(Please Note: Originally, this piece was written as a class handout from Dr. Ron Barnette, now Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Valdosta State University, posed in the early 1990's, and updated in 1999. Since this piece was written, for a class debate, it has been used (and exploited) by many website enthusiasts for their own causes. My intent was to generate intelligent debate and dialogue for class members and other internet visitors, and not to assist self-serving, anti-humanistic causes. Please respect my original intent as you read this, as I am one of the Brights, for those who understand, in the tradition of those who subscribe to the principles of freethinking and naturalistic thought. I am convinced that logic, clear thinking, and natural common sense---and not baseless reference to the supernatural---can make a real difference in this world of ours, as we all address issues that matter most. Thank you.)

...Ron Barnette


OMNISCIENCE AND FREEDOM: A CASE FOR THE OPPOSITION


Introduction

This piece is intended as a thought-provoking challenge, both conceptual and logical. In Part I the case is argued that the existence of an all-knowing (omniscient) God is logically incompatible with that of a free human agent. Specifically, it is argued that if an omniscient God exists, then no human being is free; equivalently, if anyone is free, then an all-knowing God cannot exist. Part II is meant to address anticipated objections. Clearly, not all objections are dealt with, and additional attempted refutations are invited.

Part I: The Case for the Incompatibility of God's Omniscience and Free Action.

Let us assume that the concept of God implies that God is omniscient. That is, for any true state of affairs, past, present, and future, described by some proposition p, if God exists then it is true at all times that God knows that p. Further assume that to know something, p, implies that p is true; knowledge entails truth, in other words. Now for the argument.

Suppose that, for example, Dr. Santas performs some action---say, that he comes to his Philosophy 4800 class on Thursday, Sept.16, 1999. (Or use any example you wish.) Given this supposition, the following proposition is thus true:

(1) Dr. Santas comes to his Philosophy 4800 class on Thursday, Sept. 16, 1999.

Now, if one further assumes that an all-knowing God exists, then, given the above characterization of God as omniscient, it thus follows that

(2) At all times God knows that (1) is the case.*

Further, since knowledge implies truth, it thus follows that

(3) At all times (1) is true.

Since (1) is thus true at all times, it follows that, for example,

(4) (1) is true in 1000 B.C.

Any proposition, such that its truth is fixed or established beforehand, that is, prior to its described event's


*"At all times" expresses from our perspective---not necessarily God's---the truth of God's knowing that (1) is the case. Contrast (2) with (2a) "God knows, at all times, that (1) is the case." (2a) places God in time, and invites a host of issues I mean to avoid. This is an important distinction to note.


occurrence, let us say, is a proposition whose truth conditions determines the event, in that the event is unavoidable; for to say otherwise would be to deny that the truth was in fact established beforehand. And we have already proven that proposition (4) is established, based on the assumption that its truth is known beforehand by God, if God exists. So it follows that

(5) Dr. Santas' coming to class was determined beforehand, in that Santas' action was unavoidable.

But (5) implies that

(6) Dr. Santas was not actually free to do otherwise than to come to class,

since what is determined to be beforehand rules out free choice, genuine options, avoidability, and the like. Generalizing from the above, then, it follows that free choice and free action---where one actually has options, presumably, and can elect one action over another, and can avoid alternatives---are logically incompatible with the assumption that an omniscient God exists.

Thus, we can conclude:

(7) If an omniscient God exists, then nobody is free; and, equivalently, if anyone can perform a free action, then God does not exist.

Q.E.D.


Part II: Objections and Replies

Objection 1: "Although God knows in advance that Dr. Santas would come to class (since God knows everything), it doesn't follow that God caused Dr. S. to come to class. This being the case, Dr. S.'s coming to class was not forced, and thus he came to class freely."

Reply: Admittedly, foreknowledge doesn't imply that what was known was caused to happen by the knower. But this is irrelevant, since there are examples of determinism other than causal determinism. Logical determinism is such an example: Santas wasn't free not because he was physically compelled by God to come to class, but simply because he was logically bound to attend, given that his attending was known (and thus established as true) beforehand, if an omniscient God exists. In other words, Santas was thus incapable of avoiding attendance, if an all-knowing being exists. On the other hand, if he wasn't so bound, and if he could have avoided attending the class, his freedom was due, in part, to the fact that no foreknowledge and truth of his impending action existed beforehand---i.e. because there is no omniscient God.

Objection 2: "Suppose I grant that Dr. S.'s action, if known to happen, in advance, could be said to be 'determined' in that sense; however, he is still free, in that he did what he wanted to do, what he decided or chose to do. What more do you need to establish free action than to show that an action is done in accord with one's purposes, goals, desires, beliefs and the like?"

