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I see this in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins:

If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can't change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.

Is this argument sound?

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Possible duplicate –  Sniper Clown Jul 8 '12 at 8:15
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@Y.Hasibi - In general, we would like to see a bit more development on the part of the question author. Simply finding an argument and asking the community to analyze it is typically frowned upon. Tell us what you have been thinking yourself, where the argument specifically causes you confusion, etc. This question is very similar to the question Mahmud linked as a duplicate, but focuses on two specific characteristics of God rather than the entire definition, which only has but a few not-fully-developed answers which specifically address this, so I'm inclined to leave it open for now. –  stoicfury Jul 8 '12 at 13:21
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wouldn't the concept of omnipotence itself be regarded as contradictory? I recall here the famous "If God is omnipotent, can he create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?" –  Tames Jul 19 '12 at 15:48
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@Tames Correct. Omnipotence is inconsistent in more than one way, which makes it a pretty hard sell. The only "solution" is to place God outside of logic, which renders any discussion about him futile. –  stoicfury Jul 19 '12 at 16:01
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@stoicfury because it's asking after the same basic issue as the possible duplicate (i.e., the contradiction between omniscience and omnipotence) it might make sense to put this through a canonicalization –  Joseph Weissman Aug 3 '12 at 21:45

10 Answers 10

Yes, this is regarded as inconsistent.

There have been some who have suggested that God knows everything beforehand, so that while he can change his mind about things, he already knew that he wouldn't; i.e. he simply chooses not too. However, if you actually take the time to think about it, this doesn't really avoid the problem. The issue at hand is the conflict between foreknowledge and free will. If you "know the future", then that means the future is fixed in some manner. If you were even capable of acting in a way that deviated from that future (even if you didn't, but were capable of doing so), then that means you didn't "know the future" (the future is not fixed), because it could possibly change (even if it didn't actually change).

Bottom line: Perfect foreknowledge and Free Will are inconsistent.

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Can they be resolved via some hegelian dialectic? –  Mozibur Ullah Jul 9 '12 at 0:47
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You want to expand on that a bit? "some hegelian dialectic" is fairly vague... –  stoicfury Jul 10 '12 at 4:32
    
my knowledge is fairly vague. I was thinking along the lines of having a proposition as a thesis, and its opposite being the antithesis, the two together then form a contradiction which resolves in a synthesis at a higher level. Now, one could characterise free will as the antithesis of foreknowledge; so a hegelian synthesis resolves the two. –  Mozibur Ullah Jul 10 '12 at 20:25
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@Mozibur just in passing, Hegel never uses this "thesis-antithesis-synthesis" language. Also, note that comments are really supposed to be used for clarifying/correcting issues with questions -- in general I would encourage trying to ping folks in chat if you want to discuss something beyond the scope of the question/answer. –  Joseph Weissman Jul 13 '12 at 0:21
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But in passing, I don't waste my time refuting claims of God because most people will believe what they want to believe, regardless of reason. The hallmark of a lesser mind is one that discards all reason and logic in order to accommodate a cherished belief, and doing so makes for poor discussion on a philosophy site filled with otherwise great, rational, logic-based discussions. –  stoicfury Aug 2 '12 at 19:14

No, not really (practically speaking.)

The "validity" of a statement like this depends entirely on the assumptions and definitions (of "omnipotent", "omniscient", etc.) that are being used - both by the person making the statement, and by the audience.

Many read this statement and think Richard Dawkins has successfully refuted the Christian God*, but he has really only succeeded in refuting his own idea of God.

Christians* do not use the word "omnipotent" in the same way that Richard Dawkins uses the word.

  • Dawkins' assumes that if God "can't change his mind about his intervention, [then] he is not omnipotent" This claim comes from the belief that God must, by definition, be capable of doing anything (even changing His mind.)

  • When a Christian* claims that "God is omnipotent", their meaning is that God has the power to do whatever He wants to do. (See here.) This omnipotence does not necessitate the capacity for changing His mind, and does not preclude Him from knowing what He wants to do (and is going to do) "ahead of time".

So the outcome is:

  • Using Dawkins definitions, his claim is true

  • Using the Christian* definitions, Dawkins' claim is not true

  • Thus, Dawkins has not succeeded in refuting the Christian God*, but has succeeded in refuting his own idea of God (which is of very questionable value)

  • As a result, if a person were to use Dawkins' reasoning to try to refute the Christian idea of God, the reasoning would amount to a "strawman argument". Since the whole intent of such a claim is to refute the idea of God (including the Christian God*), and it falls short of doing so, the reasoning is not sound.

