We left off noting that there is a seeming conflict between God’s omniscience and human free will. By the end, we noted that mere knowing, as we know past events, would not challenge the free will of those people involved in the events. But what about knowing future events? How does such knowledge interact with free will?
Now, on the one hand, the following is a common view about future events: That is, if I could somehow know exactly what you were going to do tomorrow, down to the finest details and based on my present capacities, the only natural way I could know this is if you were a determined creature, if you did not really have free will. Call this Statement A.
There are two assumptions here, and one is hidden.
The clear assumption is that I could know all of the pertinent information about the Universe so as to predict (exactly) what you will do tomorrow. But there just is no way of having all of this information (head nod to quantum uncertainty).
Let’s think about it a step further before considering the hidden assumption. Namely, I present Statement A, above, both as the only conceivable way I could (as a mere human being) know your actions in the future, and as a regular statement of the case on the part of determinists. In other words, they would say that if we just could know everything – like, everything – we could predict exactly what you will do in the future. We could predict, in fact, with sufficient processing power, the remaining history of the Universe. In that case, it’s not so much a prediction as a reading forward of history, rather than our usual reading backward. It would be that much a matter-of-fact.
This, I note, is essentially what omniscience is, to know everything that can be known. The determinists think that if the position of God could be established – and plenty of determinists are theists – then this would sufficiently demonstrate the absence of free will (except on the part of God).
If God exists and is omniscient, there is no free will.
Or, you have the recent derivation of “open theists,” who say that God does know everything that can be known, but there are things about the Universe which even God cannot know. An example of this is that God does not know whether I, for example, will be saved. But then, no one does – it simply remains to be seen, by every being who wants to know.
If God exists and there is free will, God’s knowledge is not as all-encompassing as we once imagined, though it still encompasses everything it possibly can.
In the first case, we essentially have an Author who has written all of the characters’ lines: This God can know absolutely everything, because He has decided it.
In the second case, we essentially have an extraordinary play-by-play announcer, who knows absolutely everything that can be known, but who really does not know what is going to happen next, at least no better than a kind of cosmic chessmaster.
The hidden assumption concerns knowing and time. Or again, in other words – it assumes the natural way of knowing is the only way of knowing.
We start to address this assumption by noting that the human perspective is limited. Not only do we not have all knowledge, but we really don’t know how much we don’t have. Moreover, our abilities to predict…anything…are notoriously bad. I refer you to Freakonomics for an interesting primer on this.
More to the point: If such a thing as omniscience can be instantiated, it is fair to say such a capacity is truly incomprehensible to us. Small wonder it afflicts us with paradoxes.
But let us consider it, again with the help of our analogy. For any character in a story, what he knows is only that set of information which the author enables him to know. That is, he may walk around and gather information just like we do, because the author has put him in an environment like ours; and the author might also imbue him with knowledge, whether a priori or of a revealed sort.
Now, compare this finite set of information with the author’s knowledge. She knows everything that can be known in that world. She knows every detail, every plot point, every character, every eventuality. She even knows which characters were imagined but not included in the story, or plot twists that were rejected, or whether there will be a sequel. There is an unbridgeable gap between the character’s way of knowing and the author’s way of knowing. Though the author could reveal, or lead the character to learn, much of what she knows, the character will never know these things like she does.
In a similar way, I propose that God’s way of knowing is just fundamentally different, and greater, than ours. We do learn, and information gathering has accelerated in recent history; and still, however much we can know, God knows more. There is no way to cross that chasm – we can chase Him, but we’ll never catch Him.*
Again, I really am not in a position to solve the dispute, but I offer this: I propose that God experiences time differently than we do. This much is already clear, in a rudimentary way, in the case of the author and her characters.
Of course, I propose it without a mechanism for understanding it, at least not one that lines up properly. But I think it is fair to say, even from our use of the analogy, that if God exists, there simply must be things beyond our understanding. What I have tried to show here, in a short summary is that:
God’s transcendence of time may be like our retelling of a true story. The characters in the story retain free will even as the author/narrator retains omniscience. If I am in the middle of the story, and know exactly how the story will end, this does not rob my characters of their free will.
In other words, mere knowing does not entail determinism. It might appear that way for finite creatures – if I were to know the seemingly unknowable, one could only imagine this by way of a calculation, by deterministic patterns, by a restriction to mere physical forces of all future action. But that conclusion is conditioned by my finitude; it does not apply to a transcendent Creator.
This cord we’ve been examining – the intertwining of love, sin, and free will – lends itself to some devotional reflections (or, for my less religious friends, to some spiritual application). After so many posts, it is probably about time to make that transition, though I can’t promise to stay away completely from these more abstract reflections.