Free Will and God’s Omniscience

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In Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theology, God is omniscient – He knows everything. That means He also knows our choices in the future, before we make them. We can’t deviate from them. So are they really choices and how can they be if they are already basically predetermined by the fact that they are foreknown?

This question has been of interest to theologians and philosophers for hundreds of years. The Jesuits in the 16th century devoted a lot of work on it. The question isn’t strictly a theological or religious issue: it’s actually also very secular! The reason for this is something called Aristotle’s future contingents. Aristotle addressed a very mysterious and all-encompassing phenomenon: “Is the future set in stone – it can only happen one way and is guaranteed to be such – or is it uncertain, contingent upon the choices that people make?” If the former, then how are there any choices? If the latter, then why is the past set in stone, which was once the future with respect to a period before it?

Atheism and some religions don’t have much of a problem answering this question. They can easily say, “The future is set in stone because free will is an illusion.” This is a valid resolution – after all a computer program has only one direction in which it can go. The problem is that science – Quantum Physics – isn’t so sure. Quantum Indeterminacy tells us that the various futures are mere probabilities due to the random nature of the subatomic elements and forces. And this is supported by quite a bit of evidence, particularly that it’s not because Quantum Mechanics (QM) is incomplete or that there is a measurement error on our part such as the Observer Effect or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This is shown by, for example, the Kochen-Specker Theorem and particularly Bell’s Theorem.

It is true that randomness is not necessarily illogical, and can have quite a rational origin. For example, π is an irrational number. The digits after the decimal place are random and useful source for mathematicians, or anyone, looking for random strings of numbers with no pattern.* Yet, π is quite simply, logically, and rationally the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter. Both exist in reality, and so does π with all of its irrational, random strings of integers.

However, we know the rationalistic origin in the case of π or other irrational numbers.† But as we pointed out, this isn’t so for Quantum Mechanics – a naturalistic, rational origin that would explain the randomness, doesn’t alleviate it because like the digits of an irrational number, the future would still be unpredictable (perhaps to our mind or method of understanding?).

But are Free Will and Predestination necessarily contradictory? First, let’s define some things about Free Will. By the classical definition of Cartesian Dualism, the choice has to be yours – that is there must be a thinker behind the thought. It’s you who causes it, yet it’s uncaused at the same time (more on that below). There is also no relevant intermediary between your choice and its causation (by you), other than physical forces that reflect it (e.g. you need electricity for a thought to physically exist). There are of course physical forces between your choice and its being carried out, such as for example, your muscles working for you to open a door, but these are also not relevant in the context we’re talking about. Here is a very simple, non-constructive proof‡ that they don’t have to.

So, let’s take a look. Imagine you are about to make a choice. Isn’t it true that you know what choice you are going to make the instant before you’ve made it? Since it’s you who makes the decision, you obviously know what you will do, shortly before you do it. The only thing that prevents you from knowing what future choices you’d make is not knowing the circumstances you’d be in, and your frame of mind (which is either naturalistic (habits), or the result of your choices, or both). If you can know it, so can God. And this is how He can know alternate futures – what if’s (“What if you were born in a different country – what would you be doing now?”). And so can anyone else for that matter, if they had the tools.

But doesn’t this ignore the fact that getting to a certain point in life isn’t a determined course of action: you made unique, “unpredictable” choices that got you there. But the same analogy works for those: you go to the first choice and start from there to any one of them. Someone might say, “Well you started involuntary choices, some out of your control because of nature, when you were born/an infant, or even before that.” But if the choice was involuntary, then it wasn’t a choice and isn’t a problem for our framework (nor does it relate much really), and if it was a choice that was forgotten or semi-conscious or something like that, then the same logic applies to whatever degree it was conscious – and forgetting you did something doesn’t matter to this, whether you were an infant or not.

Uncaused, yet caused?

How can free will be caused (by you), yet uncaused (by a natural force)? The question is simply a confusion due to the fallacy of language. You and your free will are the same thing. Origin in this case is a moot point, because you can apply this to anything, such as the origin of the universe, or that origin’s origin, etc. This question is at any rate answered in my opinion with the Banach-Tarski Paradox (at the bottom of the Trinity Logically Defended post). In this case, there is also no “time” between you making your choice and its existence, because they are the same thing.


One school of thought on this issue supposes that free will can coexist with naturalism on the basis of being guided by natural laws, yet retaining the power of choice. Schopenhauer defends this position by saying, “Man can will, but cannot will what he wills.” Put another way, imagine you have the choice to go to two restaurants, but not a third. Your third choice is already predetermined not to be made, while either of the other two is still your own personal choice. Or when you do make a certain choice, isn’t it guided by natural forces? And has even influenced your decision based on the assumption of some such guidance?

An excellent introduction can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Compatibilism. Amongst notable recent defenders of this is the atheist-turned-deist Antony Flew. But serious objections exist against this view (see the end of the Stanford article). I personally believe many modern philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga,§ are correct to reject the basic premises of this train of thought. If natural forces are the principle out of which all of the so-called Free Will arose, it can’t be a true Free Will in the ultimate, absolute sense. And limited choice, such as the restaurant example, is still choice. Physical representation and expression, such as natural laws guiding this choice, do not relate to its origin. And influence is the same thing as limited choice, so long as it doesn’t cross a certain boundary (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13). Influence does not necessarily reflect the origin of Free Will if it exists, because that’s like saying a dead man who cannot walk because he’s dead never had free will, or someone living today doesn’t have it because he could have never chosen to climb a mountain 500 years ago when he wasn’t alive. It’s a mischaracterization of intent vs result/expression, even if the person is swayed by it willingly (which might relate to Schopenhauer’s idea of man not being able to “will what he wills”), since this simply, in my opinion, sort of masks true intent – like being half-asleep, you frequently don’t really realize what you’re doing. It could, of course, expose true intent, which is the very purpose of the existence of temptations, but this isn’t relevant for our discussion here. This isn’t an argument against influence’s corruption of free will, but only to point out that some free will is still free will.

This means that Aristotle’s Future Contingents are answered in the affirmative for the future being fixed and set in stone. To me this isn’t particularly disturbing. After all, the past is indisputably (traditionally at least!) unchangeable, and all the people who created it made choices. Imagine watching an old movie: all the actors’ movements and what they say are predetermined in the film, because it’s a recording of something that happened in the past. You’ve already made your choices, you’re just realizing them and why/how. At least, this is one way of understanding this point of view without it being too abstract in my opinion, should it be valid or true.



* C. Stanley Ogilvy and John T. Anderson, Excursions in Number Theory (Dover: 1988), p.108.

† Such as √2 or the square root of any other non-perfect square such as 3, 5, 6, 7, and so on. See Ogilvy and Anderson, ibid., pp.121-129.

‡ A non-constructive proof basically proves something to be true/possible without showing how or why. A classic example (in math) is the question of “Can an irrational number to the power of an irrational (e.g. sqrt2pwr2.png) be a rational?” If sqrt2pwr2 is rational then we have our answer. If not, then raise it to the power of the square root of 2 – sqrt2pwr22 – which becomes (√2)^2 = 2, a rational. It just so happens that sqrt2pwr2 is irrational [Ogilvy and Anderson, op. cit., p.64]

§ Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Eerdmans: 2001), p.31.


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