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In Abrahamic religions, God is often believed to be wholly omnipotent. People also seem to believe that humans have "free will", esp. insofar that they feel they are in control of their own actions. Regardless of whether these beliefs are true or not, are these claims contradictory with one another? It seems they are to me, and if this is true, under what circumstances can these claims be made non-contradictory?

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Do you see a contradiction between being in control of ones own actions and omnipotence in the sense that God could intervene and direct/control human action at any point? Instead, if your point is about God's omniscience, I would suggest that you replace "omnipotent" with "omniscient" - the point of the problem is that God supposedly has infallible foreknowledge. It get's you the same contradiction (known as paradox of free will) and avoids a discussion if omnipotence implies omniscience or not. –  DBK May 7 '12 at 22:24
    
If I understand her correctly, I think Hilary Stump argues that God cannot know something that isn't because that's just nonsense. So God does know all there is to know which is omniscience. Perhaps the question of foreknowledge is resolved by transcending space-time. As far as omnipotence is concerned, God would not be omnipotent if he created beings with free will and then proceeded to violate his own will by determining human behavior directly. It's a broad question. Van Inwagen gives a different account. –  Robert LeChef Nov 26 '12 at 22:26
    
Simone Weil, a philosopher and christian mystic, said that human beings were where God is not. –  Mozibur Ullah Jan 23 '13 at 20:52
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11 Answers

Omnipotence implies omniscience, which implies that the future is fixed, which removes free will in the sense that it is commonly understood.

As some have pointed out, language can be used to justify just about anything. Thus, one could simply claim that "God can do anything and there are no conflicts", instantly solving the problem. But I think this ignores the richness of this debate which has raged for centuries between philosophers, scientists, and theologians, particularly when it comes to theologians wishing to justify God's existence in a scientific framework (most especially with physics and causality).

On this front, the problem comes down to how one defines free will. Omnipotence, while contradictory in and of itself, is a generally understood term ("all-powerfulness"), perhaps outside of a few outlier cases. Free will, on the other hand, is poorly defined [1][2] and is to this day an entirely unintelligible concept.

...The failure of philosophers to work the account out in a fully satisfactory and intelligible form reveals that the very idea of free will (and so of responsibility) is incoherent (Strawson 1986) or at least inconsistent with a world very much like our own (Pereboom 2001).

–excerpt from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Strawson, Galen (1986). Freedom and Belief. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Pereboom, Derk (2001). Living Without Free Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

But philosophers have still dealt with the notion of free will for thousands of years despite this, and have come up with many different (and incomplete) definitions which can and have been show to be inconsistent with the idea of an omnipotent God.

"Free will as unconstrained action" ala René Descartes, Hume, and others[1]

If free will is, to you, the ability to act in accordance with an unconstrained will, this implies that there is nothing that could predict your actions. If God knows the future (and thus can predict your actions), this implies there is some mechanism through which God does so, and therefore you do not have free will in this sense (even if God does not intervene).


  • Free will is the ability to act in accordance with an unconstrained will.
    • this implies your actions are unpredictable, because if they were somehow predictable, that means they are subject to causality (had prior causes) and therefore constrained to those causes. (I.E., this is the direct opposite of determinism, by definition.)
  • God exists.
  • God is omnipotent.
  • A thing which is omnipotent (all-powerful) has complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding, and perceives all things, past and present.
  • Therefore God is capable of perceiving your future.
    • It doesn't matter which view of time you hold, whether it's "linear", "branching-timeline" theory, etc., because any individual has only exactly one actual future, and it's that future I'm referring to here.
  • If your future is capable of being predicted, there must necessarily exist a mechanism by which to do so.
  • If there exists a mechanism by which your future is predictable–even if that power is never actually exercised–that necessarily means your will is not unconstrained. In fact, it means it is wholly constrained by this mechanism (if it wasn't, then God wouldn't be able to use it to perfectly predict the individual's future). It is critical to recognize that the mere fact that such a mechanism exists – whether or not it is used – is enough to create a logical contradiction.

Ergo, either God is not omnipotent or free will does not exist or both.

Of course, not all definitions of God, or of free will, will share this conflict. For example, the definition of free will I and others use has no inherent conflicts with omnipotence, because it does imply you are acting based on an unconstrained will. Perhaps the only way to get out of the argument is to pull a "God can do anything, even predict that which is unpredictable", which—while noted—ignores the broader issue of philosophers and theologians attempting to talk about God in a meaningful way, fully reconciled with empirical facts of science.

