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Free Will vs. Omniscience June 14, 2007

Posted by Joe in agnosticism, atheism, belief, freethought, god, omniscience, religion, theism.

Many theists believe in these two ideas simultaneously. That is, they believe that there is an omniscient being that knows everything, even things that have not yet occurred, and they believe that there are a bunch of non-omniscient beings running around exercising their free will.

I have heard it argued by many atheists (and others) that this is an impossible situation. They argue that free will is not possible if someone already knows every decision you will make and everything that you will do for your entire lifetime before you are even born. If your decision has already known, how can you be considered free to make it?

I side with the theists on this one. I don’t see someone else’s knowledge of my decision as anyway interfering with the process of me making it. Free will implies only that I have the ability (within the confines of reality and opportunity) to choose my own path in life., to balance the factors I believe are important and decide something for myself. Someone else’s knowing what decision I will make does effect that process in anyway.

I understand it would seem somewhat like watching a recorded sporting event. But as long as the watcher doesn’t know what the outcome will be, the even can be just as exciting recorded as it was live. The key is the watcher’s lack of knowledge, not the rest of the world’s. It is not knowing the outcome ahead of time that is the key.

The key being the ignorance of the person with free will. I think that god giving man any knowledge of his future actions would destroy his free will. Which gives an interesting perspective to the idea of biblical prophecy. If you believe that god has given man knowledge (however vague) of the future, doesn’t that impinge on the free will of man? How can he make a free decision if he knows what the future holds? Or the greater implication, what of the free will of the being that knows everything? Does god have free will?



1. Matt - June 14, 2007

What you describe, however, is not free will. It is merely the illusion of it.

2. Joe - June 14, 2007

What makes it an illusion?

3. atheistperspective - June 14, 2007

LOL, I’ve just been getting into this subject, spent the last week reading up on it and speaking to a few ev-psych guys. I’m still grappling with it to some extent, I have issues with the question of responsibility.

Anyway, people such as Steve Pinker, Dan Dennett and Sue Blackmore are evolutionary psychologists. It’s an area that’s growing in acceptance particularly in the world of atheism. (they themselves are all atheists, strong atheists too).

The idea is that we are simply products of our experiences, we are tricked into thinking that we are in control of our actions when in actual fact, free will is an illusion and what we believe is ‘choice’ is not actually a conscious decision.

We see ourselves as having control of our brains, like little men telling our brains what our body should do when in actual fact it’s the other way around.

An interesting way of looking at it is, imagine if you were standing in the street. As in the cartoon, a man drops a grand piano on your foot. You yelp, shout because of the pain and you lift your foot up. Was that your decision? Did you decide to do so? No, it was purely a reaction to the feeling of pain. It was instinct. Your brain controlled you. What EPs argue, (somewhat depending on their severity of hypothesis) is that all of our actions are similar. They are just reactions to situations and even though we think we might be making a conscious decision in our reaction, we are not.

Interesting huh?

The question is, why do we think we are in control when we are not? Well, one hypothesis is that the brain had to evolve in this way to allow us to form communities and interact with each other in a way that makes life beneficial for us. Imagine if your child came home with a police officer and you found out he was stealing. You’d give him a smack and tell him off. What if he/she replied “But it wasn’t my fault, I had no control, in fact, I’m just reacting to experiences which indeed, you are mainly responsible for”.


But the brain is well known for these kinds of deceptions. Take the blind spot. We have one yet the brain tricks us into believing it is not there. We only know about it if we try really really hard to find it.

It’s a fascinating topic, one well worth having a look at. Check out Sue Blackmore’s books on Amazon.

4. Sheldon Wolf - June 15, 2007

It certainly seems as though we have free will, although it is probably just an illusion. Our brains are complex biological machines with numerous feedback loops which eventually converge to decisions. I’ll continue to at least pretend I have a free will though, since it motivates me to keep the feedback loops going long enough to arrive at semi-sound decisions. (Most of the time, anyway.)

5. religionandatheism - July 9, 2007

The idea that all of consciousness is an illusion, which is what the reductive materialists of the Susan Blackmore kind argue is a little self-defeating. If consciousness, and all its corollaries are in fact illusions, then the rationale of the theory itself has no grounding in a thinker (for there is no thought – just the illusion of it). Hence, there is no true consciousness able to grapple with facts and evidence and so forth. So why believe it?
This is related to the criticism of memes: if religion is a meme, and every idea and belief is a meme, then so is the belief that memes exist. Memes are memes. That is to say, just memes. The snake swallows his own tail, so to speak.

6. James Andrix - July 21, 2007

To answer the question you put to Matt:
If God knows the future perfectly, or if it is even in principle possible for him to know, then it means that the universe is strongly deterministic. If god can’t be wrong, then there is only one possible future. It would mean we are in a clockwork universe.

If there is only one thing it is possible for use to choose, then we don’t have free will. It’s not that omniscience interferes with free will, it’s that omniscience requires determinism, and determinism excludes free will.

Multiple Worlds Theory may provide a way around this.

7. Joe - July 23, 2007

I disagree. I don’t believe that the universe must be deterministic in order to be “determined”. Determinism is the notion that if one knew everything there was to know about the current state of the universe than one could “do the math” and calculate how everything would turn out in the future. It could very well be that this is not the case and yet the future indeed all of time could be “viewed” from outside of time as something that already has happened.

