Saturday, September 23, 2006

Divine Omniscience and the Problem of Free Will

I am presently taking a course on the philosophy of religion and addressing metaphysical frameworks for the Christian faith. One of the more interesting dilemmas is reconciling God's omniscience and human free will. Some thinkers assert either:

1. God can know the future because he will determine it.
2. We have free will over our decisions and therefore God cannot know our future paths.

But both cannot be true. Free will is logically inconsistent with divine omniscience. Here is a common example known as the Cheese Omelet Argument:

1. It is now true that I will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow. (Assumption)
2. It is impossible that God should at any time believe anything false or fail to believe anything which is true. (Assumption: divine omniscience)
3. Therefore God has always believed that I will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow. (Inference from 1 and 2)
4. If God has always believed a certain thing, it is not in my power to bring it about that God has not always believed that thing. (Assumption: the inalterability of the past)
5. Therefore it is not in my power to bring it about that God has not always believed that I will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow (Inference from 3 and 4)
6. It is not possible for it to be true both that God has always believed that I will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow, and that I do not in fact have one. (Inference from 2)
7. Therefore it is not in my power to refrain from having a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow. (Inference from 5 and 6) So I do not have free will with respect to the decision whether or not to eat an omelet. (Hasker 51-52)

There are a variety of possible resolutions to this dilemma. One is that God transcends time and therefore "foreknowledge" is a meaningless term when applied to God. God doesn't know things before they happen; he knows everything at every point of time simultaneously. Another is called Open Theism, featuring a diminished God who doesn't know the future (among other limited capacities).

I hypothesize another alternative. We Wesleyan-Arminians believe that God has omnipotence and can, if he wishes, make us move, act, and think as puppets. But God instead gives us free will to choose our course of actions, including sinful ones. God has omnipotence, but chooses not to use it. That God has a faculty does not necessitate that he use it.

Perhaps, in like manner, God has omniscience, but does not use it fully. God has the capacity to know (and therefore dictate) our every action, but chooses not to engage that power.

What do you think of this hypothesis?

11 comments:

Jonathan said...

John, I think your argument is good as far as it goes, but I would want to add some things for clarification. It is not as though Wesley believed we have natural free will. Left to our own devices, we are not free to choose the good. In our natural state, we are enslaved to sin, and have no free will at all. I think that this is what distinguishes Wesley from Pelagius. Luther refered to this as the "bondage of the will." John Wesley was not Immanuel Kant.

What then distinguishes Wesley from Calvin? Prevenient grace. Wesley taught that some measure of free will was supernaturally restored to us by the merits of Christ's death on the cross. It is not as though we are ever in a position where we can by our own decisions "choose Christ." Christ chose us, not the other way around. It is only because of God's grace that we can receive justifying grace. In our natural state, we cannot choose Christ. Once we receive Christ, we begin to learn what real freedom means: obedience to Christ. So, freedom turns out to be a gift of sanctification, not a precondition for justification.

I think you are right when you say that God has omniscience and omnipotence, but God chooses to limit his power by giving us some measure of freedom.

jockeystreet said...

I've always thought the "transcends time" sort of argument is essentially a word game that skirts the issue.

As far as your own take on it, I don't know, but I wonder... does God "choosing not to know" alter things in any way? God has decided not to see it, in a sense, but since he COULD see it, we're left with the problem. If he's got "John will eat a cheese omelet" written on a slip in his pocket but chooses not to take it out and look at it, don't you still have to eat the omelet?

Anonymous said...

What does this all do for the problem of evil?

If God chooses not know is he then not responsible for evil?

bob said...

I believe we have free will.
God does not control us though He could.
God also being all knowing knows what we will choose and allows us that freedom.
This may be too simplistic but lets not over think things.

Tim Sisk said...

A few quick thoughts:

Re: The Problem of Evil: I like what C. S. Lewis said in his book The Problem of Suffering: God gave us free will, that we have true automony and this is a preferred existence but to truly exercise free will God had to create a world in which the possibility of choosing evil was present. I'm sure there are nuanced disagreements with the above position but it works for me.

