omniscient
3 -- Humans have free will

They aren't compatible with each other (for reasons explained ad nauseum, above).

Here are the choices you can make if you want to stay rational:

1. God IS omniscient and humans do NOT have free will.
2. God is NOT omniscient and humans HAVE free will.
3. God is NOT omniscient and humans do NOT have free will.

I guess some people would say you can do this:

1. God IS omniscient and yet humans do HAVE free will. That is a logical contradiction. It cam be resolved by the fact that "God moves in mysterious ways" and/or "free will moves in mysterious ways."

That's a cheat. (I am not saying that as an atheist. I'm saying it as someone with an understanding of conversational logic.) It may be that God (or free will) is partly unknowable, but you can't use that to claim that the statement above makes logic sense. You can use it to explain things to yourself WITHOUT being 100% rational. But if you insist on clinging to rationality, it's an unfair move.

It's like saying. "There's a way to make one plus one equal three. The way to do that is a mystery we'll never understand. See, I'm totally rational." There is nothing wrong with any of those statements individually, but they don't work together to show HOW one plus one could ever equal three or that it could. Rather, they explain something about the psychology of the speaker (that he reasons via a mix of logic, dogma and gut feeling, the way most of us do).

This is also similar to that famous joke which goes something like this:

1. come up with a great idea.
2. ???
3. profit.

Of course, the joke is that it LOOKS like you've found a way to make money, but, in fact, you haven't, because step two is unknown.

1. God is omniscient.
2. Humans have free will.
3. ???
4. Therefor, via step three, there's no contradiction between 1 and 2.

1. 1 + 1 = 3
2. This is possible, because.... ???????
3. See, it's possible!

The "cheat" version doesn't really ask a question. It starts with an assumption that free will DOES exist. It then says, "Can we explain how it's possible that it exists given an omniscient God? No. We can't. But it definitely exists."

A 100% rational person would say, "Well, since you can't explain how it exists (and since there's no way to observe it in nature, because everything it does can also be explained by determinism), the starting assumption is wrong. Free will may or may not exist."

In my experience, talking to many people (theists and atheists) about this subject, the overwhelming majority take it as an absolute given that free will exists. SOME of those people are then interested in HOW it's possible for it to exist, but almost no one starts from a totally open-minded view that it may or may not exist.

IF you insist that it exists, there are only two possible ways you can explain how it exists. The first is to come up with a logical argument that allows its existence.

If you can't, and you're open to it existing or not existing, you'll say, "Well, since I can't show that it must exist, it either doesn't exist or I'm going to be agnostic about it: MAYBE it exists, but I can't be sure."

But if you're dogmatic about it from the get-go, as most people are, then you CAN'T say it doesn't exist or that it might not exist. To you, it DOES exist. But since you can't explain why or how, you only have one other option: "it's a mystery."

It MUST exist, so the explanation for it is either knowable or a mystery. But there IS an explanation, and it DOES exist. If you meet someone who believes this (or acts like he does), and if he's open to discussion, ask him what would falsify his belief.

If you give up free will, you can still be religious, as there are religious traditions (even Christian ones) that don't need free will (or that even reject it). But you won't be able to align yourself with mainstream Christians (or Jews), because the average monotheist today DOES believe in it. (As does the average atheist. Try denying free will on an atheist message board and see what happens. You won't get as many people debating you as on a Christian board, but you will still get plenty!)

Our ethical and legal systems assume free will exists. And most people's gut understanding of the world assumes it, too.

So it's no wonder that most people take free will as axiomatic.

Most people also HATE being accused of irrationality (even though most people are at least sometimes irrational, and being so seems to be part of the human condition). So they are going to claim to hold firmly to this irrational belief and they are also going to swear right, left and sideways that they are not being irrational.

But in the end, it's simply not rational to say, "I am 100% sure that something exists, even though I can't explain why or how it exists -- nor can I measure it or point to it." It's more honest to say, "It may be irrational, but I believe it anyway."
posted by grumblebee at 11:52 AM on March 31, 2010


Yep, grumblebee, God does lead to logical contradictions. And I understand that for many people that is a deal breaker. I am one of the ones who say, "it may be irrational, but I believe it anyway."

Mainly because I embrace a concept of "truth" that extends beyond logical, rational, or scientific decidability. Overlapping maybe, because I believe human logic, science, and rational mind comes from God, but ultimately these things fail to capture everything. They have limits. And they are not the ultimate arbiters of truth. I know this is not exactly the popular modern notion.

If one can only believe in a God that can be conceived by the rational mind, a God that is subject to Human Reason and not the other way around, belief in God would seem to demand intellectual dishonesty, I agree.

But I also agree with Karen Armstrong that such a God who can fit into the Human mind is not worthy of Human devotion. Hence the futility of the effort to prove God "exists" because we are trying to enthrone a "rational" image of the wrong God.

