At first, the title’s question might seem ridiculous. What’s the problem with God having a will if He knows everything? But the issue becomes a little more complex when we realize two things:
- If God is omniscient, did He know what choices He made before He made them? But to know what choices He makes He must first make them – or they’re not choices and there was something He didn’t know and hadn’t decided yet. So the explanation becomes circular and the information comes out of nowhere (!).
- If God knows and creates all, that means there is only one way anything could’ve happened. In other words, there were never any possible alternatives to any path reality took; possibilities do not truly exist. So how can God have any “true” will if there was always only one way He could and would do anything without the possibility of any slight divergence?
These two questions are, of course, connected and the same response would answer both. But they are nuances that need to be dealt with separately.
To begin with, the words “before” and “could have” are temporal qualifiers and this is the crux of the issue. The problem arises not because of an incompatibility between God’s traditional Christian attributes and logic, as many of the old Deists and atheists concluded from this, but because these issues deal with topics that are outside the rules of causality; more specifically temporal causality.
A classic, but very oversimplified example of why causality is often a fallacious objection (or justification!) is to imagine a circle and ask: “Where does it start and end?” Anywhere you pick, of course, which in reality means nowhere and that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Similarly, at what “point” do two points on the number line “touch”? If a dot is mathematically 0-dimensional, how can it exist at all? This very question with is real-life application to black holes, whose singularity is literally 0-dimensional, is what caused Einstein to reject their very existence.
Causality and Time: The Monty Hall Problem
To illustrate that temporal causality is misleading and can lead to contradictions when mixed with the atemporal, consider this classic statistical exercise – the Monty Hall Problem:
You’re a contestant on a game show. There are three doors, behind one of which is a car you can win, and the other two each have a goat. You can pick any of the three doors. After you pick one, the host opens one of the other two doors that doesn’t have the car and you have the option of either staying with your current door or making a switch. What are the chances that switching the doors will win? 50%? No – 66% and 33% if you stay!
The fact that switching doors makes you twice as likely to win the car baffled so many people that many of them, including hundreds of PhD’s wrote back to the column writer saying she was dead wrong. Even a very famous mathematician remained unconvinced for a while.
God’s Omniscience vs His Will
What does any of this have to do with our original topic?
If we think about why the Monty Hall Problem has the solution it does, we will recognize that it is because of the factor of temporal causality. If we are asked to choose after the host has already opened one of the donkey-doors, our chances are, of course, 50%. But since we’ve already made a choice before he does this, meaning he can’t open our door if it does have a donkey, the chance is 33%-66%. The real-time scenario misleadingly causes us to suppose that if we pick Door 1 and it has the car, the host can then open either Door 2 or Door 3 an equal amount of times as when the car isn’t behind Door 1. But since you can only pick the car from the start in one way, whereas you can pick a goat in two different ways (simultaneous options), the atemporal statistics of opening Goat-Door 2 or 3 is not allowed an equal number of times as if you didn’t pick the Car-Door from the start (half as many exactly). This is somewhat related to the fact that something valid isn’t always necessarily true.
To put it a little more simply, but perhaps less convincingly, imagine the simple math equation: 2+2=4. It’s true in any universe (disregarding tricks like the Banzhaf Power Index). If you have 2 apples and you buy 2 more, you have 4. But do you need to physically buy and add the two apples for 2+2=4 to be true, apple-wise or not? 2+2=4 is a logical fact before any actual (temporal) action has happened. Yet it’s undeniable that we are adding the two 2’s to each other (atemporal causality), right? It’s exactly this relationship that can confuse and is ultimately rendered meaningless if we apply causality the way we understand it through experience.
To apply this to our first question, God can be omnipotent and have a will in the same way that 2+2=4 is true “before” and “after” the 2’s are technically added.
Do possibilities exist for God?
What everything above boils down to is that the implied premise that a will necessitates contingent options is untrue, not just for God but for anyone. This is because of the absence of time and not because of some illegitimate redefinition of ‘will’.