*NOTE: I am using Christianity and the Christian God as an example to illustrate the importance of defining terms and understanding a claim within the framework in which it is made. I understand Dawkins was not speaking solely in reference to the Christian God.

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I played with it a little bit in my mind and I think you haven't refuted Richard's argument even if we're using Christian's definitions of the words as you described them. The crux of Richard's argument is that either God is omnipotent and can change the future, therefore he cannot have perfect foreknowledge since he cannot predict his own behavior. Or that God has perfect foreknowledge of the future, but then his omnipotence does have limits, which is that he cannot change the future. Therefore, he concludes that a god that have both properties cannot possibly exist. –  Lie Ryan Jul 9 '12 at 9:19
    
Having both of these properties meant that god would have decided every interventions he would do at the beginning of time. And having foreknowledge means that changing his mind later implies a hole in his foreknowledge, since that means he cannot predict his own thoughts in the future. Thus true omniscience and true omnipotence cannot possibly belong to a single being. –  Lie Ryan Jul 9 '12 at 9:27
    
But omnipotence doesn't imply changing once mind, it means that one can do everything one have in mind. –  Stepan Vihor Jul 9 '12 at 12:18
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Interesting. I see where we talked past each other now. –  Fresheyeball Jul 21 '12 at 15:14
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+1 thanks for bringing up the answer related to religion –  Seremonia Aug 2 '12 at 9:41

The problem with asserting inconsistencies like these (see also this closely related question) is not that they apply logic to a conception of God, but that they assume that God would have to exist confined within our physical dimensions.

Specifically, what reason is there to assume that God must exist trapped in the dimension of time as we are? Why would God have to view the world passing by in a strictly past-to-future sense? It is entirely viable to have God existing free from a constrained time, looking at the universe all at once (not just everywhere, but everywhen).

This is an absolutely physically valid suggestion, as time is just another dimension (albeit an unusual one to humans), and just as it is possible to look at all of the length, width, and breadth of an object at once for us, it makes sense for God to be able to see all the time of an object at once. A relevant point to bring up here is the theory that time is an "emergent property" of our view of a four dimensional universe. Similarly to when you move a three dimensional object through a two dimensional cross-cut (e.g. ultrasound), we may be viewing a four dimensional universe passing by along a three dimensional image we're limited to seeing.

What does this mean for the question? Well, if God exists free from time (that is, not traveling through it as we are, but able to observe it entirely), that means that no time passes from God's perspective. Naturally we cannot easily imagine this, but again, it is perfectly physically valid.

This idea implies that God's omniscience does not tell him what he "will" do (nor what he "has done" or "is doing"), but what is done, not in the past, present, or future, but as part of the existence of the universe itself. Simply put, no concept of time applies. Therefore, there is no contradiction involving him changing some future he already knows, because from his perspective there is no future.

This is an idea I've yet to see anywhere else (though it's very likely out there somewhere), but it is my solution to the question's perceived inconsistency.

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"but again, it is perfectly physically valid." No, actually, it's not. You're essentially claiming that it is physically valid to be unphysical. Do you see how hopeless this claim is? –  Alfred Centauri Jul 13 '12 at 1:33
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@AlfredCentauri I said nothing about not being physical. I'm arguing that God could have a totally different perspective of the physical, not be unphysical. One can be physical and not share the human perspective of time and space. –  commando Jul 13 '12 at 1:38
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No, you're claiming that God is "outside of time" but that is necessarily unphysical. Now, in spacetime, there are null geodesics for which there is no "passage" of time, i.e., the worldlines of photons, but these are in spacetime not, as you put it, outside of it. –  Alfred Centauri Jul 13 '12 at 1:50
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@AlfredCentauri I suppose that was poor word choice on my part, sorry. Everywhere else in my answer I try to make it clear that I'm merely talking about a different perspective. I'll remedy that. –  commando Jul 13 '12 at 1:56
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I'd also like to point out that, if "no concept of time applies", all concepts that genetically depend on time do not apply. Make sure you fully appreciate the full meaning of this, particularly but not limited to the concepts of change, action, interaction, creation, will, choice, ... –  Alfred Centauri Jul 13 '12 at 2:03

The short, short answer I've always given:

  1. God is not subject to time.
  2. Part of God's non-subjectivity is that everything can be considered to be happening at the same time.
  3. As everything is happening at the same time, then any act will have happened for all time, meaning that an act of God intended for five minutes from now will have happened 1,000 years ago, and will happen 1,000 years in the future.
  4. Therefore his knowledge of how he will intervene in the future is simultaneous with his choice to make the action in the future.

