One of the main arguments of compatibilists trying to save free will from God's foreknowledge seems to be that free will is still possible in the face of perfect foreknowledge as long as God only knows what will happen but does not coerce people into doing one thing rather than another. I would tend to agree with this view.

Yet the bigger picture of traditional images of God (at least in the Abrahamian religions) is that God is not only a passive observer but the active creator of this world, the first mover. Now when you combine this with his perfect foreknowledge it means that God created a world where his perfect foreknowledge of everything happening is the result of how he actively created this world. I see no degree of freedom left in such a world, it seems as if God is the director of a film for which he wrote the whole script too.

My question
In a world like the one described above is it still possible to maintain free will?

  • According to compatibilists yes. According to some (many? all?) libertarians*1 and determinists*2, no. (*1 - libertarian here means the position on free will -- not the political position; *2 - determinist means "hard determinist")...
    – virmaior
    Apr 9, 2017 at 9:15
  • But what is the SE answerable question you're having about philosophy? (as worded this is not something where we can provide an objective answer)
    – virmaior
    Apr 9, 2017 at 9:16
  • @virmaior: My question is - as also stated in the headline - how does compatibilism work in this aggravated scenario. You simply write "According to compatibilists yes" - Could you elaborate on this? Thank you
    – vonjd
    Apr 9, 2017 at 9:27
  • 1
    Creation of the world is not in time, "perfect foreknowledge" is not knowledge at an earlier point in time of what will happen at later points, it is a timeless grasp of it all. On this picture it is not entirely a result of design since free creatures complete the creation with their free actions. An more controversial alternative is that God counterfactually knows how free creatures would act in given circumstances, this is called middle knowledge, and so knows how they will act given the design, but without bringing it about by design.
    – Conifold
    Apr 9, 2017 at 19:45

2 Answers 2


Perhaps this is a short answer but it is such a vast topic that a decent one would be too long.

The perennial philosophy does not endorse freewill or determinism. It says that this dichotomy is false and that if we understand the working of the universe we will see that freewill and determinism are two ways of describing the same phenomenon.

Gurdjieff the Sufi is good on this. He characterises human beings as robots, slaves to their conditioning and beliefs. True freedom would be surrender to God since God would be who we are. But God (Tao, whatever we call it) must act according to His nature and is not free to do otherwise.

Thus Lao Tsu tells us that the laws of Earth follow from the laws of Heaven, and these are as they are 'Tao being what it is'. Freewill does not come into it. God or the Ultimate is not free to be other than what it is, and all else follows from what it is.

You might like Ramesh Balsekar's book The Ultimate Understanding in which he discusses what freewill means to the sage. The concept evaporates on analysis, and if we are lucky in our experience also. '

  • It seems that you could maintain free will in the perennial philosophy by restricting omniscience to everything there is to know. What precisely a free agent will do is not something that is knowable with 100% accuracy. Then when we exercise true freedom we surrender to God (ourselves) and we are still free. Otherwise I don't see how we can exercise this true freedom of surrender either. Jan 2, 2018 at 19:43
  • @FrankHubeny - In a way you'd be right, there is no freewill, but it would not be be correct to say bluntly that this is the case. We have to go back to Lao Tsu and his comment that 'True words seem paradoxical'. Thus we would have and not-have freewill depending on what level of analysis we are applying and cannot simply state we do or do-not have it. Thus, for instance, the seemingly-paradoxical Stoic teaching that only those are free who know they are not free. You make a good point about 'freedom of surrender' and it deserves a discussion, but maybe not here. .
    – user20253
    Jan 3, 2018 at 11:25

Here I must respectfully disagree with the root of the claim.

Given a God that observes what will be does not inherently remove any element of free will and I can't see how the belief that it does so arose. In fact we have a stronger claim in the other direction.

The chess grand-master may well brag that he shall checkmate the novice chess player's king with a specific piece and reliably carry out that brag. In no case was the novice's free will violated, but the brag was true all the same.

God's vision is not like our vision; he can scheme and plot and see what would happen from all actions in advance, but unless he were to choose to take away free will by constraining individual's actions (let us say by manipulating their surroundings until they make the intended choice) than free will has not been violated. But God appears to intervene less than we would like.

I will give you a citation out of Exodus as an example. It reads "God hardened Pharaoh's heart." and then again "Pharaoh hardened his own heart." but even in the predestined interpretation where the plagues could not have been prevented, Pharaoh still had the choice to not pursue the Israelites into the Red Sea. It was all over already and attempting that was a foregone conclusion.

So even though God has the capacity to trample on free will, that does not mean he does so often. Yet you ask if he would do so all the time. It need not be!

Incidentally, Newtonian physics is pre-determined from initial conditions, but General Relativity is not. Even the boldest material view has some aspect of something like free will within it. As a programmer, when I see something like that I think tap-point.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .