I've been reading about Plantinga's defense of free will and I can see how omnipotence is aligned with the existence of evil. What evades me, is how he resolves the conflict between foreknowledge and free will. The article speaks about "weak actualization" and "letting the free choices of creatures complete the world" which to me sounds like a fancy way of saying that this part of the future is hidden from God's knowledge.

Can someone help me understand his reasoning?

Edit. At least I can accept the definition of omnipotence that says "absurd things ('free people that are incapable of doing evil') are still impossible". But his definition of omniscience doesn't feel right at all.

  • Plantinga rejects the compatibilist definition of freedom of will, so free will and foreknowledge are incompatible for him. There is no resolution to be found. – David H Sep 6 '13 at 0:43
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    Plantinga's defence isn't of free will. It uses free will as a premise in defense of all-powerfull all-good God's compatibility with the existence of evil in the world. – artm Sep 8 '13 at 9:50

The basic thrust of Plantinga's argument is that God is not all-powerful (omnipotent); He cannot create a world where free will exists and not allow them to choose between evil or good. He doesn't specifically address the conflict between foreknowledge and free will, but it is implied that God lacks such foreknowledge (he is not omnipotent) because otherwise it could be argued that free will couldn't exist (in a universe in which there is only one possible future).

Plantinga's summary:

A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can't cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren't significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can't give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil.

He concludes with:

The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God's omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.

This is patently wrong, however. Of course it counts against his omnipotence. Either God can do anything, or he can't. Omnipotence is not up for debate.

So he doesn't actually resolve the conflict. The Problem of Evil, I'm afraid, is still a problem.

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    Is the basic Aquinas defense something you're denying helps? Or do you not think Plantinga's TD defense is relevantly similar? If you buy the defense, then God is omnipotent but we were mistaken to think that "omnipotent" means "can do anything whatsoever" (I'm sympathetic to the Aquinas move, frankly). – Dennis Sep 6 '13 at 5:49
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    Sure, I can cede redefining omnipotence to fit that new understanding, then it's fine that God had to create a world with free will and where evil could occur. However, this God would not be able to possess the ability to see the future (foreknowledge) as the argument does not reconcile the inherent contradiction between an having perfect foreknowledge and free will. And that's my issue with the argument: 95% of Abrahamic God believers would not be willing to cede such drawbacks in his power. Valid argument maybe, but likely an unacceptable exchange for much of the religious community. :\ – stoicfury Sep 6 '13 at 7:50
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    Thanks a lot! These were my thought exactly, I just thought I was missing something from the 'transworld depravity' part. – Dmitry Ornatsky Sep 6 '13 at 8:34
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    Ah good, we have an agreement then. I agree that most abrahamic god believers would not be comfortable with Plantinga's argument. – Dennis Sep 6 '13 at 13:13
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    What apologists argue doesn't matter, what is true and/or likely is what matters. You seem to have fixed the entire discussion by this refusal: "Omnipotence is not up for debate." You have refused to consider (a) that omnipotence might have to mean something other than what you think—like this; and (b) that a being who can violate the laws of logic might have extremely good reasons to not ever violate the laws of logic—for example it might terribly harm the ability of contingent beings to understand reality. – labreuer Oct 15 '14 at 3:30

It may help to think about this topic by eliminating the concept of time. What we want to ask is something like the following:

  1. Can an omniscient, omnipotent being 'turn the knobs' on a universe simulator containing free-willed creatures, such that none ever commits moral evil?
  2. If so, could he then just actualize such a universe?

It seems easy to think of a case where the answer to the first question is 'yes'. There is a term in probability called indefinite postponement, whereby a probabilistic process may never give a certain answer. While unlikely, you could flip a perfectly fair coin and never get heads. Couldn't it just be the case that the creatures never end up choosing wrongly? If the many-worlds interpretation is correct, there does indeed exist at least one world "without sin", to quote the Operative in Firefly.

But can we answer 'yes' to the second question? Here, we have to assume that the simulated universes are not real—that any evil in them is fictional and thus not bad—and that somehow, there is a way to reify such a universe. This smacks of "Last Thursdaysim", or the Omphalos hypothesis. Furthermore, there seems to be no guarantee that the now-reified universe will be immune to evil.

Wait a second, what about heaven? Couldn't we just "skip to the end", as one of my friends asks? Why not reify a simulated universe where no evil happened up and to the 'end', where 'end' can be described as a steady-state "everyone's singing praises to God"-type situation? There's a catch: it would be a moral evil for the creatures in heaven to think that they had a life before heaven, for that would be a lie: the reified thing was the end-state.