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Does omnipotence necessarily imply omniscience? Could one have the power to know without necessarily exercising that power? In fact, one would thing that possibility cannot be excluded (or else the omnipotent being would be lacking the power to be willfully ignorant.) –  Michael Dorfman May 7 '12 at 19:30
    
Obviously being all-powerful implies having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding; perceiving all things, past and present. No, it does not imply that such an ability is exercised, but it does imply that the ability is exercisable (i.e. that it could be used). And of course, the mere fact that it is possible is enough. If God does not actually look into everyone's future, but could, there necessarily must be some mechanism which would allow this action, ergo your future is fixed; your actions are quite predictable; your actions are not free. –  stoicfury May 7 '12 at 19:51
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I have to agree with @MichaelDorfman and I also disagree with your assertions that omnipotence is "contradictory in and of itself" and that the first definition of free will "implies that there is nothing that could predict your actions". On the very question you link for the former, the top answer points out a potential resolution to the perceived problems of omnipotence, and your latter assertion just seems non-sequitur. I don't see why there needs to be a mutual exclusion between predictability and freedom, especially from the viewpoint of a being purported to be outside of time itself. –  commando May 7 '12 at 19:57
    
@commando Sure, I don't really have a problem with the term "omnipotence"; the definition is pretty clear to me, with or without the commonly pointed out contradictions. The idea of free will, however, isn't. You don't seem to offer any reasons why Michael is correct though, or why I am false, other than "the latter assertion [which?] seems non-sequitur". Is there a particular place where my logic goes awry? I will edit my answer to spell it out in logical form, to ease in clarity. –  stoicfury May 7 '12 at 20:11
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...There would be no "future" or "past" to a supernatural God (I think that's the idea being used here?) because he would not be constrained by the physical dimension of time. God would just know everything because it's true, because of his tautological omniscience. It would have nothing to do with the freedom of people, because again, there is no future to "predict" but just a truth to know. Thus, our action would be unconstrained, and God would know what we do (again, timelessly) because we do it at some time in the physical world we (but not God) exist in. –  commando May 7 '12 at 20:25
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These claims are not contradictory, and can be easily reconciled. Omnipotence does not compel an entity to act; an omnipotent being could very easily choose to refrain from interfering in the choices made by another being, granting that being free use of their free will.

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I think the OP's question is not about whether God in light of his omnipotence might intervene to direct/control - by first or secondary causes theologically speaking - human actions which are otherwise subject to free will (if this were the case I would agree with your answer). I would think the OP refers to the classical theological paradox of free will involving infallible foreknowledge of God. (I asked the OP to clarify.) –  DBK May 7 '12 at 22:31
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@DBK That is exactly what my answer attempts to address. –  stoicfury May 8 '12 at 1:16
    
If God suffers some things to happen that he does not will, then one can imagine a more powerful being that does not suffer anything to happen that he does not will. –  David Schwartz May 8 '12 at 10:00
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@DavidSchwartz: It seems to me that that is still open to some familiar paradoxes-- can God create a rock so large he can't lift it?, etc., and still doesn't rule out the possibility that God wills humans to have free will, willing himself not to interfere in their decisions, etc. –  Michael Dorfman May 10 '12 at 7:05
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@MichaelDorfman: It isn't really open to paradox. There's no such thing as a rock so large an omnipotent being can't lift it, that's just word salad. And god cannot will himself not to interfere in human decisions because there are no human decisions, again, that would just be word salad since everything that happens is what god wills. –  David Schwartz May 10 '12 at 7:11
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Assume that

  • G created the world as we know it;
  • At the moment of creation, G was omniscient, by which I mean that G knew exactly what would happen as a consequence of creating the world in any particular way;
  • At the moment of creation, G was omnipotent, by which I mean that G could have created the world in any (or any possible or any logically possible or choose whichever definition of omnipotence you happen to prefer) way.

It follows that at the moment of creation, G knew exactly how any human would go about their life.

Supposing that the definition of omnipotence leaves room for a world where humans would behave differently (a mild assumption, I'd say), then G could have created the world so that some people behaved differently. Depending on how strong one's definition of omnipotence happens to be, G could have created the world so that people would have lived pretty much exactly as G wanted them to.

Could an omnipotent being create agents with free will, given it is also omniscient? That's a matter of defining omnipotence and omniscience. I don't know enough about the Abrahamic religions to say anything about their stance on this.

Can humans be in control of their own actions even if G knows how they will exert that control? That's up to one's definition of free will, I guess. I'd say it is reasonable to say that humans can't then control their own actions, but I also guess that arguments to the other direction exist.

