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?
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  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
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.
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.
- 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.
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:
- An omniscient God knows everything that you will do.
- Therefore, God can predict your future, your actions, everything that you "choose" to do.
- As an example, suppose that God knows that you will do X in the future.
- You have not yet done X, but God somehow knows that you will, therefore it is true that you will do X.
- 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).
- 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:
- An omniscient God knows everything about the universe.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Just because he has all the power, does not mean he is using it all the time. Also if you are a part of god then you are all powerful too, maybe not. But if god has free will and you are a part of him then you should have free will to, just as your hand has free will by being connected to you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One resolution to this problem is to view God's omnipotence and our free will as taking place at different levels of reality. For instance, consider a book: From our perspective as readers of the book, the events in it are set. But from the perspective of the characters, they have free will to make choices, within their reality --as the book was written, their free will partook in the free will of the author.
In the Abrahamic religions it is explicitly recognized that human beings are endowed with free-will, that is, the possibility and ability to choose between right and wrong. It is also recognized that God is all-powerful and all-knowledgeable among many other things.
That these claims look contradictory, to our minds, doesn't negate them. It means only that the principle of consistency is held more dearly than any other value.
One might point to the development of paraconsistent logic that explicitly acknowledges irreducibly conflicting notions and accounts of what is true in the whole domain of what can be construed as knowledge. It shows that abandoning the criteria of global consistency does not necessarily lead to trivialization. Instead what we have is local consistency.
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.
Mankind, Free Will and Predestination
The general meandering thoughts, and vague interpretations found in the Religious literature and opinion columns, regarding supposed cryptic Biblical statements as to "Predestination" are similar in nature and context, to Ten Thousand Angles Arguing on the Head of a Pin.
Because such metaphysical opinions skirt the real questions involved in this subject.
The real question regarding predestination is, could God have made a rock he couldn't pick up. Before “Clicking Out”, please note that, yes, this old, worn out phrase, has great internal, philosophical, value especially in light of the discoveries and data now understood by simple man in his quest for knowledge of his environment.
I believe the answer is, "Yes".
After all, the God of current Christian Orthodoxy, who is all Knowing, all Loving, all Kind and all Compassionate, also has a lake of eternal fire waiting for all who do not accept the most current Christian story line, from whatever particular Christian sect that they happen to belong to, or heavenly bliss for those who keep his commandments. And if God has predestined one of us to Hell, to the lake of fire we must go and if he has predestined one of us to abide with him in his heavenly abode, so it will be.
This viewpoint assumes some all-knowing, omnipotent, omniscient, all good, infinite being whom we call God.
For the sake of credence, may we ask if such an omnipotent and omniscient being was to become bored with knowing everything that was, that is and what is to become, what would such a beings options be?
And would such a being, perhaps, find it pleasing to bring into existence a construct so profound, that the very same, infinite, creative being, could not know the outcomes of every eventuality within the construct?
After all, consider the irrational number Pi – the ratio of a circle to its own diameter. This number has been calculated to the 120,000,000th decimal place, without discovery of any recurring sequence – virtually, the definition of irrationality. Could God know the full ratio of the diameter of a circle to its own radius to the last decimal point?
But a more general and tractable way of phrasing this question would be: "Did the infinite, all knowing, perfectly good God of the Christian Bible, grant the supposed crowning glory of his creation - Mankind - free will?"
Considering the questions, above, and expressed in a different idiom, could the infinite God of the Christian Bible, have intentionally created an entire Universe, or Universes, which he could neither control nor see the ending of, so that all Mankind could have, absolute, free will?
It becomes wise to observe, here, that the particular Universe, in which Mankind exists, is seemingly, very uniquely constructed so that organisms such as Earth, 121+/- atomic species of atoms, man, flowers, water, stars, other suns, other galaxies, atomic and sub-atomic particles, quantum fields, and the very intricately woven fabric of matter-space-time itself, could continuously evolve into more and more complex organizations, and, yes, even living, aspirating, breathing, and, finally, self-aware beings.
What if God has created an infinite number of universes in which an infinite number of universal scenarios are playing out? Could we ever know the answer to these questions?
Are their undecidable questions when finite man is analysing the concept of infinite mind? I believe the answer is “yes”.
Are all the answers to all the questions mere mortals have thought, to be found in a book, written in cryptic languages, translated, mistranslated and transliterated many times over the last 3,500 to 2,000 years.
I think, not.
The very structure of our Universe, as well as the structure of life itself, is replete with virtually, infinitely odd coincidences of constants and probabilities which make such life, as we know it, possible. However,
the very probability of the existence of such a Universe, with such exquisitely, fine-tuned properties as our space-time-matter continuum possesses, is very small, virtually beyond man’s calculation or understanding, in the context of the knowledge of our day.
So how are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing?
So to clarify all of these compelling concepts vis-à-vis our Universe, please note the two items below, as this writer’s undertaking of simply worded definitions of the concepts involved:
1) Our Universe exists, being uniquely created by some vastly advanced (omnipotent and infinite) being, specifically for the intended purpose, of that very same creator, such that this very creator, is not capable of being able to foresee its "future".
2) The probability that our Universe exists, actually coming into existence out of blind chance, that is constructing itself, as a space-time-matter continuum (infinite or not), being, virtually impossible.
Currently, it is the great quest of modern physics and cosmology to explain the very specious, and preposterously unique nature of this, our Universe, along with its determining constants and constituents, which currently remain, resolutely beyond mankind’s calculation or ken.
As no one amongst us simple members of the genus homo, know in any fashion, the Mind of God, there is no real answer to these ultimate questions; however, as man has uncovered more and more of the imbedded elements of universal physics and cosmology, what little man has learned is that the ultimate constituents of our Universe, and the means and methods by which the very structure of our space-time-matter continuum are built, are all composed of elements of fundamental indeterminacy.
By this, I mean that the ultimate processes and procedures by which our Universe makes theoretical, elemental, single-bit "choices" (see “Plank Length” and/or “quantum measurement paradox”), are all based on a fundamental, improbability matrix.
Therefore, the real conundrum is: Did God deliberately create this
Universe, the Universe that Man does inhabit, so that the evolution and ending of which, even he himself could not foresee, for the very specific purpose of endowing this creation, and it's supposed crowning jewel, Man, with the fundamental property of indeterminacy, thereby giving every man, full free will, to make his own decisions and to be responsible for his own destiny?
A “Saturday Night at the Movies” (no repeats) for God.
I believe the answer is, yes, He did.
protected by Chris Sunami Nov 9 '15 at 14:19
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