Understanding Omniscience (and Omnipotence, and Free Will, etc…) 16

I recently got challenged with the following question:

Is God omnipotent and omniscient, or does he allow free will? You can’t have both.

I immediately responded, “Now it would be a much more thrilling discussion if we were to also add divine benevolence, and then bring the problem of evil in to this scenario along with God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and human free will. But if you want me to tackle the easier question first, No problem!”

Please note that although this question was raised by an atheist, it does assume the existence of God to begin with, so I don’t need to prove that first.

Once we’ve agreed to that much, we can begin to pick at the problem. There are multiple levels at issue. First, the problem begins as a problem only when your perspective tries to equate our free will with God’s.

Jean-Paul Sartre, died of lung failure at age 74

J.P. Sartre put it succinctly:

If I am free, God does not exist; I am free; Therefore, God does not exist.

Of course he is assuming a God who is both omniscient and omnipotent, and I would have to agree with that conception of God, since arguably, anything less would not be God. To get to the crux of the matter, we need to consider the limits of human free will and then determine whether our [limited] freedom, which presents itself to us as a self-evident fact, cancels out the possibility of an omnipotent, omniscient God. We also have to determine whether omniscience is tantamount to determinism on God’s part — given the existence of God, of course.

Regarding free will, there are two self-evident facts: (1) our will is free; (2) our will is not absolutely free (I can’t will cigarette smoking not to cause cancer).

When we look at it in this way, which is obviously the way we should look at it, it just goes to show that our free will has influence over somethings in our lives but not over everything. Implicitly, we’re not all-powerful. Given that there are many things that lie outside our power of influence, the door is open to the possibility God’s being all-powerful and all-knowing, while allowing some creatures the power of exercising free will to a limited extent.

The issue that many objectors will raise at this point is that if God is omniscient, then he determines everything. Not so.

I can think of two examples to illustrate this point. First, we need to distinguish between what it means to permit and what it means to allow. A 35mph speedlimit sign indicates that driving over 35mph is not permitted. A police officer can be monitoring traffic in a low speed zone and allow certain motorists to pass who are driving 40, 45, perhaps even 50mph in that zone. He is not permitting them to break the law — i.e., his decision not to stop everyone who drives over the speedlimit does not give them license to do so. He is probably waiting to nab the motorist who is driving 20mph or more over the speed limit. However, the officer could stop any motorist who breaks the speedlimit at any time if he chose to do so, for the very reason that they are doing something that is not legally permitted.

By comparison, God gives us laws like the 10 commandments. His laws being in place do not stop us from breaking them. He can allow, and has allowed, great atrocities to occur throughout history. He can impede them if he so chooses by using any means, natural or supernatural, that he decides to implement. This shows how his omniscience and omnipotence do not necessarily determine the course of human free action.

Here is an other example to show how omnipotence is not the same as determinism. Suppose you were watching a previously recorded football game with a friend. You have already seen the game; your friend hasn’t. You know how the game is going to turn out, you may have even remembered every play of the game to the extent that you could impress your friend with your predictions (supposing he does not know that you’ve seen the game). From the friend’s perspective, although the game’s outcome has already been determined as a matter of course, what determined the outcome was the free decisions of the players, and not anyone’s knowledge of the events after they occurred. From your friend’s perspective, those outcomes are unfolding as he is watching it.

Your friend can cheer, and get upset, and call the players, refs, and coaches names, although at this point, it does not really matter, from your perspective. Nothing is going to change the outcome from your perspective, since you already know how it is all going to unfold. You aren’t going to tell your friend, “Give it up! It is senseless to say anything at this point; it’s already decided.” That is, if you want him to enjoy the game. The analogy obviously falls short on several accounts, e.g., neither my friend nor I can intervene in the game. We did not create the game, it’s rules, or the players. The example, however, shows how it is possible for one to be “outside of time” of the game, as it were, so as to have foreknowledge of what is unfolding from another person’s perspective, and still not have any influence over the freedom of the other participants involved.

In short, the players were free at the time the game was played. The perspective from outside the parameters of the time in which the game is played has no influence on their free will, even if it views those freely willed acts as unfolding in another frame of reference. The omnipotent God sees all things in an analogous way. His reference point is from outside of time, hence he sees and knows all things at once, whereas we see them unfolding as they occur through the free agency of people acting within the paramaters of time.