I suppose that this does leave a number of things which God cannot do. For example, God cannot be late.

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+1 it's the essence of non duality (no separation) on God –  Seremonia Aug 2 '12 at 9:42

I will try to analyze this argument using proposition dependency.

Proposition dependency:

  • A proposition is constructed to understand realities (existences). Existences can be perceived by us because of their functionality, therefore nodes of a proposition exist as functions.

  • Anything that exists has functionality. There are two possibilities; dependence upon something else (A->B) or "not" dependence upon something else (A|B).

  • Therefore, a 'proposition' consists of nodes of functions that form a series of dependency

    Terms:

    • Cause = (c)
    • Caused = (cd)

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins:

  • If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence.

    • Dependency of Proposition: If God is omniscient, he (c1) -> must (cd1) -> already know (cd2) -> how he is going to (cd3) -> intervene (cd4) -> using his omnipotence (cd5) -> to change (cd6) - > something (cd7).
  • But that means he can't change his mind about his intervention

    • Dependency of Proposition: But that means he (c1) -> can't change (cd6) | his mind (cd1) -> (cd2) -> about his intervention (cd3) -> (cd4)
  • which means he is not omnipotent.

    • Dependency of Proposition: which means he (c1) is not | omnipotent (cd5).*

Reduction

  • Proposition 1, (c1) -> (cd1) -> (cd2) -> (cd3) -> (cd4) -> (cd5) -> (cd6) -> (cd7)
  • Proposition 2, (c1) -> (cd6) | (cd1) -> (cd2) -> (cd3) -> (cd4) = True
  • Claim, (c1) | (cd5)

    Conclusion: Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 do not contradict each other. However, the Claim is wrong because the Claim is inconsistent with Proposition 2.

Syllogism

  • First Analysis

    • G then Os (If God, then, there are functions of Omniscience)

    • Os then Kn (If Omniscience, then there is knowledge of how to intervene)

    • Therefore: G then Kn (If God, then there is knowledge of how to intervene)

    • G then Op (If God, then, there are functions of Omnipotence)

    • Op then Ch (If Omnipotence, then there is the ability to change something)

    • Therefore: G then Ch (If God, then, there is the ability to change something)

  • Second Analysis

    • "His mind about his intervention" = He knows about something
    • If He can change "His mind about his intervention", then "He doesn't know about something",
    • Therefore: if "He can't change" His mind about his intervention, then "He knows about something. = It's equal to = G then Kn (From the First Analysis)
  • Third Analysis

    • which means he is not omnipotent = G (then not) Op,

    Conclusion: The First and Second Analyses do not contradict each other, but the Third Analysis has no relation to Second Analysis. The Third can't be derived (can't be concluded) from the Second.

Simplifying

  • First analysis

    • G -> Os = (c1) -> {(cd1) -> (cd2)}
    • Os -> Kn = {(cd1) -> (cd2)} -> (cd2) -> (cd3) -> cd4)
    • G -> Kn = (c1) -> (cd2) -> (cd3) -> cd4)

    • G -> Op = (c1) -> {(cd5)}

    • Op -> Ch = {(cd5)} -> (cd6) -> (cd7)
    • G -> Ch = (c1) -> (cd6) -> (cd7)
  • Second analysis

    • G -> Kn = (c1) -> (cd2) -> (cd3) -> (cd4)
  • Third analysis

    • G not Op = (c1) | (cd5)

    Conclusion: The Second Analysis is in line with First Analysis, but the Third Analysis is not in line with Second Analysis.

Summary

Regarding the argument used by Richard Dawkins:

"If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can't change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent."

This argument is not asserting inconsistency between omniscience & omnipotence.


Please, refer to this: Dependency of Proposition, Omnipresence - Omniscience - Omnipotence, for further understanding.

