Free Will and Omniscience

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.

16 Replies to “Free Will and Omniscience”

  1. Free-will – I could write a book on the subject ‘ah hem’!! But to summarise such a book I would simply say that if there be any free-will at all it will not be found in the ‘form’ of manifest behaviour, but only in the ultimate ‘purpose’ of which the form is mere evidence. And as for purpose, well, that is a ‘moral’ question. Is it going to be “all for one and one for all” or “I want to be separate, special and self-aware”!! And it does not surprise me that the ‘slit-off’ egoic mind seems to have invented a concept of ‘God’ that is ‘separate, special, self-aware’ and upon whom it can project all its own egotistic desires to have the free-will to act selfishly as a separate special being and to be adored for what it then ‘creates’ as a result of such so-called freedom! If the “I am” that precedes the term “Phil” — when I mistakenly tell you that “I am Phil” — is actually common to us all, and is an extension of that one Mind that is sometimes referred to simply as “I am that I am”; then it seems that the only freedom ‘I’ have is to accept the commonality of the unseen Life or stick with the delusion that the ‘I am’ is nothing more than the little fellow ‘I’ can perceive in my local arena of consciousness that has been given, without any choice in the matter, the name of Phil. If “I and my father are One” then maybe my ‘father’ has no more ‘choice’ than I do!

    Hence, I agree with Ted’s last paragraph, for it seems to me to be saying that the ‘laws’ of the universe of not the problem – only the purpose to which they serve – and that is a moral question, about which science, strictly, has nothing to say.

  2. An intriguing discussion. I agree the concept is narrowly applied to be debated in almost exclusively self-referential terms. And in the scheme of things, what matter is self? Our matter is simply part of one universal energy. ‘In my view’ (to be completely contradictory), contemplation of free will seems like a perfectly purposeful way to appreciate conciousness, for the short while that it exists in any human form. What a wee frill!

    An interesting quotation from Swami Vivekananda, a Vedantist, in the Hindu tradition.

    ‘Therefore we see at once that there cannot be any such thing as free-will; the very words are a contradiction, because will is what we know, and everything that we know is within our universe, and everything within our universe is moulded by conditions of time, space and causality. … To acquire freedom we have to get beyond the limitations of this universe; it cannot be found here.’

    ‘Therefore we see at once that there cannot be any such thing as free-will; the very words are a contradiction, because will is what we know, and everything that we know is within our universe, and everything within our universe is moulded by conditions of time, space and causality. … To acquire freedom we have to get beyond the limitations of this universe; it cannot be found here.’

  3. I see that I have erred and pasted the Swami quote twice. This is because my iPhone has free will and will not follow the orders of theuniverse, no matter how angry I get.

    The ‘iPhone’…what a curious existence we lead.

  4. “To acquire freedom we have to get beyond the limitations of this universe; it cannot be found here.”

    I agree with the Swami – ‘freedom’ does not exist WITHIN the mechanism of the perceived universe. I wonder would he hold to the view that what perceives the universe is actually WITHIN that universe it perceives?

  5. To quote many

    “We must find a way of living in this world without being part of it”

  6. Hello Father Robin!

    Delighted to get your question, although I am unsure how best to answer.

    An iPhone is a communication device which exists within the mechanism of the perceived universe. Despite this limitation, it holds the power to influence a person away from perceiving the universe within the universe a person perceives.

    It is the little bing bang of earthly technology. A phone, a computer, a stereo, a television, an alarm clock, a paper weight. It even vibrates. The only function it won’t perform is the magic of the fridge magnet.

  7. I am coming to the conclusion that the big hole in our perception of reality is “time”. Time, or at least the flow of time concept, is necessary for us to perceive objects. It is the relative movement of objects that gives us most of our information about what is separate from what and you can’t have movement without the past and present. The flow of time is therefore necessary for us to define ourself as separate from anything else.

    Time is the key, or more correctly our perception of it is the key. Perceptions are just thoughts so it seems logical that if we focus our thoughts on only the current instant in time and allow this instant to become ever smaller does time itself disintegrate? Is this the ultimate purpose of most of the meditation practices of religions throughout the ages?

  8. Yes Greg, I sense the following comment you made is very cogent to the discussion “The flow of time is therefore necessary for us to define ourself as separate from anything else.” And it appears to me that it was not until the ‘complexification’ of ideas within the arena of perception — the arena of consciousness –[including those ‘ideas’ that appear to have materiality – i.e., material objects perceived within the arena of consciousness are not necessarily the perception of material objects that have independent existence outside of the arena of consciousness, but rather, more consistently, are ‘ideas’ that have been ‘objectified’ within the arena of consciousness] reached it current pinnacle — Homo sapiens sapiens [species that is wise about its wisdom] that eidetic memory [pictorial memory] and the capacity for imagination arose into the complexification of its consciousness that ‘time’ as a concept [or more accurately, the idea of the ‘arrow of time’ that is connected together as ‘my lifetime’] gave rise to the egoic illusion of ‘my separate, special, self-aware life’ and its natural corollary existential ‘fear’. Animals, that must exist within the dimension of time, but don’t seem to have any ‘concept’ of time, also don’t seem to suffer from existential fear.

