Let us assume we have a being that is omniscient, knowing everything. This being knows the state of every atom, every electron, at every moment. This includes the future, as that is part of everything. If it doesn't know the future, it's not omniscient.

If it knows the future, it doesn't know it in probabilities, because that's not knowing. It knows with complete 100 percent certainty exactly what will happen at every moment from now to the end of time. (if there is one).

Which means that all possible choices have their outcomes already known. This being knows what you will have for dinner on April 1, 2000, what you will wear to bed on June 12, 2002, and when you will die, and nothing can change that. You can't choose differently because you can't choose.

This is enough to mean there is no free will. You're not really choosing freely if it can be known what you will choose, you're forced into it by some means. This doesn't mean you don't feel like you're choosing, of course.

But if we assume this omniscient being is also the creator, then we get into even more interesting philosophical territory. Why? This creator, being omniscient, would have known everything - including all choices all beings in a universe would make even before making that universe. So, in a manner, it would be responsible for every action performed, since it knew what those actions would all be.

An omniscient creator leaves no room for free will, or for responsibility, for that manner, for he chose the path everything in that universe would take.

Assume, say, an ordinary, fairly complete description of your actions today, written tomorrow. (It will be our "functionally omniscient" object when it starts time-travelling backwards.)

Assume now, that through some cunning artifice that tale of events is moved into yesterday--but you don't know about it.

Your day carries on the same way that the tale outlines it--but it would be a stretch of logic to say that these words on paper "remove" your free will. Had you done something different, that something different would be in the tale instead--one might even say that your free will changed your unknown "destiny".

For a slightly modified case: Assume instead that the tale of today's events was read to you this morning, and you had thought about it and planned your actions accordingly. This would be weird. Regardless of this, however, the contents of the tale read to you are determined by your actions today, which in this case are determined by the contents of the tale, which are determined by your actions... It creates an infinite loop, the outcome of which would be undefined by logic as we know it. One might use it as a disproof of the possibility of knowledge of the future happening; another might use it as a disproof of the possibility of free will.

Aside:(What would your destiny look like when you saw it? I think it might well be illegible, or at least produce very odd results--although on the off chance that it actually worked, you could not fail to be happy with your destiny because of the infinite amount of time you spent in its redefinition.

Anyway, free will and omniscience are therefore volatile and possibly contradictory, but only when they interact--which is probably why "true" prophecies are both rare and obscure enough to not usually be decipherable until after the fact.

This is a thought I have very clear in my head and any grievous mistakes in this writeup are probably due to verbalization error. Let me know.

The conflict between an all knowing being and the free will of individuals.

  1. There is a being that knows everything that was, is, and will be.
  2. This being would know exactly that I will do before I do it.
  3. I have will do what is known that I will do in the future.
  4. Therefore I do not have free will.
What is free will? Free will is the ability to make a choice. Let us take a person that we know very well. Hypothetically, this person is a vegetarian. For lunch, there are two choices: the steak and the vegetarian pasta. You know what this person will choose to eat. Given the same choice tomorrow, you know what the outcome will be. Does this person have free will with regards to what to eat, even though you know what will be chosen before it is done?

The knowledge in advance of what the truth will is not the cause of the truth. The choice is not being forced, and is made freely. This person could choose the steak if so desired.

Extending this, does a being with perfect knowledge of your preferences force you to make the choices that this being knows you will make? You have the choice. If you wanted to, you could choose otherwise, and that is the essence of free will. Even though it may be possible to know the future outcome of events, it does not mean that the choices leading up to those events are compelled or necessary.

As Cletus the Foetus notes above, "the sticky issue for free will... is the combination of omniscience and omnipotence." Needless to say, the hypothetical scenario of omniscience is usually intended as a reference to the nebulous and ever-recurring "divine", since we human beings don't exactly have a claim to absolute knowledge or power. Because of this, these questions of free will and its relation to divine nature have long been part of theological speculation.

The Universe According to Classical Theism

Perhaps one of the more interesting ways that classical theology makes its position on the issue is drawn from the neo-Thomistic idea of a dual-natured causality. This conception removes us from the more-Deistic idea of the divine watchmaker, supplying an initial momentum to the system of the universe, and sitting idly by as it inexorably winds itself down from perfection to decadence.