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wouldn't the concept of omnipotence itself be regarded as contradictory? I recall here the famous "If God is omnipotent, can he create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?" –  Tames Jul 19 '12 at 15:47
    
Hi @Tames, It depends on how to define God. I define God as the biggest, therefore rock must be within God. Meaning, inability to lift the rock doesn't assert that God is not omnipotence, because it's irrelevant with the definition. –  Seremonia Jul 19 '12 at 19:48
    
This is a really excellent, logical answer. Unfortunately, I'm not sure most people will follow it... :} (But I enjoyed the read!) The key is that Dawkins interprets "can't change His mind" as being equal to "does not have the power to change His mind", which he takes to be equal to "lacking omnipotence". The real problem is that this underlying assumption about what "omnipotence" is turns out to be nonsensical, and is also contrary to the definitions used by those whose God he is attempting to disprove, as I mentioned in my answer. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 21 '12 at 1:28
    
Hi @Jas3.1 , thank you for your edit. And yes, we can understand something, but when we deal with limits, suddenly became blurred. We need a clear distinction to put us far away from "lack of understanding about essential boundaries". –  Seremonia Jul 21 '12 at 3:15

There are a number of options available to the theologian who wants to refute Dawkins position. First, she can simply place God outside the rules of causality and grant God the ability to do things which look contradictory and impossible from the human position. This isn't actually particularly absurd, it simply places humanity in a position, like that of the shapes in Edwin Abbots Flatland, where something routine to a 'higher being' is practically inconceivable to us.

She can also grant the "many universes" hypothesis. In that case, everything that God considers happens. So somewhere there is a universe without humanity, and somewhere there is a universe where humanity is not destroyed by beings from Sirius III in 2050 because God sends them a horrible plague of rats. In that case, God can intervene back in time, forward in time, change his mind and intervene again... because everything just creates new timelines.

Of the two routes, I think that the first is the more compelling. It actually makes sense to say that you can't use human concepts of space, time, foreknowledge, and causality to meaningfully discuss the traits of a being that supposedly knows the precise position and velocity of every particle in the universe, since that knowledge alone violates everything we understand about space, time, causality and particles.

To clarify this answer somewhat, the problem with Dawkins' logic is that the premise actually denies the possibility of a logical conclusion. An omnipotent being is without limits by definition, so the imposition of logical limits on the being is a denial of the premise, not the conclusion.

The inconsistency of Christianity is not in the assertion of an omnipotent, omniscient being, it is with the insistence that such a being could be said to have motives or behavior that would be even remotely comprehensible to us. If we assume a god on that scale, the conversation must end there: we cannot divine that beings motives or desires or even say that it has any motives or desires that we would understand as such.

In other words, the problem with the Christian god is that Omnibenevolence is logically inconsistent with Omniscience and Omnipotence. An analogy that might be helpful is the idea of a computer programmer. Let us assume I write a game like the Sims in order to play it. The game is large enough that I can have multiple villages of sim creatures. I might encourage them to go to war with each other just because I want to see them go to war. I might give them competing religions just because I think its funny. I might do absolutely anything, for any reason.

To the Sim people, none of this would make any sense. In fact, from my point of view, a Sim lacks the capacity to even have things make sense or not make sense. From my point of view, a sim has no thoughts or feelings that I would recognize as such. They are just simple robots. And from their point of view (assuming they have a point of view), I am utterly beyond comprehension.

To a truly all powerful god, we would be simpler by far than a Sim. We would have less capacity for self direction, less capacity for self awareness, and less capacity for intellectual thought than a computer program. There is just no way for us to intuit the motives or desires of a being that is that much more powerful and intelligent than we are, and no reason to believe that such a being would ever give us directions that were to our own benefit in any way. God could be totally ethical from its own point of view and still lie to us constantly, because it just isn't unethical to lie to creatures who can't think or feel.

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I will try to answer this from my own observations about Islam and arguments for/against God that I've heard in my time.

In Islam, and actually in Christianity as well, it is unfeasible to associate God with any human-born traits and qualities. We can only ascribe descriptors such as The Forgiving or the All-Seeing because they in no way relate to his actual existence or appearance. As such, I would first like to make the case that even statements such as Omnipotent and All Seeing are inherently flawed- human definitions cannot adequately rationalize or describe that which cannot be described.

Secondly, God exists in his own little sphere, outside of the rules of logic. This means that, even if omnipotence and omniscience are contradictory to us, God should have no trouble unifying these two concepts outside the realm of were logic and coherence actually exists. Remember, if God created all things, then logic and structure were probably one of them.

To quote from The Definition of God is Consistent?

"If you want to call this consistent or not is up to you. It is inconsistent as seen from a logical framework. But it is consistent with the standpoint that an omnipotent being by definition can do anything, including breaking the laws of logic."