St. Thomas Aquinas started with the assumptions that 1) "something exists" and that 2) this "something" comes from a "First Cause" and that 3) that first cause is intentional. These are all assumptions and cannot be proven. They are assumptions that are, more or less, the foundation of all modern Christian theology. They are beyond the ability to decide via science or logic. You can accept or not. I accept.
posted by cross_impact at 12:31 PM on March 31, 2010


Stop capitalising random words like Being and Human and Reason like you have some special insight into what they mean. It's not the same thing at all as having an actual argument, you know.

"A Giant Caterpillar Who Demands We All Bathe In Noodles Every Second Wednesday who can fit into the Tangerine Weasel's mind is not worth of Tangerine Weasel devotion."

"What? A giant caterp..."

"No. A Giant Caterpillar."

"Oh. Yes, it all makes sense now. My bad for not using capital letters to designate concepts I don't have to explain and which don't need to have any basis in reality to be real."
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:05 PM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


If an omniscient god exists and encompasses everything, would it be reasonable to assume that his form and everything that makes him up would be something like love or compassion? Now true love has no limits or impositions on the other, so god wouldn't try to influence or manipulate us through fear of hell or promise of eternal heaven he would just be accepting of us in whatever we do.

So if god is all encompassing then why aren't we acting as beings of love/compassion too. If we are inside his form then we should be made of what he is, so is it possible that we are also omniscient on some level? If so then we also have the power to create, and because our creator loves us so and thus allows us to do as we please, the issue of free will can be brought back to just one choice we make in everything we do - will we act in the same love of god or will we act against him? To be or not to be (love) that is the question(thanks shakespeare, thats not a bad line at all). If you can find the light of true love that is within you, not accepting whatever has influenced you until now to make your decisions you will have your answer.
posted by parryb at 3:05 PM on May 29, 2010


parryb, I want to be clear that nothing I'm about to say implies that God CAN'T be what you say he is. I'm just responding to your logic, which I flawed.


If an omniscient god exists and encompasses everything, would it be reasonable to assume that his form and everything that makes him up would be something like love or compassion?


No. How does love/compassion follow from omniscient/all-encompassing? Those traits neither necessarily lead to love nor hate nor indifference. Most religious people recognize this. That's why they say they believe in an "all powerful AND loving" God. They don't say "all powerful, which of course means that He's also all loving."

Let's say that science one day gets so good that I'll be able to understand everything that goes on inside my body. So I'll be omniscient about my body and I'll also encompass it. That does necessarily mean I'll love it. I might love it. I might hate it. I might be indifferent to it. I might love parts of it, hate parts of it and be indifferent to parts of it.

Now true love has no limits or impositions on the other, so god wouldn't try to influence or manipulate us through fear of hell or promise of eternal heaven he would just be accepting of us in whatever we do.

Many parents would say that they have true love for their kids, and that's WHY they impose all sorts of rules (like six-year-old Bobby is not allowed to drink rum). They will, if necessary, use fear of punishment to keep their kid safe.

so is it possible that we are also omniscient on some level?

Omniscient is binary. You're either omniscient or your not. There can't be levels of omniscient. I am definitely not omniscient. I have no idea what's going to happen tomorrow, and I have no idea why your social-security number is.

If we are inside his form then we should be made of what he is,

My car has a spark plug inside it, but that doesn't mean that a spark plug is like a car.

If so then we also have the power to create

To create what? There's no such thing as the power to create. There is only the power to create SOMETHING. In the Bible, God doesn't simply create. He creates THE HEAVENS AND THE UNIVERSE. He creates ANIMALS. He creates HUMANS, and so on.

Similarly, people create poems, buildings, guns and candy.

the issue of free will can be brought back to just one choice we make in everything we do - will we act in the same love of god or will we act against him?

I don't think you read the question carefully. You are saying that free will can boil down to just one choice: to love or to not love. But the OP didn't ask about what choice free will boils down to. He asked, "Are free will and an omnipotent/omniscient God possible in the same universe?"

The answer is no. And that answer has nothing to do with belief in God. It has to do with basic logic.

God and free will can co-exist.

An omnipotent God and free will can co-exist. (Because an all-powerful God can choose to not use some of his power and let us decide things on our own.)

An OMNISCIENT God and free will can NOT exist, for reasons stated over and over, above. Briefly, if God knows the future, then the future is set in stone. It may feel, to me, like I'm choosing to love -- or choosing not to love -- but I'm not. God already knows what choice I'm going to make, so my choice is set.

The OP knows what free will is (or thinks he does, but he's not asking for his definition to be challenged). He's asking whether or not it can exist given a God with certain properties. Rather than answering that question, you are giving him a definition of free will.
posted by grumblebee at 4:00 PM on May 29, 2010


Thanks grumblebee, you've well and truly taken apart my argument and I'm glad, no false foundation can be a good one. Now I get to reconsider.