The systematic order inherent in the universe and brought about by law renders a conception of universal order not unlike the Deistic model, but a distinction is made between the natural and knowable order of intrinsically lawful nature and the divine providence which is the primary cause which works through the agency of secondary causes. This largely metaphysical distinction allows God to play a continuing role in the creation, as the necessary condition for all knowable occurences. But it's incorrect to think of the causes as pertaining to the same aspect or somehow competing - they deal with altogether different levels of causality and do not somehow combine or overpower one another.

Its Meaning and Significance

To make some sense of this, it's necessary to think of power as inherent potential rather than as an application of force. This inherent possibility is quickened into reality, whereupon it follows the laws proper to its nature and unfolds due to this secondary causality which divine will allows to unfold. These secondary causes are those occurences which become known to science and they are inherently lawful and intelligible. Thus God, acting as the principal agent, "gives the word" to secondary rational agents, and lawfulness obtains. God is the operational, and nature the instrumental, cause.

The Eastern doctrines of the Tantrics are not altogether dissimilar. The essential idea of Siva and the expression of his power through the Sakti, the creative power unfolded as the material universe.

    O Devi!
    Thou art the mind, the sky, the air, the fire, the water, and the earth.
    Nothing is outside Thee on Thy transformation.
    Thou hast become Siva’s consecrated queen
    to alter Thy own blissful conscious Form in the shape of the world
    - traditional, as translated by Swami Sivananda1

The doctrine of purusa, acting through the agency of prakrti (the creative forces of universal nature) describes a process nearly identical to the scenario which unfolds from the Western idea of dual causality. The "initiating cause" remains transcendent and does not enter material existence, but activates an aspect of material existence.

Getting to the Point

How, precisely, does this connect to the problem of omniscience and free will? God, as a trans-temporal and unchangingly eternal being, has no knowledge of the future by the secondary causes which unfold potentially and indeterminately, but has total knowledge of future, past, and present as it exists in the divine and unchangeable order.

As Anglican theologian Austin Farrer notes, God's agency is omnipotent and acts upon, in, or through the natural agencies, without either coercing or competing with them. Karth Barth and other neo-orthodox writers have supported this conception, which affirms both the value and need for science and the validity of a scientific understanding of reality, and the preservation of creaturely free-will and lawfulness of the created order.

There are some interesting difficulties with the notion of dual-causality and its seemingly-paradoxical nature. Principally, this view is unsustainable if:

  • we want to admit the possibility of direct divine agency acting to accomplish "miracles" and moving history directly.
  • we reject trans-temporality of deity but insist on maintaining the classical idea of omniscience
  • we insist that "evil" and chance cannot exist in a universe created by an all-knowing and perfect God

There is a problem with assigning an ontological status to divine agency if a trans-temporal notion of deity is rejected, in which case determinism is implied, wherein God knows the outcomes as they will unfold in the created order. The idea of miraculous events acting somehow outside the natural order and without natural laws which are at least potentially-intelligible causes agency problems (does divine will interfere with natural law, overwhelm it somehow, or ignore it by special privilege?) which are not easy to contemplate. The ideas of a God who possesses human values of "good" and "evil" are equally unsustainable, and the idea that an omnipotent God doesn't have the power to allow chance is self-contradictory.

sources and further reading:
1Sivananda, Kundalini Yoga (10th Edition) Divine Life Society, Uttar Pradesh, India 1994.
Barbour, Ian, Religion and Science:Historical and Contemporary Issues, HarperCollins, NY 1997.
Peacocke, Arthur, Theology for a Scientific Age, Oxford, Cambridge MA. 1990

Yahweh comments, cryptically:

Remember the former things of old:
for I am God, and there is none else;
I am God, and there is none like me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
and from ancient times the things that are not yet done,
saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.
(Isaiah 46:9-10)

All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them:
That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.
(Matthew 13:35)

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness;
but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish,
but that all should come to repentance.
(2 Peter 3:9)

The beast that thou sawest was, and is not;
and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition:
and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder,
whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world,
when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.
(Revelation 17:8)

And the Spirit and the bride say, "Come!"
And let him who hears say, "Come!"
And let him who thirsts come.
Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.
(Revelation 22:17)

(A note prompted by feedback: Biblical quotes do not constitute a logical argument, nor is this post intended as such. It is intended as information as to what one religion's canonical text has to say on the topics of "omniscience" and "free will" as such abstractions, though often religious in tenor, tend to be broadly used, and it can be useful to have a reference for what a religion directly states relative to them. If you know of references of other religions' canonical texts on this topic, I'd personally like to see them posted here, and personally would *not* like to see biblical quotes arbitrarily posted to the nodegel!)

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