Can Free Will and God’s Omniscience Coexist? 

The free will problem arises when the prospect of free will crosses the path of an omniscient God.  There are three main perspectives regarding this issue: determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism.  The libertarian’s perspective on God’s omniscience is the most persuasive argument, asserting that if free will is to exist, God cannot possess foreknowledge.

Each perspective’s arguments vary based on how free will and God’s omniscience are defined.  For the purpose of this paper, free will is the ability to do otherwise, as opposed to what God may have predetermined (Atkinson, S. 2013, February 5), while an omniscient God is all-knowing.  With these definitions, the differences between determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism can be better understood.

DETERMINISM

The determinist’s perspective of the free will problem is that all events are determined by causal influences external to the will (Atkinson, S. 2013, February 5).  That is to say, all events in the natural world happen just as they are meant to as a direct result of God’s foreknowledge.  This concept is clarified through an analogy from my childhood, during which time my mom would take me to the bus stop.  Whether I desired to attend school or not, she knew without a doubt that I would go to school.  She walked me to the bus stop, waited until the bus arrived, and watched as I boarded it.  Thus, she was the causal influence that ensured I would attend class.

Similarly, God determines the course for all persons, despite their desires.  God’s will is the driving force behind all action, and through his foreknowledge, free will cannot exist.  This implies that God foresees person (P) doing action (X) at time (T), or my mom had foreseen me (P) boarding the bus (X) at 7:30 a.m. (T).  Therefore, the ability to exercise free will is impossible. 

COMPATIBILISM

Compatibilism claims that free will and foreknowledge are compatible with each other.  According to this perspective, God does not exert a causal influence upon his creations.  Rather, he possesses foreknowledge which does not actualize any given event, and consequently allows for a harmonious relationship with free will.  Plantinga states that God is essentially omniscient; meaning that he knows every possible outcome to every possible event, whether it will occur or not (Pojman, 2012). The will of (P) is in alignment with the will of God, yet (P)’s will to do (X) is still an act of free will.  Thus, free will can coincide with foreknowledge.

The notion of compatibilism is exemplified during an experience I had when I was served cow intestines while at dinner with my mom in Japan.  My mom knew with certainty that I (P) would try the food (X) when it was served to me (T).  She had raised me, and was therefore knowledgeable of my outgoing nature and desire to try new things.  However, she did not exert a causal influence on the situation.  It was through the utilization of my own free will that I tried cow intestines.  Both of our wills arose in happiness; my own for trying something new, and my mom’s for the pride she experienced.

This example is analogous to a compatibilist’s view of the free will problem in the sense that God knows precisely that (P) will do (X) at (T), but such foreknowledge does not imply that it actualized the event.  The wills of both God and (P) will align, arising in happiness for both parties, just as my will aligned with my mom’s.  Hence, God possesses foreknowledge and free will is able to exist.

LIBERTARIANISM

Libertarianism, or incompatibilism, rejects the idea that free will and foreknowledge can coexist.  Under this perspective, God’s omniscience is redefined as all that can be known, which does not include foreknowledge.  It argues that God is omniscient and does not possess foreknowledge, so the freedom to do otherwise exists.

An example of this is the decision I made to move to Utah from Wisconsin.  My mom, of course, wanted me to move to Utah, where she lived.  However, she remained uncertain of the choice that I would make, since she was unable to exert a causal influence.  When I did decide to move to Utah, it was through the exertion of my own free will.

Conversely, when I was younger, my mom dropped me off at the mall to spend my birthday money.  Because she allowed me to spend my money freely, she had no influence over the purchases that I would make, which was to be an entirely new punk-rock wardrobe.  This action did not align with my mom’s will (presumably the purchase of brighter clothing) and in no way, could she have foreseen my actions.  This exemplifies that my choices were influenced by nothing other than my own free will.

