Does God’s Omniscience Eliminate Human Freedom?

By | February 11, 2010

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To assume simply that we can transfer our ordinary language and concepts to a transcendental setting and use them much the same way as we ordinarily use them is at the very least a questionable assumption, betraying a fundamental confusion.

Does God’s Omniscience Imply Lack of Human Freedom?

Suppose there exists an omniscient being (“God”?) who has complete fore-knowledge of all events. This seems logically to imply that no act can possibly be free. For the claim that we acted freely implies that we could have done otherwise, e.g. I attended mass on Sunday morning, but I could have chosen to play golf instead. However, if an omniscient being knew that I would go to mass, than the proposition that ‘I attend mass on Sunday’ is true. On Sunday morning I could not have acted so as to nullify the knowledge possessed by the omniscient being; i.e., I could not act so as to falsify the proposition ‘I attend mass on Sunday.’ Thus, I was not free to do other than what I in fact did. Freedom of action is nothing but a delusion.

This line of argumentation is suspect, to say the least. One way of showing this involves an analogy between our actions as viewed by an omniscient being and the actions of a character in a novel discussed by observers outside the novel.

God’s eye-view of a completed script:

When we ‘view’ things from the perspective of an omniscient being, we imagine an individual’s life-line as already completed. The future is as fixed as the past, and nothing can alter it. (God’s complete foreknowledge has fixed the script that we must follow. For all eternity is was true that I would attend mass on Sunday morning.) Every action on that life-line is fixed, and there’s nothing that the human agent can do to change any part of it. What appear to be open options in the future (mass or golf on Sunday morning?) are already closed (definitely mass!).
By analogy, suppose that there’s a completed script (a novel) that describes a character’s entire existence. Then imagine that we survey the entire story from the outside (God’s eye-view) and see where everything is going. Everything is fully determined. The character-within-the-story plays out his role according to the script, which is final and closed. Consider an example of a small part of the script:
The main character in our story, call him “John,” learns that his employer is commiting fraudulent acts to gain rich government contracts. Now John faces a hard choice. He can either ignore the cheating by his employer, that is, go along quietly and keep his well-paying job; or he can blow the whistle on his employer and face the consequences (likely lose his job, lose the friendship of his co-workers, even be blackballed in the industry so that finding another position would be difficult). After much agonizing and soul searching, John decides to report the fraudulence to the proper authorities. As a result, he loses his job and incurs economic hardships. He is unemployed for a long period and his wife is forced to take a low-paying job herself so they can pay their bills. They lose their house and the marriage suffers. The marriage endures and he enjoys partial, financial recovery, but he definitely loses out in terms of economic and social status. Years later, looking back on his fateful decision to “blow the whistle,” John does not regret his decision. Yes, he paid a heavy price, but he feels he made the right choice and kept his moral integrity intact.

Descent into a Philosophical Confusion:

Now we ask, did John act freely or not? Was he in control of his action and thus responsible for his action? It is clear to me that, when we consider these questions within the context of the story —- the questions make sense and we can coherently debate the answer. We might argue that John did act freely. He chose to blow the whistle on his employer; he was not forced or coerced to act as he did. He knew what he was doing, was in full control of what he did; and most certainly knew that his action would have consequences, maybe negative repercussions. The confusion comes into play when we ask the same questions and attempt to answer them from a perspective outside the story —- as external observers who know how the story turns out. Here the questions do not make any sense. What could we possibly be asking? Whether John, a fictional character, could have diverted from the script as it was been written? Surely this is absurd. From this external perspective it is obvious that the fictional character, John, is defined (all his actions fully determined) by the script as the author has written it. Someone might say that “John” has no ‘choice’ in the matter; that he is a mere puppet fully controlled by someone (author ?) working the strings. But surely these are trivial points and suggest great confusion. From an external perspective, the concepts of ‘freedom,’ ‘being in control,’ and ‘responsibility’ do not even apply..
How could these questions (regarding freedom, control, & responsibility) asked from an external perspective even make any sense? Isn’t it obvious that the concepts of freedom (and lack of), in-control (and out-of-control), and responsibility (no responsibility) get their proper application within the context of the story? From the external perspective, there is no point in asking whether the character “John” could have diverted from the story-line and done otherwise. Only someone terribly confused or simply joking around would even pose such a question. Given our external perspective, we know that the character acts as the script has him acting. But this does negate the possibility, that within the story John could have acted freely. He deliberated and chose the blow the whistle on his employer. In our example, he did have freedom of choice and acted accordingly. That’s why he agonized so much over his choice.
When we ask whether human freedom is compatible with an omniscient being having complete foreknowledge of everything we do, we commit the fallacy of taking things from a god’s-eye-view perspective and assuming that we can unproblematically apply the language of freedom. It is the same confusion shown when someone asks whether a character in a novel could have diverted from the story line laid out by the author? At best, it is a philosophical joke, maybe instructive to a point. At worst, it betrays an astonishing level of confusion and lack of critical thought

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