Finally, note that this places G outside the world, and note that the moment of creation should not be understood as an actual moment in our world. These might have an effect on the previous question.

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Given that you haven't specified much in your question, I'm going to have to make some assumptions in this answer.

Let us assume that:

  • Free will is defined as "unconstrained action" like in stoicfury's answer;

  • God is defined as a supernatural being (meaning that he exists in some realm outside of our physical dimensions of spacetime) who is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing);

  • Note that, as others have argued, God's omnipotence need not mean his omniscience. However, since the main perceived paradox between God and free will arises from his omniscience, this will be assumed for this answer.

The common argument at this point (very similar to, if not the same as, stoicfury's answer) is something along the lines of:

  1. An omniscient God knows everything that you will do.
  2. Therefore, God can predict your future, your actions, everything that you "choose" to do.
  3. As an example, suppose that God knows that you will do X in the future.
  4. You have not yet done X, but God somehow knows that you will, therefore it is true that you will do X.
  5. When the time comes for you to do X, although you may perceive yourself as having willed it, you actually had no choice in the matter. You had to do X because since long past, God knew you would, and the only way he could know this before is if there was some determinant to your will (e.g. physical cause-effect).
  6. Since there must have been a determinant to your will, you cannot have a free and unconstrained will.

I disagree with this argument because it is guilty of a straw man. What is crucial to this logically valid argument is the premise that some chronology applies to God (which is apparent in the words "future" and "predict"). However, the common concept of God is, as mentioned, supernatural; God is outside of our physical realm, and since the early 20th century, we've known that our physical realm includes the fourth dimension of time. Therefore, this argument is unsound.

An omniscient God would not be "predicting" somebody's "future" but simply knowing what exists as part of the four-dimensional space time. Imagine the universe as a 3D hologram film, and you'll understand that when you look at the whole thing and know it all, you're not predicting but rather you have simply seen everything there is. You don't see the film passing by, but its entire existence is in front of you (I find a mountain range image also helpful), and if you were an omniscient God, you would know everything that happens; there is no "future" or "past" but just the truth. A logical argument from these premises is:

  1. An omniscient God knows everything about the universe.
  2. Therefore, if you do X, then God will know that you did it in your existence. This is not in the chronological sense of you doing X and God knowing after, but in the boolean sense that because you did X, God knows it.
  3. The "mechanism" by which God knows this is his transcendence of spacetime, because he is able to look at the entire universe at all times.
  4. Therefore, God's omniscience does not restrict what you do, because he does not know it "before" (which would imply a deterministic mechanism), he just knows.

This is my counterargument to the common notion that God and free will are incompatible.

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the question then becomes "is 4-dimensional space-time compatible with free will". because if the universe is a 4-dimensional boolean hologram, what's with all the "could have done otherwise" nonsense? –  artm Nov 25 '12 at 19:37
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A being that is almighty isn't constrained by the logic that a lesser being assumes the world to obey. Omnipotence implies every possible power, including the power to contradict the idea of free will. In our limited experience we never encounter a fact of the world being true simultaneously with its opposite - it's either one or another - but an almighty being would find a way to make it so in infinitesimal time simply be virtue of its all-powerfulness, if It wanted.

Having free will feels like magic - here we have all the laws of nature piling one on top of the other making things tick - and presto! a being made of all the same stuff who decides how to tick on its very own. But the omnipotent being has the power to know how free will happens - It can analyse the hell out of me in an instant and figure out precisely how I will freely procede to act.

Sure, to an electron I'd seem an incredible, nature defying agent. It just keeps on existing, pulsating in and out of quantum nothingness under forces beyond its control, while I do all the wonderful things humans do - think, walk, talk, remember. But to an all-powerful being we're quite similar - two not-all-powerful entities in a clockwork universe. Not clockwork in a mechanical sense that we, humans, can understand, but clockwork to It.

Not only can all-powerful being know how I will behave: It can even know when a radioactive atom will decay. That's even more incredible than predicting me - I at least have some rational reasons to freely decide one way or another - the atom just decays at some point and we don't know when, but the all-powerful being does.

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This question is one which is required by a scholastic mindset, but is by no means required. Logic is a language of constraints, and this is what makes it uniquely unable to answer questions about entities for which there are no constraints. The best we can do logically, I think, is to construct (to borrow a CS term) an escape sequence which ejects the question from consideration.

