Does God’s omniscience conflict with human free will?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Here’s the setup for the question, from Come Reason Ministries.

Excerpt:

Hello,

Christian doctrine holds that God is all knowing (1 John 3:20), and humans have free will (Deuteronomy 30:19 is my favorite example). however, at my favorite apologetics debate board, I have seen skeptics raise an objection to these points several times. the basic logic behind their arguments is this:

  1. A being with free will, given two options A and B, can freely choose between A and B.
  2. God is omniscient (all-knowing).
  3. God knows I will choose A.
  4. God cannot be wrong, since an omniscient being cannot have false knowledge.
  5. From 3 and 4, I will choose A and cannot choose B.
  6. From 1 and 5, omniscience and free will cannot co-exist.

I have read many counter-arguments from apologetics sites, but they were either too technical (I couldn’t understand them), or not satisfying. so, I was wondering what would your input be on this issue?

Thank you,

Justin

Ever heard that one? I actually had that one posed to me by a guy I used to work with who had a Ph.D in computer science from Northwestern. So this is an objection you may actually hear.

Here’s Lenny Eposito’s answer:

Hi Justin,

Thanks for writing. This is a great question as it shows how even those who appeal to logic can have biases that blind them. Let’s examine this argument and see if it follows logically.

Premises 1 and 2 in your outline above are the main premises to the argument and are not disputed. The Christian worldview argues that every human being is a free moral agent and is capable of making choices simply by exercising their will, not under compulsion or because of instinct. Also, it is a long held doctrine of Christianity that God is all-knowing. The Bible says that God knows “the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10).” For omniscience to be truly knowledgeable it must be correct knowledge, so premise number 4 is also granted.

However, point number 5 is where the logic falters. Those who argue in this manner make the mistake of thinking that because God possesses knowledge about a specific matter, then he has influenced it. That does not follow at all. Just because God can foresee which choice you will make, it does not mean you couldn’t still freely choose the other option.

Let me give you an example. I have a five year old son. If I were to leave a chocolate chip cookie on the table about a hour before dinner time and my son was to walk by and see it, I know that he would pick up the cookie and eat it. I did not force him to make that decision. In fact, I don’t even have to be in the room at all. I think I know my son well enough, though, to tell you that if I come back into the kitchen the cookie will be gone. His act was made completely free of my influence, but I knew what his actions would be.

In examining the argument, the assumption is made in premise 3 that because God knows I will choose A somehow denies me the choice of B. That is the premise that Christianity rejects. Omniscience and free will are not incompatible and it is a non-sequitor to claim otherwise.

Thank you Justin for this interesting question. I pray that you will continue to defend the gospel of our Lord and may He continue to bless you as you seek to grow in Him.

That’s a great answer and should work in ordinary conversations.

More technical

J.W. Wartick maps out the arguments more fully with symbolic logic here on his Always Have A Reason blog. But I’ll just excerpt the gist of it.

Excerpt:

It is necessarily true that if God knows x will happen, then x will happen. But then if one takes these terms, God knowing x will happen only means that x will happen, not that x will happen necessarily. Certainly, God’s foreknowledge of an event means that that event will happen, but it does not mean that the event could not have happened otherwise. If an event happens necessarily, that means the event could not have happened otherwise, but God’s foreknowledge of an event doesn’t somehow transfer necessity to the event, it only means that the event will happen. It could have been otherwise, in which case, God’s knowledge would have been different.

[…]Perhaps I could take an example. Let’s say that I’m going to go to classes tomorrow (and I do hope I will, I don’t like missing classes!). God knows in advance that I’m going to go to classes tomorrow. His knowledge of this event means that it will happen, but it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t choose to stay in and sleep for a while, or play my new copy of Final Fantasy XIII, or do something more useless with my time. If I chose to, say, play Final Fantasy XIII (a strong temptation!), then God simply would have known that I would play FFXIII. His knowledge does not determine the outcome, His knowledge is simply of the outcome.

If we choose A, God would foreknow A. If we choose B, God would foreknow B. His foreknowledge of our choices is contingent on our making free choices.

13 thoughts on “Does God’s omniscience conflict with human free will?”