It is not that there is only one possible choice, it is simply that we have already made the choice we just haven’t experienced it yet. This may not be the way it is, but it is possible. The entire history and future of the universe could be laid out like a video tape. The present is simply where the tape happens to be playing.

If something existed outside of time (ie the tape) they could just look at the tape beyond the present moment and see what decisions we would make. This would only interfere with our free will if they told us about it.

Thanks, Joe

8. James Andrix - July 24, 2007

You’re right that a nondeterministic universe that is viewable from outside time over its total history would enable the viewer knowledge of ‘the future’, but I don’t think that helps the free will argument.

Consider two nondeterministic universes: In one nothing after the present exists, at each moment unpredictable changes occur in accordance with that universe’s physics. The other universe has the same nondeterministic physics (and initial conditions!) except that its future exists, it is a static object being played over by time.

Inhabitants of the first universe may do one thing in the future, or they may do another. Inhabitants of the second universe have only one possible future.

I don’t see the argument that essentially a recording can have free will. Do bits on a disk have free will because they might be 1 or 0? The problem is that after the disc is made, they can only be what they are.

I also don’t think telling about the future would interfere with free will, but it does show something interesting.

It should be _impossible_ to tell someone in a static universe about the future, because that would change the future. If the viewer did, then it would mean that the viewer’s message to the inhabitant was already part of that universe’s total history, which means that the viewer had no choice but to tell them. Even if the viewer did nothing, the message is still received in that universe.

If our future is set, then any effect an outside god has with us must also be set, which would mean that that god doesn’t have free will either.

I think you can get around this by having the static universe ‘recalculate’ with each interaction, and the viewer could check to make sure that the new future still agreed with the prediction. But then that seems even less like free will for the inhabitants.

9. JM Ridlon - September 5, 2007

James is completely correct, and I will reiterate with a definition from a church doctrine and with the example they give:

This is how the Anglican faith defined omniscience and how they justify free-will.

“The second active attribute of God is omniscience, the power of knowing all things. His knowledge is not limited by time for He is outside of time, and all times are alike to Him. It is because He is omniscient that we can accept His judgment as final. He knows notonly what has been and what is, but also what will be; which does not mean that He completely controls what will be, for He has given us freedom of will. He knew that Judas Iscariot would betray our Lord (St. Mark 14:21; etc.), but He did not make him do so. Judas was free to resist the temptation.”

The problem is this: If Judas’ betrayal was necessary for god’s “plan” for Jesus to die, and god “knew” that Judas would betray Jesus, in what sense would Judas be free to pick an alternative? From Judas’ perspective he had a choice, because future events are unknown since he follows a thermodynamic arrow of time. However, according to this Anglican doctrine, god sees Judas’ entire lifespan like a comic strip in which all events are chronologically laid out. All of his life are displayed as factual events. If I, on earth, only have the story of Judas up to Judas’ decision, I perceive Judas as forced to choose between betraying and protecting Jesus. However, if I am given absolute knowledge of the rest of the story, which shows that Judas betrays, would we still maintain that it is possible for him not to betray? No. They did this with sports betting in the movie Back to the Future. We already know what will happen, the future was always revealed. To speak of past-present-future to a being outside time is confusing to us. There are just chronological events that happen, “future” is not loaded with uncertainties for the deity as it is for us.

Let’s put this in our terms. Say we have a full comic strip of Judas’ life, and are watching as eager observers given omniscience over every aspect of this individuals lifespan-we are god. What would happen if despite having this guide in front of us, he chose not to betray Jesus? We would realize that we were wrong from the get-go, that our model was in error and that we were not all-knowing afterall. This goes back now to the Anglican doctrine. With this new info, how could it be said of god: “He knew that Judas Iscariot would betray our Lord, but He did not make him do so. Judas was free to resist the temptation.”? If god is omniscient, and Judas chose not to betray Jesus, shouldn’t this have read: “He knew that Judas Iscariot would not betray our Lord, but He did not make him do so. Judas was free not to resist the temptation.” It is obvious that from god’s perspective, Judas was never free to do anything lest god be wrong.

10. mwatumao arap kabvokho - September 27, 2007

I support god knows everthing and we have a free-will to make choices,we need to clarify is what we mean exactly is god.In my own opinion we’ve never known exactly what is god,christ etc.Majority of the people have never understood the nature of god and that’s why in every religion despite the followers having one book e.g bible or koran they have countless sects.Take the second coming of christ as an example most people tend to think they will see a man dropping from heaven surrounded by men with wings.The bible says cleary no one knows this time not even the son except god himself,my understanding is we cant all of as evolve or raise our self esteem at the same time and rate,hence the words of bob marley”most people think great god will come from the skys take away everything and make everyone feel high but if we know what realy life is worth we shall look 4 it here on earth”in other words raise our self esteem.what every one whatever religion he belongs to because the truth is universal presented differently like the way languages are as much as eg chinese,english or swahili appear n sound differntly ant they the same on context that they are mediums of expression?!My opinion god is nature & human virtues given a physical like character,for certain purpose either as a tool to control the society or to enforce morality.But with years this tool has evolved into various dimension up to its current form. in otherwords theres nothing realy like god,christ etc perse.or heaven hell as localities this are just prevailing mental states.

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