Reply: I grant that Dr. S may have done what he wanted and chose to do. Yet I submit that these features of one's action are but necessary conditions for freedom, and are not themselves sufficient. What more is needed for actual freedom, but missing in the current case? The ability to do otherwise than to come to class! The point of the argument is that, given an omniscient God, Dr. S.'s action could not have been helped or avoided, and in this clear sense he was bound to do what he did, and thus he was not free. Satisfied perhaps; not bothered by or troubled by his fate, perhaps. But free? No. Moreover, I suspect that his feeling of freedom can be explained purely psychologically: he was ignorant of his determined fate, and thus carried to it a sense (false, though) of having real options and the like. In fact, he is deluded.

Objection 3: "But what if Dr. S. hadn't come to class? Wouldn't his absence in that case be equally determined, in precisely the same manner as reasoned above? But if both his coming and his absence were possible, then neither is determined, and thus his doing either would be free."

Reply: Two points need to be made. First, it is simply assumed in this objection that Santas might have been absent instead of attending; but that begs the entire question against the argument. The objector needs to show that, as a matter of fact, Santas could have been absent. The argument under review argues that he could not have done otherwise than to attend class, if God exists. If the argument is judged to be flawed, then argue against it; don't simply assume, without convincing reasons, the contrary in order to reject it. Second, 'What if?' questions often appear as if they have obvious legitimacy, but in this case we need to be very critical of the alleged possibilities we assume for sake of argument...intuitions nonewithstanding.

Objection 4: "Nothing about the future is fixed or established by the past. The future is open, like forks in a road. One road leads one direction, another in a different direction, etc. Thus, until a future event actually occurs (or fails to occur), it is incorrect to say that it will (or will not) happen. Santas' coming to class is such an event; so it was not determined beforehand, and thus he was free."

Reply: This objection amounts to giving up the assumption that an omniscient God could exist, doesn't it? For consider: If one assumes that such a God exists, then it was shown that something about the future indeed was fixed; namely, knowledge of what will be, and thus the truth that it will be that way! Hence, the objection doesn't refute the incompatibility argument presented; in fact, it seems to agree with the argument, but goes on to purchase freedom at the expense of an omniscient God, thus missing the point of the argument that foreknowledge and freedom are inconsistent notions.

Objection 5: "If the argument is sound, then it would follow that all matters are determined by God's foreknowledge, not just human actions, and that everything that happens must happen in just that way and in no other way. But this is absurd, for everything would be predestined through God's foreknowledge."

Reply: Perhaps this extension of the argument is correct, and all is determined by God's foreknowledge (if God exists). But to call it absurd is too strong, although the claim that omniscience implies predestination is worthy of consideration and debate. Keep in mind, however, that the argument presented doesn't claim that all is fixed, or even that Santas' action was fixed and unavoidable; what it shows is that if there's an all-knowing God, then such is determined beforehand. This objection is similar to Objection 4, in that each seems to miss a critical point in the incompatibility argument.

Objection 6: "Suppose that we grant that the argument is sound. But what difference does it make whether Dr. Santas, or anyone or anything else, is determined by God's foreknowledge? As long as he is not forced, or caused, or unhappy, or constrained, or thwarted in his intentions or plans, he's free in every relevant sense of the word, isn't he? And isn't that enough to render the argument irrevevant, if not unreasonable?"

Reply: The difference made is the difference made by truth: it's true that, given an omniscient God, Santas, or anyone else, can't avoid doing what he does, or they do; and that fact should be troubling to all who subscribe to freedom in any relevant sense, and yet who also wish to maintain the existence of an omniscient God. I willingly admit, however, that some---out of sheer intellectual stubborness, if not unconscious prejudice---won't be bothered in the least by the purported soundness of the argument. But this piece was intended as a challenge to those who are sensitive to the genuine logical and conceptual problems posed, and not as a message for the intellectually disinclined:)

Postscript

Consider a version of the above argument, put differently. Think of the world---its constituent members, events and the like---as the sum totality of the facts that make it up; the world is a vast set of facts, as it were. Some of these facts we call past facts, relative to our present, and others we refer to as present and future facts, relative to our present scheme of reference. Now we, not being all-knowing, are limited by our perspective in time: we clearly don't have access to the future, nor to most past or present facts, for that matter. So things appear to us quite unlike they would to an omniscient God, who would have access to all knowable facts, be they in our past, in our present, or in our future. Such a God would be outside of time in this respect, not bound by the temporal constraints placed on us. God's foreknowledge of all the facts would be akin to our knowledge and truth of our past, which we consider as established through our knowledge and truth regarding it. So, to say that we cannot (i.e. we are not free to) undo or avoid our past, since its truth, once established, is determined to remain so, would be akin to saying that we cannot help but do what the future has in store, since its truth, established by God's complete knowledge and implied truth, would be determined to be so. In short, such a world would be devoid of freedom, if overseen by an all-knowing God. And, thus, if some of our actions are truly free, where we can avoid acting one way instead of another, and where moral responsibility, legal accountability, and the like are rationally defensible, then it follows that there is no omniscient God. To believe otherwise would be to engage in sheer illusion or folly.

Critical responses are invited for continued dialogue and debate.  Ron Barnette (rbarnett@valdosta.edu
Philosophy Department Valdosta State University.
(Special thanks to Emily Gung for preparing this HTML version)