I believe this question is fairly similar in structure and logic to, "Can God create a rock which He himself is not able to lift?" The answer is yes, because God is not bound to our rules.

Now, I cannot provide an adequate rationalization of what this kind of unison would look like. I would probably pick the multiverse theory; God can see into every possible future at every possible instant and the free will would come in deciding which possible branch of future he would like to commit to. Therefore, God knows every action that he could possibly make at any given moment, but still have the power to choose only a certain subset of futures.

Perhaps, I don't know. I'm agnostic btw.

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"Secondly, God exists in his own little sphere, outside of the rules of logic. This means that..." nothing can be meaningfully said since you've cut reason off at the root. Any "God" talk is then just meaningless sounds. For example: God is what He isn't. That's certainly outside logic. –  Alfred Centauri Jul 10 '12 at 11:49
    
@centauri: I follow the argument, but I don't follow your rationale. Plenty of people have found God meaningful. They may regard it as a self-evident truth, in the same way as you may take the axioms of boolean logic to be self-evident. –  Mozibur Ullah Jul 10 '12 at 20:32
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@MoziburUllah There's a difference between personal meaning and objective truth. That is, to speak of God in an objective way between people is meaningless if he exists outside logic, regardless of whether he has some sort of irrational, esoteric meaning for any individual person. Two different senses of the word "meaningful". –  stoicfury Jul 11 '12 at 1:29
    
@stoicfury: Both personal & objective truth are a lot more complex than you're making it out to be. I can certainly go along with their being more than one meaning to meaningful. –  Mozibur Ullah Jul 11 '12 at 2:24
    
@MoziburUllah, I think you're spectacularly missing the point. This isn't about personal belief or denying that people find God meaningful. This is about whether one can reason about God. If "God is outside the rules of logic", there is no reasoning possible about God's nature. If no reasoning is possible, what can be meaningfully said about God? For example, if God transcends the rules of logic then He can both exist and not exist, right? If you say "no, that's not possible", how could you justify this answer? On what logical grounds could you dismiss this possibility? –  Alfred Centauri Jul 11 '12 at 3:04

This would be true if time were linear, but it is not, that is an illusion created by our brain to understand the sequence of events. Let me explain.

We live in a Quantum Universe. When a photon travels through space it travels as a wave of possibility. We use QM to deduce the highest possible place to find that photon. As soon as we observe the photon, the wave of possibility collapses to a single point we call a particle.

Time works much the same way, and why not? Einstein's space/time states the relationship between the two is inseparable. The future is a wave of infinite possibiliy. There are more probably futures than others, depending on almost countless circumstances. But when the future is actually observed, the wave collapses into a single point we call the Present.

God, being All-Knowing, knows where every single photon in the Universe is, and every possible path they may take. God, also being All-Powerful, could effect the Grand Equations and still know every possible timeline. This would also explain how we can have Free Will ( X Variables in the Grand Equation) and God is still able to retain His/Her/Its Omnicience status.”

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If a father knows that because his son has behaved badly the father will give the boy a good hiding, is the father capable of not giving the boy a good hiding? Obviously! The father just knows that the boy needs a hiding and he, the father, means to give the boy one. The "omnipotence and omniscience are mutually exclusive" argument is weak! God is omnipotent, but this does not mean that He will act at variance with His nature; for example, God CANNOT lie (because it is against His nature - i.e. a self-imposed limit - Titus 1:2) but this does not mean He is not omnipotent

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This of course boils down to definition of omnipotence and omniscence - especially omniscence assuming inherent possession of all knowledge, understood and readily available. Of course that creates all kinds of problems.

But let's take a mind experiment: You are in possession of a device that can fulfill any of your wishes and answer any of your questions. Technically, through this you are omniscent and omnipotent.

Still, you are limited through your knowledge what questions to ask and what wishes to make. You don't know the future unless you specifically ask about it.

You wish to have memory of all events future and past, and so the device makes it so, but still you need to consciously focus on a memory to recall it. You do know everything, but you don't know everything at the same moment!

Eventually, through wishes that expand your potential of imagination you are able to transcend both the limitation of "memory access pipeline" and time and space - providing you choose to expand that far. You may very well stop at being able to see next evening and turn water into wine, and still be capable to expand beyond that and know everything, but never exploit that capability. So, while omnipotent and omniscent you remain a very humanly being with totally human limitations - self-imposed through your own choice.

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