    Needles to say, perhaps, it has been the evolving idea of personal ‘lifetimes’ that has given rise to the vast egoic assuring and enhancing ‘structures’ of the ‘modern world’. The building of monuments to the egoic mind’s supposed ‘reality’ have driven philosophy, science and technology to greater and greater heights [and warfare to greater and greater supposed power and superiority] – but there appears to be ultimately nowhere for it to go! This is the egoic mind’s dilemma when it’s defence mechanisms no longer prevent it from dealing with the bigger questions — and it is maybe an awareness of this that is driving thinking beyond egoic definitions of temporal ‘life’ that seemingly exists WITHIN the arena of consciousness and towards an Aquarian revolution that redefines Life as that IN WHICH the arena of consciousness is a temporary ‘Thought experiment’ into the viability of egoic life.

    Can this be ‘proven’ NO! But empirical ‘proof’ is the security of the ‘fear driven’ egoic mind! There is a certainty that goes beyond empirical ‘proof’ that itself can only temporarily sustain the egoic mind against its inherent condition of ‘doubt’.

    ‘Knowing’ is ‘beyond belief’. ‘Knowing’ is a certainty arising from pure reason in the service of unconditional non-egoic love – the motive that drives towards the dissolution of the egoic illusion of separation, specialness and self-awareness. Pure reason cannot serve the egoic mind because the driver of the egoic mind is existential fear. Whenever the egoic mind attempts to use pure reason it degenerates into rationalisation in the service of its suppressed and hidden need to sustain the reality of both its own egoic illusion of independent ‘selfhood’ and its projected creations that reflect and give supporting expression to this illusion within its arena of consciousness. The egoic mind, operating under the surrendered ‘power’ of the Real Mind through the exercise of its ‘one degree of freedom’ is then empowered to ‘see’ what it wishes to ‘see’ [at least in terms of ‘purpose’ or ‘state of being’] within is arena of perceptual awareness. The Mind’s exercise of its ‘one degree of freedom’ collapses the potential [quantum superposition] within the arena of consciousness into a form that reflects the orientation of that ‘choice’. The egoic mind cannot truly ‘know’ anything; it can only ‘believe’ something to the degree that proof has been successful in overcoming current ‘doubt’ and uncertainty. ‘Knowing’ transcends both empirical proof and perceptual awareness because ‘Knowing’ is that unconscious intuitive response to the inherent beauty of Truth than transcends any outward ‘form’ or any need for further ‘proof’.

  9. The following is a quotation by Einstein that relates to my previous post: “What does not satisfy me, from the standpoint of principle, is its attitude toward what seems to me to be the programmatic aim of all physics: the complete description of any (individual) real situation (as it supposedly exists irrespective of any act of observation or substantiation). (Einstein, A. (1951). Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Physicist ed, P.A. Schilpp, Tuddor, New York., p667)

  10. I am a simple man and hence have a very simple question for those smarter than I.

    My question: If events merely exist in spacetime and therefore if all events exist simultaneously and hence the future already exists,,,,,, does that not also imply that the past also still exists in another spacetime and hence the “big bang” from the past is also yet to happen?

    My observation: If so,,,,, I would really enjoy being able to have a slider bar on that little temporal window.

    Your thoughts?


  11. Hi Ken – I suspect the ‘potential’ is already there is the superposition of spacetime, and, indeed this would be fixed in ‘actuality’ if it were not for the one degree of freedom of that Mind that can ‘collapse’ the potential in the quantum universe into one or the other of two different ‘states of being’. And this is why a ‘deterministic’ ‘slider bar’ would be of little value! However, having said that, maybe you are that Mind and can influence what you ‘perceive’ within Your ‘arena of consciousness’ – and you have no way of knowing about anything ‘outside’ that arena!!

  12. The body is always in time, the Spirit is always Timeless and the psyche (Soul) is an amphibious creature…
    In the statement, ‘At one time I am Eternal, at another time I am in time’ the word ‘I’ stands for the psyche, which passes from time to Eternity when it is identified with the Spirit and passes again from Eternity to time, … when it chooses or is compelled to identify itself with the body…
    The present moment (NOW) is the only aperture through which the Soul can pass out of time into Eternity…

    Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

  13. Ken

    I would suggest you read ‘The Restaurant at the end of the Universe’

    Douglas Adams.

  14. Father Robin – Your capitalisation of the L in Life also did not go unnoticed! That which is Real is eternal – i.e., has no beginning and no end and is not within the space time arena of consciousness at all. Egoic life is what people go to war to protect – but the mystics, who have a concept of Real Life never go to ‘war’ to defend it! Nothing Real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists in Reality – here lies the peace of the mystical Mind.

  15. Father Ted.

    “Of course the most ubiquitous concern about the omnipotence of God seemed to have been first raised by Epicurus”

    Full Circle?

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