Both of these analogies are illustrations of the incompatibility of foreknowledge and free will.  One example resulted in an alignment of both my will and my mom’s.  This is not to be confused with compatibilism, as my mom, in this case, had no certainty or causal influence of the future.  The second example is more robust in its demonstration of the free will that I exerted by doing something other than what my mom had willed for me.

Just as these examples have illustrated the incompatibility of free will and foreknowledge, so too does the libertarian argument.  God cannot foresee (P) doing (X) at (T1) if (P) does (X) at (T2).  If this did happen, then God could not be omniscient.  Nelson states that if God had foreknowledge of any given event, free will could not exist (Pojman, 2012).  Similarly to how I bought punk-rock clothes of my own free will, libertarianism states that (P) freely does (X) at (T) and without the causal influence of divine foreknowledge.

FLAWS OF THE PERSPECTIVES

Though determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism all provide intriguing and intelligent arguments regarding free will and God’s omniscience, they are not without their flaws.  Under determinism, it seems that if God is omniscient, and thereby has foreknowledge of the future, free will is nothing more than an illusion (Atkinson, S. 2013, February 5).  After all, if God causes (P) to do (X) at (T), then this is the only event that can occur.  (P) cannot reject the action.  God has foreseen it, and thereby, causes it to happen.  Additionally, if (P) can only do (X), and (X) is an act of sin, it follows that (X), despite its wrongful nature, is an action willed by God.  If this is the case, there seems to be no purpose behind God’s will for (P) to do (X).  This concept can be applied to whether (X) is an act of sin or an act of goodness.

The compatibilist’s argument, too, presents a problem, being that (P)’s will is always in accordance with God’s will. Despite that the compatibilist’s goal is to satisfy both free will and an omniscient God, the foreknowledge that God possesses seems to ensure that (P)’s will can never stray from his.  This constant alignment of wills suggests that the ability to do otherwise is impossible.

The flaw within libertarianism stems from the prospect that if God does not possess foreknowledge of (P) doing (X), it can be inferred that God did not cause (P) to do (X), thereby granting (P) free will.  If this is the case, what then gives rise to free will?  Since it can be said that free will is neither a product of God’s foreknowledge, and therefore, a product of God, nor of (P)’s indeterminate desires, then something else must be the source for which free will exists (Atkinson, S. 2013, February 5).  The libertarian argument is unable to provide an explanation for the source that manifests free will within (P). 

WHICH PERSPECTIVE TRULY PERMITS FREE WILL?

If free will is defined as the ability to do other than what may have been predetermined, I have concluded that, in no way, can free will be compatible with foreknowledge.  Thus, the libertarian argument proves to be the most persuasive.  Looking once again at determinism, under which free will cannot exist, it is implied that every action of every person is necessitated through God’s will, including acts of sin.  Because God is known to be omnibenevolent in his nature, he cannot be thought of to necessitate sin.  I find that the determinist’s argument proves to be unpersuasive in its attempt at resolving the free will problem.

Likewise, compatibilism, though similar to libertarianism in its goal to satisfy the possibility of free will, offers an implausible solution, being that God’s foreknowledge of an event does not cause the event to occur.  If God truly possesses foreknowledge, then doing otherwise cannot be possible, even if God’s foreknowledge does not serve as a causal influence.  To do otherwise requires straying from what God has foreseen.  This would be a false belief on God’s behalf.  It follows that if he did foresee the event that did not occur, he can in no way be God, since God, in his omnicompetence, would not hold a false belief.

Of course, libertarianism too has presented the problem that no explanation can be offered for the source that gives rise to free will.  However, I do find that this perspective offers the most persuasive argument because it does not contradict the concepts regarding the free will problem.  Libertarianism is the notion that free will and foreknowledge are incompatible.  According to how free will and God’s omniscience have been defined, libertarianism, aside from its flaws, is the only argument that provides a consistent explanation.


References

Atkinson, S. (2013, February 5). Omniscience and free will. Lecture at Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, UT.

Pojman, L., & Rea, M. (2012). Philosophy of religion: an anthology. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.


 
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