There is nothing conditional about an omnipotent being. An omnipotent being, by definition, is an entity who is all capable. Any proposition on the capabilities of such a being is true. If omnipotence implies omniscience, then we must then accept that any proposition on the state of that being must also be true.

If we say, "god is capable of granting free will even with perfect foreknowledge," the proposition must be true. If we say, "god has granted free will with perfect foreknowledge," then the proposition must also be true. The converse of these propositions are also true. For a being that can perform all acts and possesses all states, all propositions must be true.

If all propositions are true, the propositions are unconditional. Questions must have a condition. Therefore, if there is no condition, there is no question to be had. The question is simply illogical. It does not exist.

It's not the answer that is word salad, it's the question.

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These kinds of truths are known as vacuous truths. –  WraithKenny Mar 11 at 2:43
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This question is difficult to answer in a few words here. A good overview of the Roman Catholic theology is available in Predestination by Garrigou-Lagrange. He concludes with a view similar to Aquinas: an effect may have multiple causes, both God's will and man's free will may cause man to make a specific choice.

Also, I have found C.S. Lewis explains this question rather well in Perelandra. His approach is by no means systematic, but for a lay philosopher or theologian (like myself) it is a useful, concise summary.

The whole struggle was over, and yet there seemed to have been no moment of victory. You might say, if you liked, that the power of choice had been simply set aside and an inflexible destiny substituted for it. On the other hand, you might say he had delivered from the rhetoric of his passions and had emerged in unassailable freedom. Ransom could not for the life of him, see any difference between these two statements. Predestination and freedom were apparently identical. He could no longer see any meaning in the many arguments he had heart on the subject.

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It would be helpful to readers of the answer if you gave short abstracts of the resources you link to (not abstract of the whole works, but of the parts relevant to this question). –  artm Dec 29 '12 at 8:25
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@ArtmBaguinski Thanks for the suggestion, I have provided a few more details. –  Josh Peterson Dec 29 '12 at 13:13
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Does the notion of an all-powerful God conflict with the idea of free will?

No, I think it is not contradictory, because God does not give much importance to free will.

From “The Arguments From Evil and Nonbelief”, Theodore Drange, and further readings:

The Bible suggests that God knows the future and predestines people's fates, then God may interfere with human free will. In addition, there are many obstacles to free will in our present world (famine, mental retardation, grave diseases, premature death, etc.) and God does little or nothing to prevent them. People in heaven are not capable of harming each other; otherwise, it would not be heaven. So, people in heaven lack free will.

What is the evidence of value of moral lessons to learn from free will? If God's lack of moral development does not take away from his perfect goodness, then why would we and God place such a high value on our free will moral development, as opposed to not having free will and moral development? The justification and value of the qualities developed through experience with free will is precisely because they are useful in overcoming evil. If there were no evil and free will, what is the value of God to permit free will in the first place?

Why is it good for humans to reduce the free will used to do evil, but it would not be good for God to do exactly the same thing? Just as we have a duty to curtail another person’s exercise of free will when we know that they will use their free will to inflict considerable suffering on an innocent person, so too does God have a duty of this sort. Do you think that one should not intervene to prevent someone from committing rape or murder? Free will is merely the ability to choose among available options. The ability to have all options available is not free will but omnipotence. Humans are not able to kill each other by simply wishing it; does the lack of this ability mean that humans do not have free will? There are already restrictions on humans' ability to kill each other.

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An almighty creator that has no limits regarding his creations. He can choose to not interfere with his creation once and for all, but he can't give them a free will and then randomly intervene to see what happen, for that would be a sign of a lack of imagination, insecurities or even morbidity.

A creator unconscious of his creations could play that role too, as he has no limitations with regard to his creations of which he doesn't even know they exist.

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The idea of omnipotence directly contradicts the idea of TRUE free will. Depending on whose ideas you may choose to follow, some religions teach that God GRANTED human kind the gift of free will, which isn't truly free will as God may choose to intervene.

Personally I find the ideas of omnipotence and omniscience very hard to grasp.

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How can omnipotent being CHOOSE to intervene if its omnipotence contradicts TRUE free will? –  artm Dec 30 '12 at 14:08
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Consider free will in the past: The past you is said to have free will, not in the sense that you could make any choice (since in the present, you know what your choice was), but because the choice is temporally in the future of that version of you. That's it. Who or what knows the outcome has no effect whatsoever on (this definition of) free will. Omnipotence and Omniscience have no effect.

Other definitions of free will that do depend on "making any choice," are absurd since they lead to the paradox.

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