  1. People tend to forget that God is outside of time — He created time. He sees the future at the same time as the past; to Him all time is one time–it is only humans who live time in a linear way. So if God sees everything at the same time, the end from the beginning (which He has to in order to be omniscient and omnipresent) then there is no problem with free will choices not being influenced by God.

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    1. Yes, I was going to mention that too.
      God is outside of time (He is free in FOUR dimensions, not free in THREE dimensions and bounded by laws of physics/nature as we are.)
      This also has some cool applications: you can pray before something, you can pray after some event. Even long beforehand. You can forget to pray and pray later!
      But anyway — as you know, Millard Erickson asks an interesting question (p. 354-362 of Christian Theology), “Which is logically prior — God’s plan or Human Action?”
      As you read this, he makes the case that he is a moderate Calvinist, that God’s foreknowledge and plan are logically prior [all things come into being due to God’s will], that human beings don’t know what details of God’s plan are, we human beings are all limited (due to genetics, our finite understanding, circumstances, etc.) and that God “works in such a suasive way with the will of the individual that he freely makes the choice that God intends” (calling this ‘congruism’, p. 359).

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  2. I wrestled with the question for a while, even though I don’t subscribe to God’s omniscience (I believe He is voliscient, as in knows what He wants to know, of which omniscience is a subcategory).
    The result of my pondering was that most people understand the term omniscience wrong. If it is to apply to God, it _cannot_ mean knowledge of future, as having all knowledge does not mean having knowledge that isn’t there. Moral action and responsibility requires real choice, which means the ability to choose otherwise. If determinism is true, no choices are ever made.
    The alternative is to render pretty much all of the Bible odd: why throw tantrums when what one knows to happen, and has preordained through creation, does happen? To subscribe to creator’s omniscience that encompasses everything about the future logically and inevitably leads to monism. I believe that is the theological approach Islam takes, and is, utterly Satanic.

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  3. I agree about the space time point. God goes beyond this realm eternal past and into the future.

    It is how we have a beginning to all events of our universe and how it can logically come into being. A type of point William Craig would refer to.

    If you pull back from our dimension as God would exist. There isn’t only this single arrow timeline as far as he is concerned. That timeleline exists for our universe alone but in the dimension where God exists there won’t be that single arrow timeline from the big bang.

    Additionally because he is omnipresent he can see what it is like today in what we see as parts of the universe hundreds of millions of light years and more away from us.

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  4. If you accept the true existence of causal infinite regress, then you can’t hold this objection. On the other hand, this objection to God is very tricky if you accept the premise that all things that exist have a beginning. Why? Because if free will does not exist, then all actions are deterministic. The antecedent must precede the consequent and be known.

    Paired with the Kalam Cosmological Argument, you’ve just proven that God exists and is uncaused (that is, timeless). If God is timeless, the statement “God knows what you will do” is logically nonsensical: you cannot apply time limitations to a timeless being.

    Thus, any way you look at it, this argument doesn’t work.

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    1. William Lane Craig’s view is that God enters into time at the moment of creation.

      The foreknowledge comes from know what people will choose in any situation. And God makes all the situations.

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  5. “William Lane Craig’s view is that God enters into time at the moment of creation.”

    Yes, he is an A-theorist. I follow a few Christian B-theorists. I remain unconvinced. It’s not at all clear how God could leave the timeless and enter the timed or how the traditional doctrine of hell could work philosophically with A-theory. This goes way, way beyond a simple apologetic, but it does matter.

    However, my general point is that an atheist who rejects real infinite regress (as he should) and also makes this objection is contradicting himself, since his objection requires the existence of God.

    “Those who argue in this manner make the mistake of thinking that because God possesses knowledge about a specific matter, then he has influenced it.”

    It’s not just God’s knowledge. If God created everything and set it in motion, then he necessarily influenced it. Out of all the logically possible worlds, he picked this one, fully knowing what the outcome would be and chose to create it anyway. Just because there were a great many intermediate causes and effects is logically irrelevant. I don’t find this rebuttal compelling at all.

    Let’s examine the cookie analogy. Whether it is eaten or not, you don’t know if the action was free or determined. Only an infinite, all-knowing, timeless observer could know that. This line of reasoning is a stalemate, a logical dead end. But at least we’ve established that God exists!

