It is difficult to reconcile an omnipotent and an omniscient God with how we understand the universe.
Bertrand Russell in his essay on “The Art of Rational Conjecture” very mischievously gave an account of the biblical story of The Fall. God told Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of a certain tree. And of course, being the recalcitrant human creatures they were, they disobeyed him. This act of disobedience resulted in God being very angry. (That alone is hard enough to swallow!) But as Russell pointed out, if God is omniscient he must have known that Adam and Eve would have disobeyed Him. It seems quite perverse that God would have set these primal human beings a test, the outcome of which he should have known, and then got upset when his directions were disregarded.
A trite question asked by a couple of Americans, one a philosopher, the other a journalist, Gary Hayden and Michael Picard, (in their book enigmatically titled This Book Does Not Exist) highlights another quandary. They ask, “If God is omnipotent can He create a rock so heavy that even He can not lift it?” I think this falls into that class of self-referential questions that always result in paradoxes. The most famous of which is when a Cretan pronounces, “All Cretans are liars.” Perhaps a more subtle one, I think from memory proposed by Douglas Hofstadter, proclaims “This sentence no verb.”
Cicero reputedly entered into the debate. He pointed out that if every thing is foreknown by God then it was not possible to influence the universe otherwise and therefore there was no Free Will and all outcomes were deterministically foreordained. (When researching this article I was impressed to come across this quote from Cicero –“Be sure that it is not you that is mortal, but only your body. For that man whom your outward form reveals is not yourself; the spirit is the true self, not that physical figure which can be pointed out by your finger.” This is a thought taken up by many mystics who lived after him.)
This was disputed by Augustine who argued that divine foreknowledge and human free will are perfectly compatible. However I am not sure I can follow his argument!
Of course the most ubiquitous concern about the omnipotence of God seemed to have been first raised by Epicurus. He is credited with being the first philosopher to discuss the problem of evil, and how evil could exist within the province of a benevolent and omnipotent God. The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, represented the paradox in this way, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Is He able but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
But let us come back to the notion of omniscience. A difficulty that normal humans face is that we think of space and time as entirely separate entities. But Einstein threw all this on its head with his notion of space-time continuum. In this universe space and time are combined and are seen as equal dimensions in describing the universe. Consequently all events no matter when or no matter where they may happen can be located by the use of these four dimensions. (Of course there are other theories that propose even a greater number of dimensions to the universe – but we won’t go there in this discussion.) If we begin to think of time as an equal dimension to the spatial dimensions we arrive at a very strange paradox. Just as all spatial dimensions exist within the current purview of a human observer so does the time dimension (which we find much harder to accept). Physicists then believe that rather than thinking of time as flowing from the past to the present to the future, events merely exist in spacetime. Therefore in the eternal now all events exist simultaneously. Putting it bluntly, the future already exists. So therefore an omniscient being would know everything at once – the past, the present, the future. So where lies the much-vaunted free-will that humans are supposed to have?
Perhaps it is a clockwork universe. Perhaps after the Big Bang the laws of nature had no alternative but to run the universe out in accordance with the laws of physics and mediated by the initial conditions of this stupendous event.
But perhaps free-will reduces to something other than the impact we can have on the physical universe. Free-will might be more closely related to our spirituality than our physicality. Free-will may very well be what colours our interpretation of the physical events of the universe. Free-will might just be the generator of meaning. If so, to me that is enough.