Plantinga answers 'no' to #1. More precisely, universes picked in #1 aren't guaranteed to be 'better' than universes where at least one evil action is committed. Perhaps in every world picked by #1, there are so many coincidences that normal science cannot be carried out.

In my view, God only runs into trouble if one of these is true:

  1. God can violate the laws of logic. (e.g. create a square circle)
  2. God can choose a different definition of 'good'.

If the answer to both of these questions is 'no', then it could be the case that all logically possible worlds with sinless [morally] free-willed creatures are less 'good', overall, than worlds with moral evil. Incidentally, I think this holds despite Plantinga's argument, but it is perhaps a reformulation: one can count 'good' on a per-creature basis, or on a per-possible-world basis.

  • I'm curious why you say God would run into trouble if he can violate logic. Doesn't that just mean we would be unable to address that aspect of him? – LightCC Dec 31 '15 at 0:13

The question is how does Plantinga resolve “the conflict between foreknowledge and free will” with his free will defense?

The OP accepts that omnipotence means being able to do anything that can be done. It does not include doing absurd things that are impossible such as creating free people that are incapable of doing evil. This agrees with how Plantinga describes omnipotence in God, Freedom and Evil (GFE, 18).

Regarding omniscience, “God knows about every evil state of affair" (GFE, 18). However this does not imply he knows what a free agent will do or not. Plantinga also does not accept compatibilism of free will and determinism. (GFE, 31-2)

One can look at omniscience similarly to omnipotence which may be how Plantinga sees it. Omniscience could mean knowing anything that can be known. That would not include knowing what is not knowable, just like omnipotence does not include doing impossible, absurd things. What the precise free act of an individual agent will be is not knowable in advance.

Based on this view of omniscience “part of the future is hidden from God’s knowledge” much like the precise future result of a quantum measurement is hidden from a human experimenter. It is not something that can be known and so it does not count against this definition of omniscience.

That appears to be Plantinga’s position, however, I will have to see if I can find something more specific confirming it.


It is actually quite simple if one explains it in the context of someone watching a re-run of a movie: you know that the character is going to go into the basement, because you've seen it before. This doesn't mean that you caused him to go into the basement, it simply means that you know what he's going to decide to do. This would be Omniscience.

A second view is the idea that God is omnidirigent, meaning He can find out whatever He wants to know, like a Computer programmer with access to a debug terminal.

A third view to consider is the theory that God knows the human character sufficiently well to know exactly how you will act in a given situation, making it possible for Him to predict your actions, rather than having seen them ahead of time.

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    Note that the character in the movie rerun has absolutely no free will in this situation. I think you kinda missed the point about how omniscience conflicts with free will. If an omniscient entity knows what choices I'm going to make before I make them, then something has already decided my decisions for me ahead of time, and I have no freedom of will. It doesn't matter at all if the God isn't causally responsible for determining my decisions for me. The problem is I'm not responsible either. – David H Sep 6 '13 at 11:02
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    I fail to see how being observed to do something is the same as being forced to do said thing. Know what you are going to CHOOSE to do is absolutely not the same thing as causing you to do it. My pet bird constantly fouls our sofa. Does me knowing he's going to do it again tonight mean that I am the one causing his sphincter to contract? If you watch a movie for the first time, is it somehow different from watching it again? What about a sports replay? Does the player have free will during the live screening, but not during the re-run? What if there is no re-run? – Captain Kenpachi Sep 6 '13 at 11:29
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    Of course you're not causing your bird to poop simply by knowing that he will. But SOMETHING is! That's how you are able to know that it's gonna happen. – David H Sep 6 '13 at 12:40
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    @DavidH is correct. It needn't be God who is determining the choices; the mere fact that he can see that choices are determined is enough to cause conflict. My issue with this answer however is all the different "views" you present are exactly the same. 2nd view - having the ability to find out whatever he wants is functionally the same as being able to see the future. He wouldn't even have to look into the future; the mere fact that he can is enough to say it is fixed. 3rd view is the same; if he has perfect prediction then he can actually see the future. – stoicfury Sep 6 '13 at 16:20
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    Finally, I don't feel this is the correct answer to the question. The question is about how Plantinga resolves the conflict between foreknowledge and free will, which he doesn't appear to directly do in any of the arguments of his I've read. Rather, his "defense" merely attempts (through his concept of transworld depravity / reducing God's omnipotence) to explain how evil can exist in a world governed by an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god. – stoicfury Sep 6 '13 at 16:25

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