    Rather than using analogy, this argument is easily defeated using pure logic:

    “(3) God knows I will choose A.”
    “(4) God cannot be wrong”
    “(5) From 3 and 4, I will choose A and cannot choose B.”

    This is the fallacy of equivocation. The inverse of “will choose A” is “won’t choose B”. It is not “can’t choose B”. For (3) to hold, your choice must actually be a choice. As written, the argument is circular reasoning: to say that you cannot choose B is to presume it isn’t a choice (i.e. you don’t have free will).

    Solve the equivocation and you have this argument: “God knows I will choose A. I chose A and not B. God wasn’t wrong. Therefore I don’t have free will.” This is plainly logically invalid.

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  6. It will never be fully easy for our mind to grasp a timeless being. At the same time God is everywhere in our universe. Parts of the universe millions or billions of light years removed from us with events having occurred that we don’t know and can’t see. He is there while in our planet too.

    He is also able to see the light stages of the universes past history not just what is currently reaching earth from the past. But al the light gone past and that which has left a star but not due to arrive for millions of years on earth

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  7. There’s an interesting scene in the Bible, where King David is on the run from his enemies. He’s considering entering a city for refuge and consults the priests, asking if it’s a safe harbor. They tell David that if he enters the city and tries to make friends with its ruler, that he will be killed. So King David decides to leave the area.
    What this basically tells us is that the future isn’t written in stone, that we can take any path we please – it’s just that God knows the end results of all possible paths. To us, the future is only a quantum waveform that takes shape only when we choose to make a decision. (These decisions change the shape of the waveform in the future, and effects the destinies of all around us, like a ripple in a pond.)

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  8. The cookie is not a good example. The kid might not take it. Even if he does you don’t KNOW he will, just expect.

    The only way around it is it the molinist approach, that god simply knows the decision because he knows the truth of all propositional statements.

    How does he know this if the agent can decide either freely? A molinist will say he just does by virtue of omniscience. Theres really now explanation of how.

    People who reject this say there is no how, no way you could know a free decision prior to it happening or prior to creation. They choose no free will or no knowledge, calvin or open theism.

    I have to admit, i do understand the molinist position, but im not really satisfied with it since it doesn’t give an answer to how this could be.

    If you think its because, like the cookie example, he so knows each persons nature that he can predict, this implies a fixed determined behavior and undermines free will.

    I believe in free will because i experience it, and that overrides the fact that no one can explain it logically. An act of will that isnt determined by reasons would be random. If two identical people in two identical situations can choose freely to act different, then what is conditioning the act to make it different?
    This stuff is at present beyond philosophical explanation. Even Christian philosopher van inwagen admits as much and its his lifes work.

    Inspiring philosophy youtuber did a video explaining free will but it didnt really satisfy me.

    On thomism, free will involves reasons. Its not the pure free will unconditioned, undetermined by causes that force x decision.

    This is far from an easy settled issue for Christians. Like so much about god, we can believe things for good reason without being able to explain them, and we shouldn’t either pretend or require that we can explain it all rationally

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    1. “How does he know this if the agent can decide either freely? A molinist will say he just does by virtue of omniscience. There’s really no explanation of how.”

      “I believe in free will because i experience it, and that overrides the fact that no one can explain it logically.”

      No, this is incorrect. If God is timeless, infinite, and all-knowing, then he knows all logically possible worlds even if they don’t happen.

      (1) God must be infinite, or he could not see *all* possible futures.
      (2) God must be timeless, or he could not see all possible *futures*.
      (3) God must be all-knowing, or he could not *see* all possible futures.

      This allows God to see your choices and decisions without causing them.

      Omniscience is not sufficient: knowing all causes and effects. This is determinism. If each consequent effect is exactly determined from the antecedent causes, then presumably the only way God could know this if it is deterministic. The A-theory God has problems (unless you’re a Calvinist).

      However, as I pointed out in my previous comment, you can’t actually prove determinism or free will without reaching a circular reasoning stalemate. No wonder philosophers have difficulty. Thus, your personal experience of free will is quite valuable.

      I know I’ve burned a lot of words trying to say this in (now) three comments, but it is quite logical.

      This whole business reminds me of Schrödinger’s cat.

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