No. How does love/compassion follow from omniscient/all-encompassing? Those traits neither necessarily lead to love nor hate nor indifference. Most religious people recognize this. That's why they say they believe in an "all powerful AND loving" God. They don't say "all powerful, which of course means that He's also all loving."

I guess in my definition of god I had already presumed that god is love because otherwise I wouldn't consider the object of discussion a god, but that is my definition and perhaps I need to find a more universal way to define god.

Let's say that science one day gets so good that I'll be able to understand everything that goes on inside my body. So I'll be omniscient about my body and I'll also encompass it. That does necessarily mean I'll love it. I might love it. I might hate it. I might be indifferent to it. I might love parts of it, hate parts of it and be indifferent to parts of it.

I would argue that if you understood your body experientially, rather than through theoretical learning ie if you felt your heart beating, the blood pulse through your veins, the food digest in your stomach etc and you could feel, know and understand why these things are going on in you're body it would be impossible at that moment to hold any judgement on the body. Judgement may arise if you began to compare yours to another but thats outside the scope of the metaphor for god.


Many parents would say that they have true love for their kids, and that's WHY they impose all sorts of rules (like six-year-old Bobby is not allowed to drink rum). They will, if necessary, use fear of punishment to keep their kid safe.


That's very true, however I would say that that is emotional love, whereas true love is beyond emotions and attachments.

Omniscient is binary. You're either omniscient or your not. There can't be levels of omniscient. I am definitely not omniscient. I have no idea what's going to happen tomorrow, and I have no idea why your social-security number is.

Ok, but if we are a soul (a direct point of contact with god) on one level and a mind and body on another and we are not in connection with that soul for whatever reason then we could 'forget' our omniscience.

If we are inside his form then we should be made of what he is,

My car has a spark plug inside it, but that doesn't mean that a spark plug is like a car.


I don't agree that this is an analagous statement. That would suppose that god isn't all encompassing. Rather, a sheet of metal and a section of that sheet of metal (even if it is painted a different colour) are the same. If I understand god as everywhere, beyond even an atomic scale, then there is no way I cannot be of the same thing as him

To create what? There's no such thing as the power to create. There is only the power to create SOMETHING. In the Bible, God doesn't simply create. He creates THE HEAVENS AND THE UNIVERSE. He creates ANIMALS. He creates HUMANS, and so on.

Point taken. If god had the power act in any way he chose, then we have the power to act in any way we choose.

I don't think you read the question carefully. You are saying that free will can boil down to just one choice: to love or to not love. But the OP didn't ask about what choice free will boils down to. He asked, "Are free will and an omnipotent/omniscient God possible in the same universe?"

The answer is no. And that answer has nothing to do with belief in God. It has to do with basic logic.

God and free will can co-exist.

An omnipotent God and free will can co-exist. (Because an all-powerful God can choose to not use some of his power and let us decide things on our own.)

An OMNISCIENT God and free will can NOT exist, for reasons stated over and over, above. Briefly, if God knows the future, then the future is set in stone. It may feel, to me, like I'm choosing to love -- or choosing not to love -- but I'm not. God already knows what choice I'm going to make, so my choice is set.

The OP knows what free will is (or thinks he does, but he's not asking for his definition to be challenged). He's asking whether or not it can exist given a God with certain properties. Rather than answering that question, you are giving him a definition of free will.


Sorry, I thought I was answering the question but I you're absolutely right, I missed the mark. Apologies to the OP aswell. For what its worth, I now agree completely that it's not possible for omniscience and free will.

Thanks again grumblebee.
posted by parryb at 6:22 PM on May 29, 2010


That was a gracious response, parryb, and I don't think apologies are necessary. I am pretty much a stickler for keeping AskMe posts on track, but this one has been dead for a while. So no harm done. I doubt many people are even reading it.

For reasons I don't understand this topic (free will) is really hard for people to keep straight in their heads. And I don't mean stupid people -- I mean really smart people, who normally have no trouble following a logical argument.

I've been discussing this with people for decades, and I've noticed it again and again. Since I like to discuss ideas in general, I've been discussing other things with people, too, but free will seems to be unique. For some reason, many people seem to find it a very slippery topic. They start talking about, but they end up talking about something else. I don't get it, because to me, it's simple.

It has deeply profound implications, but the logic itself -- of why you can't have an omniscient God and free will at the same time -- is simple. There are philosophers who disagree with me, but, when I discuss this with people, they don't bring up those disagreements. They just get totally off track. It's like free will has a deflector shield on it that stops people from being about to think about it and pushes them to think about something else.

Again, I am not implying that I am smart and they are dumb. I've discussed this with many, many smart people -- some smarter than me. It's just something about this particular topic.

If you look upthread, you'll see a succession of people getting off topic and me obnoxiously insisting, over and over, that they get back on. I felt like I was being obnoxious at the time. On the other hand, I felt like I was the only one safeguarding the original question.
posted by grumblebee at 8:01 PM on May 29, 2010


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