The person who raised the original question could not find a way to invalidate my examples to illustrate how God’s omniscience and omnipotence do not preclude the possibility of human free will. So she took to raising objections from counter examples in the Bible; e.g.:

Eph 2:10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” So if God has prepared us in advance, he know what we will do. In fact, in Jeremiah, God has prepared the future, even before Jeremiah is in the womb.

My response: As my examples showed, preparing for someone else to do does not determine that the persons in question who are supposed to accomplish the task will actually comply. Also, knowing what someone would do is not the same as making them do it.

“Many are the plans of the human heart, but it is the decision of the LORD that endures.” (Proverbs 19:21).

So God makes decisions. This does not mean that God’s decisions necessarily override human decisions in practicum. For example, a parent can allow kids to make mistakes so that they can learn from them; or they can choose to stop them to prevent their harming themselves. You can tell your daughter that she’s not going to the mall; this does not mean she will not do it anyway. Issuing orders does not determine obedience.

“My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure; … Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it” (Isaiah 46:8-11).

So man proposes and God disposes. In other words, you can do what you want, but it won’t stop the Almighty from bringing things to the end that He has in mind (because he’s all-powerful, get it?). You, however, are free to get on board with it if you choose. It all comes down to this question:

Whose side are you on? Do you want to join the winning team or stick to your own futile plans?

The choice is yours.

16 comments

  1. I obviously come from your starting point, James, so I already realize and accept the difference between knowing what someone will do vs. preventing them from doing it.
    It is much the same with children and parents: parents often know (ok, strongly “suspect”, but you know what I mean) exactly what their kids will do in a certain situation w/ basic factors present, yet permit them to do it, even if it isn’t in their best interests, so that they may learn.

    God is the ultimate all-powerful parent who doesn’t merely “suspect”, …he KNOWS, …yet he allows us to exercise our free will, regardless of the outcome.

    I’ve often thought that free will was one of the more remarkable gifts He gave us, since He knew how ridiculously fallible we are when he made us.
    Of course, without our freewill, what could we possibly learn here?

    Great post, partner, & another one I’ll be mulling over throughout the day…

    • Without free will, how can a child be rewarded or chastised? Better yet, how could he or she love? When you start to look at it more closely, there would be greater problems if the original statement were true.

      Cheers, partner!

  2. Perfect logic, but then I suspect that finite logic cannot describe something that is infinite in concept. One thought, though. Many theologians say that God’s decisions actually do override man’s free will which is why there is this never-ending debate with regards to free will. As for me, I would say that you can have both free will and a God who is omnipotent and omniscient, but I would define omnipotent and omniscient differently from most. I define God as the first cause who intentionally created a world of imperfection that he doesn’t need to interfere with, and, in fact, can not interfere with. Man is free to choose as he pleases although in a world of infinite possibilities that God created, all possible choices come to fruition. In my opinion, though, it’s fruitless, even arrogant, to assume that our finite minds can ever understand God.

    • Oh, you are right. Of course, the person who asked the question was not asking for that much. She just wanted to argue that God’s omnipotence and omniscience are incompatible with human free will. The free will debate has raged on since Augustine. That, however, was not what was at issue. We were arguing an incompatibility issue. That places no burden of proof on me other than to show that the statement itself is not self-evidently true, by raising counter examples, which she could not counter herself.

  3. very well put….thank you. I always like to ask those who believe that we have no free will this question…..if adam and eve had no free will….why did God go to so much trouble to tell them they couldn’t eat from one tree in the garden?

  4. Outstanding post and you could have complicated things by throwing in Predestination! By the way, if you have a post on that topic I’d love to read it.

    I loved your prerecorded game analogy and I’ve used something similar to describe God’s Omniscient aspect. Because God is Omnipotent and created the Universe, He can move freely in time and will know what will happen because He can see what our Free Will has caused in the future. So He does know what will happen because He can fast forward the DVR!

    Loved this post and I really enjoy following your blog. Keep up the great work.

    • Thanks, Cosmocon. I like the DVR fast forwarding analogy. I don’t remember having written anything on Predestination, but I might end up writing something about it in the near future. I’ve recently gotten engaged in dialogue with people who have different views than mine, ranging from atheism, various Christian theological perspectives, other world religions, and some pretty sci-fi visions of the universe and spirituality. Most of these people do not distinguish between predetermination and predestination, but eventually, that distinction will need to be made when my views on providence get challenged. Thanks for the comment and God bless!

  5. Pingback: God knows everything « master of life in earth, sky and sea

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