Secondly: How is God's will exercised and human beings retain their ability to exercise their free will as well? Imagine a sugar ant has crawled on my desk (our church is plagued with them) and I allow it to crawl upon my hand. It has a whole realm of choices available to it. It can crawl this way or that, remaining on my palm or crawling underneath. All the while it is choosing its path, I'm walking it out of my office, out the door, and outside. The ant's will was never impeded, yet I was able to move it as I will. I think God works that way too (our am I literalizing too much the whole "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand"?)

Thirdly, re: foreknowledge. I learned a variation to the whole cheese omelet during my Phil. of Religion class as well. The way I have reconciled it is to remember that it treats time in a linear fashion. (Which would seem correct. The Past comes before the present which precedes the future). But God is eternal, that is beyond time. Eternity is the ever-present. There isn't a past or a future. God sees all decisions and all events at once. Draw a timeline on a piece of paper, put dates in to remind of the time (even put some "not yet happened events"), and step back and look at it. Just as you are able to behold the whole "timeline" so God is as well. So God's foreknowledge of events doesn't preclude their independence, their unalterability.

Hopefully this will make some sense, probably not, its late and I'm a little loopy.

Olive Morgan said...

I like Tim Sisk's ant illustration, but isn't there more to it than that? We have a more personal relationship with God than we have with the ant! So when we are deciding which way to go (or whether to eat the omelette!)God is speaking to us all the time. Sometimes we are not tuned in, do not hear Him and go our own way. At other times we hear Him calling us and, using our free will, we can choose to listen to His voice and go according to His direction or to shut our ears to it and continue going our own way. That is my experience anyway.

Tim Sisk said...

Olive: Oh yeah, I agree with you. My "ant" illustration is only intended to narrowly reconcile how we can have free will while God's will is being accomplished as well.

Certainly I think God interacts with us as his will is revealed to us.

Stephen said...

It is interesting, especially since I have been arguing with a five point tulip calvinist for the past two weeks. I point to the fact that Calvin's image is the tulip, while Armenians/Wesleyan's image is the daisy. I believe that God's knows the possibilities. Jonathan is right to point out that Wesley believed and taught that previent grace restored to us the free will to choose. Everyone was given in God's grace the ability to choose Grace. Not by our own actions, but by God's alone. However, I understand this restoral of free will to have also imparted the ability to choose against Grace. Jonathan beat me to it by saying God gave us some measure of freedom (free will).

Oloryn said...

Actually, I think there's 2 different issues here that we tend to conflate. One is the existence of free will pre-fall - what's the nature of free will in a world (however short a time it lasted) where slavery to sin isn't an issue? My general approach to this is that given God's Sovereignty, free will can only exist if God sovereignly allows it to - essentially, He sovereignly decides to allow us to make choices, and for those choices to have permanent effects. My usual problems with the Calvinists on this is they're reluctant to let God be Sovereign over His Sovereignty.

The other issue, of course, is on what effect the fall has on free will - given a free will in an unfallen state, what changes are there to free will after the fall? We generally end up arguing on this issue while bringing in philosophical arguments that really apply to the first.

Adam Caldwell said...

Yes, but who is truly free..."Party Pete" or "Party PenelopeP?

Andy Bates said...

Your logical argument is flawed, and I can tell you exactly where it is flawed. Let’s just take God completely out of the proof and work from there:

1. It is now true that I will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow. (Assumption)
6. It is not possible for it to be true both that I will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow, and that I do not in fact have one. (Logic)
7. Therefore it is not in my power to refrain from having a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow. (Inference from 1 and 6) So I do not have free will with respect to the decision whether or not to eat an omelet.

See? God’s omniscience is completely gone from the equation, and yet I have also proven that you don’t have free will. Or have I?

Actually, all I have proven is that if you assume that “I will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow” is true, then it is true. It is a fallacy to say that because an event is true, then that event must not have been made out of free will. For example, it is necessarily true (and has been since the beginning of time) that I had cereal for breakfast yesterday. Does that mean I couldn’t have had eggs instead? Of course not. There is a difference between “that which I will do” and “that which I must do.”