We can easily then ask, “How can God be omniscient in our universe?” Although God foreknew any choice He would make within our world and lifetime long before he created the universe, it would be incorrect to say that He is flowing through it like a river set upon its own course whenever He impacts it. Many times you can see God “changing” his mind and course of action depending upon the situation (=choices of the individuals in question); and this is not some mere euphemism or language from our point of view (or else God doesn’t have an actual will), but an actual change in every sense of the word. How then can Numbers 23:19’s famous description of God as One who “does not change His mind” be true? In the same way that in our Monty Hall example, the chances of one of two doors being the winner is 33%-66% temporally, yet at the same time, the same example being 50%-50% with respect to non-conditional (atemporal) probability, such as to an outside observer. There is a similar situation with the infamous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment. This is how Philippians 2:5-8 can be true and how Jesus can be fully human and fully divine, while at the same time not knowing certain things in the truest sense of the word.
God can have a will before there was any possible alternative to it, while He still had a choice amongst different courses of actions within His power.
To illustrate this second question a bit more clearly, we can ask the following:
- Could God have willed the Earth with two Moons instead of one? Yes.
- Did God ordain that the Earth have one Moon? Yes.
- Could the Earth have had more than one Moon if God ordained since before all time that it only have one? No.
- Therefore God couldn’t have willed the Earth with two Moons instead of one.
Essentially, it pits God’s power, or more specifically, His will against itself by asking: “How could there have been the possibility of God creating more than one Moon?” In this way it is very similar to the question, “Can God make a rock so heavy not even He can lift?” However this case is more nuanced; the issue is more of realism vs hypotheticals and it cannot be resolved by saying God cannot violate logic because we are denying the implied conclusions, not the facts. The problem isn’t the effects of power upon reality, but upon God’s will.
The issue seems resolved, to my mind, by these realizations about causality. We unconsciously assume an additional source of power and information (some sort of natural law/fate) to which we make God subservient, not realizing that not only is this an unnecessary addition because of the forced erroneous causality, but that this power itself needs a power to explain it and so on. The usual solution is to of course discard the possibility of God’s omniscience, omnipotence, or both, but this doesn’t resolve the problem at all as Zeno’s Paradox of Place (“Where is ‘space’ located in/within?”) reveals. This is exactly what Douglas Kutach means when he says that all mechanistic theories of causation ultimately “bottom out”:
Suppose we want to explain why the population of London dropped by about 100,000 people in 1665…The simplest explanation for the reduced population is the Great Plague that struck London in early 1665…A more thorough explanation…includes causal processes (rats, ships, humans, fleas, bacteria)…Someone could object at this point that we have not satisfactorily explained the population loss…someone could demand a yet more detailed biochemical account of the mechanisms used by the bacterium to spread throughout the body…
Unless there are infinitely many lower levels, we will eventually reach a point where the interacting parts have no parts themselves. Since we cannot explain these phenomena in terms of the interaction of their parts, we cannot explain them in terms of mechanisms. This level is often thought to be explained by fundamental physicals laws instead. [Douglas Kutach, Causation, pp.54-55, Polity Press (2014)]
One can suppose it goes on infinitely, but this cannot escape Zeno’s Paradox of Place, which has to have some sort of existence outside (temporal) causality. And with respect to matter, the laws of nature that work away from this principle (gravity and other forces that use “action at a distance”) refute the “infinite level” argument.
One can, of course, always try to pretend that any conscious decision is the result of misunderstood natural occurrences, but this is more of the mistake that knowledge is obtained only through proof (see Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems – where even natural processes/knowledge cannot exist by this definition and criteria).
Can man have Free Will if it is created by God or has some finite, temporal origin with respect to its choices?
The final question of how man (or perhaps even God) can have a will if it is created is similarly answered by understanding that cause and effect do not have to apply for connected events. Even in physics, action at a distance such as gravity, depends on this logical principle. Some of Zeno’s Paradoxes aptly explore this topic (particularly his Paradox of Place as we noted), and their solutions by Cantor’s Set Theory resolve the perceived contradictions. The fact that something (including our universe) can be created in the sense that it was generated, yet be uncreated in the sense that it wasn’t compulsed into any certain course of action is also possible by this and defended logically by, for example, the Banach-Tarski Paradox.
After all, what is a chair’s existence dependent upon? Its own existence? Nothing? Its atoms? Who are dependent upon the laws of nature? Which are dependent upon…?