Understanding Omniscience and Free-Will

A popular atheistic argument is that omniscience and free-will are incompatible. First, I will define both as many religious adherents (particularly Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam) understand these attributes:

  • Omniscience: the state of knowing everything
  • Free-will: the power to choose one’s actions
    • “The power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude” (CCC 1731)

The most common atheistic argument

Moses Maimonides, a famous Jewish philosopher, struggled with this idea despite believing in free-will as a noble Jewish scholar. He wrote:

“Does God know or does He not know that a certain individual will be good or bad? If thou sayest ‘He knows’, then it necessarily follows that the man is compelled to act as God knew beforehand how he would act, otherwise God’s knowledge would be imperfect”

Here is the logic of this particular argument, as conveniently outlined by Wikipedia:

1. God knows choice “C” that a human would claim to “make freely”.

2. It is now necessary that C.

3. If it is now necessary that C, then C cannot be otherwise. There are no actual “possibilities” due to predestination (this is a very Lutheran/Calvinist belief)

4. If you cannot do otherwise when you act, you do not act freely (Principle of Alternate Possibilities)

5. Therefore, when you do an act, you will not do it freely.

Essentially, those against free-will believe that everything is predestined in the event that God is all-knowing because there is nothing human beings can do about it.

Most who continue to believe in free-will despite this logic attempt to solve the above “problem” by either limiting God’s range of knowledge (thus making him not truly omniscient like 14th century scholar Gersonides) or man’s range of freedom (thus making humans not truly have free-will like 14th century scholar Hasdai Crescas.)

Theists who believe in free-will argue that in the first assertion of the outlined logic sequence, God “knowing choice C” is an abstracted human concept of knowledge that sells God-short. They argue that atheists do not understand the true complexity of God and His nature. (Hint: He’s far more than a 3-letter word that is often debated).

Atheistic arguments reduce the understanding of God to His omniscience, undermining His omnipotence (all-powerful), omnipresence (all-present).

A minuscule segment of the infinite attributes of God

In other words, theists argue that atheists do not quite understand what they actually believe about God. Atheists look at one aspect of a much larger picture. God’s attributes exist simultaneously and should not be taken out of the context of the existence of one another.

God’s omnipotence is understood as limited because He allows human beings to have free-will, not because isn’t “all-powerful.” In Judeo-Christian understanding, God made human beings in His image and likeness, and one of the similarities He gave them was free-will.

God Himself has free-will. He gave human beings free-will. He is all-powerful, but He exercises His own free-will by freely choosing not to interfere with the free-will of human beings.

God and Time

The traditional idea of God is that He exists outside of space and time as a spirit, so He is not constrained to the human perspective of the linear path of time. He can see the past, present, and the future simultaneously because He exists in the “eternal now.” He also isn’t just a spectator on the outside, He is omni-present (existing everywhere at once). If this idea seems overly far-fetched, I suggest watching the video above. I think it does a marvelous job visually-displaying this concept.

Thus, to counter the claim of atheists, one merely needs to understand religious adherents’ true concept of God.

Boethius, Aquinas, and C. S. Lewis state that God’s perception of time is different. He is not restricted to a human brain’s perception of relative time on this Earth. After all, He created time (the creation of time is supported by physicists) itself when He created the universe. Thus, He can easily exist outside of an Earthly notion of time as much as He can transcend it and exist everywhere at all times. This makes sense given the logic that God is eternal and not physical. There is also some notion of Him since the beginning of time itself, and we understand this notion through consistent, written records from those discussing Him and his nature that have existed for centuries.

An Analogy and Witness

The Shining Analogy

For those unfamiliar with the classic Jack Nicholson horror film, The Shining refers to a supernatural ability that combines clairvoyance and telepathy. Specifically, the little boy in this movie is able to communicate with others using the mind and “see” things that have happened in the past, or will happen in the future. Therefore, the Shining itself is perfect example of how foreknowledge does not have to negate free-will. In the video clip above, the little boy knows his dad got the job at the hotel (1:37) and that his dad will call his mom to tell her in the near future, which his dad does (1:58). The little boy’s foreknowledge does not negate the fact that Jack Nicholson freely chose to travel three hours away, interview for a job, and then call his wife about it. He freely chose to call his wife independent of his son’s awareness, and he did not even know that his son was aware because he was in a different location entirely. His son’s foreknowledge of the call had no influence whatsoever on Nicholson’s decision, and it had no effect on the events of the future. He just simply “knew” as sort of an “outsider” in the situation. This is similar to how God may operate, knowing everything, and observing as humans freely choose to create their own futures.

Recent Personal Example:

  • Monday: I get an email about The Shining showing at school on Thursday. It’s a personal favorite, so I decide to go and ask a friend to join.
  • Tuesday: I get into an argument with someone about God’s omniscience and human free-will’s compatibility.
  • Wednesday: I pray to God to find a more tangible example to share about foreknowledge not negating free-will. The person calls me “ridiculous and stupid” for trying to explain my understanding of God as existing in an eternal present, so I desire a godless analogy to try to explain the possibility of this idea
  • Thursday: I see The Shining with my friend. At the theater, I realize the Shining is the example I desired. When I get home and reflect, I realize a beautiful paradigm unfolding. God knew I was going to get into an argument Tuesday. He knew I was going to see the Shining Thursday (and I chose to see it out of my own free-will), though I was completely unaware of what I’d connect when I got there. I thought I was only watching a movie to procrastinate on schoolwork, but God was also answering my prayer.

The Mind-Blowing Thing: God had provided the opportunity for the answer/inspiration I would later search for days before I even asked for His help. He knew The Shining was going to inspire me. He knew I was going to write this post and use the movie to explain free-will. Yet, my own free-will was never inhibited. I could have easily chosen not to go to the movie, not to get into the argument, or not to pray for an answer, but I did.

On a final note, I can also chose to not finish this sent

Further Reading:

Summary: How do we have free will if God is all-knowing

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